box making in the shaker tradition
The most commonly used materials for original Shaker boxes are quarter-sawn pine (used for tops and bottoms) and maple (used for the sides). Authentic boxes made from other types of lumber do exist; birch was sometimes preferred over maple in Maine and New Hampshire communities, but pine and maple boxes are by far the most common. The use of these materials was no doubt due to local availability and the simple fact that these woods work exceptionally well for the purpose, both for ease of construction and for product durability.
I start the process by milling my lumber on-site from raw maple and pine logs to guarantee the highest quality from start to finish. The tops and bottoms of all but the largest boxes (larger than size #8) are made from quarter-sawn pine, not plywood.
Likely the most identifying aspect of a Shaker box is the finger (or swallowtail) joint. Although it has great visual appeal, this was not the reasoning behind the design. Shaker woodworkers knew that wood expands and contracts with changes in humidity levels, and cutting the finger joint gave the wood room to move without buckling or cracking the band. A well-constructed box requires graceful proportions on the swallowtail joints. The relationship between the finger length and height of the box should be pleasing. The fingers should be trimmed so they become progressively thinner as they narrow, ending at a point that is just slightly wider than the copper tack that secures it. I individually hand-cut the finger joints as Shaker craftsman did before me. Although it’s a time-consuming process, no machine can replicate the crisp, clean lines that a knife blade provides. This hand work means the final shape of the fingers varies slightly from box to box, and even between fingers on a box, providing the character and charm lacking in mass produced boxes.
Another identifying characteristic of Shaker boxes is the use of copper tacks. A testament to the Shakers’ penchant for quality, this simple change prevented any chance of the tacks rusting, which would cause the fasteners to fail or stain the wood.
I use copper tacks produced on original tack-making machines from the 1880s to secure both the bands and the top and bottom boards. Although some box makers use wooden pegs to secure the tops and bottoms of boxes, I prefer to use copper tacks, which is typical of earlier Shaker boxes. On the majority of my boxes I darken the tacks to provide an aged appearance.
Fixed and swing handles are made with several different types of curve dependent on personal preference. The most common shapes or forms available are bonnet, arch, and ellipse. I create my carriers with bonnet-shaped handles - so named because they resemble the shape of a Shaker Sister’s bonnet. Ash was the most commonly used material for early Shaker carriers. Keeping with that tradition ash logs are milled out on my property for use as carrier handles.
Shakers typically finished their boxes with varnish or paint. A wide range of pigments were used, and the palettes varied somewhat among the various communities. Some of the colors used in the Maine communities tended to be of darker hues than others. I use milk paint and various dyes and oils to finish boxes in my workshop. I do create smaller quantities of boxes with no finish applied for those wishing to finish the box themselves. I use many products including milk paint, dyes and Tung oil. On painted boxes, per tradition, the bottoms are left unpainted and are dyed and oiled to provide the appearance of age.
I brand each of my boxes and carriers with the LeHay logo. Items with covers are branded on the inside bottom, and items without covers are branded on the outside bottom.