A Box For Middle School Kids

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Step 1: A Box For Middle School Kids

I had all sorts of views and great comments on a box I do with my grade 8 woodworking class so I thought i would document a grade 7 version I do.  This box is a HUGE hit with the kids. They love giving them as presents to mom and dad so i often try to time the completion with Christmas and Mothers day. I have happy kids report back after giving the box proudly declaring "YA! mom cried !!" I give a big thumbs up on that and say, "yup. you scored!"

Very cool.

This box needs more prep from you as the teacher and it requires a table-saw. I'll go over a couple of other tools that are valuable as well as alternatives.
Each step in the Instructable will be a day in class (80 minute period) At the start of each step I will provide a list of tools and materials needed for the day so you can easily use it in your classroom.

Learning Objectives:
-Students will learn about basic woodworking skills and apply the skills to make a simple wooden box.
-Students will learn to safely use power tools available in the shop and of general shop safety.
-Once the project is completed, students will research art ideas, apply them to the box and wood-burn a pattern.

Tools and Materials:
-Table saw (teacher)
-Bench vice and clamps
-Disc and/or stationary belt sander. You can use hand sanding of course but these tools help produce amazing results.
-Sanding tools such as sanding board and blocks.
-Beeswax or other non-nasty wood finish
Wood burner or soldering pencil (25 watts)

Per student wood...
-Cedar... 3/4" thick, 2 1/2" wide and 15" long. (prepped by you... see text)
-Contrasting wood 1/8" thick, 3/8" wide 15" long
-bottom wood... anything... i use 1/8" plywood or MDF... 3" by 6"

In the text i'll try to offer alternatives so if you don't have or can't get what i suggest than please keep reading and hopefully you'll have something that will work.

Lets get started!

Step 2: Breaking Out Stock

I do all sorts of prep for this project so the kids are pretty much guaranteed success...
So... Tools and Materials start with you unless you have a senior student handy...

I use the table saw to cut long strips of cedar to 2 1/2" wide. I put them through the planer until they are finished on both sides with a thickness of 3/4". I than cut the pieces to long lengths of about 4-5 feet long.
I than set up the table saw with the usual 1/8" thick blade and cut a groove 3/8" up from one edge on both sides of the piece. I don't cut the groove in really long pieces (more than 5' long) because it is tough to get the groove consistent. Cedar likes to spring out to weird shapes when it is planed and cut out. The depth is about 3/16" deep.

I than cut all the pieces to 16" long, make a stack of about 30 for each class than realize that lunch is over.

Tools and Materials:
-Pieces prepped by teacher
-Bench vices
-Ruler, Square and pencil

Once each student has a piece I demonstrate measuring. On the board I will draw a piece of the wood and show how it needs to be cut into 4 pieces... 2 @ 2 1/2" and 2 @ 5".

I gather the kids around a workbench than demonstrate how to determine which end is square. I measure out using the ruler 2 spots 2 1/2" and 2 spots at 5" I than show them how to use the square to draw lines across the face of the piece to be cut.

Once the students have managed to do this... about 70% of them... i move to the next step.
After the kids gather around i demonstrate using the backsaw. Its tough for kids to do this... they usually do 2 things to make it tricky... first, they push WAY too hard. 2nd, they don't push back and forth really straight. I demonstrate how tough it is to push the saw in when it is not being held straight on the wood. I usually act all crazy and cut all over the place. They pay attention more when you can make them laugh :-)

I stress that the cut should at first be following the line ACROSS than after it starts the saw should be kept straight for the cut.

Kids REALLY stress about how perfect the ends should be. This really is the beauty of this project... it is almost kid proof... Once a few kids have cut out the pieces they start asking about the ends of the wood. I do a drawing on the board showing how the pieces fit together. The short pieces have to be the same length and square which we will do next class. The long pieces can be messed up and its OKAY.

Step 3: Squaring The Bits

Tools and Materials
-Cut wood pieces
-Stationary belt and/or disk sander
-Sanding board (glue some strips onto a board)

The first thing I do today is re-explain that it is okay for the long pieces to be uneven and all scary looking.  The small pieces have to be perfect which is the first demo.

I pull out the example pieces and re-draw and measure 2 lines on each across from a good edge. The pieces need to be the same length... i show why by finding pieces of different lengths than assembling the box. It looks pretty bad. I use the belt or disc sander for this but i'm sure you could also use a sanding block or plane. i find that the sanders work really well.

First i square one end of each piece to the line I drew. Than i pick the shorter piece, draw a square line in from an un-sanded end than sand up to it. I use the smaller piece as a marking gauge to draw a line on the longer piece which i than sand to the finished line.

Kids can pretty un-aware with these tools and do not realize that a piece of sandpaper is a cutting tool. I tell them all of the ways students can get hurt than how to avoid it. I find the number one things kids do that freaks me out is to "free-form" sand without using a fence or not holding the piece tight against the base.

Whats important is that the short pieces are squared and the same lengths before moving on.

Step 4: Putting in the Bottom

Tools and Materials:
-Prepped pieces
-Bottom wood (1/8" thick, plywood or MDF 3"x5" wide)
-Scroll saw or Band saw
-Wood glue
-Bench vice

Students have a tough time with this step sometimes. Make sure that as you demo it makes sense. I get kids to re-demonstrate or explain to the class to ensure comprehension.

The bottom piece ensures that the box is square so i keep a square and ruler handy to make sure the lines are all good. What i do is hold the cedar pieces together in the way that i want them . You can point out here how the long pieces have ends that are messed up and will be cleaned up shortly...
i hold the pieces over the bottom piece than slowly lower the assembly on top of the bottom. I hold the pieces down as i trace the inside of the pieces onto the bottom. I than pull off the pieces revealing the bottom with the lines drawn on it.

At this point I ask what would be wrong with just cutting it out now?

Almost always i get a student who notices that the bottom would fall through the box... it must be made larger so that the bottom will fit into the groove. I do the big high five to the kid who figures it out.

I explain that since the groove is about 3/16" deep, the bottom lines i just traced must be 1/8" bigger all the way around. I use this opportunity to make sure all the lines are square and perfect as well.

Many kids won't get this so have lots of extra bottoms around.

I use a scroll saw to cut the pieces out. You could use a handsaw of course.... give them a light sand than demo the glue-up.

I show how to rough fit everything together before gluing than i spread a nice thin even layer of glue on all of the ends and edges to be glued. Spend a LOT of time explaining how the outside groove MUST be PERFECTLY lined up so that you can stick a piece of wood in later. Check out the photos. Kids will often also not fully clamp the pieces... if your bench vices are too small you can use a jorgensen clamp or c-clamp.

Have the kids write their name on the pieces VERY clearly. The get mixed up all the time. Now is the time to be pro-active and go around with a square making sure all the pieces are perfect. Double check the outside grooves on the ends... they should line up. If not... i've attached a photo of a common fix with a chisel. Don't pull out the piece... just push it to the side and use it to fill the space.. Works really well.

If kids break off the bottom edges just glue it using a piece of masking tape as a clamp. Make sure no glue gets into the groove.

Step 5: Adding the Contrast Wood

Tools and Materials:
-Glued up box
-Strips of contrasting wood... 1/8" by 15" and about 3/8" wide.
-Scroll saw or Backsaw

I use whatever wood i have handy for this part. The wood should fit snugly into the groove with no wiggle at all. I rip and plane all of the wood for the kids first.

Demo how the pieces should fit. I usually get one end in, pushed tight than use a pencil to mark the cut line. Make sure the students push the strip in firmly in the end of the groove so that there will be no gaps. I show how the pieces should be nice and tight before adding glue. I than use a bench vice to squeeze the pieces in tightly.

Step 6: Adding the Lid

Tools and Materials:
-Boxes glued Together
-Sanding board
-Lid Pieces (prepped by teacher)
-Clamps and Vices

I prep all the lids for the kids... they are about 5" by 4". I make them about 3/8" thick.  Often you can find wider pieces that will allow you to get 2 across.
The only tricky part with this is that the kids have to prep the surface where the lid will go.  Use sanding boards to do this. Now sand the lids as well so that the two surfaces fit well together with no gaps. Clamp the box well and totally eliminate any gaps.

Step 7: Finishing the Sides

Tools and Materials:
-Boxes all glued up
-Stationary belt sander, sanding board
-Band Saw or handplane

The kids by now have a box that really can look bad. This is no problem because they can use the bandsaw and belt sander to make the box look really amazing.

I demo the bandsaw so they kids  can use it to trim off all of the extra edges. If you want, teach the kids to use the handplane to trim all the edges. I know that in the UK using a bandsaw is completely not allowed... no problem here in Canada.

I now use the belt sander to finish the rest of the faces of the box. I get the students to use a square and draw lines on the bottom edges parallel to the edges of the wood. This acts as a guideline for the kids so they won't go too far when sanding. Often the kids will keep sanding until they have completely removed all of the inlay wood. They also have a tricky time keeping the edges parallel. The lines will help.

Step 8: Sanding and Top Cutting

Tools and Materials:
-Sandpaper 80, 120, 180 220 grit
-beeswax or other finish

Here's a write-up i did in my instructable on "building a band saw box with kids"

Most of us know how to sand but kids... well, not so much. Usually they jump right into using 320 Grit, sand furiously for 30 minutes and marvel at how smooth it is... What they don't know is how rough it will look as soon as they put on the finish.
Here's a good analogy I came up with at one point. I ask the kids if they have ever seen someone try to mow a lawn that's really really deep. I go into detail about the wet grass spewing out the mower until it clogs up and how horrible it looks once its all done... I than ask them if they've noticed how the wheels on the lawnmower go up and down so that the mower will take off less at a time... would it make more sense, i ask, if they would raise the mower as much as possible, cut the long grass than lower the mower and maybe even do it 3 or 4 times lowering it each time? They all nod and agree so at just the right moment i strike! HA (i say) THAT is EXACTLY what SANDING is like!!! They often look confused until i explain that the grains on the wood all stand up and starting with a high number grit like 320 or 220 is like cutting long grass with a low mower. They need to start at a rough grit like 80 than sand like crazy  with the grain until all the scratches are gone. The wood won't be smooth until they move up through the grits from 80 to 120 to 150 or 180 and final finish with a 220 or a 320.

While i'm telling the story I am sanding a piece of wood through all the levels... not making a big deal of it but casually mentioning details as i go along... The last step is the finish. I like to use beeswax because its non toxic and smells good.
I pull out the rag, give the wood I'm working on a buff with the wax and man you should hear the students. They oooohh and aaahh and than they all start asking to touch it. Amazing results and the kids are inspired to do a really good job.

Teaching is so cool.

Now unleash the kids on the boxes.

Once the boxes are sanded and finished you can cut the tops off. I show the kids how to draw a stretched-out "S"... check out the pics.  I demo the cut on the bandsaw but am open to doing this step for kids... it can be a bit of a tricky cut and the kids can really wreck their boxes in a hurry. Make sure the blade is really sharp. Don't cut into the top piece or you'll end up with a solid strip gong across.  Make sure the cut doesn't drop too far into the box or you'll lose all of the actual box depth.

Don't let the kids sand the cut too much or the box won't fit tightly. The "S" works well because it looks cool, stays in place and doesn't mean having to use tiny hinges.

Step 9: Woodburning

Tools and Materials
-Carbon paper, pencils and paper
-Woodburners or soldering irons...

Usually on the last day i show the kids how to woodburn.
I wouldn't suggest having the kids "free form" a design... they seldom turn out unfortunately...
What i do is have the kids come up with a drawing... some bring in pics from the 'net. Once they have a drawing that fits the top i demonstrate how to use the carbon paper. I included some pics... just lay the carbon paper black side down, put the drawing on top and trace the drawing. You need a pencil or something with pressure... a felt won't work.

The students really like woodburning! Teach them to use just a bit of pressure... moving slowly is the key. The longer the tip stays on the wood the deeper and darker the line will be.

After this point i collect the boxes for marks... heres an example of the marking sheets i use... i like to use this assessment because it fairly allows the kids to work towards a really good grade. I always give students the chance to go back and revise to get the best mark they can.

Thanks for reading through! Be sure to send pics if you build a box or class does... i will include them in the 'ible!

Box Marking Sheet






Not at all symmetrical, sides uneven

Sides all even but still off a bit

Perfect sides, all parallel



Some missing, big gaps

All there but still has gaps

No gaps, tight to ends



Not smooth, some sides not flat or smooth

Flat but not sanded enough to be really shiny

Brilliant, no marks, perfectly smooth

License: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike.

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