Quick Japanese Style Storage Boxes

A few months ago I found myself in need of some better storage options for some of my woodworking gear. Many of my tools and supplies were hanging out in various cardboard boxes, which was both unsightly and insufficient for the purpose of protecting my tools.

Furthermore, I could spare only a day off my schedule to make these, so ease of construction was a consideration in the design.

I had been examining/studying Japanese-type tool boxes off and on for some time, and had constructed one Japanese influenced tool box already (link is at the end). However, that box was large, made entirely by hand, and had “real” joinery holding it together. It also took me about 60 hours to make.

So what could I do in 8 hours or less? Increase efficiency by working with some careful design constraints:

  • find material that didn’t need milling, and was already at an acceptable width
  • use pocket screws instead of hand-cut finger joints and dovetails, etc.

Here is the result:


The lid slides and locks in and out of place due to the mechanism discovered by Japanese woodworkers long ago:

In the locked position there is a very small amount of the length of the lid that extends under the far handle. There is also some wood extending under the handle closest to my hand. The distance from the batten closest to me (where my index finger is) to the handle closest to me determines how much freedom of movement the lid has (the amount the lid can slide to open the box). This sliding distance needs to be slightly more than the length of the lid that is hidden under the far handle (the amount of wood that extends past the far batten).
Sliding the lid toward me pulls the far edge of the lid so that it no longer fits under the far handle. The lid can now be swung upward. The nature of this joint means that the battens are NOT equally distant from each end of the lid. For this maneuver to work, the amount of the lid that extends past the closest batten under the closest handle needs to be a bit longer than the sliding distance of the lid.

IMG_3617 IMG_3618

If you size & place your battens carefully, you can make the boxes so they stack securely.


Design considerations:

I picked up 3 aspen/pine panels from Lowes that were 1x12x72, at about 15$ a piece. The actual dimension was of course, 3/4 x 12 x 72. This will yield 2 boxes. If you want to make just one box, buy 2 panels. (Each box uses close to 1 & 1/2 of such panels).

Using this particular material resulted in a box that is designed around the 12 inch width of the board.

All the components that form the 6 faces of the box are the same width (12 inches). The bottom & sides are the same length, the front and back are the same length as one another, and the lid length (top) is cut to fit close to the end of the project. Make 2 boxes at once.

Two strips of wood (I think of them as handles) that are between 2 &1/2 and 3 inches in width can be made of the same material, or found from scraps in the shop. The battens on the lid and on the bottom of the box can be made from scraps found in the shop, or cut from the same material.

If you want the boxes to stack and lock together (as mine do), you will have to use thinner material for your battens. You can use thicker/wider material for your battens, but you will have to change how the tops and bottoms interact by repositioning the bottoms further toward the middle. This may make the box more wobbly, so I would use thinner material (1/2 to 1 inch width).

The bottom is joined to the sides like so:


This determines the width of the finished box to be

(the panel width) + (thickness of side A) + (thickness of side B)

12 + 3/4 + 3/4 = 13 & 1/2 inches

the height of the finished box will be

(the panel width) + (thickness of the handle/top-strip)

12 + 3/4 = 12 & 3/4 inches

the length of the box is arbitrary. However, I picked about 16 inches in length to make a pleasing shaped box that did not require me purchasing more materials to complete.

the length to cut the front and back of the box is

(the panel width) – (the thickness of the bottom)

12 – 3/4 = 11 & 1/4 inches

The length of the handles is the same as the total width of the finished box (see above). The width of the handles/top-strips is somewhat arbitrary; they need to at least as wide as:

(the thickness of the front/back panel material) + (the amount of offset/recess you gave the front and back) + (the sliding distance of the lid) + a smidgen for error

In my case this came out to be a little less than 3 inches

To make the handles I set the table saw fence to the finished width of the box (13 & 1/2 inches), then cut the aspen panel to that length, then ripped them into strips a little less than 3 inches wide each.

The pocket holes are placed in the bottom board and the front and back boards.

The handles may be screwed in from above (as I did), nailed in place, or you can try placing pocket holes on the upper inside edge of the side boards (more aesthetic but more annoying to install if you are pressed for time).

The front and back faces need to be recessed a little from the front & back edges of the box (see the first picture above) This allows the top strips to function as handles. You can certainly make the front & back flush to the sides, instead of recessed, but will sacrifice utility.

To recess the front and back boards, I just used an off-cut from the same panel to reference the edge a distance of 3/4 inches when attaching the pocket screws.

The lid is a little longer than length of the remaining part of the opening after you attach the handles. Technically, it can be any length between “slightly longer than the inner opening” and “the distance from the inner face of one end and the inner edge of the opposite handle.” I took a story stick, abutted it against the inside of the box on the front face, then registered the location of the closest edge of the opposite handle, then cut my lid length a quarter inch shorter than this distance.

The lid is constructed by attaching two battens across the width of the lid in such a way that the lid can slide just enough to create a gap at one end of the box.

The relationships between the battens, the lid, and how much protrudes past each batten is a little complicated. It is definitely a challenge to explain in words. The most fun thing to do is play with it for a while and figure it out yourself.

Here is my attempt at instructions, however:

  1. examine the pictures of the movement of the lid again, and review the captions
  2. now consider the following drawing:FullSizeRender
  3. I made ‘x’ to be a few thousands of an inch wider than the battens themselves. This was so that I could interlock the boxes when stacking. (The foot/lower batten on that end of the second box registers into the gap where ‘x’ is in the closed state).
  4. Make the differences of the distances between x, the near edge and the far edge more than “a few thousandths.” If you don’t, the wood movement of the handles will potentially either lock you out your box for part of the year, or fail to seal completely for part of the year.

Attach the bottom battens and you are done.

Closing thoughts…

Smaller or larger boxes can be made, using wider panels or by changing the length you cut the bottom and sides.

In reality, except for measuring the initial length of the bottom board, I didn’t measure anything while making these boxes. I used the boards and offcuts and workpieces as references, along with a story stick to set the table saw fence whenever I needed to.

For Japanese boxes with more authenticity, check out the blog at Lost Art Press.

To see my earlier and slightly fancier version of such a sliding lid box, check out my old site at Lumberjocks.

Quick Japanese Style Storage Boxes

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