Recently I was blessed to be able to participate in a project that is near and dear to my heart on several levels. A friend, Chris, had found a copy of the first edition of "Autobiography of a Yogi" by Paramhansa Yogananda. Not only was it signed by him, it also contained a personalized inscription to the disciple that originally owned it, Peggy Deitz. In the early '90's I had the privilege of meeting her, so seeing her copy of the AY was both fun and inspiring.
Chris had the inspiration to protect and showcase the book in such a way that others could enjoy and be inspired by it as much as he was. His idea was simple – build a box to contain the AY (and other supporting material) that could easily be lent out. The box would need to be strong enough to survive dubious handling, spacious enough to hold all the related material, and still be attractive in a way that reflected the beauty of the contents.
Together, we and others discussed various ideas. We finally decided on a simple box that highlighted but did not overshadow the AY itself. It would be made of solid wood(No plywood, MDF or PB for this project!). Well, that part almost came true, but more on that later. We decided on simple joinery for the construction, with a flat bottom and top. The interior would have a book well at the bottom for the supporting material and a removable tray on top for the AY itself.
Of the many blessings of working on this project, the first that came into play was Chris' willingness and ability to be flexible about the design. He was eager to hear new ideas and suggestions, and offered plenty of good ideas of his own. All of this made it easier when it came time to decide how to resolve design issues, as well as practical stuff, such as "Where are we going to put this thing?" We both had a clear idea of where we were headed, and allowed the best and the highest ideas to guide us to the final version.
Once the basic idea had been agreed upon it was time to start making sawdust. So I, of course, turned to that most basic of woodworking tools, the computer. On all projects I normally do full size drawings in AutoCAD, both to finalize the basic design and to calculate exact measurements. Occasionally I will use SketchUp to get an idea of what the design looks like in 3D. I did do a quick drawing in SU, mainly to visualize what a box joint would look like on a box this size. I am glad I took the time to do this because it helped to convince me that a miter joint would look and feel better.
The process of drawing in actual size before picking up the first tool has saved my behind on more than one occasion, and proved enormously valuable on this project. The interior of the box needed to be large enough vertically to contain all the book material, multiple layers of foam and felt, the thickness of all the horizontal wood pieces, and yet, still be able to close easily while holding everything snugly in place while closed. Yikes! To begin to unravel this enigma I carefully measured the height and thickness of every part involved. All of these numbers were then plugged into the ACAD drawing. Just to be safe I added extra space as a fudge factor. Everything was toted up and an interior measurement was the result. This number, of course, then determined the overall vertical size of the box.
While all this calculating and drawing was going on, Chris and I were exchanging ideas about the material to use for the box. Since it is a small box, the cost of the material was not a big factor, but the feeling, the energy of the material was an important factor. My original idea was to use vertical grain Douglas Fir, of which I had some beautiful reclaimed pieces. It is gorgeous stuff and I had convinced myself that it was ideal, especially since it had been reclaimed from the kitchen of the church that we both belong to. That gave it an extra "oomph" in my mind.
Luckily, clearer heads prevailed. Chris was enthusiastic about the idea of building several prototypes before the design was finalized. I was all for the idea because it is the best way to work out design problems. I set about building the first prototype from pine. It is easy to work with, inexpensive, plus I had it on hand in my shop. At the same time I made up a sample of a corner joint from my precious VG Fir. It became obvious even to me that as beautiful as the Fir was, it was not going to work. The prominent grain made it too busy for the size and scale of the box.
After some discussion we decided to look for a wood with even, warm tones, not too dark and not as light as, say, maple. Chris generously left it to me to make the final decision on the species to use. That meant I got to make a visit to one of my favorite places, the lumberyard. The local guys have a lot to choose from, so it is a bit like being a kid in a candy shop to be able to pick and choose the wood to use on a project such as this. After wandering around to see what was available, a large pile of beautiful red birch caught my eye.
Since the top of the box was going to be a solid piece, the lumber needed to be wide enough to accommodate that width plus a little extra. That meant a lot of digging in the pile to find a piece that was wide enough and attractive enough. After a fun digging session I finally found the perfect piece, a very nice blend of heartwood with a touch of lighter sapwood on the very edges.
The pine prototype showed us that we needed to give more thought to the size of the box. As it was originally designed, things were too cramped, the box itself was just a bit too small and it was not quite in proportion. This was great news, as it gave us real feedback about what we were trying to do. We also learned that the mitered corners were the joint of choice, especially after seeing how good they looked when reinforced with splines. We also decided to look further afield for appropriate hinges. We used simple brass pin hinges on the prototype, but Chris wanted to find something that was less obtrusive. Another search was set in place and begun.
At this time we also needed to reconsider the idea we had for the book wells that would hold the books in place. Our original idea was to use foam that was carefully cut and shaped, and then covered in felt. The first inserts were cut and handed off to Trish to be covered. She struggled mightily with the felt and the curved, shaped foam, but alas, it was not to be. Try as she might it just would not work. Too many curved surfaces for the flat felt to gracefully cover. Another original idea was to add handles to the upper tray that would hold the AY. It needed an easier way to be lifted from the box.
By this time we had also begun to discuss what the top would look like. Chris had commissioned a 4x6 photo of Yogananda. This was the same photo that appeared on the dust cover of the original, except that it was "printed" on a sheet of very thin aluminum. This ensured that it would last at least as long as the box. It needed to be inset into the back side of the top and then secured in place. He also wanted Yogananda's inscription on the front, as well as a small OM symbol cut from abalone.
Seeing as how I had never worked with abalone before, I needed to not only find the stuff, I needed to learn how to work with it as well. I was praying that I would be able to cut it on a laser engraver as that would ensure an exact fit between the recess and the symbol itself. It turned out to be surprisingly easy to find seashell material of all kinds on the web. There is a company in Hawaii that has been manufacturing it for years from natural shell in a form that cuts great on a laser engraver. We ended up ordering Paua, a seashell from New Zealand waters, from three different sources just to make sure we had the right material and enough of it to experiment with.
With so many unresolved issues it was obvious that another prototype was needed. I set about building another one, focusing on getting the sizing correct, finding the right hinges and producing a first version of the top. Since the final material had already been chosen and purchased, this prototype was made from plywood. After a bit of searching we decided on Soss hidden hinges, because they work well and fit the bill for being almost invisible. We also began to consider using wood for the book wells to replace the foam. I also built an upper book tray with handles cut into the sides. This still seemed like a workable solution, so it was included in the second prototype.
To produce the chosen design for the top I turned to two of my favorite woodworking tools, the CNC router and the laser engraver. The photo needed to be inset into the underside of the top with a shallow beveled edge visible on the top to frame the picture. This beveled edge also served as part of the lip that actually held the photo in place and covered the edges of the photo. That meant I needed to cut it in two stages on the CNC, first cutting the bevel on the top side and then cutting out the remaining material from the bottom, all the while ensuring that the resulting hole lined up evenly. To do this the material need to be flipped over and repositioned after the first cut, which is a recipe for disaster if you don't have the cuts programmed correctly. Which, it turns out, I did not. I tweaked the numbers, ran the program again, and again, and finally got the cuts to line up.
The laser engraver is just a bit more forgiving, but still requires careful positioning of the cut on the material. It took a little experimenting to gauge how deep to cut the recess for the Paua, as well as for the inscription which we had decided to engrave into the surface of the top. But compared to the CNC, these problems were easily resolved.
Looking at the completed second prototype made several things much clearer. Basically, the design accomplished everything we were looking for. The book wells still needed tweaking, we needed to decide about which interior surfaces would be covered in felt and the handles on the upper tray not quite right. Other than these few issues we were in great shape and well on our way to finalizing the design.
So, it was finally time to make the real thing! The birch was planed to ½" thickness for the box and ¼" thickness for the sides of the tray. The parts were all cut, mitered and prepared for gluing.
It was at this point that I finally had to break the "solid wood only" rule. There were several structural requirements for the bottom of the box itself and the bottom of the upper tray that effectively required the use of plywood. They both needed to be ¼" thick, more than 10" wide and be able to add structural strength to the box. And since neither would be visible in normal usage, plywood became the material of choice. Since it does not move seasonally as the solid top does, I could freely glue it into place in its dadoes, thus adding a lot of strength to the overall design. This is a good example of applying the saying "The right tool for the job" to the material side of the project.
By this time we had given up on using foam as a material for the book wells. Chris thought wood would work just as well, so to try out this idea I cut sample book wells out of that old standby, pine, on the CNC router. This turned out to be an excellent idea that looks great while holding and protecting the books.
The other idea that made it to the final version was handles on the upper tray. It was a fun challenge to determine the best way to cut the holes for the handles out of ¼' solid stock material. Material this thin can be brittle and tricky to machine. My choices were to plane the material to ¼" thickness and then cut the holes on the CNC, hoping I could hold the small pieces of material securely while the high speed cutter worked its way through the wood. Or, I could cut the design out of full thickness birch, a much more stable and workable material on the CNC, and then plane the cut piece down to ¼". After giving this some thought and considering past experiences, I decided to go with option 2. And it worked out well, I managed to cut and plane the pieces without the material shattering into a thousand splinters. The finished pieces were exactly what was needed. Hooray! Mission accomplished!
After all the fun I had making those parts, as well as completely assembling and splining the upper tray, Chris finally decided that the handles were too much and needed to be removed. They would be replaced with shallow finger grooves on the tray sides. Ack! What? I had become quite attached to my little creation so I was not initially thrilled with this change of plans. This also meant the box would need to be resized to account for the removed handles. So, back to the old drawing board, AKA AutoCAD. The tray handles were duly removed and the overall box height was correspondingly reduced. Luckily the original layout for the tray sides allowed me to simply recut them to the new required size without having to rebuild them from scratch. Still, my attachment was such that I held on to the now discarded handles, which will likely stay in my "treasured scraps" drawer till I can't remember what they ever were, at which time they will become kindling or trash. Ah! attachment to the physical world!
The box itself had been glued up by this time, but the splines had not been installed. This meant that the box cut easily be cut down to the new size. The completed box looks better at the reduced height and definitely works better at holding things in place with the handles removed. At this point the box was cut in half and the hinges moved from prototype #2 and installed in the finished box. Of course, we had basically waited till the last minute to choose a latch, but one was chosen, ordered and installed.
Chris gave the OK for the wooden book wells so, Yay!, another lumberyard trip was in order. The color scheme of the sample pine pieces was a light creamy wood with a darker band down the middle of the piece. This served well to frame the book in lighter colored wood, while the dark band complemented the box material of red birch, helping to make the separate pieces feel like a whole. My goal now was to find a better grade of lumber that would accomplish the same thing. Interestingly enough I found what I was looking for in what I thought was the very same pile of boards I had searched originally for the box material. It looked a lot like the pine in coloration, but of course was birch. It was only when I was paying for it that I was told it was not red birch but natural birch, which is the catchall name for birch of undetermined origin. Still, heritage be damned, it was a good looking piece of lumber and was duly cut, machined and sanded to its final size and shape.
We made the final decision on where to place the felt and how to attach the wooden book wells so that they stayed where we wanted them, yet could be removed if necessary in the future. I originally suggested attractive brass screws through the plywood bottoms, but it was decided that we would run screws through the sides of the wells into the box sides. Once these screw holes were plugged with birch they would be less visible, but easily reparable. This seemingly simple task presented the challenge of drilling holes in a spot that I could not reach with any of my drills or drill press. It was solved by using a right angle attachment that allowed me to drill holes with very little vertical clearance.
Attaching the felt was yet one more lesson in learning how to do things I had not done before. Since it is an open weave material, it does not accept glue easily. After more googling I found the right glue to use. This glue worked well for both the felt and the foam, which was a godsend. The felt was cut to size and glued into place. And what a difference it made! It added a touch of elegance and class while contrasting/complementing nicely with the red birch. It adds the finishing touch, even if it does make the box look a tad too much like an accessory to a pool table.
I am sorry to have this project come to an end. It has been a great experience. I have learned new things, worked with new materials and helped to create a way to share the treasure of the signed AY with others. As I stated at the very beginning, it is a project that has proven to be near and dear to my heart. Now, hopefully, it will inspire those same feelings, and more, in all who choose to spend time with it.
with it.those same feelings, and better, in all who choose to spend time with it.
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