Turning an End Grain Lidded Box

by Michael Stafford

lidded box

Turning an end grain lidded box differs primarily in the way the wood is oriented on the lathe and the tools that are used. Whereas the ring boxes previously described were turned in the face plate orientation, end grain lidded boxes are turned with the grain running the length of box in the spindle orientation. The grain is rotating parallel to the axis of rotation of the lathe. Because of this, spindle gouges, detail gouges, skew chisels and other spindle turning tools are used. However some turners use bowl gouges to great effect while hollowing end grain. In finishing and smoothing the inside of end grain lidded boxes, scrapers in a variety of shapes are useful in removing ripples left by other turning tools and in achieving a smooth shape.

End grain lidded boxes are somewhat limited in size as the larger they become the more difficult it can be for someone with small hands to open the box. Stability also becomes a concern as the diameter of the box increases. Even though end grain lidded boxes are generally more stable than face plate turned ring boxes, as the box increases in size the reaction to changes in humidity and temperature also become more of a consideration.

Because end grain lidded boxes are generally small they afford the turner an opportunity to use highly figured and expensive exotic woods which would be impractical in larger boxes. These relatively small boxes are usually held in the hand to be opened and must be finished to perfection as all surfaces are touched by their owners.

Turned boxes that will be used to contain pills in a purse or pocket may have a very securely fitting lid whereas another box sitting on a desk and holding paper clips will by necessity have a loose fitting lid that is easily removed with one hand. The mark of a finely turned box is the suction fit of the lid. Experience shows far more of these small boxes are displayed as decorative objects than used as functional storage containers. In this tutorial I will describe the methods I use to turn an end grain lidded box. I pattern my method after Richard Raffan whose book Turning Boxes was the inspiration for me to learn how to turn these functional yet decorative objects.

The steps for turning an end grain lidded box will begin on the next page with wood selection. I hope this tutorial will encourage other turners to try this fascinating aspect of wood turning.

turning blanks

Pictured is an assortment of turning blanks 3-4" long and 2½- 3" square. Species in front from left to right are curly maple, curly shedua, pink Tasmanian myrtle burl, and in the rear from the left are Goncalo alves, Bois de rose and curly bubinga.

finding the center

The first step in preparing a blank for mounting between centers is to locate the center on each end. Here a center finding jig is being used to mark the center. It is best to mark from all four corners to ensure finding the true center.

an awl important step

With an awl make a shallow mark on each end to locate the exact center. The points of the drive center and live center will be located by these marks.

scoring the center

Here the picture shows the ends of two blanks after being placed in a V-block and scoring the ends with a band saw. This scoring process makes it easier to seat the drive center without pounding it with a mallet which can sometimes split the blank.

first cuts with the roughing gouge

Mount the blank between centers and turn it round. Here a roughing gouge is being used to turn the blank round. Some time could be saved by knocking off the corners of the blank on the table saw or band saw but it is nearly as quick to turn them off.

from square to round

Continue turning the blank until it is completely round along its length. With a sharp gouge a fine finish is possible.

measure chuck jaw diameter

Use outside calipers to determine the diameter of the chuck jaws in compression mode. Each end of the blank will require a spigot sized to fit inside the jaws so that the chuck can securely grip the wood in compression mode.

turning the spigot

Use the calipers to size the spigot on each end. Size the spigot to fit the chuck jaws with a parting tool. If the jaws are dovetailed a skew chisel can be used to cut the spigot to match that shape. The shoulder of the blank should be square or slightly concave so that the jaws will seat completely against it.

blanks ready for turning

Here is an assortment of blanks turned round with dovetailed spigots on each end ready for turning.

measure blank for length

Measure the length of the blank in preparation for laying out the proportions for the lid and body of the box. This photo clearly shows the shape of the dovetailed spigot on a piece of curly bigleaf maple.

locate the lid partition

Here a rule is being used to mark the location for the parting cut and proposed location of the box lid flange. Usually the lid overlaps the box body by about ¼". A well balanced box aims for proportions of about 40% lid and 60% box body.

use a thin parting tool

A 116" fluted parting tool is used to separate the two parts of the box. The thinness of the tool minimizes the grain mismatch when the box is finished. Usually I part until there remains a small½" diameter piece connecting the top and bottom.

finish the part with a thin saw

Rather than part all the way though I use a thin tool box saw to cut through the remainder of the center.

face the end of the blank

Mount the lid section in the chuck and face off the blank removing as little wood as possible. The more wood that is removed from the outside edge the more apparent the misalignment of the grain will be. From the outside edge try to angle the cut in slightly rather than making the face of the lid completely flat. This slight angle makes it easier for the lid and body to align and helps to disguise the join between the two.

hollow the lid

Using a sharp spindle gouge begin hollowing the lid. Cut from the center out and leave plenty of wood near the edge for the lid flange. The flute of the fingernail ground spindle gouge is aimed in the area between 9 and 10 on a clock face.

cut the flange

With a freshly sharpened and honed square scraper cut the lid flange. Push the tool in as straight as possible and make the cut in steps to avoid a catch or chatter. The object here is to end up with lid flange surfaces parallel.

check for parallel

Use the inside calipers to determine if the lid flange is parallel. Insert the caliper up against the shoulder cut by the square scraper and spread open the tips until they just touch. Slowly pull the calipers out toward the lip of the lid. If the sides are parallel the caliper tips should touch the sides of the lid flange equally at all points. The object is to not have the lid flange dovetailed inwardly or outwardly so that a good suction fit can be achieved over the box body flange. If the lid flange is outwardly dovetailed, the lid will not stay on during turning. If the lid is dovetailed inwardly, the lid will be tight as it first goes on but will be loose and revolve freely when on all the way.

Adjust the cut with the square scraper until the flange is parallel. Keep checking with the inside calipers until the flange is parallel. Take time and get this right so the lid will fit properly.

finish cuts on the lid

Once the flange is parallel use a freshly sharpened spindle gouge or as pictured here a sharp round nose scraper to clean up and detail the inside of the lid. Be careful not to damage the lid flange.

sand the inside of the lid

Sand the inside surfaces of the lid. Be careful not to sand the inside edges of the lid flange as sanding them can result in the flange becoming out of round. A quick swipe with a fine grit paper is all that is needed to smooth the lid flange if the surfaces were cut cleanly.

measure the depth of the lid

Once the sanding is complete use a couple of rules to measure the depth of the lid. This measurement will help establish where the parting cut and top of the outside of the lid will be.

transfer the depth to the outside of the lid

Here the measurement from the inside of the lid and an approximation of the lid thickness is marked on the lid exterior. Typically allow 316-¼" thickness for the lid thickness when parting off. Design of the lid will be the determining factor.

score a reference line

A thin 332" diamond parting tool is used to make a reference cut on the outside of the lid. This helps to define where the inside top of the lid is— approximately ¼" below this parting cut.

sanded lid, ready for finish

Here the inside of the lid is sanded and ready to finish. The shoulder of the flange on the inside is not as smooth as the rest of the inside surfaces because it cannot be finely sanded without distorting the lid flange itself.

finished and polished lid

The lid has been finished and polished on the inside. At this point the lid flange is overly thick but this will be remedied when the lid is mated with the box body and both are shaped as a unit.

score the body to mark the lid shoulder

Chuck up the body of the box. Measure the approximate length of the box flange. The toe of the skew is used to sever the fibers and approximate the length of the box flange where the lid will over fit the box. This helps to minimize grain tear out during the next step.

part a tapered lip

Use a parting tool to cut a tapered lip on the box flange. The object here is to cut a tapered shoulder where the lid will just begin to go onto the box flange. Do not cut the box flange so that the lid will fit at this time.

finish the lip with a skew

A skew can be used to do a peeling/scraping cut for better control and less splintering of the box flange as it nears the diameter where the lid will just begin to go on. Test the lid on the box flange frequently and when it just fits on the tapered flange at all, stop cutting.

hollow the box

Use a freshly sharpened fingernail profile spindle gouge to hollow the box body. Remember to allow enough thickness in the area of the box flange so that it can be adjusted later on to fit the lid.

refine the box

A curved scraper is being used to refine and smooth the inside shape of the box after the spindle gouge work. Sharp scrapers work very well on end grain if a light touch is used. Little wood is being removed here, just smoothed out.

start shaping the exterior

Some preliminary shaping is done of the exterior to mirror the internal shape. Final shaping will be done when the lid is mated back up with the body of the box.

interior ready to sand

Here is the cleanly cut surface of the interior of the box ready for sanding.


Sand the interior using a complete range of grits through 400 or higher depending on the wood. The finish on the inside should be as good as that on the outside.

skewing the flange

Once the sanding is complete use a sharp skew to fine tune the box flange. After hollowing and sanding the flange might be out of round. At this point the flange should be cut as cleanly as possible. The lid should be able to be jam fitted onto the box flange securely enough for turning but not so tightly as to split.

jam the top onto the body

Here the lid has been jammed onto the box flange. The lid and box body must be turned as a unit to achieve a continuous profile. If the lid fits too loosely on the box flange a piece of tissue can be inserted between the two to make for a tighter fit. Sometimes a wipe with a damp sponge can also help a loose lid fit tightly enough for turning.

turn the body and lid together

With a sharp detail gouge the exterior of the box is turned to shape. Note that a live center has been brought up for support.

turn away top spigot for clearance

Nibble away the excess material on the lid so that the top can be accessed with a gouge while still supported with the live center. Use the live center to provide additional support for as long as possible.

shape the top

With a fingernail ground spindle gouge, begin shaping the top of the lid. This operation is much easier with the live center providing support. A catch in the end grain can tear the lid from the box and damage it.

shape the entire box

Refine the shape of the entire box. This box will have straight sides and a rounded bottom.

burn in decoration

The toe of the skew was used to cut some small grooves around the join between the lid and the box body. These lines disguise the join. Then a wire pulled taut between two blocks was used to burn the grooves as decoration.

result of burn

Here is the end result of the friction burning with the wire. The box is ready for the rest of the spigot on the lid to be removed.

nibble away the lid spigot

With a thin parting tool nibble away the small tenon on the lid. Take light cuts as a catch could tear the spigot and a piece of the lid from the box.

final paring of lid spigot

With a sharp spindle gouge carefully trim the waste from the stub spigot and shape the lid for sanding. Although this lid was a nice tight jam fit a piece of masking tape was wrapped around the box at the join to keep the lid in place in the event of a catch.

sanding the lid

Carefully sand the lid. Sanding end grain can be tricky so keep the paper moving. Allow the grit to do the work and avoid extra pressure as pressure will just increase the heat and some woods are prone to heat checking on end grain.

sand the exterior of the box

Remove the tape if used and sand as much of the exterior of the box as can be accessed. In this shape all but the bottom and the foot can be finish sanded. Sanding with both hands provides better control.

tack and finish the inside

Remove the lid and tack off the box, particularly the inside. Finish and polish it.

refine the fit of the lid

Carefully adjust the fit of the lid. Using a razor sharp skew flat on the tool rest scrape the flange removing only powder until the lid slides on the box with a nice suction fit. Test the fit of the lid frequently and sand as little as possible to prevent the flange from going out of round.

all ready for finish

Here is the box with the lid fitted. The entire box except for the bottom has been sanded and is ready to finish.

finished, ready for parting off

The box has been finished and polished and is ready to be parted off the bottom spigot.

bulk of spigot parted away

The 116" fluted parting tool is used to remove most of the material from the spigot at the bottom of the box in preparation for reverse turning the box body.

box reversed for final parting

The body of the box is carefully held in the chuck with the jaws gripping the body flange and the face of the jaws seated against the shoulder of the box body. The tailstock is brought up for support and a narrow parting tool is used to nibble away the remainder of the spigot on the bottom.

bottom refined

With a freshly sharpened and honed spindle gouge, light cuts are taken to clean up the bottom and create a concave area so the box will sit flat. Gliding along on the bevel of the gouge helps to ensure the box remains in the chuck jaws.

sanding the bottom

Sand and finish the bottom as smoothly as the rest of the box. These boxes are small and people examine all surfaces with their eyes and their fingers and poorly finished areas are sure to be detected.

finished bottom

The picture shows the finished and sanded bottom. A small decorative groove and a concave bottom assure that the surface was turned, not just parted off and sanded flat.

finished box

Here is the finished box; 2½" in diameter and 2 58" tall…

…and below is an open view of the box.

open view

. . . Michael Stafford

© 2007 by Michael Stafford. All rights reserved.
No parts of this article may be reproduced in any form or by any means
without the written permission of the publisher and the author.