One day, several years ago, Peter Lloyd was wandering round a local craft fair. He has made a couple of wooden boxes in the past but, having just returned to the UK following a two-year stint as a woodworking teacher in Botswana, he was wondering what to do with his life. 'Then I saw a bloke flogging boxes', he recalls. 'And I though, "I could do that!"' In fact, I don't think he'd sold all that many, I think I passed him at a time when he happened to be selling one... perhaps we're guided, perhaps God sent me past that bloke at that particular time!' Since then, he has become one of Britain's pre-eminent box makers, as well as playing a leading role in the bringing the global box-making community together for the first time. Traditional Woodworking asked the man behind the Celebrating Boxes exhibition to explain what gives this branch of the craft its unique appeal.
What is it that attracts people to make boxes?
When I started, one of my primary concerns was that I had a tiny workshop. It seemed to me that boxes were such an obvious thing if you have a small workshop, as most people probably have. Most amateurs or semi-amateurs are lucky if they've got a double garage, they've probably just got a single garage and quite a lot of them, like I had then, have just got a shed.
What about the viewer? People can be drawn to boxes when, for example, furniture doesn't move them.
There's a universal fascination with boxes. I think boxes are all about secrets, about hiding places. About something hidden, something personal, about enclosed space. I think a box possibly has some sort of resonance in the human psyche… something inside of us answers to a box in some way. For example, few people can resist lifting the lid of a box. It's a human curiosity, perhaps that's what it is — we want to know what's inside.
So, what defines a good box?
I think a sense of proportion is fairly important. Whether you can teach it is another matter, though there are such things as golden rectangles. I think there are some shapes and proportions and sizes that just look right, and others that don't — someone gave me a box that was a pentagon, it's beautifully made, but it just doesn't quite ring absolutely true.
It's not an exact science, it's just a vague sort of eye. I think thirds are very important in proportion — if you divide something into three and take a point one third of the way along and do something there, it can hardly fail you look right to my eye. There are others who prefer symmetry... personally, I don't much like it.
I think what is important is that it has absolute attention to detail at every level. In other words, if it's a hollowed-out lump of wood, it must be well hollowed-out. If it's meant to have a chisel mark, it must be a good chisel mark. Everything about it down to the smallest details, must be to the best of the maker's ability. As a maker, I don't believe one should ever have the have the attitude "this'll do". That to me is anathema. If it isn't the best I can do, I very often put it in the bin and start again, because I think that attention to detail is what draws the viewer to your piece of work. Whether the viewer knows that, and I think they often don't — they don't know what it is that's drawing them to it, but I believe it's the maker's spirit, the maker putting his best into it.
Does that mean your material isn't as important as what you do with it?
I think selection of the material is cortical. I use all English hardwoods; I buy woods that have an extra something about them, like a piece of burr oak, burr elm, ripple ash or sycamore, spalted beech and so on. When I'm making boxes, I like to celebrate the wood, and I think this adds a great deal to my work. I select fairly carefully from the plank I'm using, I put the entire plank on my bench and I map out the box on it. Does it go towards making a good box? I think yes, in my case, it's another mark of that attention to detail.
What is it about working with wood that you find so satisfying?
I love trees. They're such majestic, giant entities standing sentinent in the countryside. They're living things, and yet when they come to the end their lives they can be taken on in to the future as something else.
I get some of my wood from a local sawmill, they've got a huge band resaw there and I still get excited when I see trees going through it and I see what's revealed beneath the bark when it does its first cut. You're left seeing a cross-section through the tree, and it can look gorgeous.
To me, there are two times when a tree looks its best, and that's one, when it's cut green. The second is when it's finally polished. Sometimes when you sand a piece of wood, and I believe in sanding it right down to 400 grit, you start to see this sheen, It's gorgeous, and you can't resist running your hands over it.
You know, I think that's probably the thing I love most about wood. It's magnetic — that's not just me, it does have magnetism, people want to touch it. It's warm, it's tactile, it's smooth. I find my boxes have the capacity to draw people's hands to them, almost against their will, and they stroke them. And I do, too. It's an enormously tactile, warm, living material.
Certainly, boxes are tactile by definition, whereas furniture needn't be. It is the case that once people have started making boxes, they don't go back?
I know some who dabble in both. I don't think id exclusively the case. Some people find that drawback of making boxes is that while you can produce them relatively quickly, it does take a fair amount of time to produce a well made box, and that time has to be paid for. But you only have something the size of a pair of boots to put in front of your customer, and you want several hundred pounds for it. And the guy down the road is selling a table for the same price.
It's a natural human reaction to judge things by their weight or size, and not by the fact there are probably more joints and more intricate work in your box than there are in that table — the different being that one's used up considerably more wood that the other. They're not that easy to sell — they're a luxury, at the end of the day.
As well as the practical element you've mentioned, perhaps it's the case that boxes are more likely to attract individualists… maybe makers who have a slightly maverick character.
Yes, I think that's true. Also, you can make a box relatively quickly, certainly more quickly than a sideboard or a table and chairs. And you can put it in the boot of your car, you can take it somewhere and sell it.
There is nothing in this world that equals the thrill of someone buying something you've made — and if you can make something in a fairly short time and sell it, your immediate inclination is to rush back to the workshop and make another. I think a lot of box makers started out because the had to flog something.
So now you've convinced all our readers that making boxes is where their future lies, what tools are they going to need?
You don't need anything at all. I tell you what, if somebody wants to make boxes, they could manage from virtually nothing to virtually everything. I could make a box with a sanding disc and a drill. I started out with a vice, some chisels and a tenon saw. I did have a router, though it wasn't mounted in a table, and very early on I bought a radial arm saw. I cut the dovetails by hand, and I used a foam drum sander in a drill. In a way, that influenced my boxes for ever more. It certainly gave them an organic feel, because you can't sand very flat with one of those things!
You can make boxes simply by drilling out. I think that's one of the beauties of box making, you don't need vast amounts f tools. Now I have a much larger workshop, and I have a table saw, though I used that radial arm saw in cross-cut mode for ripping for a long time, because I wasn't using anything more than about ten inches. I quickly discovered that if you mount a router on a table, it becomes almost invaluable.
I think if you're making boxes commercially, you almost have to go down the power tool route. I can't imagine making something fast enough with purely hand tools, but I don't know if any box makers do.
Having said that, I'd actually like to make boxes with green wood everything would be a 'cleft' finish… you could more or less make a box with an axe! The possibilities are enormous. You don't need much to make a box… you don't need vast arrays of tools, you don't need expensive kit and lots of space.
Obviously if you go down certain routes, if you want dovetails, if you want sanded finishes, if you want absolutely straight surfaces, if you're converting your own wood, then maybe you do need some machine tools.
But who says wood has to be straight and flat, anyway? As far as I'm aware, that isn't written anywhere! It can be the shape it grows, it can be the shape it's cut… I think the one thing you do need is imagination.
So, anyone can make boxes?
Absolutely. Emphatically yes!