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At some point we’re all going to need to build a box. Whether it’s to keep a tool safe, or build a project enclosure, knowing how to make a box that’s a custom size really comes in handy. Sure, you can fab one on a laser cutter, but I’m really starting to get tired of that burnt finger-jointed look.

Below I’ll show you how to build a box that’s utilitarian and customizable to any shape. I know it might not be the type of box you’re used to making, so let me know what techniques you use that are different. I’m also not immune to critique, but I’ve built boxes like this for years that have held up like champs. Enjoy!

What You’ll Need

- 3/8″ plywood
- 1 1/4″ drywall screws
- speed square
- tape measure
- driver drill
- pencil
- circular saw

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Michael Colombo

In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens’ educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.


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Comments

  1. Caleb says:

    Screws driven into the edges of plywood are bound to split the plywood. It would be better to drill pilot holes if you must use screws. Rabbet joints and glue would be about as simple, much stronger, self-squaring, and better looking.

    1. Yes, pre-drilling into the ends of the plywood is definitely advised. I didn’t want to do something like a rabbet joint because I wanted the build to be as simple, and with the least amount of tools, as possible.

  2. asciimation says:

    I don’t want to criticise but I wonder how sturdy this would be screwing directly into the edge of the plywood like that. Won’t the wood split? It appears that it has in the last picture. Also you don’t use glue at all? I am interested to know a good way to make such boxes as I need to make one as a toolbox to bolt to the firewall of a car I am making. I am guessing the ‘proper’ way is dovetails or finger joints? Not having access to a laser cutter it has to be hand made!

    Simon

    1. If you’re looking to make a toolbox to display in a car, I’d definitely recommend something a little more elaborate. Dovetails look great and are plenty strong, but they’re tricky to learn to do right. I put this post up just so folks can get their feet wet in making a basic box.

    2. SPENCER says:

      depending on the quality of the plywood, it is hit or miss. I drew up some plans and made a bunch of storage benches which a single sheet of 3/4″ plywood and a handfull of screws. I screw the base and the top directly into the edge of the side walls. If you drill pilot holes and use the right screws, the plywood only splits if it was poorly laminated to begin with. I’ve only had it happen once and it was pretty easy to fix via re-lamination using a bunch of wood glue and some clamps.

      1. SPENCER says:

        BUT, for something as small as this, I’d miter cut all the edges at 45 degrees, apply a bunch of glue and clamp it for a few hours. You’d have no visible edges on the outside walls and no need to bother with screws!

  3. asciimation says:

    I should add when I have made similar plywood boxes in the past I just glued them (but with small nails to hold things while the glue set) and added triangular moulding pieces along all the inside corners. That made them strong and looked neat.

    Simon

  4. JohnM says:

    I am no carpenter. But it seems to me that the notion of making a cuboid is the most basic lesson of someone working with wood. It is the Socratic ideal, the Zen koan. Which sides should be longest, how should it be fastened? A post like Colombo’s either treats us as idiots, or ignores the universality of the questions about the “best box”. If we don’t agree on certain basic principles, we will be subject to infinite posts like his suggesting how we can box toys instead of talking about how boxes can be formed.

    1. Hi JohnM. First off, I take umbrage to your idea that I’m “treating you as idiots” – I think the interest in this post would prove the contrary. This is a How-To post on how to make a simple box. It IS the best box for the right application, and can be done with a limited amount of skills, something that many readers find a need for. Boxes can be formed in almost an infinite amount of ways, and it was never my intention to explore this avenue of thought. If you’re into the philosophical and spiritual side of craftsmanship, I recommend Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” or the vignette on the carpenter in Studs Terkel’s “Working.” If that’s not what you’re looking for, I suggest you keep reading Workshop Wednesday.

      1. manskybook says:

        Despite my careless language, no umbrage meant. What I meant is that, for something as simple as a box, one might make a reference to the ideal. I look at boxes made by museum and theater carpenters, one-off or in dozens, and am amazed by their simplicity, sturdiness, and utility. “Makers” assume that we all can make such things, and have no barriers. This isn’t borne out by my experiences. How and why your sides meet and are attached have too many possibilities, and the choices you make don’t more than suggest the relative dimensions of quality and utility. Not caring and not knowing about other possibilities is an advantage. But my sense is that Makers in general assume that people of all ages can fail gracefully into success, while the reality suggests that there is a small group of Makers who confidently proceed, and the rest can either jump in, or ignore the fact that we can all create or modify our own stuff. Even if I had, say, a bench saw, or could visit one at a tool bank, who’s to say whether my mumm-ra would be safe if someone used his box as a stool, or whether I would have the time or inclination to make a “just-okay” box. A box is an existential element, even if you are “just” a carpenter. We make things for utility, sure, but more often to make our world better. I can also design a box in my head. Why is your [simple] box better than that idea? I can tell you how I shave, or how I clean my dishes. What makes your box important is that it is different, and you might explain how it is different. My only point is that you have not made that the salient aspect of your post. It is what any good editor would say to you: “why is this important?”.

        1. I have some woodworking experience, am a huge fan of people like James Krenov, Taige Freid, Sam Maloof, and many others. I love, and have studied, furniture design and explored many different methods of wood joinery and structure. But sometimes, a box is just a box. And for some people, (say, someone more familiar with hacking code than sawing wood) a solid basic primer is just what’s needed. And who knows, from there, they may launch into exploring all the finer bits of Japanese joinery.

          I do agree with others, though – pre-drill the holes before screwing the edges of plywood.

  5. Keith says:

    I see how this post has more experienced wood workers scratching their heads but I do like the concept of building it quick — sometimes you need it done fast and disposable work is at times the most efficient. One suggestion I have would be to use pieces of pine — say 1x1xheight in corners. This will make it easy for those new to woodworking to hit something the screw can bite into and if the sides aren’t square it’ll be forgiving. Screwing in the bottom would still be in end grain but softwood is much more forgiving then plywood.

  6. agonaut says:

    For this contribution I would be ashamed, sorry buddy.

  7. I didn’t say it was a pretty box, or an elegant box, just a quick and sturdy one. I can use it a stool all day and it will still be fit as a fiddle. I can also take 5x the work and make elegant joints etc, but this was made purely for functionality. One concession, I would’ve done it with pine to prevent splitting, but the ply was what I had on hand.

  8. Chris says:

    Shouldn’t Mumm-ra get a pyramid?

    1. If I remember correctly Mumm-Ra slept in a coffin. :) Maybe I’ll do a pyramid for the nex How-To :)

  9. I like this post a lot. I have been frustrated with make as time goes on.

    1) Many of the posts/projects are way outside of my skill level. While I think this is good because I can learn and want to grow to the skill level needed for those projects it’s nice to see a simple project.

    2) I don’t have a laser cutter, CNC or a 3d printer. It seem like way to many of the projects make use of these tools that the average person or at least myself can’t afford or get access to. Again I’m happy to see what they can do but it’s nice to see something with basic tools mixed in.

    3) This project is cheap. It’s with in my budget which is next to nothing. I dumpster dive and collect scraps to build my projects because that’s what I can afford. I would love to build many of the projects I see but cost is a issue for me.

    Not saying make projects or posts should be limited in any way. Just want to show my support for the simple projects.

    1. thanks scinerd. I actually did my first tutorial on this while at grad school when I found so many students who were averse to the full wood shop we had. They were using valuable time on the CNC and laser cutter to make simple boxes when it just wasn’t necessary. There’s a certain feeling that you get when making something by hand that you just don’t get from digifab.

  10. Ariel Churi says:

    Nice post. The wood workers may not like it but if it works, it works. You might consider self-tapping deck screws.

  11. Richard says:

    Once you split the veneers apart with the screw, calling it sturdy is a falsehood. Sure it may stand up carefully placed vertical loading, but the smallest side load will continue the splits and failure will result. A recycled cardboard box would be more appropriate here. Then all you need is a knife and tape to do the custom sizing. Sorry, demonstrating how to screw 5 pieces of plywood together is obvious to even the most untrained. Your craftsmanship makes this even worse.

  12. Ok Mea Culpa! The jury has spoken! Do not split the plywood!

  13. Rachel says:

    Thank you, Michael, for this post and for standing up to the haters. I agree with some of the posters above (the ones that use scrap, don’t have CNC routers at home, etc.) Would-be-Makers are intimidated by those that say “do it perfectly or don’t do it at all.”

  14. asciimation says:

    Michael, I think this is a great opportunity for you to do a follow up. Simple projects definitely have their place but if it is aimed at people who are just learning the skills it could help to expand/explain things a bit more. Perhaps say this is one way to build a box but there are other, better ways for these reasons (mention the wood splitting and so on).

    Also your film shows you using a circular saw and power drills It would seem to me that someone who doesn’t have the skills yet to know how to screw together a simple wooden box probably doesn’t have the skills to safely use such tools. Perhaps a step by step using only hand tools would be a start?

    I don’t think there are many who would say do it perfectly or don’t do it at all but I imagine there are a lot of people who would say do it right. If the idea is to start people off down the road to making things then it is in everyone’s best interests to get them started well.Things like pre-drilling the screw holes and so on are a good example. You could maybe add some steps to explain and show why perhaps? Maybe say for their second box they might like to try these improvements?

    Definitely keep doing these simpler projects though! Don’t be put off.

    Simon

    1. Yes. A follow-up post would be great. There is more than one way to build a box.

  15. Jeff Faust says:

    You had no idea just how broad the spectrum of box-making really was, did you? It’s a topic worthy of its own blog!

  16. Ed Baggett says:

    Thanks
    I am a beginner.
    This is great

  17. Chris O. says:

    That’s a crap box. May be OK for the use, but crap nonetheless. Crap is OK sometimes, I still make that same box occasionally for my kids for a quick and dirty throw away (hint: you can hide the splitting plys if you keep the screws over 3 inches from the edge, and pre-drill bigger than the root size of your screw).

    If the title of this how-to was “quick and dirty throw away crap box” no one would be complaining.

    If anyone sees this and wants to make a sturdy quick and dirty box, just make this one, but install 2×2′s in the inside corners, and fasten the sides to those, staggering the screws, pre-drilling, staying away from ends, and use lots of glue (glue optional). I did that for my electrical and plumbing parts storage boxes several years ago, using oriented strand board (even worse than plywood for de-laminating with edge screws). They’re still going strong, and I haven’t even bothered to grind off the protruding points from the underside (I was in such a hurry, I didn’t even flip the box over to install the screws on the bottom, just screwed through the 2×2 frame from above). The tips of the screws are digging ruts in my crap bench/shelves I made in 20 minutes with a framing nailer, 6 2×4′s and a sheet of plywood. I kind of like the history I’m saving for posterity in gouges on my shelf.

    Love the box. Make lots of them, really, really fast, get on with other stuff. Just recognize it’s a crap box, and that’s fine, as long as you use it right.

    1. Well I’m sorry to hear you think my box is crap. To be fair, I set the bar pretty low on this one (many people have never even made a box). I just finished dancing on top of the box to Daft Punk and it’s still solid as can be. Sturdy. And it took me all of 10 or 15 minutes to make. Quick. That’s what I promised and that’s what I delivered. I’ll do a more elaborate box in an upcoming Workshop Wednesday and we can chat again.

      1. Jean says:

        You delivered what you said you would!!! Good for you as you didn’t proclaim this to be a fine piece of furniture! To hell with the bitchers………there’s always some!

  18. cadsculptor says:

    Michael,
    These “really simple” how-to’s are great for getting people to try something new – look at all the “how to solder” postings.
    Sometimes, even with a pilot hole, a screw will split plywood. As an extra precaution, I drill an inch-deep clearance hole, then a deeper pilot hole in the edge. This moves the “wedging” force inside the material away from the edge. I second the motion to use glue – any kind helps but I prefer ‘yellow” glue.

  19. John910 says:

    I see why my brother quit taking comments on his blog. There are people who are always waiting to pounce on anything others have said or done. They are the “critics”. You showed a way to make simple box for people who don’t know anything about building one. If you encouraged a non-maker to make s simple box then they have a start on making more later. Some screws have cutting threads so there would not need a pilot hole. Keep doing the positive because it will always help those that need it. Making is superior to critiquing so keep making.

  20. Fernando says:

    You can use some pine at the corners as someone suggest. That makes the box really sturdy. I made a bathroom step stool for my nieces using that method and last for years (and the still use it). But if you don’t want to use pine, you can make a sandwich putting the ply between 2 wooden blocks and press them with a clamp to temporarily avoid the splitting when getting in the screws, they will cut through the plywood and no split it (those black screws are really sharp!!

  21. Miss.Fanny says:

    lol all these people with their long angry replies :D hilarious!
    thanks for the how-to, it is great for a beginner (which i am) :)
    p.s. i think you’re SUPER cool! :D you like daft punk & have black cats & a slightly obscure pop culture knowledge <3 i mean you're awesome :) thanks

    1. Well shoosh! Thank you! Maybe I’ll put up a post of the 14′ wide cat tree I built and set the video to Daft Punk. :) (btw Miss Fanny, do you happen to be a fan of The Band?)

  22. Bill Dowsley. says:

    Thank you, Michael, for your very interesting and reassuring post.
    I am old but still have much to learn. You showed me something.

  23. Carol says:

    Michael, thank you for your instructions. I’m building a box on wheels. Do you have any thoughts about using nails instead of screws? 3/4″ plywood, 1 1/2″ common nails, braking swivel wheels on diagonal corners. I’ve got the sides cut (hand saw) and sanded and will glue soon. Will I need to drill pilot holes for the nails? Planning to cut the bottom to fit, glue it to the glued sides and then nail, nailing sides first, then bottom. What do you think? Thank you. Carol

  24. Gord. says:

    I use Coconut oil Shampoo for fixing screws …..
    Russian Tallow , used to be THE t6hing to use …..