Building a mystery box

Building a mystery box


I love a good mystery. So does Wired Geekdad blogger and friend of MAKE, John Baichtal. In his words:

A couple of months ago, I happened to catch the TED Talk given by Star Trek director J. J. Abrams concerning his love of mystery. The centerpiece of the talk was a simple cardboard box secured with packing tape and decorated with a giant question mark on one side. This box contains an assortment of magic tricks Abrams purchased from the Lou Tannen Magic Store as a kid, but for some reason, he’s never opened it. For Abrams, the love of the mysterious unknown exceeds any value the magic tricks could provide.

We were tweeting about how much we both loved this idea, so I decided to build a wooden mystery box for John, using the laser cutter I have on loan from Epilog. The devil inside me needed to make a compelling object filled with things that will never be seen.

I began by drafting the shapes in CorelDRAW, and adding images to etch into each face.


I ran the wood through twice: first a low-wattage etching pass, then a high-wattage, cutting pass.




I assembled the pieces, using slots and bracket-shaped braces under tension to hold the thing together.


Why not torture the guy, by taking a photo of the inside of the box he’ll never see? Including a note he’ll never read. This was right before I added the… Oh. You almost got me there. Nice try.


Here is the finished mystery box.




This is what he wrote upon receiving it:

On the top of the box is a question mark and the bottom is the Greek letter Phi. The box even had a theme: One of the faces carries a picture of 16th-Century German mathematician Michael Maestlin, who was the first scientist to write about the Golden Ratio. Another face sports a golden spiral, which is another way of expressing that constant, yet another shows an image from Leonardo DaVinci’s Divine Proportion applying the Golden Ratio to the human form. The panels of the box even conform to the ratio, being 3 inches wide by 4.85 inches high. Crazy nerdy.

More esoterically, moving the box caused an intriguing rattle to sound from inside. Perfect.

So what’s next? I’m just going leave the box on my desk and admire its mysteriousness.

I’ve uploaded the file to Thingiverse, in case you’d like to build your own.

John’s blog

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John Edgar Park likes to make things and tell people about it. He builds project for Adafruit Industries. You can find him at and twitter/IG @johnedgarpark

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