Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Box Project

About ten years ago, on a weekend trip to Staunton, VA, I was browsing around in an antique shop called The Jolly Roger Haggle Shop.  On a bottom shelf, way in the back, I thought I spotted something.  It was a very old looking box and was in terrible condition.  The entire box seemed to be covered in pine sap or some other sticky, grimy substance.  Inside, the box was lined in blue silk and had an oval mirror in the lid.  I licked my thumb and rubbed it across the lid.  The lid was inlaid with small squares, and once I wiped away some grime, I immediately recognized that the inlay I had cleaned was tortoise shell.  Although it was in terrible condition, I wanted it.  No price, of course.  So, I took it up to the front counter and inquired. 

"Where did you find that?"  The owner asked.

"It was over there on the shelf gathering dust.  What do you want on it?"  I replied.

The man said he would take $20.  I felt it was a good deal, so much to the chagrin of my girlfriend, I bit.  I got the box back to the hotel and began to clean it.  Immediately, it was becoming clear that I had found something special.  The box was not only inlaid with tortoise shell, but ebony, ivory, curled maple, and had sterling silver hinges and lock.  A nice, very old box, I thought.

I continued to clean it up a bit, but knew that it would require more cleaning and work to bring it back.  As I fiddled with the lid, the mirror busted through the old horse glue that affixed it to the top and it was now loose inside the lid...Great, just great I thought.  I played with the mirror a bit and it rocked.  I suddenly realized that there was something behind it.  What could it be?  Very carefully, I lifted apart the old nails of the lid and discovered that there was paper inside.  And, with a pair of tweezers, I very slowly removed it, hoping it was full of gold certificates or confederate cash.  But, it was just a newspaper.  I decided to see where it was from and when.  Would it help me to date the box?  As I pulled it out, I was stunned.  The newspaper was from Vallejo, CA and was dated from the 1850's.  Remarkable.  The owner of the box, some time after it was made, had wedged the newspaper into the lid to hold the mirror when the glue broke.  This dated the box in my estimate to somewhere between 1800 and 1830.  What a journey!  This box must have made quite a journey before it found me.  I put the newspaper back inside the lid.

Over the years, I have worked on the box on and off and replaced some of the missing inlays.  For the ivory, which is difficult if not impossible to acquire, I used 1850's piano keys.  Ebony veneer too, is impossible to find.  I used a false ebony.  It was also missing the escutcheon and the medallion on the top.  Replacing these was difficult.

These had to be hand made.  I purchased a 1 oz .999 silver coin to make them.  I melted down the coin and hammered it out into a large oval blank.  Then, I traced the shape of the medallion and cut a piece of paper to an exact fit.  I applied the piece of paper to the silver blank I had made and etched the shape into it.  Now I began the process of hand filling it into shape.  It took many hours of hammering and filing, but ultimately, I had a piece that was a fairly close fit.  This, I polished and applied to the box lid.  The escutcheon was made similarly and was a very difficult piece to make.  Getting an antique key was simply a matter of going to a locksmith.  They completed it in less than 24 hours and for under ten bucks.

The box is not complete.  There are still a number of small ivory pieces, ebony pieces and the seemingly impossible to fabricate and match pieces of trim on the lid yet to be made to complete it.  And, of course, there is the small matter of making sure that mirror stays put.  It may be that I shove a piece of newspaper in there.  That should hold it! 

After some searching, I hooked up with David at http:\\ to manufacture the trim pieces for the box.  It was a difficult project because he is in Ohio and I'm in MD.  I sent David the specs as best as I could from the sole remaining piece of trim on the lid.  To the right you can see the piece that David fabricated next to the original.  The color, shape and size are close to the original.  The new trim is a bit redder and a bit larger than the original, but with some minor modifications, it should be perfect.  David also kindly tucked some slivers of ebony into the package to complete the missing ebony veneer.

I finally had a chance to add the missing rails and ivory on the top.  I had to alter the color and finish to mimic the finish of an early 1800's wood.  So, now this decade long project is truly almost done.  Only four pieces of ebony remain to be replaced. 


  1. It sounds like you have taken just as much of a journey as this lovely box.