How To: Box making at the MCBA

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This past weekend I decided it was time to put my learning cap on again, and headed over to Open Book, home of the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, to take a class on box making.

Now box making might not at first seem like an art form, but it only takes a few minutes with instructor Jody Williams’ work to realize that, with the right talent and skill, boxes can indeed become works of art. Her boxes contain miniature worlds, often decorated with prints of drawings she etched herself. The Walker Art Center has several of her works in its collection. You can see close up images of her work here:

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Some of the tools you’ll need to make a box of your own: scissors, cutting board with a measuring grid, ruler, exacto knife (or razor blade), and a bone folder. Other supplies include PVA glue (polyvinyl acetate), a glue brush, and a small awl.

The class took up most of the weekend, running from 9:30am to 5pm on Saturday and noon to 5pm on Sunday. There were six of us in the class – all women – ranging from college age to mid-career to happily retired. A few had been to – or were currently enrolled in – art school, but I didn’t feel out of my league coming to the class with no prior experience.

Most of the basic tools you need for making boxes are quite ordinary. People who work with books or paper will recognize the ‘bone folder’ – it’s used to smooth out paper once it’s been glued to a surface.

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The most important lesson of the class? Measure twice, cut once.

Over the course of the weekend we made three boxes – one with a simple fitted lid, another with a hinged lid, and finally a portfolio box (used traditionally for housing delicate objects or old books in libraries; one of the students was a librarian).

The title of the class was “Box making made easy,” primarily because Jody Williams did a lot of the prep work for us in advance, namely measuring and cutting the board we were using to construct our boxes. Still we did a lot of measuring and cutting of paper ourselves, and learned quickly that it’s easy to get your measurements wrong on the first – and sometimes even second – try. Check and double check!

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My first box, with a simple fitted lid.

It’s also tricky working with glue which affixes and dries relatively quickly. Sometimes we only had a few seconds to get our decorative papers in place on the board, before they were permanently stuck! Some papers (such as Japanese art papers) are resilient enough to be pulled off and re-affixed, but others will shred easily when they’re wet.

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Class participant Donna Nelson shows off two of the three boxes she made over the weekend.

Hinged lids appear simple, but it’s important to space the lid far away enough from the box that it can open and close easily, yet still fit in place. And probably most important of all, the “grain” of the paper needs to line up with the grain of the board box, which needs to line up with the direction of the hinge. That’s so when they paper and board are glued together they form a solid bond, and the hinge can withstand regular opening and closing without breaking. Phew – details!

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Jody Williams stands by – and on – the strength of her work.

Before we knew it, the weekend was over, and we each had successfully assembled three boxes. Many of the students said they were already looking forward to “Box making made hard” despite the daunting name.

Now that I’ve learned the basics of box making, I’m interested in seeing what I might make using the marbled papers I made in a previous class.

  • Sara Horwath

    Impressive. I’m enjoying the “how to do stuff” posts!

  • http://www.greatdiv.com Charlie Quimby

    It’s really possible to make beautiful boxes at these classes. For savers and collectors, there’s nothing better for treasures than a box of your own making. (I made one at MCBA that now contains a beloved pet’s ashes.)

    And click that link to Jody Williams’ work. She is a wonderful artist whose miniatures are delightful and fun to collect.

  • Mary L.

    Jody is the goddess of box making and she *does* make it easy to understand how you can do it yourself.

  • Ann Rosewall

    I have a collection of Jody Williams’ boxes and paper. Every detail is exquisite and designs, inspired.