An old friend from high school wanted a custom wedding card box. But hers had a twist—she was getting married on Halloween, so she wanted it to be in the shape of a coffin. As a woodworker, I’ve made boxes before, but never one shaped like a coffin. It presented some unique challenges and techniques I’d never used before, so I took it on.
The resulting coffin can easily be used as a wedding card box, jewelry storage, or even a creepy decoration for Halloween. It’s stained dark, like the smears of chocolate on my kids’ faces at the end of the night, and lined with red velvet.
Time: 6 to 8 hours
Cost: $50 to $100
1. Design the box. You can draw it on paper, but I designed mine with the free version of Sketchup, a computer-aided design (CAD) software. The trick with this project is making the box big enough to hold a 6-by-8-inch card while maintaining the relative proportions of a coffin.
- Pro tip: By designing in Sketchup, you’ll not only have a to-scale, adjustable rendering of your box before you build anything, but the software will provide all of the lengths and angles. This helps writers like me avoid trying to remember trigonometry.
2. Cut the wood down to size. If you bought wood that’s already the right thickness, cut it to width and rough length (about 1 to 2 inches longer than you need). I did both of these with my table saw—a regular rip cut for the width, and then I used a crosscut sled to cut to length. This approach gives me the most control and precision with my cuts. You can also easily do this with a miter saw. I used reclaimed wood, so I also used my jointer and planer to fully square and dimension the lumber.
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3. Calculate the miter angles. Once the box sides are cut to size, you’ll need to start working on joining them together. The angles you cut on each piece of wood will not be the actual final angle of the joint. They will be half that. When you put the two sides together, they will combine to form the full, finished angle.
That’s not the end of the math, either. These half angles are measured from 0 degrees, but your table and miter saws measure from 90 degrees. So you’ll need to subtract the half-angle from 90 to find the actual cut angle.
Here’s an example: One of my angles needed to be 101 total degrees. I halved that to 50.5. From there, I subtracted 50.5 from 90 to find the 39.5-degree cut angle to set my table saw to. If you have a magnetic angle gauge, you can attach it to your blade to maximize your precision.
4. Cut the miters. I used my table saw for this as well, with a piece of flat wood clamped to my miter gauge. If you’d prefer to use a miter saw, you can.
I started by cutting one side of the board on an angle, then cutting the other at the final length. Sneak up on your final length—don’t try to hit it on your first try. It’s better to leave it a hair too long than too short. When all of your pieces are cut, dry fit them to make sure the shape is correct.
- Tip: Be vigilant about tracking and labeling which piece is which, and what edges go together. I label every joint on the box alphabetically, and cut all the same angles at the same time. It’s easy to lose track of the order if you don’t label and set the saw blade differently if you go back and forth between angles.
5. Prepare to glue. Gluing miter joints can be tricky, particularly if you’re making an odd-shaped box. Painter’s tape can help.
Lay all of your pieces end-to-end on a sheet of plastic or other glue-friendly material like paper with the inside faces down. Quadruple-check that all the pieces are in the correct order and that bottoms and tops are aligned. There’s nothing worse than gluing up a complex box and then realizing one of your sides is backwards… ask me how I know.
Use about 4 inches of painter’s tape on the outside faces of the boards to secure each board to its partner, with the edges of the miters just touching. It’s important to keep them in a perfectly straight line. Stretch the tape just a bit as you adhere it.
- Pro tip: Place another piece of tape along each side of the angle valley (but not in the valley) to catch the glue squeeze-out. This will make cleaning up and sanding later much, much easier.
6. It’s time to glue. Once all the pieces are taped together and you’ve checked (yes, again) that they’re straight and in the right order, flip the whole unit over so the inside faces are up. Squeeze wood glue into each angle valley and spread it with a scrap of wood or your finger, so it coats the entire angle. Then fold the entire unit into the coffin shape, and glue and secure the final joint with one last piece of tape. Double-check that all of your joints are tight and secure, and add more tape as needed.
7. Remove the tape. Once the glue has dried—check the manufacturer’s instructions for how long that will take—strip off all the tape and confirm that everything adhered properly. Then remove the glue squeeze-out with a chisel and an orbital sander with 80- or 120-grit sandpaper.
8. Cut the box top and base. The easiest way to make these pieces is to trace the box onto the wood you’re planning to use. You can just trace the outside if you’re planning to keep a flat base, or the outside and the inside if you’re planning to do an inset base—more on what that means later.
Use the tool you’re most comfortable with, like a circular saw, jigsaw, band saw, or something else. I personally used the Dremel Ultra Saw. Cut to the outside of your traced line—you can always trim the top and base down a bit with your sander or a flush trim bit in your router, but you can’t add wood back on.
9. (Optional) Trace the box walls. If you’re planning to install a fabric liner later on, trace the inside of the box onto your poster board now before attaching the top and bottom.
10. Prepare to finish the box. At this point, you can simply glue your box sides onto the base, screw the top on with hinges, and call it a day. However, I took mine a step further and inset the base. This involves creating a rabbet groove along the outside edge of the base the same thickness as the box walls, and then sliding the box on top of it. This inset gives the entire structure more stability and rigidity.
11. (Optional) Cut the rabbet. The easiest and fastest way to cut a rabbet is with a straight bit router at a router table. Set the bit height to take about a 16th of an inch. Then route along all six sides, increase the bit depth, and do it again until you’ve created a groove about half the depth of the wood. Clean up the edges, and slide your box over the top. It should fit snug but without outward pressure on the joints.
- Tip: If you don’t have a router table, you can cut rabbets freehand with a router or take multiple passes with your table saw, moving the fence an eighth of an inch at a time.
12. Glue liberally, and then clamp until dry. Make sure to apply even clamping pressure along the entire box. If glue is squeezing out of the seams along most of the joint, you’re probably doing well.
- Pro tip: To help with cleanup later, use a wet paper towel or rag to wipe away the glue squeeze-out before it dries.
13. Clean up the glue and start sanding. When the glue is dry, clean off the residue with a chisel, paint scraper, or sandpaper, and sand again using 120-grit sandpaper. Check all of your glued seams and joints. There are likely some small holes or cracks in the glue lines. That’s totally normal.
14. Fill in any holes. Take some of the sanding dust you’ve collected in your sander and mix it with wood glue until you have a paste the consistency of wood putty or chewing gum. Smear that paste into all of the holes and let it dry. Then sand again with 120-grit.
- Note: You may have to repeat steps 12 and 13 more than once, depending on how perfect you want the finish to be.
15. Finish sanding. Now it’s time to sand for real. Sanding is one of the major differences between a good-looking piece and a great-looking piece—don’t skimp. Go slowly, sand evenly, and don’t skip grits. Move from 120- to 150- to 220-grit, and even beyond if you want to, though I rarely do—most finishes don’t adhere well to wood sanded past 220-grit.
Finally, use a wood block with some 220-grit sandpaper wrapped around it to gently round over all of the sharp corners. This will keep kids from poking themselves and reduce the chance of the wood splintering.
16. Finish the box. Once the wood is silky smooth, stain and apply a protective finish. Staining is a straightforward process—each type will have specific instructions. But generally speaking, you wipe or brush it on, let it sit for a few minutes, and then wipe off the residue.
Similarly, follow the instructions on your favorite finish. I typically use water-based polyurethane, at least three coats with very light sanding with 220-grit in between.
17. Install the hardware. Once the finish is dry, drill the pilot holes for your hardware screws and install the hinges and latches. You now have your very own tiny coffin.
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Add a fancy upgrade
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a plain wooden box. But if you want to give your box a fancy flair, line it with velvet. This looks amazing, and isn’t overly difficult to do.
1. Cut pieces of poster board. Make sure they match the bottom, top, and inside walls of your box. Because mine was an odd-shaped box, I traced the inside of the box on the poster board before I attached the base. If you didn’t trace the inside of the box beforehand, you can trace the outside of the box now and subtract the thickness of your sides to find the inside dimensions.
Trim the poster board slightly smaller than the box itself—you’ll need to leave extra room for the fabric. Velvet required that I take about an eighth of an inch off of every dimension. But use some test pieces to find out for yourself.
- Pro tip: For the walls, you can either do one long piece that bends around each corner, or one individual board per wall. I found that a single long piece looked better because there were fewer seams, but individual pieces are easier to manage and fit.
2. Cut the fabric. Grab your scissors and ensure the fabric is about 1 inch bigger than its corresponding poster board piece in every direction.
3. Glue the fabric in place. Using spray adhesive, fasten the fabric to the face of the poster board, leaving those 1-inch overhangs on each side. Make sure the fabric is flat on the board as you glue it—you won’t be able to eliminate folds once the adhesive sets.
4. Finish adhering the fabric. Fold the fabric overhangs over the back of the poster board and stick them there with spray adhesive. Pull these tight to create even, smooth edges.
5. Place the fabric boards in place. They may sit in place on their own. However, you can use hot glue or double-sided tape to hold them. The benefit of these over spray adhesive for final installation is that they can be easily removed if you ever want to change the fabric.
And there you have it. A classy, stylish coffin box for all your spooky needs.
Jean Levasseur is a DIY contributor at Popular Science. He’s an avid woodworker and a stay-at-home parent of twin boys. When he’s not chasing the twins around the house or trying to fix or build something, Jean is a fiction writer, musician, and avid gamer.