Art and Artefact

It’s a box within a box within a box - what could be better?

Creativity 3 min read Sep 25, 2019

If you’ve ever wondered about the household broom, circular saw, and wooden clothespin (because who hasn’t?), you have only the Shakers to thank. The 19th-century sect’s followers in America are credited with these inventions and more, and are also well-known, not so much for their religious beliefs, but for their impeccable sense of craftsmanship.

The Shakers were part of the Arts and Crafts movement, and their designs - from their architecture to their furniture - had a trademark minimalist and functional quality. Now a dying breed (they were staunch practitioners of universal celibacy, after all), they used to make a good living out of selling their handcrafted works, including one of the more familiar artefacts of their folklife: the iconic bentwood boxes.

Simple in design and yet high in utility, bentwood boxes were created specifically for community use and fashioned to hold everyday things, from tea and buttons to herbs and grains. Today, Shaker boxes are used more as decorative items, appealing to collectors and crafters alike. See how easy they are to store, with smaller boxes stacked within the larger boxes, much in the style of Matryoshka dolls? For woodworkers, they pose a fun crafting challenge. No advanced skills required, they can be built using only the most basic tools. Love.

Your basic bentwood box is made up of two bands - one for the main body and another for the lid - and two flat pieces for the top and bottom of the box. That’s it! What does demand some mastery is the bending of wood. Choice of material is important here; the best wood to use is straight and even-grained, in order to avoid splitting during the bending step. And then, to make them more pliant, the two band pieces need to be softened by either boiling or steaming, and then wrapped around the flat pieces to assume their oval shape.

The wood tends to acquire its own patina as time goes on; and so, subscribing to Shaker tradition, some makers may prefer to leave their bentwood boxes au naturel. Others, however, like to apply lacquer, varnish, shellac, or other finish, to keep the form intact and protect it from constant use. To colour or not to colour? That’s entirely up to you; but then, we had you at Matryoshka, didn’t we.

Make Like a Shaker for a Day!

Shaker Bentwood Box Size 1, 2 & 3

Presented by Matt Stonehouse