My First Project: A Box

I’m building a modular synthesizer. Modular synthesizers are comprised of many discrete “modules” that generate, shape, or otherwise modify analog signals. These signals might be within the audible frequency range, meaning if you hook an amplifier or headphones into them you will hear sound, or they can be above or below the audible range and work as “control signals” which can interface with other modules to change how they shape the signals passing through them. There are a lot of signals, and there is a lot to learn about audio synthesis. There are a lot of youtube videos to explore the basics of modular synthesizers if you want to learn more.

This isn’t a blog post about modular synthesizers. This is a blog post about a wooden box. The wooden box pictured above is one of the first projects I’ve worked on at the Makerspace, and it’s the first wood project I’ve worked on since making a wooden trinket in shop class in high school. If I actually used a table saw back then (or any power tools), I have no recollection of it. I’ve always been more adept with a keyboard, mouse, or soldering iron than power tools, but I have been trying to expand my horizons over the years. Still, this was a more ambitious project for me than soldering together the electronic modules contained within.

The plan

Designing the box
Armed with a little bit of knowledge from the woodshop training (Thanks Steve!) and some mounting hardware to define the inner dimensions of the box to be, I went to work. I fumbled around with the “rails” which the modules eventually are mounted to, lining them up with some scrap plywood, marking things, measuring, deciding how the pieces will have to align so the front and sides look clean and consistent. I drew a diagram. A really bad diagram, but a diagram nonetheless. This diagram contained all the information I wasn’t going to rely on myself to remember. It’s pretty scrappy, and reviewing it now barely makes sense, but at the time it was enough to convince me that I was ready to start cutting wood.

Cutting the wood
I’m not going to lie, the prospect of using the table saw for the first time was a little out of my comfort zone. I once again put some time into watching videos and learning more about safe table saw operation. It probably looked silly, but with the saw powered off I rehearsed the movements I would need to make to cut my plywood to size. After a few such rehearsals, adjustments, and different configurations of where to hold and push the board to achieve the movement I needed, I was feeling pretty good about my first cut. I am typing now with all 10 fingers, success! By cut 3 or 4, I was cutting with confidence. The compound miter saw made the rest of the cuts after I had my plywood at the correct height for the 4 sides of the box.

Checking the dimensions

I aligned all the pieces of my box, tested that my hardware would fit, and to my surprise everything lined up… approximately. I made a few minor adjustments, tested, and knew it was now time to attach everything together.

Pocket hole details

Joining the box
I watched some videos a couple of years ago about pocket hole joinery, and thought maybe it would work for this project. It has the benefits of leaving the exterior faces of the box clean from screws, and also creates a very strong joint. What appealed to me the most about the process though is the involvement of a pocket hole jig. The pocket hole jig allows you to clamp your wood in place, and then helps guide a drill bit into the face of the wood to make holes for screws. Once the holes are drilled, you simply clamp two pieces of wood together and put a couple of screw through them. This was great for a beginner since everything I needed came with the jig kit, the appropriate drill bit, screws, and instructions. I did a few tests on some scrap wood and found that going very slowly was the key to getting a clean screw hole in the plywood. The process was pretty fool proof since the jig ensured screwing at the correct depth and angle. It made very short work of joining the box together.

The enclosure and the pocket hole jig.

Finishing the box
At this point, I considered the box to be mostly done and was ready to write off my first wood shop test as a success. I was happily noodling around with my electronics, and I built a little confidence in myself to make bigger and better things down the road. After a couple of days with the enclosure I started to notice the plywood chipping at the ends and that it was awkward to carry around. I decided to finish the box to protect the wood and add a handle to make it easier to carry. The faux-leather handle was easy to source on ebay by searching for “guitar amp handle,” but similar to cutting and joining wood the concept of applying a wood finish was foreign to me.

Left side: unfinished plywood. Right side: Danish Oil (Medium Walnut)

I did some searching for beginner friendly wood finishes and found a general consensus that Danish oil is a very easy to apply and attractive finish. Danish oil can be applied rather haphazardly, a couple of times if necessary until you reach your desired color, and doesn’t require any additional sealing. I watched a couple of videos, but ultimately just went with the instructions on the Watco cannister I bought at Home Depot.

Staining in the paint room

I sanded the box by hand and then brought it into the paint room to apply the oil. I did a quick test on the inside of the box, and determined I was OK with how the oil interacted with my plywood. I did a couple of applications on the rest of the box and when I was happy with the look I wiped it dry with some rags I bought from the same section of Home Depot that I found the stain. 24 hours later, the box was dry. A few holes in the top with the drill press and the handle was on in no time!

I hope to build a bigger enclosure for my synthesizer, since this one is already full! It only took a few days to complete the enclosure, and I’m sure I could recreate it with half the effort using what I learned during the process. Sure, I could have spent some time at the belt sander to get everything flush, and if I would have finished the piece right away before carrying it around without a handle I might not have ended up with chipped edges, but overall I’m very happy with the final result! I’ll definitely be making more things out of wood in the future.

Being able to acquire skills that help you push your interests into new directions is one great thing about the Makerspace. I never would have attempted this project without having access to the equipment in an environment where I could work through things at my own pace whenever I could find the time or inspiration struck me. There are always other people around willing to offer advice if you get stuck on something, and since everyone is there to learn and build things, everyone benefits from helping each other out with whatever knowledge they bring into the space.