Dan Ingersoll’s handbuilt story box, made from textured slabs and templates.

I taught high school ceramics for 17 years. One of the projects that I liked to give to my students was to write a story about a significant life experience. Once the story was written the students were challenged to create a sculptural carved box that reflected their story and ultimately, would hold their story. 

One year, a freshman Hmong student wrote about her family’s escape from Laos. She shared that it was her grandmother who was the glue that made her feel safe and held the family together during and after their escape to Wisconsin. At the end of the semester, she gifted me her box (shown below). After trying to convince her that she should keep it and her insistence that she wanted me to have it, I accepted her gift and have displayed it in my home for the past 20 years. 

While most of the boxes I make are exercises in playing with texture and form, it is worth remembering that a box may hold many things, even a story. 

Hand-carved story box gifted to Dan Ingersoll to him from one of his students.

Fabricating the Walls 

The first step to creating a box is to determine the size of the box you want to make and locate or cut a wood block of similar size. No patterns or templates are used in this process, rather the block is used to lay out all of the cut lines and then is used to support and maintain the integrity of the form during construction. I use a 2×4×4-inch wood block. 

Roll out 4 pounds of clay into a ⅜-thick slab of clay, and place the block in the center of the clay with the 4×4-inch side in contact with the clay. Next, use a ¼-inch-thick wooden yardstick to lay out and imprint all the cut lines of the wall faces. To do this, place the ruler upright against one of the four faces of the block and gently press it into the clay slab so you leave a thick line that is ¼ inch wide (1). Do this on each of the remaining faces of the block (2). When cutting, you will use the line that is ¼ inch away from the block to size the box so the wood block can be inserted and removed during construction. 

1 Box form cut from a 4x4-inch wooden post with a clay slab and a ruler. 2 Use a wooden ruler to impress layout lines into the clay.

3 Define the outer edges of the box layout using a straight edge for precision. 4 The final layout of the box form show all edges, top, bottom, and sides

To finish the layout, carefully reposition the block so the 2×4-inch side is in contact with the clay and positioned on the outermost line of the layout lines. Trace a line on the slab using the outside edge of the block as a guide (3). This will be one of the sides of the box. Repeat this for all four sides (4). 

Once the layout is complete, use a fettling knife to make straight cuts on the outermost layout lines, which will become the top of the assembled box (5). Next, use a homemade double-bevel tool (a tool that makes a double-sided bevel—see page 20 to learn how to make this tool) to put a bevel in all the remaining lines. The double-bevel tool is set at a 40° angle and designed to only cut ⅔ of the way through the clay slab. This effectively creates a hinge when folding the walls into the box shape. Position the double-bevel tool to cut on the outside line of the ¼-inch lines you made with the ruler impression (6). 

5 Use a fettling knife and a ruler to cut the outer edges. 6 Use a double-beveled tool to create a folding corner joint on the layout lines.

Assembling the Box 

After all the bevels have been made, remove the pieces that will not be a part of the box (7). Score each beveled edge, slip the seams (I use Magic Water), and lift the side walls into place (8). When raising the walls, the beveled seams will make contact with each other short of a full 45°— this is by design. Tip: Use scrap pieces of wood and the original block to force the walls into right angles. In doing so, you create a tightly compressed joint that requires no further work. 

Once the box form has been assembled, lay a fettling knife flat on the top surface of the block and use it as a guide to trim an even top edge. Next, place the assembled box on a slab and cut around it with a fettling knife to create the bottom slab for the box (9), but do not attach it before adding texture. 

7 The completed bevel cuts on the interior lines where the box will be folded. 8 Score, slip, and fold the sides of the box up using your hand or a wooden board.

9 Use the wood block as a guide to square up the top edge of the form. 10 Insert block into the formed box for support while adding textures to the walls.

Next, insert the block into the assembled box (without the bottom attached) and flip it over. Now, with the wood block providing support, roll or impress texture into the five sides of the unfinished box (10). If you use a texture roller and roll it around the box, the clay will stretch, and the corners will distort. Roll texture from the top down to avoid distortion. After texture has been applied, remove the wood block, and attach the bottom. Slip and score the joints and then use a pony roller to compress the seam (11). 

As an added touch, I use an altered Mudtools soft red rib to create a corner bead on all corners by drawing it along the corner seams (12). This also will frame the textured areas. Use great care so you don’t muck up your texture. 

11 Slip, score, and secure the bottom slab with a pony roller. 12 I use an altered rib for compressing and cleaning up the box corners.

Puffing Up the Box 

While the clay is still soft, I like to puff out the sides of the box by blowing air into the closed form. This will give the form a bit of organic energy. To blow the form up, make a small cone, about the size of a thimble, and slip and score it to the underside of the bottom slab. Use a needle tool to make a hole down the center of the cone and into the form. Use your mouth to blow air into the form and once it is a bit puffed up, use your lips to close the hole. Allow everything to stiffen up, remove the cone, refine the surfaces, and make additions such as knobs and feet, and registration marks. 

Adding a Gallery Lid 

Now, it is time to add a gallery-style lid. You can use a gallery lid tool to cut the cover off or an X-Acto knife held at an angle to make this cut such that the top nests into the bottom with also work. (See below to learn how to make this tool.) 

Poke the tool end into the side of the box, then drag it around the form to make a complete cut (13). Separate the two pieces and clean up the edges (14). Allow the entire box, with the lid in place (15), to dry, then bisque fire it. After bisque firing, glaze the form as you see fit. Have fun with the infinite possibilities of texture and form. Maybe you even will have a story to tell. 

13 Cut a gallery-style lid using a custom gallery cutter. 14 Refine the gallery lid edges and make sure there is a good fit between the two pieces.

15 Once the form is completed, slowly dry it with the lid on.

Dan Ingersoll taught public-school art for 30 years with 17 of those years teaching high-school ceramics and sculpture. In retirement, he has also taught an additional 4 years of art education and ceramic courses at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Homemade Upcycled Tools 

Dan Ingersoll's slab-built story box.

There is a lot of satisfaction that comes from making and customizing your own tools from recycled materials. I make several types of tools from worn-out windshield wiper blades (1). Worn-out wiper blades contain a thin, flat, stainless-steel strip that can be upcycled for making all sorts of loop and cutting tools, including a double-bevel cutting tool, a tool for cutting a stepped gallery (for a lid), a tool for cutting handles and other extrusions, and a simple loop tool. The process for making each tool is the same in all cases. 

Prepping the Wire 

Safety first! Secure a pair of safety glasses and leather gloves to protect your eyes and hands during the process. Apply heat with a torch only to a non-flammable surface. 

Begin by using a side cutter to cut out an 8-inch strip of wiper wire. This gives you enough material to hold on to during the forming and sharpening process. Hold the length of wire with your hand against a hard surface (I place it on top of the jaws of a closed bench vise), and use a flat metal file to sharpen a 2-inch section in the middle of the 8-inch wiper wire. 

1 Worn-out wiper blades contain a thin, flat, stainless-steel strip that can be used for making loop and cutting tools. 2 Hold the wire with a plier and heat the sharpened area until red hot with a small propane torch.

Heating and Shaping the Wire 

Hold the wire with a plier and heat the sharpened area with a small propane torch until red hot to soften it and make it easy to bend (2). 

Shape the wire while it is still red hot into a desired tool-head shape using a pair of needle-nose pliers (3). Note that heating the wire strip will leave it soft. To re-harden it after heating, plunge the hot wire into an ice water bath and then remove any excess length of wire with a side cutter. 

The formed wires I make include a loop tool, a handle extruder/cutter, a double-beveled cutter, and a stepped gallery cutter (4). 

3 Shape the wire while it is still red hot into a desired tool-head shape using a pair of needle-nose pliers. 4 Formed wires from left to right: a loop tool, a handle extruder/cutter, a double-beveled cutter, and a stepped gallery cutter.

Connecting the Formed Wire and Handle 

To make the handle blocks, find a piece of scrap wood that fits well in your hand and can hold the formed wire. Use sandpaper to smooth any rough edges. 

In most situations, you can simply drill a hole large enough to accept the formed wire heads and set them with epoxy. To set the formed wire of the double-bevel tool in a wood block, trace the profile of the cutter head onto the block. Position the wire on the block so that it will make a cut that is ⅔ the thickness of your slabs. Make shallow cuts on the drawn lines with a hand saw (5). Once the cuts have been made, set the formed wire in place and secure it with epoxy (6).

5 Make shallow cuts on drawn lines with a hand saw where the formed wire will go. 6 Insert the double-bevel wire cutter, ensure proper fit, then epoxy it in place. 

Using the Tools 

Double-Bevel Tool: The double-bevel tool is used to cut a double-beveled hinge in a clay slab—when making a handbuilt box for example. The formed wire is set at a 40° angle in the wood handle so when the slab walls are brought together (7), they are forced into a 45° angle. This compresses the joint and makes a stronger seam. 

7 Use the double-bevel wire cutter to cut a groove in a wall joint when handbuilding.

Stepped Gallery Tool: I use this tool to create a gallery-style lid. To set the formed wire, drill a hole in the wood block, slide the wire into it, and fix it with epoxy. You can position it at a height that is specific to the form you are making. 

To use the cutter, plunge it into the completed box form and then with reasonable pressure, while it is held tight to the form and the tabletop, draw it around the form (8) to create a stepped cut (9). The initial plunge point leaves a small hole that can be repaired when the cover is removed. Tip: You can place a thin strip of plastic such as Plexiglas or a small plastic ruler between the cutter and the form you are cutting the gallery in to protect the decoration. This moves the cutter head out away from the form so the cutter head needs to be set so it cuts in the center of the slab. 

8 Use a stepped gallery cutter to create a gallery-style lid. 9 The stepped gallery when finished creates two matching grooves.

Handle Maker: To use, start with a block of soft clay that is flat and smooth on the top. Place the tool with the cutter down and draw across the clay block keeping the bottom of the tool in contact with the clay surface (10). By changing the shape of the cutter you can make rims and other decorative additions for sculpture and functional pots. 

10 Use a formed wire to create various styles of extruded/pulled handles.

Loop Tool: A loop tool can be made in all shapes and sizes (11). I like to recycle old paintbrushes for handles on this one. 

11 Loop tools can be formed in various sizes. Old paintbrush handles can be used to hold the formed wire.

In the end, you can save yourself some money, feel resourceful in repurposing discarded stuff, and puff your chest a bit when someone asks, where did you get that amazing tool? Have at it!