Al Ladd  Fine Edge Woodworking

 Custom Jewelry Box Details

I've been making jewelry boxes and cutting boards as my full time livelihood since 1983. From the start, I marketed my work in the national scale wholesale craft shows in Philadelphia and Baltimore, where I competed head to head with the finest handcrafted woodworking in the country. Our niche was the high end of that market. Our work has always been known for its ambitious design and flawless execution. Often my fellow woodworkers, with businesses producing work at 5 or 20 times our production, would walk away from our booth shaking their heads, after telling me they didn't understand how I could possibly be doing the work I was doing and actually make a living at it. I have always challenged myself to do more complex and challenging work every year, and by the time I introduced the inlay banding boxes in 2002, our most ambitious boxes were priced significantly higher than everyone else's. We took large numbers of orders for them anyway, but after working harder than ever before, in nearly our twentieth year of business, we decided there had to be a better way than selling to galleries at half price, competing against shops using mass production techniques, with most or all of the work done by low paid helpers, procedures that wouldn't work for the quality of products we were making.

So we tried turning to the Internet. The first step for us was to buy a computer. Then I learned to build a web-site. We haven't looked back since!

We were skeptical that selling on the web would work for us since people couldn't actually compare our boxes side by side against our competitors as they could in the galleries, to see why they were worth the extra cost. So here's a point by point comparison of our boxes against a couple other American made jewelry boxes, without mentioning names, so you can decide for yourself. Our boxes may be more expensive than some, but you aren't paying a middle man, and by eliminating that 100% markup that galleries and online vendors of others work charge we've reduced the need to cut corners, and we can focus entirely on making the highest quality jewelry boxes possible.

Design: Most other boxmakers design their products to be made quickly, and with most of the work done by assistants. Our boxes start with a design element on the top of the jewelry box that was chosen for its aesthetic qualities, often demanding expensive, hard to find wood, always demanding careful attention to every detail. You won't see other jewelry boxes with the sort of inlays we use, because that would double the prices of their boxes. And we won't cut corners on other aspects of the box, because having started with such a labor-intensive design element, it would be silly to cheapen the jewelry box anywhere else. So our joinery, our finish, our storage details, -- all stand apart from other American box makers Perhaps our closest "competition" are amateur woodworkers, who, like us, are motivated mostly by love of the work. These are woodworkers who pour their hearts into making beautiful pieces for loved ones. If you're lucky enough to know such a person, and they're skilled enough, you might find work that approaches the quality of our products.

Materials: Many of our boxes are made from a combination of solid wood, and veneer cut from the same boards as the solid wood. We do this to make cases that won't warp with changing humidity, so that drawers can be precisely fit. Some box tops, like those in the koa boxes are also built from solid wood glued into patterned blocks, and sliced thin and used as veneer. But this is not to be confused with commercial veneer used by many boxmakers as a fancy wood on top to create visual interest. Commercial veneer is sliced with a knife at a thickness of about 1/40 of an inch. The knife doesn't cut perfectly, and so often obtaining a sanded-smooth finish on many species of commercial veneer just isn't possible without risking sanding right through the veneer. We use mostly shop-sawn veneer, cut to measure a full 1/16" thick after being sanded to perfection. This is thick enough to bevel, and be finished exactly like solid wood, without solid wood's sometimes problematic dimensional change issues.

Finish: Our boxes are finished with handrubbed tung oil mixed with varnish, long understood to be the ultimate finish for fine woodworking. When we were selling at the wholesale show several other boxmakers told me they had switched to sprayed finishes to handle their volume. The difference is especially obvious to the touch. Sprayed finishes may be a bit shinier, but they cover the wood with what is essentially a coating of plastic. We spend a good deal of time sanding to a very fine grit, 400, and so it would be criminal to cover up that sensuously smooth wood with plastic. Our handrubbed tung oil allows you to feel that smoothness, and over the years the handled surfaces will glow with a warm patina that speaks of an object made with love, and handled by human hands. If it becomes scratched it can be easily repaired by readily available Formbys tung oil, simply buffed in with a rag. A spray finish will simply stay plastic looking, or worse yet, may scratch and peel in a manner that can't readily be fixed, except by stripping and respraying.

Drawers: Many of our boxes have drawers, and here is another example of where quality has to be seen and felt to be truly appreciated. Our drawers are joined by dovetails in the front, the time tested superior method of joining a drawer front to its side. Then they're precision fitted into their cases, one at a time, the only way it can be done --by painstakingly removing tiny amounts of material from a drawer made intentionally a little bit too big. Drawers are first sanded until they can slide without binding, and then scraped at the shiny spots until they glide effortlessly. If you've never felt a handcrafted precision-fitted drawer, you've missed out on one of the highlights of the rapidly disappearing world of fine hand craftsmanship

Precision cut dovetails on the front of one of my boxes. The shape of the dovetails directly resists the physical force that opening the drawer imposes on the joint, so it doesn't rely on the glue to hold in together. I cut these with a custom made set up I built myself --no commercially available system is really suitable to cutting dovetails at this scale. The best joint I've seen on competitors boxes is this supposedly "drawer-lock" joint cut with a commercially available router bit. This joint doesn't lock together at all the way a dovetail does, and in fact if it isn't glued well, the action of opening the drawer will cause the joint to open up.

Hardware: I use two hinging systems for my boxes; brass pins hidden in the legs, in my inlay banding boxes, and , in all others, Italian solid brass cylinder hinges. Most of my competitors use stamped steel "kerf hinges" which fit into thin slots routed into the back and lid of the box. I actually use a spring loaded version of the these hinges in my necklace box on the lids of boxes with necklace storage, where the hinges are subject to very little stress, and the oversized slots required to use them don't show. These hinges, though a temptation because of their low cost and ease of installation, are inappropriate for an expensive jewelry box, purporting to embody the best of all materials and techniques. The wholesale cost of a kerf hinge is about 15 cents. The Italian cylinder hinges I use are about $2.00 each.

Lidstays: We use a machined in full length stop on the inlay banding boxes, and either slotted ebony lid stays we make ourselves, or $15 a pop solid brass sliding lid stays. One of the reasons that my competitors use the cheap kerf-hinges is that they can also use the hinge as a lidstay by placing it such that it also holds the lid open. This means that the weight of the lid is putting pressure for the hinges (which are glued in this case) to pull out. I don't like the idea of relying on the glued in hinge to resist that force.

Joinery: Our boxes are built with fine furniture quality joinery. The inlay banding boxes feature mortise and tenon joints joining stretchers to legs, and biscuits joining the legs to the panels. My mitred boxes have butterfly splines from just below the top panels all the way down, for an unmatched strength and beauty. Our pin hinged smaller boxes use precision through dovetails.