It all started with Mary Robinette-Kowal. She has an old Singer puzzle box that she carries around as a sewing kit, because she is (among many things) an awesome seamstress and a lover of antiques. She brought it out and showed it off, and I immediately fell in love with it. The way the box is designed is elegant and straightforward.
And it's pretty.
First, a little history. The Style box was invented by John Greist when he worked for Singer toward the turn of the (last) century (it was patented in 1889). It was an efficient way to organize all the extra feet and attachments your Singer sewing machine needed to do stuff like ruffling and hemming. It was designed to fit neatly in one of the drawers on either side of a standard treadle machine. Singer never called them "puzzle boxes," but it's a cool name for 'em.
My particular box, which I scored on eBay, is probably a #3 (the numbering is based on the assortment of tools and when it was produced). Later boxes had a spring clasp that kept it shut, and earlier boxes had a small hook that would swing into place in the upper right corner of the box. All that's left of my hook is the little brass brad it used to hook on and a hole where it used to mount. My box came with a random assortment of attachments, but my 1943 Singer probably can't use them. I just wanted the box anyway.
This is the auction photo.
It arrived quickly and nicely packed (thanks, seller!) but smelled like it was over a hundred years old and stored in a barn. There was some corrosion on the tools, it was missing a couple pieces of mounting hardware, and I was absolutely thrilled to get it.
After some ooh-in and aah-ing, I went shopping for supplies, then started planning. I unscrewed most of the mounting hardware and brought out some of my Altoids tins to see how I could use the space. After a lot of rearranging and test closing, I was happy with a layout and grabbed a photo. Since it was 1 in the morning, I figured I'd better label everything while I still thought I knew what I was doing.
Yeah, my writing sucks.
I needed one full-sized Altoids tin, two Altoids Smalls tins and one Altoids Gum tin. That would give me enclosed places to put little stuff (sewing needles, aspirin, etc.) and leave a 6" x 1.5" x 1.5" space in which I could store pencils and other stuff that was a little too big or oddly-shaped to fit in a tin.
I figured I'd have space for a USB drive, phone charger and cable, extra memory card and a USB-A to USB-Mini B adapter (to plug the USB drive directly into my phone), a sewing kit, a tin for aspirin and allergy pills, some Band-Aids, writing utensils, a Zippo, a 3-foot tape measure, keychain light, and a small pad of paper.
Time to get supplies. When I was shopping, the only velvet I could find that wasn't gaudy was a deep burgundy, not the forest green I was hoping for. So to match the burgundy, I decided to use Cinnamon Altoids tins (insert OCD jokes here).
My shopping list:
10 1/4" screws
Hide glue (old school)
Neodymium magnet (1/4" x 1mm disc)
The hide glue was difficult to find locally, but I wanted to use it for two lame reasons: authenticity and thickness. The hide glue is thick enough that it won't soak through the velvet. Since the original velvet had been glued in place, I assumed hide glue was the stuff and I was determined to do the same. The furniture tack and magnet I had lying around, so I decided that would be my new latching mechanism. Sadly, the magnet is too weak and doesn't line up exactly with the tack head, so I'm going to have to order a stronger one. It works, but I want it to work better.
First order of business: get rid of the old stinky velvet. I tried warming it with a heat gun, but no dice. But I was able to peel it up a little, so it was putty knife time.
Ick. That's the magnet on the left edge, there.
I knew I was going to sand it before I glued anything, so I wasn't worried about scratching the wood. I also didn't want to gouge anything, though, so it was slow going.
There they are, the little darlings.
Cut and laid out for width.
I glued from left to right, spreading a thin layer of hide glue with a brush, glueing down one section at a time. I bent the previous section back 90-degrees so I had the right amount of slack at the joints.
By the third section, I realized that I needed to leave at least 1/8" unglued on either side of the seams or the fabric couldn't pucker correctly when the box closed. When glued to the edge, the fabric would get pulled into the seams as the box folded, keeping it from closing. Hide glue is pretty forgiving, and I was able to gently pull it up a little with a screwdriver.
There we go. Posh.
And it even bends around.
Yeah, I used liquid hide glue. I didn't want to fiddle with a tiny double boiler. It still stinks to high heaven.
I let the glue dry for a day, then it was out to the workshop. I laid everything out flat and did another test fit. There was enough clearance for the lids to open, and I did more box opening and closing just to make sure my layout was sound (1 a.m. planning, and all that). I was a little worried at the extra fabric along each seam when the box closed--I'd have to scoot the tins a little farther to give it the extra room.
Good. They still fit.
I knew I was going to be carrying a Leatherman PS4 multitool in this box, and it seemed like I had some extra space on the top lid (the right hand side in the photos). Could I wedge the tool in that space and have it stay?
Yes. Yes I could.
But that introduced a couple new problems. I had to remove the tool completely before I could open the Smalls tin. I also had to open the standard tin in order for the lip around the Smalls lid to clear the lid of the standard tin. That would be a pain, when the Leatherman could just as easily stash in the pencil box or one of the tins. So I scrapped that idea and opted instead for a little breathing room around the tins.
Then I marked where I was going to pre-drill the holes in the Altoids tins. I figured the holes would be a bit smaller than the diameter of the screws, since the tin is pretty forgiving. Later I was glad I did it that way, since the tins on the right hand side (the front panel of the box) had very little clearance and I had to widen the holes a bit for adjustment.
Two holes for the Smalls tins, three for the bigger tins.
I tried to keep the screw holes as far to the edges as possible, since the heads of the screws stick up about 1/8" from the bottom. I didn't want to eat up any more space in those tins than I had to. My original plan was to use 1/4" brass tacks to fasten the tins in place, but that would be much more permanent, and I wasn't sure I wanted to risk splitting the wood. I could have predrilled holes for the tacks, but I figured if screws were good for Singer, they're good for me. I was also more confident the screw heads wouldn't pull through the tin after a while.
I placed the tins on the box and held them in place while I opened and closed it a paranoid number of times. Finally, when I was satisfied, I used a Sharpie to dot the velvet through the holes. Then I grit my teeth and started drilling the 100-year-old antique.
I put a bit of tape on the drill bit so I knew where to stop
before I punched a hole through the box.
One sphincter-clenching drill operation later...
These two tins needed some finessing. There isn't a lot of clearance between them, and I wanted them to open independently without rubbing the sides of the box. The Smalls tin still rubs a little, but I convinced myself it's to make sure it stays firmly closed. The bottom of the gum tin is mottled because it was punched in for some reason and I needed to flatten it out to screw it down (and give me a little more storage room). Altoids discontinued their gum years ago, but Adafruit still sells the tins for some of their projects, with the added bonus that they keep the bottom flat.
I tested the box to make sure it folded well with enough clearance for the tins. I knew it would work after all my paranoid measuring and testing, but I had to do it so I could be all proud of myself.
Since I couldn't find a pencil box the right size (they're all so darn long), I figured I'd use some aluminum sheeting to make myself one. I took some measurements with the idea that any space not taken up by Altoids tins would be home to the pencil box. I wasn't going to screw down the pencil box in case I felt like upending it to find a particular item. It would fit snugly enough that I wouldn't need to fasten it.
Paper first. Plenty of time for mistakes later.
The sides are all 1.75" deep, and I marked the box itself 5 13/16" wide. Don't do this if you're making one--it's 1/8" too long. The paper buckled, so I shortened it when I cut the aluminum.
Once I was happy with how the box fit, I re-traced the paper version onto a sheet of aluminum.
Be careful you don't lose any fingers. This stuff is sharp.
Once it was traced and cut, I figured I'd pre-score the edges so it would fold together without too much trouble. This was an awesome bit of forethought that I congratulated myself for silently as I scored all the seams.
The diagonal scores will tuck the sides under each end,
thus eliminating sharp edges on the outside.
It was also a learning experience, where I found out a Universal Truth.
Don't ever score aluminum. It just snaps when you try to fold it.
Luckily, I have a roll of aluminum tape around, and I was able to put together a Frankenstinian creation that will do the job. So with the slightly shortened, badly folded and ultimately taped-together pencil tray finished, I tried it on for size.
The pencil tray comes up to the top edges of the gum and Smalls tins, meaning that when the puzzle box is closed, the standard tin covers 2/3 of the tray nicely. If I have anything a little taller than the tray (like the USB charger for my phone), I can tuck it under the Smalls tin and have a little extra clearance.
Not too hideous.
And it fit all my basic writing utensils pretty well, with plenty of room to spare for other random stuff that might not fit in one of the tins.
Notice I swapped the two tins on the left hand side. I didn't mean to.
I had some extra aluminum from the bits that broke off my pencil tray, so I trimmed them a little, cut the corners off, and used them as liners for the two larger tins. It covers up the screw heads and provides the opportunity for me to sneak a business card or something under the false bottom. I almost wrote "money," but who am I kidding. I don't have anything like that.
It also covers the rippled bottom of the gum tin.
Then the fun part: filling it with crap. I was happy to discover that all the little stuff I actually wanted to carry in this box didn't fill up the space. The gum tin was empty, I had extra space in the pencil tray and almost half of the standard tin was unused, even with the Leatherman in place.
So I just dug up some junk to fill it.
Half the fun is fiddling with the contents and placement so that it all fits well and is easily accessible. In a week or so, the contents pictured above will change. I'll probably empty out the pencil tray a little (I really don't need a watch or a lighter there), add another color thread to the sewing kit and then wait to see what I might have to add for real.
But for now, I'm just tickled it works.
I still have to swap out the magnet for something stronger, and I'll probably buy a sheet of brass I can use for a nicer pencil tray. I'll taper the top of the next tray in a little on the sides for better clearance when the box closes. Brass will go better with the velvet and cinnamon tins, anyway.
It even still smells like cinnamon. Instead of death.
And that's it. I'm not going to refinish it, since I like the visible mileage it has. I may try to find a tiny hook to restore its original clasp, but I'm kind of hoping the magnet will work to my satisfaction after all.
I hope I haven't horrified any antiques or Singer enthusiasts. The original velvet served well for over a hundred years, but it was smelly and ratty, leaving behind odd furry bits when I touched it. I still have the hardware from it, as well as the blued steel screws (I wanted to find some like them to fasten down the tins, but no dice).
In the end, I glued down new velvet, drilled 12 holes (two were for the magnet and furniture tack) and that's it. The original holes are still there under the velvet if anybody feels like using it as a Singer tool holder in the future. For now, I'll just be hauling it with me as an all-purpose kit for whatever small task I might have.
Your move, Mary!