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Steampunk Puzzle Box – Part 1

From Antique Cigar Box to Steampunk Puzzle Box

This is the first part of my project to create a Steampunk puzzle box from an antique wooden cigar box. In this first part I go through the step by step process I used. I dismantle the cigar box completely and then putt it back together adding elements in a unique way that requires it to be opened in a specific sequence. In the next parts, I add a secret drawer that also acts a a locking mechanism for gaining access to it. You can see more in the Steampunk Puzzle Box – Part 2 blog here and the completion of the box – Part 3 here.

Page Index for the Steampunk Puzzle Box or back to home page.


The Box

I recently purchased this antique wooden cigar box at a flea market. The cigars had the interesting and fantastic name of “London Whiffs” — very Steampunk if you ask me. For this project I want to create a Steampunk Puzzle Box using this box as the outside, giving it a period appearance and patina. Earlier this year I completed a puzzle box that acted as a prototype for this project. I will be using that basic design here, though some differences will inevitably occur.

This box was in reasonable good shape considering it is over 100 years old.

The box is made from wood with metal hinges and hasp. I found that the bottom still has the tax stamp attached and is dated 1898. Great Steampunk timeframe.

Before I can make my Steampunk puzzle box from this piece I needed to break it down into its component pieces.


Using a heat gun to soften the glue, I remove the wood strips on the top, front and back of the box by gently prying them off while hot. There are several places on the box where these strips were already missing or loose. This makes things easier.

The hinges and hasp are gently removed by pulling the small nails that hold them out of the box. This separates the box from the lid making it ready for the next step.

Using the heat gun I very carefully heat and pry the bottom from the sides. Razor blades are used as wedges to help with the separation.

Box with bottom and top separated from the sides

I now have the box in three pieces, but before I moved on I needed to do some gluing.

Because of its age and construction, some of the layered areas had started to delaminate. Using wood glue, all these areas are glued and clamped.

The box pieces ready for sectioning

So all of the glue joints I need have been repaired and the next step will be sectioning these parts into smaller pieces that will allow me to create the puzzle box in a similar form to the prototype I completed earlier this year.



Slicing the top

Using the table saw, I first cut the ends off of the cigar box top. This cut is along the slots that previously had the wood strips glued into them, making a nice location to make these cuts. If you remember from my last puzzle box, the sides needed to slide up and down in order to open the box and get at the hidden drawer at the bottom.

After cutting the ends off the top piece, the sides also need to be cut.

Cutting the sides

The sides will be cut on the table saw along the same wood strip slots as the top.

At this point the box has been sectioned into all of the pieces I will need to start reconstructing it into the Steampunk puzzle box.

Add Some Glue

Before I can do that, I clean up the inside areas of the pieces. I remove as much of the paper lining that remained as I can with a razor blade.

There are areas of delamination that I find after cutting out these pieces. Again, I apply glue to these joints and clamp them in place.

There was a small cut mark that had resulted from the part slipping on the table saw. I repair this by mixing some of the saw dust with wood glue. This area will be finished more later but this fill-in is fine for now.

The end pieces that will slide vertically need the top end pieces attached permanently. This creates sides that look like the lid is closed onto them. Then when released the right side will slide up and out allowing the center lid piece to be slid to the right. Then the left side can be released and slid upward, revealing the hidden drawer (See Prototype).

And Some Sanding

The edges that had been cut on the table saw have small pieces of the original slot still attached to them.

I sand these areas on the belt sander until they were flush. The painter tape protects the surface while sanding.

The front, back and top are sanded in the same way. Checking with a tri-square while sanding ensures that I keep all the pieces square. In these pictures I’m using some metal blocks as temporary supports so you can see the cut and sanded sections set into what will be the final locations.

Inner Box Pieces


Inner box bottom

As in my first puzzle box, I will be constructing an inner box that the outer one will surround when done. Here 1/4″ thick aspen wood is cut to the right size for the bottom of the inner box. I purchased the aspen at Menards.

In these pictures more pieces have been cut from the 1/4″ aspen for the inner box. Everything has been set in place here so you can see how the inner box pieces will be mated to the outer box. I propped the front and back in place again, this time with the inner front and back also set in place. The false bottom has been set on top of its supports that form the hidden drawer slot.

Inner box with outside shell.

Here I have set the top and one side in place.

Inner box hidden in the outer shell

And here the outer shell covers the inner box pieces in the way they will when the Steampunk puzzle box is complete. There is a lot more to do, but so far things are coming together pretty well. Stay tuned as the work proceeds.

Slides for the Sides

The slides are where the top and side pieces are mounted. The top and sides have slots in them that go over the slides, this allows the top and sides to slide. In my prototype puzzle box I used 1/4 inch wood strips for all of the slides. This worked okay, but required a lot of sanding and waxing to get the pieces to move smoothly. For the Steampunk puzzle box I decided to use brass slides. In the images above I have rough cut 1/4 inch brass square rod to the approximate lengths for the vertical slides.

Here I am drilling and tapping of the slides so each can accept three 6-32 brass tapered screws. These will hold the slides to the inner box front and back pieces made above.

Two, three and four completed slides with the screws for mounting.

Sides Slides Mounted


The slides mount on the vertical edges of the front and back inner box pieces.

Using a center punch the slides are used to mark and drill holes. I am drilling the holes with a #27 drill bit, which provides a snug fit for the 6-23 screws.

The outside surfaces of the inner box front and back need to be smooth so nothing will snag when sliding . I am using tapered screws so the will be flush with the surfaces when screwed all the way in. Using a tapered drill bit I counter sink each hole on the drill so the screws sit flush. When the slides are mounted the outside surfaces will now be smooth.

Side Slides Mounted

Here you can see the side slides mounted to the inner box.

Top Slides

With two sets of slides mounted it is time to move on to the slide for the top of the box. Brass strips have been cut to the rough length needed and can be seen in these pictures

I use the milling machine to trim both top slides to the exact length.

Top slides trimmed to length

We are now ready to drill and tap each top slide so they can be mounted to the front and back pieces.

Tap Tap Tap


As was the case for the side slides, the top slides are tapped to accept 6-32 brass screws. The milling machine is used to first center the brass and then find the edge. Once the edge is found I can move to exact locations along the length of the brass.

Top Edge Slides ready for mounting

At this point all of the slides have been tapped and while the mounting holes for the sides have been drilled, we need to do the same for the top.

Back to the Front


I line up the front and back pieces and clamp them together, then mark the location for the holes. This is the same process I used for the side slides.

Now the holes along the tops are drilled and they will line up with the tapped holes in the top brass slides.

Time to bond some some inner box pieces to the outer ones. I will start with the completed inner and outer front and back pieces. In order to protect the outer side surfaces I applied a layer of blue painter tape before gluing. After applying glue to the inner and outer front and back pieces and I am ready to put the pieces together.

Front and Back pieces bonded

Now I just need to wait for the glue to dry.

Top Slide to the Sides

When the clamps are removed, the front and back pieces are ready for final drilling as the holes are only drilled into the 1/4 aspen box pieces.

Here I use the holes in the aspen to drill the holes all the way through the top of the outer box with a #27 drill bit

The holes are counter sunk using a smaller taper bit and the top slides are ready for mounting.

Prepping the Front and Back

I used a sander to make the bottom edges of the front and back flush after gluing.

The Steampunk puzzle box will have a false bottom. Underneath it there will be a hidden drawer. To support the false bottom I cut two one inch panels. The front and back are marked for the proper location and glue is applied to these support panels.

Clamping the panels and we’re ready to wait for more glue to dry.

The Bottom Prep


An inner box panel is also cut for the outer box bottom piece. The location is measured and some steel plates are used for alignment. Glue is to the applied inner bottom and then it is clamped to the outer.

All set and ready to go.

Putting it Together

When the glue is dry I remove the clamps and take off the brass slides as they will only get in the way for the next step.

In order to make sure everything will align properly and keep everything square I am measuring the inner depth for some temporary spacers that I will use when clamping things together.

Ready to Glue


The spacers are cut to length and set into place. Glue is applied to the bottom edges and the front and back bottoms and then clamped in place.

I use a lot of clamps because the quarter inch aspen I am using tends to want to warp. The clamps force out any warps. In conjunction with the spacers this keeps all the sides of the box square, right and tight

Everything is taken apart the after the glue has set.. In the middle bottom picture the glued box is seen. On the right I have set the top and bottom pieces into place. It’s starting to look like a Steampunk puzzle box.

Protect the Bottom

I am going to be using the numbers on the tax stamp on the bottom of the box for the puzzle part of the Steampunk puzzle box, so I need to protect the bottom from further damage. While I have a break in the action I apply some clear gloss polyurethane in order to do this.

Left Right Left


The inner side pieces are measured to length and the cut on the miter saw.

After cutting to length the left inner side is set in place. I am using 1/4 inch aspen for all the pieces of the inner box. This tends to warp, so to keep the pieces flat I am gluing small strips of wood, to act as braces, across the grain of the wood holding it flat. I know if I used quarter inch plywood I wouldn’t have this problem. I just think this will look more period.

Do the same thing for the left inner side and clamping it in place. The right side isn’t as tall as the left in order to make room for the hidden draw below it.

The Bottom is False

Here, the false bottom is cut to length and a brace cut and glued to the left end. When I get that far the right side is the hidden drawer side and will have a different support to keep it flat. The drawer opening needs to be clear of any brace.

Now the bottom and sides are set in there final places. The Steampunk puzzle box is really taking shape.

Right Inner Side

I reuse the spacers from above, and clamp the right inner side into place every which way I can. Again, I want everything to to remain square and all surfaces to make good contact along the glue joints.

And 5 Hours Later

So the left inner side is glued and set. The box now has three sides, so I guess where half way there. Sort of…

Brass Needs Some Polish

I want the brass slides to be very smooth so the wood can move freely across them. First, I round the end edges slightly with a file so the wood won’t get hung up there. Second, I sand the surface with 220 and then 400 grit sand paper, to get them smooth. Then the outer surfaces are polished with an iron oxide buffing compound and a Dremel.

After buffing the brass out I apply Turtle Wax car wax and allow it to dry. After about and hour I come back and polish off the wax. These brass pieces for the Steampunk puzzle box are done.

The Right Side Bracket

In order to keep the right end of the false bottom flat I made this small bracket piece that mates the inner right side piece to the false bottom.

Let’s Do Some Stain and Varnish


The clamps on the false bottom piece are removed. Before gluing it in place I stain and varnish the area that will be inside the space for the hidden drawer. The area is so tight that it would not be possible once the piece is glued in place.

All the Pieces Fit

When the varnish is completed drying, I glue the false bottom piece into place.

More Stain and Varnish

With the glue dry, it is time to coat all of the inner box pieces with stain. I used the same Min-Wax red oak color for this that was used inside the hidden drawer area. Now I remove the protective tape at this point because I will be applying varnish to those surfaces after the stain drys.

It’s been in the sun about 3-4 hours so the box is ready for a coat of varnish. I’m using Min-Clear gloss fast drying polyurethane.

Box so far

With the varnish applied I just need to let it dry overnight, then a quick sand and a second coat.


Once the second coat of varnish is dry I reattach the brass slides.

Box with brass slides attached

Next up will be finishing the right outer box side. Compare this to the prototype box here.

A Minor Adjustment


Current Right Side Brass Slides

My original thought for the right side of the box was to have the hidden drawer the full width of the inner box. This meant the right side slides could not extend all they way to the bottom of the box. When I added one inch strips to support the false bottom, it meant that the drawer would be a half an inch narrower. This takes a quarter of an inch off each side. So I decided to make new brass slides that would extend all the way to the bottom. These will provide better support for the right side of the box when it slides up and down.

Here I have rough cut some new brass and positioned them next to the slides I will be replacing. On the right I am cutting them to the correct length. The were cut, drilled, tapped and polished just like the other slides above.

In these pictures I am mounting the new brass slides.

New and Old Right Side Slides

Now we are back on track, ready to work on fabricating and mounting the right side.

The Inner Sides


The 1/4 Inch Notch Demo

The inner side pieces will be made from 3/4 inch oak. These sides will have one quarter in notches cut into both sides so that they can slide onto the brass slides we made earlier. Here I am showing how the notch will fit the slide.

The side pieces are cut from this larger piece of 1×6 oak. Once cut to the correct dimensions each piece is marked for the correct location and depth for the notches.

Now for Some Notching

I am using a milling machine with a quarter inch end mill in these pictures to cut the first notch.

Here I am completing the notches in the inner right side. In the bottom picture the inner side has been slid into place and the left inner side is ready for notching.

The left inner side required a bit of sanding and adjustment to get the fit just right.

With the inner sides of the Steampunk Puzzle Box complete, I test them on the brass slides. They work great, so I set the outer sides against the inner to see how things will look.

On to The Top

With the top I plan to have four wood strips cut, two for the front slide and two for the back. Each brass top slide will be sandwiched between two of the strips, with notches cut into both. For the upper pieces. I cut two quarter in strips that will glue into the lid. Before gluing I put a notch along the edge of each of the two upper strips.

Notch in the First Strip

This image shows the first completed strip with the notch cut into the edge.

Upper Strip in Place

I check the width of the notch to make sure it fits into the gap between the lid and the front top brass slide.

Now the second strip is notched. I then mark the location for the completed top strips inside the lid and glue the strips into place.

Strips Glued and clamped.

Glued, clamped and waiting for the glue to dry – again.

After the glue dries I do a bit of sanding to get things to fit they way I want them to.

The Bottom of the Top (slides)

The upper left image shows how the brass slide will be sandwiched between two wood strips on the front and back. These rough cut pieces are ripped to the correct width and then cut to length.

As was done for the top strips each of the bottom ones are notched on the mill. On the right you can see how the top and bottom strips enclose the slide.

The lower strips will be held to the lid and upper strips with screws that extend through both. To facilitate this I’m drilling holes in the lid. I then use a center punch to mark the lower strips. This ensures that the holes I am drilling into them will line up with the holes in the lid.

I will need to cut some brass 6-32 screws to the correct length, but to test the fit I temporarily insert screws the wrong way. This holds everything in place without blocking the opening process. The screws currently are to long for the lid to slide out properly.

Right Side Held Down

When the lid is slid all the way to the right, the bottom parts of the slides pin the right side into place. The tension between the top and side keep everything rigid.

The Outside Sides

Now that I have the top pretty much done I move on to the sides. The outer side facade pieces will be held to the inner sides with four 6-32 brass wood screws in each. In these pictures I am marking and drilling the outer sides. I also pre-drilled the inner sides to help keep the brass screws from breaking off.

With the drilling complete I can screw the outer pieces to each side.

So the sides are now complete and work very well.

Back to the Top (of the Box)

There isn’t a lot of clearance for the screws that hold the top together, so after cutting the screws to the correct length I counter sunk the holes for the nuts and washers. I use a 6-32 brass screw cut to about 29/32 of an inch in length for each hole. This gives enough clearance for the top to slide off without the screws hitting the sides. Each screw is held in place with a washer, lock washer and nut. Attaching the top in this way allows me to remove the top if something inside goes wrong. I don’t want to have a puzzle box that has a puzzle come loose inside and is then stuck closed forever.

The screws are in place and the lid for the Steampunk Puzzle Box is complete… So far..

The Steampunk Puzzle Box Together Again

With the top and sides done I slide everything back together. It’s starting to look like it did originally. The gaps on the right and left sides will be covered with copper or wood strips. I haven’t decides which yet.

Staining and Varnishing

Before I do more with the design, I take everything apart and stain the inner box pieces of the Steampunk Puzzle Box.

After the stain dries I varnish all of the outside surfaces, including the outsides of the top and sides.


After allowing the varnish to dry overnight, I sand the areas that need a second coat and apply more varnish.

The Old Hardware Re-used

Now that the Steampunk Puzzle Box is coming together, I decides to put the hardware back onto the box. Now none of this hardware will function. I am reinstalling it to make the box look like it will open, much like the Faux Lid Puzzle Box prototype.

The lower part of the hasp needs no modifications. Using the original nails I remount this part.

I remove the hook from the upper hasp piece. The function of the Steampunk Puzzle Box requires the top to slide to the side. This hook would catch on the bottom part of the hasp preventing this.

Filing the edge of this hasp piece will make sure that it won’t catch anything when sliding the top sideways. Once filed I install the upper hasp piece back onto the lid.

The hinges will also prevent the proper function of the Steampunk Puzzle Box if they are installed without modifying. The first step is removing the pins from the hinges.

And the Hinges

After I removed the loops from one side of the hinges, they are reinstalled on the lower part of the box.

I take the cut off loop sections and attach them to the hinges again using the pins that I removed before.

The hinge reconstruction is now complete. With the loops separated the lid can now be slid sideways.

Completed hasp

The hardware for the Steampunk Puzzle Box has now been installed and while it looks like a hinge and a hasp, the top can be slid sideways without any problems.

Putting it Back Together


After the staining and varnishing is completed, I put all of the pieces back together.

The Steampunk Puzzle Box is back together

The Steampunk Puzzle Box is really starting to come together. Next I’ll need to cover the gaps on either side of the box, but don’t worry, I’ve had an idea for this since I started the project.

Copper Bands to Cover the Gaps

Copper pieces

These 3/4 inch wide copper strips that are normally used for making large transformers. I am going to use them as copper bands to cover the quarter inch gaps on either side of the box.

First, I cut the side bands for the sides to the correct length. The box is meant too look like the top flips open similar to the prototype, because of this the copper needs a slit where this lid would open. These side bands will only go as far as this slit. Then I cut the top bands, which need to be bent into the proper shape at the front and back of the box. They bend over the side and meet the side bands at the faux opening slit.

The pieces are all cut to length and the top bands bent into shape. In the bottom picture I have set set the copper pieces into what will be there final locations on the Steampunk Puzzle Box. You can also see the gaps in the bands on the front where the faux lid is supposed to open.

And Now for Some Holes

I will be mounting the copper bands to the box with brass screws, so each band is first marked and drilled.

Each copper band has two columns of holes drilled into them. One column will use #4 brass wood screws to hold the band to the wood puzzle b0x. The other column will rest over the gaps in the Steampunk Puzzle Box. In these holes I am going to solder #4 brass screw heads. These screw heads will make it look like the copper bands are screwed to the box on both edges of each band.

Fake Screws

Mounting screws and fake screwhead screws

These are the #4 screws that I will use for both mounting the copper strips to the Steampunk Puzzle Box and creating the columns of fake screw heads. along the inside of each band.

The technique I use for mounting the fake screw heads is to solder them to the copper bands. I use 1/4 inch #4-40 brass screws to do this. I first clean the copper and brass surfaces with steel wool. Then solder flux is applied to both. I then use #4-40 zinc nuts to hold the screws in place. I heat the assembly with a torch and apply solder. The solder will bond the brass to the copper, but will not stick to the zinc nuts.

After the copper cools I first remove the zinc nuts from each screw. Then I use a cut off tool in the Dremel to remove the threaded sections of the screws that stick out from the back of the bands. When done you can see I have the copper band for the front right ready for mounting with a column of fake screws down the inside edge.

I do the same process with the rest of the copper bands.

Copper bands ready to mount

The copper bands are now ready to mount to the Steampunk Puzzle Box. I cleaned the surfaces with some steel wool, giving them just a bit of a shine. I want this to dull over time to better match the age of the rest of the antique cigar box the Steampunk Puzzle Box is made from.

Here I have set the copper bands in place. They are now ready for mounting to the Steampunk Puzzle Box.

And Now We Mount the Bands

I use quarter inch #4 brass slotted wood screws to mount the copper bands. I pre-drill each hole with a 1/16th inch drill bit, then screw each band in place.

In these images you can see the Steampunk Puzzle Box in it’s open condition. On the right the opening for the hidden drawer can be seen. Now the fun begins. I’ll be adding some puzzles that will need to be solved in order to get it open. I have some good ideas for this, so you’ll need to stick around to find out what they will be.

To go to part 2 of the Steampunk Puzzle Box click here. The hidden drawer lock/puzzle.

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