Build a stair storage box

This clever step-hugging box collects all that stuff for the next trip up or down the stairs


Photo by Dave Starrett

I have to admit that when I was asked to design and build this project it struck me as odd. Why would anyone want a junk box at the bottom of the stairs? Just as I was wondering about the judgment of project director Paul Lewis, I noticed my wife, Jill, arms filled with stuff, on her way upstairs. That’s when I knew we could use one of these things after all.

There are important details to think about when designing a project like this. Size, weight and shape spring to mind, all of which are practical issues. That’s why this project struck me as being more about utility than aesthetics. Sure, it needs to look good, but if that’s all it does, the project is a failure.

I have a pretty good stash of old pine planks I’ve pulled from our house, so I decided to use some for this project. I also decided it would be a great opportunity to introduce you to hand-cut dovetails. They’re much easier to cut in soft wood because too-tight parts still interlock fairly well.

I would have liked to build the stair box with standard 3/4″-thick lumber, but in the interests of keeping weight down, I opted for 1/2″ material. If you don’t have a thickness planer, consider visiting a friend who does, or plane your stock down by hand. The pieces aren’t large and you’ll have no trouble if you choose relatively knot-free wood. Before you cut the sides and ends to length and width for both the bottom and top box, measure the rise of your stairs. My design is ideal for stairs that rise 9″, though that’s easily adjusted by varying the height of the bottom box.


Hand-Cut Dovetails

If the idea of hand-cut dovetails scares you, relax. This project works just as well with any corner joint imaginable. Even butt joints are fine as long as they're reinforced with biscuits or dowels. It's just that dovetails, especially hand-cut ones, look so good. And that goes a long way on a project like this that sees use every day.

If you're taking the dovetail plunge for the first time, start practicing on scrap pine. The plans show what different dovetail terms mean, if you don't know. You might find it easier to think of dovetails as nothing more than ordinary finger joints cut on an angle. That's all there is to it.

The dovetailing process begins with a marking gauge used to scribe lines all around the ends of each board. These lines need to be 1/16" farther from the board ends than the thickness of the wood involved, and this is an important detail. This extra bit of wood lets the pins and tails of the dovetail joints extend beyond the box after assembly, allowing them to be trimmed flush with the sides and ends after final assembly.

As you work, realize that the exact position of pins and tails can vary, depending on what you think looks good. That's true for every place except one. Take a look at the joint between the top and bottom box. The c here are located to conceal the joint between the boxes. You may also want to space out the dovetails wider at the tops and bottoms, offering a bit of visual interest--and to let people know these are hand cut after all!

I normally cut the tails portion of a dovetail joint first, but in this case I decided to start with the pins, just to see what it was like. Either way works, so it's up to you. I cut the pins using an old British backsaw that a friend lent me. It's beautiful, tracks perfectly and made this part of the work a breeze. If you're buying a saw specifically for dovetailing, consider one with a Japanese tooth pattern. Although not traditionally used for dovetailing, Japanese saws work wonderfully.

After sawing all the kerfs down to the lines marked earlier, I cleaned out most of the waste with a coping saw, then switched to a chisel for final preparation. Although pine is good wood to learn dovetailing on, it demands superbly sharp chisels, even more than hardwood does. Anything less causes tearing of wood fibres.

Assembly instructions

With the pins cut, I lined them up against the previously scribed lines so I could mark the corresponding tails with a pen knife. This way any errors made in cutting the pins would be automatically compensated for in the tails. Just be sure to mark mating halves of each dovetail joint uniquely, so they can be reassembled properly with their mate. With the tails marked, it's back to the backsaw, coping saw and sharp chisel. After all the dovetails are cut, dry fit the top and bottom boxes, then stack them to check the fit. You may find a little hand planing necessary to get the boxes to align perfectly when stacked. When all fits well, take the dovetails apart and cut slots for the bottoms. I used a router and a 1/4"-dia. bit for this. Pretty standard, really, just cut stopped dados 1/4" up from the bottom edges of both boxes.

I like traditional design, and that extends to the bottoms used in this project. They're solid wood, with grooved edges that mate with grooves cut in your dovetailed masterpieces.

Cut the bottoms now, then try another dry-fit again of all the parts under clamping pressure. You'll find that this project stays together quite well without glue, though you should use a little anyway. After the glue has dried, trim off the excess pins and tails that stick beyond the box face, using a sharp chisel or low-angle block plane.

I used half-round trim and simple pine moulding on the top and bottom edges of the project, to add elegance. There's room for your own interpretation here, so add what you like.

The handle is positioned to be as practical as possible. You can hold the rung anywhere in your hand that's necessary to distribute the weight, then fold the handle down to make it easier to fill the box between trips up or down. I made the uprights out of hard maple for strength, each one swiveling on a single screw driven into the ends. A piece of 3/4" dowel forms the handle rung, pinned in place with a small brad.

The finish

I decided to use a historically accurate milk paint for this project. The staircase exits into my kitchen, which has dark slate-coloured cabinets. That's why I chose Midnight Blue milk paint from Homestead House Paint Co. (877-886-5098), covered later with a coat of paste wax. Mix one part paint powder with two parts water in a mason jar, then shake like you're making a Martini. Let the bubbles go away (it takes about 45 minutes) and brush it on. Add another coat, then rub down with a blue 3M Scotch-Brite pad when it's dry.

Tools & Materials

Part Material Size (T x W x L*) Qty.

For the top box

Sides pine 1/2" x 5 3/8" x 16 1/8"** 2
Ends pine 1/2" x 5 3/8" x 6 1/8"** 2
Bottom pine 9/16" x 5" x 9 5/16" 1
Trim pine 1/2" x 7/8" x 60" (total) 1

For the bottom box

Sides pine 1/2" x 7 1/8"-long* x 8 1/2"-high 2
Ends pine 1/2" x 6 1/8"-long* x 8 1/2"-high 2
Bottom pine 9/16" x 6 1/2" x 5 17/32" 1
Trim pine 1/2" x 7/4" x 36" (total) 1

For the handle

Uprights maple 1/4" x 1 1/4" x 3 1/2" 2
Rung maple 3/4" x 3/4" x 15 1/16" 1
**NOTE: 1/8" has already been added to the dimensions for a pin/tail allowance

* Length indicates grain direction

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Build a stair storage box

Illustration by Len Churchill

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