Thursday, May 31, 2012

DIY: Ammunition Packing Box (Lots of photos)

We Civil War/WBTS reenactors are lucky in that much of our gear can be made by hand, unlike other time periods in which reproductions or very rare originals are the only way to go. (Example: factory folded or welded metal ammo boxes for WWII or Vietnam)  Just about everything in the mid 1800's was made from natural organic materials; such as cast iron, wood, rope, leather or animal hide, wool or cotton, which were found virtually everywhere and could be shaped or constructed cheaply and by hand, most without the aid of machines or factories.

As a hobby, this means we can make our own stuff for cheaper than sutlers will sell it. Think about it.  There's a lot of potential of fun hands-on projects for Do-It-Yourselfers.

If you're a more conscientious reenactor, you notice a lot of non-period things people bring with them to reenactments.  Things like big plastic bins from Wal-Mart to hold their accouterments, or coolers under wool blankets.  It would make sense that the more time period-appropriate containers you have for 19th century reenacting to carry stuff in, the less stuff you have to carry back to your car or try to conceal in your tent once your camp is set up. 

Well, there are ways to replace or otherwise conceal these modern items with more appropriate objects that would actually be seen laying around a military campsite in 1862. Mainly, lots of big hardtack ration packing crates and smaller ammunition crates.  The ammunition boxes of the 19th century were made of wood; the most readily available resource in the heavily forested American frontier.  Ones made by the Northern arsenals were painted different colors to indicate the type of ammunition packed inside them, and boxes from the Southern arsenals usually were not, because they were short on everything and paint was expensive and not always necessary.  In any case, they were stenciled (by hand and with white paint) with the rough number of rounds in the box, the type of shot, and the arsenal it was shipped from; and in some but not all cases, the month and year it was packed.

A good and common example of what they said would be 1000 CARTRIDGES, CALIBER .58, MINIE BALL, FRANKFORD ARSENAL, 1862.  Most infantry rifle round boxes from the Union were painted either an approximation of the 20th century camouflage "olive drab" color, blue or red in the case of artillery cannon shot.

go here for some examples of real and reproduction crates:

For a little while I had fancied having one of those wooden ammunition crates of my own. I think they lend a certain ambiance to a living history campsite, and after all there were plenty of these present in actual camps, as we have photo evidence to prove it.

There were always lots of these things laying around, stacked up in most cases, occasionally used as furniture.  It certainly looks better than lots of bulky objects draped with blankets or burlap bags.

I succeeded in making my ammo crate with the help of a downloadable PDF instruction guide from the 2nd North Carolina Mounted Infantry website, which can be obtained at this link. (rhetorical question--how is Mounted Infantry different from Cavalry? Judging by their photo they look just like regular cavalry. Hmm.)

For some people this is enough, but if you're like me and you need to see how to do things visually, then...this blog is for you.  I took a photo of each step in the box construction process and will illustrate my own walkthrough with these photos.

Ready to build?  Here goes!

First, you have to obtain the lumber you need to construct the box.  Being a handyman, I hoped my Dad would have all the scrap lumber I would ever need to build anything.  Well, he had everything except what I needed.  The instructions call for pine wood with a fairly straight grain and no knots, being easiest to cut.  Lumber at that time as far as I know would have been milled and machine cut anyway.  So if you live on the East coast, your best bet would be a big box home improvement store like Lowes or Home Depot.  The staff at these places of business are generally pleasant and helpful and you shouldn't have much trouble finding what you need.  These instructions call for certain widths and lengths of lumber, which the 2nd NCMI guide lists for us:

6 foot – 1x6 inch pine board
3 foot – 1x12 inch pine board
2 foot – 1x2 inch pine board

Now when I went to the store, being not as experienced in construction, I realized that you will never be able to find stock lumber with these measurements.  The boards were labeled "1x6" for example, but they weren't 1 inch by six inches!  They were always 3/4 of an inch by 5 and 3/4 inches.  I had a moment of illogical panic as I was trying to build this on Memorial Day weekend and all the real lumber yards were closed, so I couldn't get boards custom milled to these exact measurements.

But then somebody who wasn't clueless explained that these measurements are nominal measurements.  They refer to the size of the rough boards cut at the sawmill before they are planed down. It's an industry standard that I suppose existed in 1860's as well as now.

A table showing the nominal wood sizes and their actual sizes is below.


So for the not quite so handy, this means what we're looking for is 6 feet of 3/4" x 5-1/2" pine board, 3 feet of 3/4" x 11-1/4" pine board, and 2 feet of 3/4" x 1-1/2" pine board.  These are pretty standard sizes.  The only thing you'll have trouble with is getting that precise length.  Most stores only sell it in 6 foot, 12 foot and longer lengths.  Typically, if you ask, employees will generally be able to cut this to the desired length for free, making it easier to fit into your car and saving you money.  I ended up going to Lowe's and buying smooth, knot-free, high-quality lumber known as "Select Pine" and spent no more than 35 dollars on it.

Oh before I forget, here is a rough list of the tools you need.

- Claw hammer and finishing nails at least one inch long
- wood or rubber-headed mallet to bang some stuff together
- workbench vise (recommended but not required. I find it helps hold the box steady when I hammer or drive stuff into it)
- 6 slot-headed wood screws, about one inch in length
- 4 antique cut iron nails (can be found at antique stores--these are optional for added realism)
- Coping saw, small hand saw with a very thin fine toothed blade for trimming work
- larger wood hand saw, electric saber saw, or table saw for big straight cuts. Make sure the teeth are straight and in line so they don't rip the wood.
- chisel or big slot headed screwdriver to break off small pieces of wood
- electric or hand drill, with bits the same diameter as screw threads.

So once you have the boards and have gotten them into your garage, basement or work area, you cut each board to the determined number of pieces and lengths.  You could even have this done for you in the store, but I used a table saw.  I'd recommend doing it in the store.

Out of the 1x6 board, make two pieces 14 ¾ inches long and two pieces 10 ¾ inches long.  This should pretty much use up the 1x6 with one length remaining to make a new piece, should you mess up. (which I did)

From the 1x12 board, cut two pieces 14.75 inches by 10.75 inches. This will be the lid and bottom of the box.

Then, cut two pieces off the 1x6 the same length as the width of the box, 10 3/4 inches. These will be the end handles to pick up the box with.  Save the rest of that board for later.

Refer to Page 4 of the PDF for this next part. This will be the most time-consuming part of the whole box.

Then, you must cut joints on either end of each of the side boards so they fit together. I've seen some of these simply nailed  or glued together on the ends of the boards, but the accurate 1860s way to do it is a simplest dovetail joint. They mesh together like teeth or Waffle Blocks, if you remember those plastic things you or your kid played with as a toddler.  The best way to do this is draw the lines in pencil where you cut before cutting it.  Copy the design on page 4.  I found it helps to draw an "X" through or color in the chunks of wood to remove, because if you mix this up and cut out the wrong pieces, the boards won't fit together and you need to buy some more lumber and repeat the whole process.

Here's how I marked my boards once I got them cut down to size.

The X-ed out areas will help you, trust me.

The best tool to use for this next part was a special hand saw my Dad bought at a hobby store before they went out of business. You can see from the picture below it has a few different blades which screw on to the handle.  It even came with a tiny miter box! The blades are almost as thin as paper or thin cardboard, and have tiny, very fine teeth. I don't know what this saw is called, my guess is it was meant for sawing wood picture frames. But something similar to this will help you make the clean, smooth cuts you need with a minimum of filing or sanding afterward.

So,  next I clamped the first board in a vise  and began to carefully and slowly cut into the parts of the wood I had marked as "cut these parts away" with the frame saw. 

The way they probably did this was make a lot of cuts side by side into the area to be removed, so it ends up looking like a wooden comb... like so.

Then, take your chisel or big slot headed screwdriver and start pounding away on the handle to chip and break or pry off the comb pieces you just made.  This part isn't easy but it's the way it was done. Making more comb cuts closer together with the saw makes them thinner and easier to break off.

 When you're done doing this and cut the appropriate notches  (hopefully without slipping and hurting yourself) you should have quite a bit of these small wafer-like pieces of wood.  Hold on to these and don't throw them out just yet. You'll see why later.

Then  when you get the first cutaway done, depending on how good a job you did breaking off the comb, you may have a very rough splintery cut like this one below.  I almost guarantee it won't be smooth.

This can be easily fixed by using a rough or coarse wood file and rubbing it back and forth vigorously to smooth it out (don't get too excited now).

 When you finish it should be much smoother. be sure you don't shave off too much of the wood or it could widen the gap and make the sides of the box not fit together as well. You should have a nice clean cut like this one below.

 Then, repeat this process another 13 times until you have the toothed joints the pattern calls for. This took me a good couple hours to do, and my hands got so tired from all that sawing, hammering and filing I had to take a break.  This part is the hardest part without a doubt.  I can't imagine getting paid one nickel an hour or less to make dozens of these boxes in a woodworking shop, but I'm sure people did that for the Army.

Congratulations. You just taught yourself how to make homemade Waffle Blocks out of wood for your kids!  

(Here's a visual of what Waffleblocks are. Little Tikes used to make them out of molded plastic, I dunno if they still do. I used to build stuff with them a long time ago.)  

...Okay, after you pulled all the splinters out of your hands and took a break, maybe to go dig out and play with your Waffle Blocks... now for the really fun part--fitting the walls of the box together.

I almost guarantee that no matter how well you think you measured or traced those teeth and carefully cut them out, they won't fit together as neatly and perfectly as you'd hoped.  In my case I had gotten a little carried away with the filing down, and made the gaps between the teeth too big. So when I fit the corners together they would leak like a sieve.

Remember the wood chips I told you to save? This is where I found they come in handy!  Use them as little wedges to fill in the gaps. You should have a lot of sizes to choose from, thick and thin ones. This is a byproduct of the chipping process. Pound them in with the rubber or wood mallet until they're flush.

After you do this, you'll find out your box corners will be very strong and probably won't need glue or nails to hold together.  This is true resourcefulness which our 1860s ancestors would have no doubt used whenever they could. Remember they threw nothing away, only recycled if they could help it!  I imagine that even the sawdust from cutting the boards would be used as packing material for shipping other items.

 I was able to get some of the other corners to fit better by rotating the pieces until they worked, since every joint fit together differently.  When I found a corner that worked well, I marked it with a number, like so.

Okay, so after hopefully a minimum amount of cursing and bashing your fingers with the mallet, you should have a neat box with tight-fitting corner joints. If you're worried about them splitting you can hammer in 2 or 3 finishing nails to the edges of the joints to hold them. I wouldn't recommend wood glue or screws because the glue makes a mess and the screws could splinter your nice knotless pine wood.

Now boys and girls, it's time to assemble the box. The last thing you should hopefully have to cut if you did all this right are the handles.  This is where the rest of the 1x6 board comes in.  Cut two lengths of it the same length as the short sides of your box. If you look at the photos they go all the way across. To avoid snagging your expensive wool pant legs on these, everybody recommends beveling the small ends of these simple handles at no less than 20 degrees and no more than 45 degree angles.  There are various ways to do this, you could use a miter box or a chop saw, or a table saw with a variable-angle blade if you have one. You can use a hand saw too but I almost guarantee you won't cut straight or level. Every time I used a hand saw to cut this wood it didn't come out square.

This guy's walkthrough said to attach the handles with screws countersunk into the wood, but the best way to do it is with finishing nails hammered flush with the surface. Put something like 4 finishing nails, evenly spaced, across the handles. Hammer them in gently with the claw hammer.

So then the next step is attaching the bottom floor to your box. Take one of the roughly 10 x 14 inch pieces and line it up on the bottom of the box after you flip it upside down. It probably won't be the perfect dimensions you thought, so you may need to trim off a bit from the edges.  It should be flush with the bottom edge of the side walls.  A finishing nail in each corner should do the trick. If you fid out the bottom of the box is slightly warped which could happen (it did to me) put 2 or three nails in each corner. Hammer them in at a slight angle to make them grip tighter and not pop back out.

 The heads of these nails should not poke out and will be easily painted over. no one will ever know they are there unless you tell them.

 Alright! so flip it back over and you have yourself a neat box without a lid.  Now to make the lid.
Ammo box lids were tightly screwed on and not nailed on to prevent tampering or sabotage, most likely. When the time came to open them once they were delivered to the field, someone would have the appropriate tools to open them.  They also had to be sealed tightly to prevent the cartridges and gunpowder from getting wet.  We will probably want to get into our ammo boxes, because we will keep our gun cleaning kits or drink bottles or cell phones, flashlights and whatever else in them.  So now we will follow the instructions on the page below, for making the lid.  Notice the shaded areas are where you attach the blocks of wood to the underside, to keep the lid from sliding off the box. The blocks say they are 1 and 3/4 inches by 9 and 1/4 inches on the drawing, but for the best fit, measure the inside of your box. I attached these with finishing nails which weren't long enough to go through the top of the lid but long enough to hold them on. This is the inside which in most cases we don't let the public see, unless you plan on putting real packed cartridges in this thing.

 For added realism, make the box lid look like it's screwed on by driving in slot-headed screws with flat tops, not round ones, and make the tops of the screws flat against the surface. Then, flip the box over and saw off the protruding threads of the screws with a hacksaw. If you don't have a way to cut the screw tips off, you can alternately pound the lid on with the mallet, then pry it off again with the claw hammer and you will have neat little holes poked into the tops of the box walls where the screws went in.  Enlarge these holes with a slightly bigger drill bit, and then the screws will sink into them when you replace the lid, further helping the lid to stay on and aligning it properly.

Note: use SLOT HEAD screws, because PHILIPS HEAD screws weren't patented until the 20th century! Henry F. Philips, the man this hardware is named after, wasn't even born until 1890! Don't believe me? Look it up.  Philips head screws weren't seen in anything until the early 1940's. The design was patented between 1935 and 1937.

I used some old 3/4 inch long slotted screws that were rusty. This will make it look like the box wasn't built yesterday and has maybe seen some exposure to the weather from outside storage.

If you did everything right, the lid should drop in and be just snug enough not to fall off. It may slip around a little, this is okay.  
HUZZAH! the box is done.

Now if you're a Yank like me, you want to paint your box.  I found examples of boxes that weren't painted inside, or given a coat of white primer inside, or painted one color inside and out.  I'm painting this one my favorite color: Army Green.  For this, I recycled an old paint mixture I had left over from reconditioning a World War II soldier's foot locker.  Who knows if it's the right shade of green, it looks like it could be. If it turns out to be wrong I can always mix up a new batch. No big deal.  The original paint has no doubt faded on the real cartridge crates; I imagine it was originally darker green.

I used a quick-drying paint that was ready to be handled in about an hour. Also bought at Lowe's.

 Then for the final finishing touch.  I had a handful of cut nails from somewhere in the basement.  These are the oldest kind of nails used to hold wood things together. They date back to colonial times and are made of iron.  Who knows where these nails came from.  Maybe they were from my Grandma's house which dated back to 1837.  Maybe they were my great-great grandpa's nails.  who knows.  They can be bought at reenactment sutlers, or if you get lucky an antique shop that sells really old tools.

 The 1861 ordnance manuals say that the handles of wood ammo crates are held on by two of these heavy iron nails, clinched on the inside of the box.  Now from past experience working with these nails, I know they have no point at all to them and on top of that are wedge-shaped, and will split your wood right in half if you pound 'em straight in.

So I relieved the strain on the wood first by pre-drilling holes with a drill bit almost as wide as the nail in diameter, maybe an eighth to a quarter of an inch thinner.  After doing this the cut nails slid right into the box handles and looked really good.

Your box is DONE! 

Now go have a cold beer and figure out what sort of things you can put in this handy dandy box. I plan to use it for my gun cleaning supplies, modern camera or drink bottles or whatever else will fit in it.

Stenciling the letters on will come next, as soon as I obtain a stencil.

Not bad for my first try. It's not totally and perfectly square, but I think the rougher you make things the better. They didn't have lasers or computer blueprints to measure these things with.  This is a rare hobby where if it looks hand made, you did it right. The rougher the better.

All in all this project took me about two days to make. And this post took a good three or four hours to write.  Few things beat the satisfaction of knowing you made something yourself. I think it was time well spent.


  1. For the record, those cut nails are still made and used for hard woods. They are made of hardened steel and are used because they shear the wood fibers and are less likely to split the wood than are round nails which spread the grain.

    Nice job on the box but you underestimate the old timers. They would have used patterns and being more familiar and experienced with their hand tools their joints would have been more precisely fit.

    I do not mean this to denegrate your efforts in any way. Considering your level of experience I think you did very well indeed.
    Sign me as Jim on my wife's account.

  2. Another comment concerning building things. Our ancestors were craftsmen who had to build everything by hand. You ought to check out the Old Yankee workshop on PBS sometime.
    They didn't need lasers or computers to make things square. All you need to do that is a measuring tool, scale or ruler and in a pinch, a piece of string will do. To check the square of anything, just measure from one corner diagonally to the opposite corner then measure the same way from the other corner. For instance measure say from top L to bottom R the top R to bottom L. If your item is square, the measurements will be the same. If different and you can shift or trim your items corners you can make them square checking by this method. This is old school but is so easy and accurate it is still often used today. I have done it many times.
    Jim on wife Jillian's account

  3. we use this method of squaring when setting our concrete forms for manufactured home foundations