How to build an Ammunition and Bread Box

 

by Quartermaster Steve Black 4/10/2001

 

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INSTRUCTIONS FOR CONSTRUCTING AND STENCILING A UNION BREAD OR AMMUNITION BOX

It is recommended that you read through these instructions completely prior to starting your box(s).  Please click on the appropriate thumbnail for a construction diagram and list of needed supplies.

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ammo box bread box

Material: The reader is referred to the attached sketch for the type box to be constructed for the applicable material list. Pine boards specified should be of 1 inch thick #1 grade pine ( # 2 pine is less expensive-if you look carefully, you can find some very acceptable boards). Nominal one inch boards will be 3/4 inches thick while 4, 10 and 12 inch widths will actually be 3 1/2 (possibly 3 5/8}, 9 1/2 and 11 1/2 inches wide respectively. The dimensions on the attached sketches are based upon "actual" dimension indicated in the previous sentence, not nominal board thickness and widths. It is suggested that you verify the actual widths of the lumber before starting and make any minor adjustments considered necessary to the overall box dimensions before starting.

The material lists show suggested quantities to make the bottom and top of the boxes. These material lists are based upon the top being made of a combination of five 3 1/5 " wide boards matching the width of the boxes without having to cut any particular boards in the long direction (ie: no rough saw cuts showing, only end cuts). The bottoms are designed to slide into the side panels; subsequently, some trimming lengthwise will have to be done. Since the bottom is inset, the rough edges of these cuts will not be visible. This also puts the securing nails in shear creating a stronger bottom. You may wish to vary the combination of widths based upon pine procured or otherwise available to you to fabricate the bottom and top.

The tops, as sketched, use two cleats to ensure a snug and secure closure of the top. As an option, the top of the bread box can be hinged for convenience. Small diameter sisal rope can be used as a restraint to keep the lid from falling back when hinged. Use only brass blade-screwdriver type screws on the hinges as Phillips head screwdrivers were not thought up yet in the 1860ís. The bread box also includes rope handles at each end (no rope handles were used on the ammo box). When fitting the rope handles, make sure sufficient length is provided so that your knuckles do not rub or chafe against the box when being carried.

The top can be tricky to assemble without a major investment in shop tools. After doing a trial run on making up a breadbox with just hand tools and a hand-held circular saw, one maker came up with a way to ensure the cut across the ends of the top were straight and in alignment with the box. Cut all five 1 x 4ís that make up the top one inch longer than the finished length (ie: 25 inches plus). When the top is completely assembled and fitted to the box, scribe on the underside of the lid with the lid in place, using the box itself as a guide. Remove the lid and transfer the scribed lines to the top side and then carefully cut with your power saw. This should give you a nice straight clean edge that can be finished up with a little sandpaper work.

Positioning the lid cleats such that the top will sit square to the box also involves some thought. Again one maker found a way to assemble the top that works fairly well. Using a piece of plywood as a working base, attach a long, straight strip of wood across the long direction at one edge of the plywood (this will be referred to as a jig later on). Using this strip as a stop, assemble the top, butting the first lid piece against the stop and then joining each piece together with each joint being glued. Use a second piece of scrap material, temporarily nailed to the jig to hold the pieces together tightly. The top surfaces should be facing down. Ensure that the ends of each piece are fairly square to each other and even, using a framing, square, straight edge or straight length of wood. If you have allowed for extra material on the lid as discussed above, work from one end as the other will get cut off when finished.

While the top is setting up, assemble the four sides of the box per the sketch, remembering that the short ends fit inside the longer sides, giving outside dimensions of 17 1/2" (+ if using five 3 5/8" width pieces for the lid) by 24". Check the box for squareness as suggested below. Once square, install the two end cleats to the bottom of the box. Do not install the bottom at this time. With the box upside down, place the box on top of the lid, placing a long edge against the stop on your plywood jig and one end flush with the end you squared up with you straight edge. Now scribe with your pencil the inside corners of your box onto the lid and then remove the box. You can then finish assembling the body of the box.

Finishing the lid now only involves a few small steps. Once the glue is dry, cut your lid cleats to match the actual inside dimension of your box less 1/16" (+). Place the cleats, glue being placed on the mating surface, on the lid while it is still in the jig. Place the cleats such that they just clear the marks you scribed to show the inside corners of the box ( ie: the marks should be easily seen at both ends and along the side of the cleat when looking straight down at it) . Now, using small finishing nails approximately 1/ 1/4" long, secure the cleats to each board using 4 nails for each board for each cleat (total 20 nails per cleat). Set the box back over the lid to check fit. Scribe along the outside edge of the end of the box with the excess lid material showing. Remove the box, transfer the line to the top surface of the box and trim off the excess material as described further below.

 

All joints for the body of the box are to be glued and securely nailed. Use of #8 finishing nails is recommended but they are not as authentic as cut nails. Use galvanized or bright nails at your option. The bright nails will corrode a little over time and you will see a black spot begin to develop at each nail hole (more authentic).

 

TIPS:

1. Blunt the points of all nails by holding them vertical on a hard surface and tapping the point flat with light blows of your hammer, being careful not to bend the nail. This will cause the nail to "smash" the fibers of the wood ( rather than pushing through) while being driven, reducing the chances of the wood splitting. Another option is to pre-drill all nail holes prior to assembly. Pre-drilling is necessary where you will be driving a nail through a knot in the wood.

2. When joining the sides of the box together, check for squareness by measuring across the diagonals of the box (ie: each diagonal across the open end of the box). If the measurements are the same, the box is square; if not, adjust as necessary. Once square, attach each of the bottom cleats and put each of the bottom pieces into place, gluing and nailing to complete this portion of the assembly (see recommended process for lid assembly above for variation to this).

Finishing: While these boxes were sometimes painted (beige or light gray enamel), most boxes manufactured were strictly for temporary shipping purposes, with the wood left natural. It is logical that, as the need for larger and larger numbers of these boxes grew, the degree of refinement gave way to convenience of manufacture. Therefore, it is recommended that the boxes be left in the natural state and only preserved with two light coats of boiled linseed oil or other similar oil-based wood preservative such as satin finish polyethane, which will soak into the raw wood and leave a proper finish. The boxes should be treated after applying any stenciling (see below) unless to be painted.

As the bread box became a popular means of transporting personal items, a 10 inch wide , 10 oz. duck dividing pouch made to the length of inside of the box may have been installed by securing it to the inside of the box with black steel carpet tacks. This can then be used for smaller articles to be carried. A small mirror can also be secured by glue or panel adhesive to the inside of the lid to assist in personal grooming, especially when reporting for guard duty.

Stenciling: Stencils appropriate to labeling each of the boxes are available through the company Quartermaster. Two stencils are available; one for the "Union Mechanical Baking Company" and one patterned after a photo of an actual bread box labeled "Army Bread from Robert Stears, Brooklyn" that was accepted by the U.S. Subsistence Dept. September 1862. If the box is to be left natural, apply the stenciling prior to treating the box with oil or polyurethane (see additional discussion below). If the box is to be painted, apply stenciling after painting of the entire box and lid is done.

Dixie Leather Works suggests a fast method of stenciling as follows. Apply stencil adhesive, photo mount, graphic artistís spray adhesive on the back side of the stencil ONLY. You need only apply the adhesive around the lettering, etc. This type of adhesive is temporary when applied to only one side of two surfaces to be joined. Once adhesive is dry and tacky, carefully align and secure the stencil in place. Place a clean piece of paper over the stencil and rub it down with a soft rag. Then using your finger or rubber erasure pencil, push down the stencil where not fully down. Cover any exposed areas not to be painted with newspaper. Double-sided tape may also prove useful.

Using a cheap flat black spray paint, lightly sweep and apply an initial coat through the stencil to the surface to receive paint. This coat need not fully cover the surface as it provides only a base for a more complete second coat. Be careful not to apply too much paint in order to avoid runs, bleeding under the stencil, etc. Let the first coat completely dry and then check the stencil to see that none of the edges defining the painted areas has lifted (resecure as necessary). Apply a second, more thorough, application of the paint. When dry, carefully remove the stencil and touch up your handiwork with a small artists brush as necessary. Even with the use of the adhesive, some spray will get under the stencil. But remember, these boxes were mass produced so some minor flawing was probably acceptable and in evidence.

A second, more time consuming method of application of the paint is to use either a stiff bristled brush or sponge. This is a slower method, messy, but more authentic. You make the call here.

 

Tip: Apply some spray paint to a piece(s) of scrap pine. Allow to dry along with the box. Before applying linseed oil or polyurethane to your box, experiment on the scrap piece(s) you prepared. This writer found that if the linseed oil was rubbed onto the area stenciled, there was a tendency for the paint to lightly smear or bleed. A brush application may work best, being careful not to overwork the lid. Any excess oil should gently blotted off with a clean rag or towel. This writer found that an acceptable option was to use the linseed oil on the box while doing the lid with spray flat finish polyurethane, applied in several light sweeping coats. Try several approaches on your scrap piece(s) and see what works best. After all, you put a lot of time into doing the box and you want it to come out looking great.

Have fun constructing your bread box or ammo box. It will be a useful and valuable addition to your 20th Maine experience. Remember, you do not have to be a skilled carpenter or cabinet maker to construct these type of boxes. Anyone with limited skills and equipment can do it.

Oh! By the way, any additional tips or ideas to improve on these instructions are welcome.

 

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