Hard Cracker Box
by Fred Grogan
Co. H, 4th U.S. Infantry, Sykes Regulars
With a little pencil work and some shopping around this design for a bread box was arrived at, and it worked out quite well.
This basic design is for a box of exterior dimensions: 18 1/2" x 26" x 11 1/2". It is made out of pine that can be purchased at most lumber yards and home centers, and requires no special tools. There is very little waste material with this design, only a few short scraps left for kindling.
Although not the most authentic box pattern, it is however, close and functional. With a little more work you can make yours more like the real thing. Some notes on doing that are included at the bottom of this page.
For each box purchase:
2 eight foot lengths of 10" x 1" lumber.
1 three foot length of 1" x (ditto)
Cut nails - you can find them online. I recommend you use two lengths of nails. Use nails close to 1 1/2" in length to secure the reinforcing ribs inside the box tops. You can use 2" for most of the other joins.
Optional: Sapling bands wrapped around closed boxes - These would be discarded once box was opened.
Cutting the Lumber
Cut each of the eight foot boards as follows, taking the kerf or "cut" of the saw into account. In other words do not lay out all the pencil marks and then start cutting. Make the first mark at 26", then cut to the right side of it. Lay out the next mark 26" from the just cut end of the piece. Other wise your saw cuts "eat into" the length of the following pieces. Always cut to the "right" of the first mark, measure 26" from the cut end, and repeat this along the length of the board so as not to cut one shorter than the other.
26" 26" 26" 17"
Cutting the lumber as described above yields the following pieces:
Front and Back panel, 2 pieces - 10" x 26" X 1"
Ends, 2 pieces - 10" x 17" X 1"
Top & Bottom, (two boards joined to make each piece)
18 1/2" x 26" x 1"
Two reinforcing bands for lid 1" x 17" x 3/4" (optional)
The exterior depth of 11 1/2" is achieved by adding the two 3/4" thicknesses of the top and bottom of the box to the height of the side and end panels.
Likewise the end pieces are 17" in length, adding the two 3/4" thicknesses of the sides makes an exterior box width of 18 1/2".
The width of 18 1/2" of the top and bottom is achieved by joining two pieces of 10" X 26" along their length. Either with a butt joint, or tongue and groove, then trimming the excess inch or so from one of the long edges.
Form a box from two of the 26" pieces and two of the 17" pieces, overlapping the 26" lengths on the ends of the 17" pieces. Use some wood glue and nail the pieces in place, using only a few nails on each join. Using a metal square, align the edges. You may need to adjust some of the joins as you proceed to get a good square box.
Note: In final trim, the nails should be spaced about 3 inches apart along the joined edges of the box.
Join the other four pieces of 26" lengths along the long edge, preferably with a tongue and groove join. If not, then glue the pieces along their length using clamps, and nail the 17" length reinforcing slats to one of the panels created this way, locating them 3/4" in from the corner end of the panel.
Nail one of the panels created onto the bottom of the box, letting the excess width over hang on one side. Trim the excess material from the panel using a circular saw, and smooth the edge with a plane.
Mark the excess on one edge of the box lid by laying it upside down on the box, and aligning the other three edges. Mark the length of the excess with a sharp pencil on the lid, using the box edge as a guide.
Cut the excess off of the lid, preferably with a circular saw, guiding the blade a bit outside of the scribed line. Use a large plane to finish the trimmed edge of the lid once fitted to the box.
Sapling banding: A cheap and common way of securing packages, it is the forerunner of metal and plastic banding today. Sapling strapping was made by splitting green saplings down the middle to create two flexible strips. The bands are make from hardwood saplings and cut using a draw knife. The saplings are then wrapped around both ends of the box and either tacked down or glued in place.
Some observations on "Authentic" boxes
I don't know if there is any one box in existence that can be used as a model of an "Authentic" cracker box. Some of the boxes being sold by vendors have been carefully researched (like the ones produced by Sam Doolin), and there are a few items in museums and collections that I would love to see in person. Once I get the chance to do that, I will post any further observations here.
The original boxes were constructed to serve a purpose; package and preserve hardtack biscuits until they would be used by a huge, mobile Army. The contractors made these as efficiently (read inexpensively) as possible, but had to meet minimum requirements. The box was to serve as the shipping container for 50 pounds of biscuits, and then serve as the storage container for those biscuits indoors or out.
Edges of some of the repro boxes I have seen seem to have been planed off, that is the sharp edges of the corners. If this is in keeping with the originals, then this could actually be due to wear and tear. I don't know why the box is made better by adding that touch.
The joinery of the originals was probably quite good in some cases, probably not so good in others. I have seen reproductions that have very nice joined edges that are almost invisible. The tongue and groove top and bottom of the repro box are made from wood panels with mirrored grain, etc. My guess is that this reflects the pride of the cabinetmaker, rather than the actual processes used in war time to mass produce such an item. Some surviving original examples appear to be well made, with smooth edges and nice joins. This could just as easily be a process of selection rather than the general rule for boxes.
Hard Cracker Box