Building an aztec-aquatic themed wooden toy box… oh, and Merry Christmas.

Posted on 24 December, 2020

Is there anything that says ‘I made an effort this Christmas’ quite like something you made yourself?

Yes – lots of things, in fact.

Fundamentally, I think a good gift is anything that conveys your understanding of a person while also surprising them. This can take the form of a book, picture, trinket or even just a simple gesture. The quality of the gift is measured in the thought and understanding required, not the physical subject’s cosmetic complexity or monetary value.

Therefore, one might reasonably argue that countless things already exist which would require more thought than something built from scratch.

However, do any of those things instill a sense of smug, self-satisfaction that you can lord over family members who’ve not done the same?

Take it from someone well versed in the cultivation of smug self-satisfaction:

No, no they do not.

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Building a wooden toy box


I mentioned in a previous post about a Brutalist Lantern that I done made, how 2020 has been the year that I got wood… from some pallets and then made stuff from it.

It all started when my dad built some planters at my mother’s request. Not wishing to be outdone in the embodiment of matriarchal tyranny, Anna requested the same of me. I agreed because I want to see her happy – a compulsion born of her persistent, abusive mental conditioning. Also and probably moreso, because I want to gain some competency in woodwork.

Selfishness prevailed again, which resulted in:

Wooden planters built out of pallets

I probably should’ve taken these photos in the summer. When the weather wasn’t shit.

The grossly disproportionate volume of self-confidence enjoyed as a result of this endeavour contributed to a similarly inflated sense of competence and thus, ambition.

I asked my brother if his eldest daughter, Ida would appreciate a toy box made for Christmas. I think he said yes. To be honest, I was going to do it anyway. It was one of those rhetorical questions I’ve heard so much about from people with a chronic aversion to being direct. Because why be straight with someone when you can spend time tricking yourself into thinking you were too polite and self-sufficient to need to ask?

And so the adventureth dideth begindeth…

Settling on a design and cutting the wood

My journal – like most of our lives – is littered with inconsequential crap. The facade of productivity and meaning is achieved by a steady stream of imagery designed to deflect attention away from the lack of substance in the text.

In this particular case, I managed to forget collecting any such imagery until the very end of the process. I’m not sure why. You would’ve thought looking at blocks of motionless wood would make for a compelling experience. Why else would people watch cricket, or the latest season of Dr Who?

As a result of this oversight, the early stages (which I’d argue are the most important) are somewhat light in demonstrative content. Sorry, I guess.

Anyhow, I searched for wooden crates and toy boxes online to find a basic structure I liked.

Thanks Google

Roughing out the design

I found a few that stood out, particularly due to distinguishing geometric design features. The box would need to be Edified (ie: ruined) somehow and combining characteristics into a Frankenstein’s hodge podge of forms and materials seemed the easiest means of achieving this. If it didn’t work as a box, I could always try selling as fine art on the basis of it representing humanity’s fight against the devastation of late capitalism.

Looking like total crap wasn’t really an option and I wanted the finish of a quality product, albeit with a more rustic, adventurous feel. Something that could pass for being an old crate or a treasure chest.

Some basic sketches followed, each of which have since been lost. Trust me – they were tight. Once I settled on a design I liked, I modelled it in Maya to give myself a bit of an IKEA guide to aid construction. Importantly, I first measured the length, width and depth of the planks I had available. These digital planks of wood were then trimmed and cut accordingly. Digiccordingly.

Once the below was sorted, the wood was cut and sanded. Which took forever.

Making things interesting

It felt like a real step forward see the planks all cut and ready to go. At the same time, it highlighted how bland the final thing would look.

The side and end panels seemed somewhat wasted. I don’t mean they were slurring their words with bits of sick dribbling out the side of their mouths. Rather, they looked like a wasted opportunity and that the boards would benefit from having something on them. They were too thin to carve into, which is also a talent I lack. However, I then remembered about the laser cutters we have at work.

Dan (course leader for CGI and Visual Effects at Staffordshire University) had mentioned during Christmas 2019, that he was using those very laser cutters to create gifts for family. He said that the results had turned out agreeable. I’ve no reason to doubt his judgement and thought that the same approach might lend some creative variation to my toy box.

Testing in 3D and 2D

My first thought was to create the artwork in 3D, using Unreal Engine 4. I thought it might be cool to base the box on an aquarium, with the artwork on each panel corresponding to the others. Ida likes underwater creatures and it’s fair to say I’m fond of a few species myself.

For the first test, I got some stock art assets and setup a scene in UE4. I used a crab as a focal point and put cameras infront of and behind said crab.

Two screenshots were exported of each camera. The first was the Z-Depth, which is essentially a grayscale version of what the camera sees. Objects that are close to are rendered in black and those that are far away are rendered in white. I needed this because the laser cutters at work operate by the same principle, but in reverse. The darker the image, the deeper the cut.

A normal screenshot followed for each. I converted this to black and white and ‘burned it’ over the Z-Depth image. This meant that some of the surface details would be maintained, working with the Z-Depth rather than conflicting with it.

The final result was… meh, a bit shit.

Not quite what I had in mind

The idea was cool, but lacking any sense of personality or quality. Like Brie Larson or Eddie Redmayne. Not terrible to the point of being offensive, just… meh?

I could have addressed this issue by creating some really fun, interesting 3D sculptures. But I think this was around October and the prospect of designing, sculpting and fine tuning four panels worth of artwork in ZBrush (with no gurantee it wouldn’t look crap) seemed inpractical. I’m not even sure when the last time I worked with ZBrush even was.

There was a small chance that the 3D art style was fine and I just wasn’t cutting at enough depth. Maybe this approach would look better if I cut for longer, aiming for deeper, more well defined shapes? Depth is not a concept I’m especially well versed in.

I decided that for the next test I would create a 2D illustration and try two different cutting times.

We danced the Grim Fandango

I didn’t need to settle on an artistic style, at this point. The goal was just to establish the best depth to cut at. So if anything, worrying about the style of artwork was an unnecessary distraction.

Nevertheless, there was no denying that it would determine the final look and feel. I mean, obviously. So unnecessary distraction or not – I was doing it.

I was playing Grim Fandango at the time (because obviously) and remembered how much I love the artwork of Peter Chan. Everything he’s done is amazing, but the combination of Aztec, Art Deco and Film Noir aesthetic utilised in Grim Fandango just elevates it above the rest. In my opinion.

Peter Chan Grim Fandango Concept Art

Various pieces of concept art from Peter Chan’s work on Grim Fandango

The good borrow, the great steal.

The various murals and architectural artwork seen across the game were particularly inspirational.

I liked the idea of creating something that was flat, but layered. Instead of objects sitting across multiple layers of depth like they did in the initial 3D test, I thought it might be more effective to determine a set number of layers and then illustrate 2D forms to sit within those. Simple shapes, well defined and adorned in many finer details.

With all that in mind, I knocked up a quick illustration. Nothing complicated, just something that inhabited these core values that wouldn’t take forever to draw or laser cut.

Dan (not the same Dan mentioned earlier) and Pete look after our laser cutters and 3D printers at Staffordshire University. They gave me a ton of help and advice in setting up the cutter, adjusting both the time and power settings to get different results. On balance, the 2D version looked considerably better than the 3D one.

2D it was to be. Or should I say, it was to be 2D? 2D or not 2D? Whatever:

2D artwork laser cut into wood

For super quick samples, these didn’t turn out at all badly.

Creating the final artwork

With December looming, I decided to cease any further tests and just move ahead with illustrations.

Starting with one of the side panels, I stuck with the underwater idea and created a rather simple illustration over a couple of hours.

I wasn’t sure how well the laser cutter would cope with loads of super fine details and intersecting shapes. So I heald back a little as honestly, I couldn’t be bothered with the prospect of recutting, sanding and glueing a load more wood if I got it wrong. Yeah, she’s family, but by the same token – ugh.

2D underwater cartoon, black and white

Artwork for the first side panel

Draw more stuff!

I don’t have a photograph of how this turned out in the laser cut, but it was… okay. It cut perfectly fine, but my caution with the settings resulted in it just looking a bit unclear. I also learned that large areas of flat colour didn’t work well, they just looked… well, flat.

Because of this, I decided to just bite the bullet. For the end pieces, I was going to go for super busy, detailed illustrations, engulfed in activity. Kids like that shit. I assume.

Four layers were decided on, with one sub layer on each. This sub layer would be used for finer details and feature the same gray as the layer beneath it. This means that the details would stand out while maintainining a consistency sense of depth throughout.

For panel one I drew a shark chasing some fish. Panel two features an ocoptus, hermit crab, squid, vegetation and some sort of barracuda thing.

Laser cutting the final illustrations

Honestly – these turned out way better than I had any right expecting them to.

The fidelity on this laser cutter is friggin’ exceptional. In barely half an hour for each piece, it cut them perfectly and maintained all the super fine details. Although the deeper layers suffered from a lack of contrast between eachother, it wasn’t a total train wreck. Likewise, anyone I showed the pieces to naturally looked closer to try and pick out all the background details.

If they thought it looked shit, they would’ve have bothered. Like me with the new Star Wars movies.


Just to give you some idea of how accuarate this laser cutter is, here’s a side by side with the original illustration:

The illustration is the one on the right. Incase you weren’t sure.

The only problem I did encounter was the laser cutter crashing. This meant I needed to crop the artwork down to the area that was missing, manually align the laser to the point it left off and go again.

This only happened on panel one and the result isn’t painfully obvious. Nevertheless, I made a note to break down the final piece of artwork into six sections (one for each panel) and submit those jobs individually. Dan agreed that this would minimise the risk of repeated crashes.

With all that in mind, I figured it’d be worth going for gold with the remaining side panel. It took the better part of six hours to complete the illustration, this time comprising jelly fish, a clam, crab, sea horses, hammerhead shark, sperm (ha) whale, fish alongside a ton of vegetation and rockery.

To which Anna responded “Yeah it’s alright – be funny if she didn’t like it”.

Putting it altogether

Finalising the frames

With the artwork done, I took the pieces for each frame down to my parent’s and dad helped me put these together.

You see, my dad likes to do things properly. I don’t.

I mean, that’s not completely true. I do appreciate efficiency, accuracy and have far higher standards than I sometimes let on. But I also enjoy experimentation, figuring things out as you go along (ie: learning) and the imperfection that comes as a result.

In this case, I conceded that since so many pieces needed to be put together and hold tight, it’d probably be wise to take theĀ proper approach, afterall. We then cut, measured, tested and repeated with each piece of wood until all the sizes were flush. A dab of Gorilla glue here and there before being clamped together and the final frames were completed.

I took these home and varnished them in the upstairs bathroom. Wisper promptly threw cat little all over them.

Add’s to the effect, I guess.

Each frame was varnished, sanded and cleaned three times.

Once sorted, I returned back to the folks’ abode where each panel of artwork was glued into place.

The last panel to be illustrated turned out especially well, I thought:

The lifecycle of this panel’s artwork

Attaching everything together

Once sorted, I returned the frames back to the folks’ abode and dad glued the artwork panels onto each.

He then trimmed the edges so everything fit together properly, adding some supports which were glued and left to dry over night.

Once dry, these were glued together and clamped for a full day:

Clamping the panels together

At this point I realised it probably would’ve been smarter to do all the varnishing at the end. I did the frames earlier because I didn’t want to risk getting varnish on the artwork panels, since I thought they’d look better as they were.

However, once the glue had dried there was an excess bleeding from many of the edges. This needed to be sanded away, as well as the corners smoothed to be less hazardous to children (pfft, losers).

Because of this, much of the varnish ended up being sanded away and needed to be redone.

Almost completed – just a final coat or two of varnish and a clean up to go!

The finished toy box

Which I did. As I write this on the eve of Christmas Eve, what was a pair of wooden pallets is now a wooden toy box. I was going to say ‘neatly varnished’ wooden toy box, but as you can see from the images below, that’s not totally true. A couple more coats and it’ll be sorted.

I’m fairly happy with the result. It’s solid, looks pretty unique and for the most part, everything went ahead without issue.

Dad’s pointers on the fine tuning were ultimately valid and Dan’s help with the laser cutters at work helped me minimise a lot of back and forth. The overall result would’ve been lacking were it not for their help, I’m just a little frustrated that I didn’t spend more time on the illustrations.

The first side panel, specifically. I cut it a couple of times for consistency and in doing so, burned a few holes. It would’ve perhaps been wise to do multiple cuts of the same artwork but at less power. The look of the final panels are basically ‘burned and not-burned’, whereas I think more variety could’ve been introduced by not burning in one go.

Even if I hadn’t, the artwork on this one is pretty crap compared to the others. If I’d spent just a few more hours adding more animals and detail, I think it would’ve made the world of difference. Something to remember next time I think ‘making something’ would be easier than buying an actual present.

Anyway, it’s been a fun little side project that’s forced me to at least spend some time away from a keyboard and screen. If she doesn’t like it, next year’s present will be E. Coli.

A gallery of the final(ish) result is below, thank you to everyone who has followed my stories this year – wishing you each a Merry Christmas.


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