Re-purposing a Box—Part 6, Pen Storage & Conclusion

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With our century-old box cleaned, finished, and re-lined, the only remaining job is to make a custom-fitted pen storage space, using the existing tray. Pens are designed to be used, but can also be inherently fragile, so this is an important detail if this box is to be truly functional.

1. Materials

We need a system of holding pens firmly in place, but this needs to be accomplished gently. The answer is a combination of old and new: baize, and closed-cell foam.

  • Baize is a thick felted-wool cloth, traditionally used for the writing surface of writing boxes, or for the top of games tables. It is pH neutral, and gentle on the relatively soft plastics used in vintage fountain pens. Also, wool is an inherently ‘grabby’ material, so pens won’t slip around.
  • Closed-cell foam (think of those skinny camping mattresses) is resilient, retains it’s shape indefinitely, and cushions from harm even under the worst of circumstances.

The combination of these materials will give us a soft, compartmentalized tray which will suit both the style of the box, and our needs for safe and secure storage.

2. The Base

We are fitting our pen storage compartment in the existing, original tray, which nests just under the box lid. We have lined the edges with marbled paper, to match the rest of the box interior. We carefully take measurements, so that the new storage tray will fit inside this without damaging this lining. (This would fall into the “measure twice, cut once” category of work.)

Baltic birch plywood is an excellent material for the inner base. It is light, strong, easily shaped, and takes glue well. The plied structure minimizes cracking and warping.

3. Foam Dividers

A plywood base, with closed-cell foam dividers.

All stuck down using a hot glue gun.

Shaping closed-cell foam is easy: use a sharp knife. We shape the foam so that the top of each ‘slot’ is slightly tapered inward. This will ensure that pens are held securely in place.

The best glue for the job—although it pains me to say so—is crafter’s ‘hot glue’. It sinks in to the pores of the foam and quickly sets in place. When you have to deal with modern materials, sometimes you have to use more modern materials! We also use hot glue to anchor the strips of foam in place on the wooden base.

4. Baize Covering

After taking more careful measurements, we cut a piece of baize to fit over the foam dividers. It is difficult to calculate how much material you need to go in and out of the slots, so we are sure to dry-fit the fabric before actually cutting it to shape.

Applying baize.

Cutting out excess baize...

...and gluing it in place.

Each end should be folded identically, so as not to draw attention.

Baize is quite porous, so we are limited in what glues we use to hold it in place. We also have to keep in mind the material to which it must adhere. There is really only one option: get out the glue gun again, our last tool of choice. We work quickly, making sure that we flatten the bead of glue down before it hardens, so as to avoid ridges that might show through the thin baize. In this initial gluing, we securely glue the two long edges down to the under-side of the base.

With the baize firmly glued in place, we can now concentrate on the tricky part: the ends of the slots. Done carefully, it will look uniform and attractive. Done badly, it will draw attention to the ugly vessel, rather than the beautiful pens it holds.

We carefully trim away excess material, so that it will not bunch up underneath the tray. This is tricky, as we don’t want any of the white base showing through any gaps. A mistake at this point means throwing the entire thing out, and starting again from scratch!

Each end, of each slot, is carefully folded and glued in place. When we are done, each looks as identical as possible.

5. Fitting the Pieces Together

We cover the dividers with baize.

When we are done gluing the baize in place, we need to fit the storage tray in the original box tray. In taking measurements initially, we have allowed for the thickness of the fabric around the edges of the base, and it slips in place firmly, but without tearing the paper. And, finally, we get to use real glue! We use hide glue to stick the plywood base to the bottom of the tray.

The interior tray of this antique box has now been transformed into a custom-fitted pen storage tray. The foam will fit to the shape of most pens, and hold them safe and secure from misadventure.

6. The Finishing Touch

The finishing touch, baize padding for the bottom.

Duplicating the original pattern.

As a final touch, we look to the base of the box. Traditionally not much attention was given to this; often a piece of rough burlap was stuck down to prevent damage to whatever surface the box rested on. However, we like to use the same baize as the interior.

Hide glue is again the best option. We cut the baize slightly over-size. Then, we apply a generous coat of hot hide glue, and let it cool for a few minutes. One of the fantastic qualities of hide glue is that it will become soft again with the application of heat, and even more so with steam. We use this to great advantage when applying baize to a flat surface like a writing box flap, a table top, or—as in this case—the bottom of a box.

We drape the baize over the tacky glue, and then use an iron to re-melt the glue. The glue then adheres to the baize, but without wicking through the fabric. Also, we can slide the fabric slightly as necessary, should we need to re-position it. Once the glue cools again (only a few minutes), we carefully trim the edges with a sharp knife. Any glue squeeze-out over the edge is easily cleaned up with a damp cloth.

7. The End

Finally, the finished box.

And so we are done. A project like this is particularly satisfying for several reasons. We always enjoy getting a close look at the craftsmanship of a hundred years ago; even production pieces like this show an attention to detail and a quality of materials which is sorely lacking today, even in high-quality goods. Also, we get to take something which is only one step up from the trash heap, and make it useful and beautiful again. And knowing that it will be used as a showcase for beautiful pens is an added bonus!

We have put this box up for sale in our shoppe.

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