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DIY: Build your own camp chuck box

It doesn't matter whether you're out in the backwoods or in your home's kitchen — there's nothing more aggravating than not being able to find what you're looking for.


That moment finally reached its climax in August 2023. For years, I've been lugging around my camp kitchen in a bathtub-sized plastic tote (on wheels) and if one grain of salt in the shaker is out of place, the lid won't close. Aside from the wheels, there is not one pleasant aspect of using the plastic tote, nor is there a single ounce of organization.


After doing some initial research, I found a handful of solutions, most of which looked either shoddy or over-priced. There isn't much in terms of plastic storage that is also mobile. And a lot of the so-called "camping boxes" out there that are mass-produced look like a plastic turd or come with a girthy price tag.


Then I started reading about chuck boxes. I was stunned that I hadn't heard of these 21st century hipstery transfigurations from the mid- to late-1800s. Back in those days, a camp cook was a luxury many small cowboy outfits heading north to the cattle yards in Kansas needed. They rode across the prairies from Southern Texas all the way up to cattle towns like Abilene and Ogallala, heading into various stopovers to procure provisions for the tired cowboys. But those towns were few and far between in those days, and if you've ever read "Lonesome Dove," one of my favorite books, you'll recall the witty, resourceful cook Po Campo who drove a chuckwagon and charmed the cowboys with his fried, molasses-covered grasshoppers. (Maybe Trapper's Attic should re-create those as a food blog?)


Anyway, chuckwagons as they were called, were specially-designed vehicles that stored everything from stoves to dry goods to medicine — everything we take with us nowadays out into the backwoods. As cool as it would be to keep a pair of oxen in my front yard and an 1850s chuckwagon in the driveway, this homemade chuck box will have to do.

REI version is simpler, but too small for a two-burner Coleman stove.

REI Chuck Box vs. Trapper's Attic Chuck Box


A quick note. There is a simpler version of this DIY chuck box on REI's website. It's pretty dang straight-forward, and smaller than the one I built. The cool thing about their design is it uses just one sheet of plywood; mine uses two. The reason for that is because of my stove. I have a two-burner propane Coleman stove, and I wanted the whole thing (propane bottle and all) to fit width-wise on the top shelf. So, if you have a wide camp stove and want to have enough room for it and propane up top, you'll want to build it bigger; otherwise, REI's version is all you should need.


As far as I could find, the REI one is the only version out there that has building plans (blueprints) that make the process super simple. As a result of building a bigger version, I had to come up with my own dimensions — and fun fact, numbers ain't my friend. Now, luckily everything worked out, I cut once measured thrice, and now I have a template for anyone who wants to recreate the Big Boy No. 4014 of camp chuck boxes.


Also, I can't not shout out The Johnson Blog, which I based my design off of. It was difficult to find a DIY chuck box that wasn't the REI version, and this dude helped me out big time. Even though we built ours with different dimensions, it was super helpful to see his photos during the process.


Overview


In total, this project cost me around $225 give or take. My initial trip to Home Depot was $150 for all the supplies and lumber. I had to make subsequent trips because I underestimated how much stain and polyurethane I'd need. Custom-ordered wood chuck boxes easily go for upwards of $400, so for roughly half of that, you can come up with something just as good, plus have a cool story to tell.


DOWNLOAD THE CHUCK BOX BLUEPRINT BELOW

Chuck Box Blueprint_PDF
.pdf
Download PDF • 3.39MB

Tools:

  • Pencils or pens

  • Circular saw

  • Square

  • Tape measurer

  • Right-angle ruler (bigger the better)

  • Screwdriver

  • Drill with various bits

  • Vice clamps

  • Jigsaw (optional)

  • Bubble level

  • Palm sander and sandpaper (80 grit and 300 fine grit)

  • 1960's safety glasses



Supplies:


Step 1: Pre-Draw Cut Lines

With the lumber laid out, use the blueprint to draw the precise cut lines on each sheet of plywood. Double check them, triple check them. If you start cutting, as I did, and find that your two identical panels aren't in fact identical, then chances are other panels will be off. Ask me how I know that.


Step 2: Start Cutting

Once both sheets of plywood are marked up, it's time to start cutting. Using a circular saw, carefully cut along each line and match up each identical panel (sides, top/bottom) to make sure they are identical.


On the front panel (B), you'll need to make one additional cut length-wise where the two folding exteriors will meet and secured by the two chest latches. I recommend drawing a line 5 or 6 inches down. I cut mine 6 inches down so that it would be flush with the bottom of the stove shelf.


Step 3: Exterior

If you cut everything right, you should have 6 matching sets of panels. Now you're ready to start building. You're essentially just building a large, rectangular box — which is actually tougher than it sounds. Start by gluing, then screwing each side (A) to the back panel (B) only. Use camps to hold the pieces together while you drill in the screws.


After the sides are mounted, mount the bottom panel (C) to the back and sides (see photo).

Next, it's time to mount the lid. Tilt the box back on the back panel (B) and slide the box's lid (C) up flush with the back panel. Mount the lid to the back with the 2 piano hinges, about 2 inches from the outer edge of the box. Stand the box upright and make sure the lid has a half inch lip when closed.


Now, the open-faced box should have 5 of its 6 panels. With the box standing upright, mount the larger half of the front panel (B) to the bottom panel using the 4 batwing (or any basic small hinges) equally along the bottom. Use a large surface, like the excess plywood or a big table to keep this bottom flap from hyperextending (and ruining the hinges).


Fold up the bottom flap as if to close the bottom 2/3 of the box, then close the lid. The remaining piece of the front panel (C) that you cut earlier should fit perfectly under the lid's lip and the front panel. Now you're going to mount that upper front panel to the box's lid, using glue and screws. Once dry, take a step back and admire the exterior of the chuck box. If all looks good and well, you're good to move on. If it don't, you might've had one too many Coors.


Step 4: Assembling the Interior

Now you should have a box. The hinges should all work and every edge should line up perfectly. Be extra careful not to rotate the box and risk the panels flying open. This happened to us and hyperextended the piano hinge due to the lid's weight.


When you look over at your remaining pile of wood panels, you should have the two shelves (D) and two dividers (F). Don't worry about the face plate panels (E) until the end.

Before you start assembling the interior shelves, you'll want to make sure both shelves (D) fit snuggly lengthwise inside the box. They might be a hair too wide, which is okay. Simply take your palm sander and shave off a few hairs from each edge until the shelves slide perfectly between inside. If you did it right, you'll inexplicably let out a slight grunt.


Repeat this step for the top shelf. I recommend labeling which shelf is the top and which is the bottom, so that you maintain the shelf's orientation and thus the way it fit best. Once the shelves are perfectly sanded and fit gaplessly inside your box, you'll want to affix the dividers.


I chose to make mine about 5 inches apart (see picture above) so that I would have plenty of room for spatulas and wide utensils, but you can make yours as wide or narrow as you'd like.


First, you'll want to mount the lower shelf to the dividers. Set the shelf on a flat surface, use a bubble level (not your phone) to make sure it's perfectly level, then glue the two dividers to the shelf. I also used screws to mount them, but it's not necessary since the dividers aren't load-bearing.


Once the bottom shelf and dividers are mounted, slide the whole unit into the box and prop up with a rectangular object at the desired height. Lou and I used a cooler that was the perfect height. It might be a good idea to set the box down on the ground, or somewhere you know that is flat, using a bubble level. Getting the bottom shelf as level as possible is critical. Once you've made sure it's level and at the preferred height within the box, glue the small crack between the shelf and the box's inside panel, and let drip down to bond the two. Then, drill wood screws through the exterior into the shelf for added support.


Slide the top shelf onto the two dividers and take out the bubble level again, you'll want to make sure it's level. Use your palm sander to sand down either of the dividers to give the top shelf a level surface. Rest the top shelf on the dividers again and ensure it's level. Then glue to the dividers and bolster with screws as you did with the bottom shelf.


Step 5: Shelf Faceplates

Don't make the same mistake I did, folks. I glued my bottom shelf faceplate (E) to the base of the box before I made the scalloped cutout. Making a cutout ensures taller things, like coffee pots and large pans, can fit down in the lower compartment. The cutout doesn't have to be fancy; a simple bathtub-shaped swoop about 12 inches wide will do the trick. Just clamp one of the faceplates to a table or workbench, and use a jigsaw to make the symmetrical cutout.


The faceplate's job is to keep all your junk from falling out when the outer panel is folded down like a draw bridge. It should fit snuggly between the internal sides of the box. Simply slide it in place over the inside hinges and glue both sides; then drill in two screws on either side for added support.


I chose to forgo the upper shelf faceplate that you see in some of the other DIY models. I don't think it's needed up where my stove is, so I ended up with that piece of wood leftover. But, if you choose to include it, just repeat the step above.


Step 6: Hardware

At this point you should have a completed box and about 4 empty Coors Banquets crushed on the ground. It's time for the fun part: mounting the hardware. Crack open another Coors.


I highly recommend installing the locking trunk stays for the lid first. You really don't want to hyperextend those upper piano hinges. And without a proper locking mechanism keeping the lid upright at a 90 degree angle, you risk having the lid come slamming down on your finger — which happened at one point, and I still have the smashed thumbnail as I write this.


The lid stays were probably the most aggravating part of this project. I bought two (off Amazon) and had little to no directions included in the package. The hinges themselves are super robust, but it didn't mention that they only fit on one side of the trunk. I chose to use two hinges, for both symmetry and added support. But one should be plenty, if you so choose to.


Most trunks have much more room under their lid. The placement of the top shelf presented a problem: the hinge, when it folds in, couldn't close shut all the way. So I had to drill a large 1/4" hole in the shelf to allow one of the hinges to close all the way. Not ideal, but not a huge deal. The other hinge, mounted on the right (if you're facing the box) works absolutely perfectly.


Next, you'll want to support the lower cover panel which drops down like a draw bridge. I initially used chains, but quickly found they would stick to the magnetic cabinet stays, preventing the door from closing shut. I ended up using picture frame wire, affixed to both sides with tiny eyehooks, but I've read in some blogs that people just use paracord.


You'll also need to mount the magnetic cabinet stays. I bought the widest ones I could find, for extra hold. Mounting those is pretty self-explanatory.


The handles are also pretty no-brainers; however, I had to re-mount mine higher up on the sides and closer to the back of the box so that I could carry the full thing a little easier, although trying to carry this behemoth when it's fully loaded is a chore in itself.


Step 7: Stain and Finish

I did this step last once I had all the hardware mounted where I wanted it. I won't spend any time on how to stain or finish with polyurethane, because it's pretty straightforward. After taking off all of the hardware, I went with one quick layer of stain (Jacobean). I gave the box's insides two layers of polyurethane, and gave all of the outsides four coats. I won't intentionally leave my chuck box out in the rain, but at least it gives me piece of mind if it starts raining while I'm out hunting for a couple hours.


After you're done, re-mount all of the hardware.


Conclusion

Stick a fork in it, boys and girls. That about does it. This DIY guide is probably way more thorough than it needed to be, but a lot of that is sharing some of the mistakes I made along the way.


The most important part is to have fun with it. Add whatever bells and whistles you think will make it stand out. Paper towel racks, thermometers, bottle openers, corkboards for Polaroids, hooks for hanging tin cups, you name it.


Do it with your camping partner, your best friend, your kids, backyard chickens, etc. That's what I enjoyed most from it. Sure, it's made my latest camping trips 100x easier and less stressful. But it was also a ton of fun blaring Colter Wall and slamming some Yella Bellies in ol' Crawdaddy Lou's backyard while we cranked this puppy out. The time to beat is 5 1/2 hours and 6 Banquets a piece, but hey nobody's counting.


I hope this blog was helpful for folks. If it was, feel free to leave a comment below and share with your friends. As always, thanks for visiting Trapper's Attic and happy building!




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