How to make a vintage airgun box replica

It’s easier to find a vintage air pistol than it is to find the box, and Phil Hooper explains how to make a convincing replica so the gun will look more at home.

I’ve already explained the process of restoring a vintage Webley Mk 1 air pistol, so in this article let’s explore what is involved in making a cardboard box for this or for any other vintage or classic airgun.

Why make a box? It provides a safe place to store the gun.  Additionally, it can display the gun when showing others. A period pellet box, price list, advertising leaflet, etc can be kept with the gun in the box to increase interest and enjoyment.

The original box can add up to £100 or so to the value of a classic or vintage airgun. A reproduction box should never be passed off as an original, but can still add value, as well as presenting the gun nicely should you choose to sell it.

So, back to my Webley Mk 1. What is needed to make a repro box? The cardboard I used was 1500 micron (that’s 1.5mm thick to you and me) Grey Board; 25mm wide picture framers’ masking tape for the corners, paper to cover the box (in this instance a roll of black sugar paper), PVA adhesive and some other items mentioned later. Those materials listed so far can be bought from a good art shop or online, all for very reasonable prices. 

I have bought in quantity so the material costs per box are only £2 or £3.

Before going any further, apart from developing some skill in cardboard origami, the biggest challenge is finding the artwork to produce the labels. In the case of the Mk 1 that means the box lid label, the end-of-box label and the instructions to paste inside the lid.

As long as you know the gun’s approximate date of manufacture, then searching online sales and auction sites will enable you to establish what label designs applied, and also the approximate box dimensions based on the space around the boxed gun being advertised. 

As with any project, having a solid plan and using accurate dimensions, which are being transposed onto grey board here, are the keys to success

In this instance I was fortunate to be able to borrow an original box of the correct specification for my 1946-58 Webley Mk 1 from a collector so I could scan two of the three labels. The instructions on the inside of the lid couldn’t be scanned without flattening the lid first, which I wouldn’t do (I value the friendship!), but the outer box lid and end-of-box label images could be captured.

The box lid was concave so that some pressure to hold it flat was needed. The scans were captured as JPG images so that they could be imported into any appropriate software packages for editing purposes. 

The main label had a large blemish in the top right-hand corner and two other corners were damaged. The box end label was stamped “.177” whereas my MK 1 is .22, so this needed changing. In this instance the changes needed were very simple and were all done in Word. On other occasions an old version of some software called Greeting Card Factory has been used to good effect and I have called on my wife’s expertise to help with this process!

For the instructions, I took a high-resolution photo. Experimentation indicated that it was better not to fill the screen with the image as this resulted in slight distortion of the label outline with the top and bottom edges, in particular, appearing slightly curved. I resolved this problem by moving the camera back so that the image was central and filled about a third of the screen. I also found that flash gave a truer colour image than daylight. 

The image was uploaded onto my laptop, expanded to fill the screen, and a screen print was taken and pasted into a Word document. The images being in Word meant that they could be sized to suit the dimensions when they’d been established.

You might think I’ve put the cart before the horse in producing the labels before making the box, but without the label artwork the whole project is much less appealing. I’ve not always been in the fortunate position of acquiring the artwork as here.

Sometimes it has been sourced as a result of much searching on the web, for example the labels on my pre-WW2 Webley Junior box. Sometimes I’ve created it from scratch, as for my Webley Service Mk II rifle and the early Original Model 5 pistol.

The next step was to design the box itself. This was easy as I’d made one previously for a 1964 Webley Senior which used essentially the identical design, just different labels. As I now had the original Mk 1 box to refer to, I checked the dimensions of my design and found them very close in all three planes, so made no adjustments.

Most important is to get the top and bottom of the box to fit snugly, without being either too loose or over-tight. The box lid, compared with the bottom, was made 3/16” larger in X and Y planes to achieve this. This figure was found by calculation and verified by trial and error, and allows for the thickness of the card and the covering paper.

Measurements need to be very accurate, as does the subsequent folding process, to achieve the fit described. Please note, uncovered boxes are constructed differently and should again exactly mirror the original design.  With these, the corners are not cut out, but folded to overlap and then are usually stapled. The clearance calculations are entirely different too. 

Back to the Mk 1 box. The grey board was marked out in accordance with the design sketch and both the top and bottom were cut out using a Stanley knife and a  steel rule. The half-moon finger cut-outs in the lid were removed before the folding was done. You could sharpen the end of a suitable steel pipe, align this with a wooden block under the board, and then strike with a mallet to fulfil this stage, but I used a pair of scissors.

Next, the edges of each of the grey board pieces needed to be folded to form the lid and the bottom of the box. I used my ancient Black & Decker Workmate (anyone old enough to remember those?) and an aluminium spirit level.

The card was clamped in the Workmate jaws and then the long edge of the spirit level pressed firmly against the card and Workmate jaw edge and a folding action applied. With a good eye and a little practice this folding can be done by hand very accurately. An error of 0.5mm or more will really mess things up, but if the bend on the pencil line is slightly out, but parallel to the line, then as long as the error on all the other folds is out by the same amount, all may still be well.

The corners now needed to be taped to create something recognisable as a box. The tape was cut to the full depth for the outsides of the corners and about ¼” for the insides. A try square can be used to ensure the box edges are held at 90 degrees to the base when the tape is applied, but because the cutting-out had been done accurately, this wasn’t really necessary. 

Now it was the moment of truth – bringing the two halves of the box together to confirm that they fit with just a little clearance in each plane to allow for the covering.  There is a bit of scope at this stage so that, if there is more clearance in one direction than the other, you can then design the covering so that the wrap around at the corners is done in the plane where the clearance is greater.

The labels have now been applied, including the one on the end of the box top with the correct Birmingham 4 address

When cutting out the covering it was important to have enough paper folded over the edges to obscure the tape on the inside corners, and also on the lid to come just below the finger cut-outs as per the original box design. 

As mentioned earlier I used black paper for the covering. The original box covering was grey with a very light texture which isn’t easy to find, so black was a compromise I was happy with. When applied correctly, the paper covering doubles the strength of the taped box corners.

The covering was glued on with PVA glue, spread using a 1” flat brush. Just enough should be used, as too much will soak the paper, making it more difficult to handle and harder to apply without any wrinkles. The finger cut-outs were trimmed to remove the covering with a scalpel. Once this was done, the box halves just needed an hour to dry before re-checking the fit top to bottom and moving to the next stage, labelling.

The labels, previously printed out and guillotined, were each offered up to the box and confirmed as being of exactly the right size. PVA glue can make the ink on the labels run, so I used Pritt Stick to attach them to the box. 

This was applied generously to the box surface, leaving a ¼” border all round, and then to the label itself, in each case, having just the outer border well coated before carefully aligning and placing onto the box. It was then gently smoothed down with a soft cloth to ensure that there were no air bubbles trapped beneath.

Here’s a replica box that Phil made for a pre-war EM-GE Zenit, an interesting gun that has an unusual over-lever cocking mechanism

Now, the partition inside the box was made by cutting a strip of the 1.5mm grey board. The dimensions were identified from the reference box, as the ones that I’d used previously weren’t quite right. This item
was held in place and secured using a staple gun orientated and positioned as per the original box.

There was just one final job remaining. The printer ink on the labels needs sealing to resist moisture and this was done by gently applying a hard wax furniture polish containing silicone in a circular motion and then buffing with a soft cloth. This process was extended to all surfaces of the box and altered the black covering and label appearance from a matt to a satin surface finish. 

The end result was very pleasing with a box that is actually better physically than the original! Modern cardboard is pH-neutral so it’s less likely to cause tarnishing or rust, although placing corrosion-inhibiting paper between the pistol and the card is still a good idea. Also, the box is paper-covered under the label and under the base, which was not the case on the original box, plus the corners are stronger. 

I’m happy with this box, and so is my restored Webley Mk 1 which is now safely cosseted within.

Here’s Phil’s Webley Mk 1 safely ensconced in its new home – it took some work to get there, but it was well worth the effort

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