My tool chest

Recently, the ‘log-osphere (that’s blogosphere, for woodworkers…, yeah, I know…) has been abuzz with talk of tool storage, with Christopher  (um, er.., that’s Chris) Schwarz’s examination of the legendary Studley tool chest or his great tool purge and tool chest construction chronicled in The Anarchists Tool Chest, and the stepped-side tool chest by Rob Bois, currently being assembled.  Some of what Rob talks about prompted me to reflect on the construction of my own tool chest, and I though I’d share it here:


Tool Chest - Ends made from old Fir 5-Panel Door

Last year at about this time (maybe Oct, 2010?), I embarked on a free-form tool chest build, which started out by the need for storing my growing collection of hand tools, and the desire to use some of the material that was beginning to clutter the shop.  I thought I’d throw together a case, back and ends made from an old fir 5-panel door, with some plywood web frames, and make some plywood drawers.  you know…simple. Well, as it happens, there was some feature creep. The top:  When we moved into this old house (c. 1880) there was a workbench (not a woodworkers bench, more of a tinkerer’s catch-all) that was cobbled together of this and that, with vinyl flooring glued to the top, attic floorboards for shelves…you know the type.  The consummate yankee, I cobbled together something a little more useful, adding a larger plywood top with pine edging (this is all before I became a woodworker, mind you), screwing on some leg extensions to raise it up a bit, and that became my workbench for the next decade or so.  Well, also in 2010, I built my Roubo-style bench (more on this later), so it was type to get rid of this old wreck, so I pulled it apart and here’s what I found:  an antique, worm-holed oak top under the vinyl, under the plywood, which might at one time have been a part of a solid door.  Well, that can’t get discarded.  So it was rehab-ed into a beautiful, if holey dark top, which just glows with some boiled linseed oil. From the partially-rotten original legs of the bench, I recovered some lovely hard maple, which had to be cut away from the water damaged area from the water we occasionally get through the fieldstone foundation in the old basement (my shop is in the new, deeper part of the basement).

Tool Chest - Old Oak, Ash, Walnut, and more...

This part, I’m a little embarrassed about:  the corner posts.  I mentioned I had some 5-panel doors original to the house that had begun to accumulate in the attic and basement.  Properly cut and tenoned, they would make perfect end and back panels for the chest (one panel for each end, three for the back), but what to join them to in the corners?  Due to the concern about the water in the old basement eventually leading to water in the deeper new basement, I had it in my mind that the legs should ok for ground contact, and I had some old PT 4×4 fence posts which I recycled.  I know, I know, I don’t like it either.  But I had it, and at the time, it was just a quick project to give my tools a place to be.  So PT legs…and aside from the color in the final product, and the unpleasantness of working with it, it gets the job done.  Incidentally, I NEVER get water in the deep basement.  And if I did, I guess I should worry more about the hundreds of pounds of cast iron and tool steel in the chest, than the chest itself.  I guess this type of backwards logic is a risk of on-the-fly design. Inspired by a class I took with Phil Lowe at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanshipin Maine, I decided that instead of plywood, I’d do all of the remaining joinery by hand.  In 2007, I took down a large, but dying ash in my front yard, milled the wood into slabs, boards, and beams (and alot of firewood).  It’s been air-drying since.

Drawer Fronts Book-matched Ash - mostly, the rest grain matched as best as I could

My Big ASH (With an H)

Hand-Cut Dovetails, 180 or more of them...Hand-Cut Dovetails, 180 or more of them…

Drawers were made from pine or poplar sides and plywood bottoms.  Here is where Rob Bois’ mention of offended OCD comes in:  The dovetail layout used only four tools: a pencil, a square, a bevel gauge, and my eyeball.  At the suggestion of Phil Lowe, I trusted my eye to position the layout tools where the dovetails looked right, saving a TON of time in measuring, and with the variable sized and spaced tails,  as well as the varying heights of drawer fronts this was a godsend.  Would I do it on a highboy…probably not, but I might.  In the end, as Rob rightly points out, it’s a handmade piece.  If we wanted perfectly sized and spaced tails, we could just machine them, but where’s the fun in that? The web frames are made of scraps of plywood I had around, and the dividers from bits of old oak that came from god knows where, just found them in a pile of stuff in the old basement.

The drawer pulls:  After hand-crafting all the drawers, I couldn’t stomach putting factory-made pulls, and as I “needed” to make my own pulls, it gave me an excuse to finally get a lathe.  (So technically, I  guess this project did cost me something, but not in materials).  My local tree guy, who used to woodwork and operate his own portable mill, until it got to be more time than he could devote and still run his business, was kind enough to dump a load of black walnut logs, maybe 6-8 feet long, and 8-16″ diameter for me after I asked him, if he ever came across decent stuff that he didn’t want, (thinking like a 4′ section of log or two, not a truckload) to think of me.  Most of it is not too straight, so I won’t get any big board out of it, but perfect stuff for small pieces, or accents…such as drawer pulls. I got my chainsaw and my froe, cut and split some of the logs and processed it down to a few turning blanks sufficient for at least 16 knobs (I didn’t think I’d be able to do 13 without ruining a few, so I made extra).  this was a fun, and reasonably easy first turning project, and thanks again to Phil Lowe for his Fine Woodworking Article in FWW#172 on Turned Drawer Pulls.

As you see a bit in the photos on top of the chest, I have designs (not actual designs, but mental plans…) for a hanging tool cabinet for regular use items, which I started from the inside with the plane section, since I needed a place to put my them accessible, but out of the way (before I built the chest).  My mental picture is based in large part on Christian Becksvoort’s cabinet, shown here, or more specifically, the case he made for Lie-Nielsen, which I saw at their Maine headquarters last year, shown here:

Becksvoort - Lie-nielsen Tool Cabinet 2010

I can’t wait:  Notably lacking in my tool chest so far, is a means of organizing the drawers.  At the moment, I have generally sorted items: measuring and marking tools, waterstones and sharpening, drilling, saws and scrapers, etc. but it’s hardly organized.  So I can’t wait to see what Rob, with his self-professed obsessive nature, does for drawer interiors, or if he will in the end, subscribe to Chris Schwarz’s “leave the space versatile” approach.  Me, if I had the time (and the skill), I would make a Studley.  See the  Studley Slideshow from Lost Art Press here.

About Nick

Nick Roulleau is founder, craftsman, designer, joiner, finisher, floor-sweep and all of the other roles at Mansfield Fine Furniture. A woodworker for more than a decade, Nick started the company with the goal of filling the need for heirloom-quality furniture hand-made from premium woods. Every piece is designed to suit the customer's needs and desires, hand-picking each piece of wood, and built one piece at a time, using both modern and centuries-old traditional methods to yield furniture to last for generations.