Toolchests Part 2 – History

Advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
An Egyptian Chest with very warlike decoration of chariots with archers, the main battle tank of the ancient world. What did the boy king store in it?

This is the second part of this series about toolchests. In this post, just to ensure we have a common understanding, we will examine some of the history and roles of chests in general.

The wooden chest is perhaps the most ancient hard-sided container used by humankind. This fact alone makes it a method of tool storage you should at least consider.

The traditional chest is simply a box with a lid. Throughout human history, most chests have been made of wood, although there are examples made of rushes, stone and metal.

It has 4 fixed sides, a fixed bottom, and an operable lid on top. Some have legs of one type or another, others don’t. Some have drawers, but historically most did not. There are many ways to construct them, some materials and methods were better than others. There are even a few examples of nordic chests made by hollowing-out logs.

A Scandinavian chest made from a section of tree trunk
Another antique chest made form a section of a tree trunk

Since at least the bronze age, chests used by common folk were expected to provide more than just storage space, but to do double, even triple duty as tables, benches, beds, food storage, food processing equipment and sometimes even fortifications.

Small Medieval oak ironbound chest, clamp front in construction and the iron work consists of flat straps with fleur-de-lys motifs and a large butterfly lock plate. Origin: Germany Date: Circa 1400 Dimensions: Width (inches) 36 1/2 x Height 21 3/4 x Depth 16

For millennia chests were used to house and protect clothes, blankets, linens, armor, weapons, boots, horse gear, cooking and eating utensils, food, and money, just to name a few categories. Nowadays we tend to think of chests as storage space for clothing and blankets, or as a bench seat placed at the foot of a bed, but they were also practical household tools used to store grain in hovels shared with livestock and lit by rush lights when candles were a prohibitively expensive luxury. The inverted lid of these “grain arks” were used as a trough for kneading bread dough after the goodwife had turned the winnowed grain into meal during her “daily grind.”

An English oak clamped-front ark  17th century the canted boarded detachable cover above a twin panelled front and later filled lockplate, with channelled stiles
A medieval clamp-construction “grain ark.” A household’s goodwife would store her grain in this chest. The lid can be rotated open, but is not “hinged,” per-say. The goodwife would use a quern stone to grind the grain into flour, usually of a rough consistency. This is where the term “daily grind” originated. She would then turn the grain ark’s lid upside down, rest it on the base, and use the trough formed to knead the dough to make the “daily bread.” When done, the lid was cleaned, turned upside down and placed on the base to as a lid once again protecting the grain from dust, water, bugs and vermin.
Milling Grain with Water Power
Quern stone used for grinding grain to make flour.
Using a quern stone to grind flour in the Czech Republic.

Chests can be simple, easy to make, relatively inexpensive, and very durable. Or they can be fabulously expensive pieces of high-art intended to communicate status and wealth, as many museum collections can attest. 

An early Renaissance, cassoni, or marriage chest. These were usually made in pairs and sent by the groom’s family to the bride to hold her dowry during the very public bridal procession, making them ostentatious signs of wealth and prestige if only for a few hours, days or weeks while in-transit.

Throughout history chests have been carved, painted, lacquered, covered with nails, inlaid with mother of pearl or chased metal, and even gilded with gold leaf. They’ve served as strong-boxes for crusader banks, transported Incan gold on Spanish galleons, and accompanied Italian princess loaded down with rich dowry goods. But whatever their purpose or appearance, chests were once the most common storage container in human civilization, with every well-established household throughout the world possessing at least one. Regardless of where you live now or where your forefathers originated, it is safe to say that thousands of chests served your ancestors down through history. The chest is older than the chair, and much older than the elevated bed. Only dirt has a longer track record.

Pennsylvania Dutch (German) dowry chest with painted unicorns and flower decoration.
A Zanzibar dowry chest with red paint and brass hardware and nails
Turkish Dowry Chest covered with mother-of-pearl inlay

Chests are not as ergonomic or convenient as modern cabinets, and for this reason and others have fallen out of fashion, but their utility is not diminished especially in the case of woodworking tools which do not wrinkle or molder.

There are many surviving examples of ancient toolchests we can learn from. Europe and the Middle-east are not the only sources of inspiration available.

A very traditional “Nagamochi” tansu from Japan. These were specifically designed for not only general storage, but for transporting goods during the periods of Japan’s history when animal-powered carts were forbidden to ordinary folk. The rectangular bit of hardware seen at the ends was rotated up and wooden yoke was passed through so that two or men could carry the chest on their shoulders.
アンティーク家具 古民具 骨董 江戸時代 味の良い車長持ち(時代箪笥)
Another traditional Japanese chest called a “kuruma dansu 車箪笥,” which translates to “wheeled chest.” It too has the same nagamochi hardware on each end. Japan has a long history of fires that destroyed entire cities on a regular basis, so one justification for this style of chest was it could be wheeled out of the house quickly before the house burnt down saving valuables. Try doing that with a wall cabinet! My chest borrowed from this traditional design, but subsituted modern materials and detachable wheels. I have no patience with tiny, fragile casters.

One of the first pieces of furniture a journeyman woodworker in centuries past would make was a toolchest to house his valuable tools. Accordingly, many old woodworking instruction books included designs for toolchests. One such book was the inspiration for my toolchest.

Based on statistical data, the vast majority of modern buildings have a useful lifespan of around 50 years. Furniture and casework is much less nowadays. While this mindset has been a reality, indeed has been celebrated for the last 80 years or so, it is a wasteful attitude I strongly dislike, one that diminishes the quality of our current existence, beggars civilization’s future, and stuffs landfills. I have no interest in making low-cost objects that self-destruct or that might embarrass me in the eyes of my descendants. Accordingly, I set the useful lifespan of objects I make for my own use at 200 years. There is an off-chance I won’t be around that long, but God willing and the creek don’t rise, I can be sure the things I make with my own hands will, including this toolchest. Do you have useful lifespan goals for your woodworking?

While there are many varieties, no piece of furniture has served humanity longer or better than the chest. If you value your woodworking tools and want a woodworking project that will have long-term value, the toolchest is a storage system you should at least consider.

An iron-bound chest for containing valuables, the ancient equivalent of a portable safe.

In the next post in this series on tool chests we will examine the goals and objectives you would be wise consider when designing a toolchest, as well as the challenges toolchests face in the real dirty world.

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions form located immediately below. Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google or incompetent facebook and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. We swears on the Precious.

Other Posts in this Series

Toolchests Part 1 – And Away We Go

8 thoughts on “Toolchests Part 2 – History

  1. Another chest making technique to add to the list is the bentwood box method used by the natives of the Pacific Northwest. The Haida were/are particularly good at making these.

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  2. I’m looking forward to the rest of this series. After my grandfather passed, I spent an afternoon in his workshop filling a rental car with whatever looked useful and/or well-loved. And so began my woodworking journey.

    I stuffed odds and ends in what seemed at the time to my untrained eyes to simply be a loudly-painted, old teal box. It was so heavy and large in my small apartment that I thought it might better serve me sawn apart. Of course I later found out it had carried all of my great-grandfather’s tools across the Atlantic from Bohemia, where he continued his trade in Cleveland.

    With any luck, perhaps your descendants will stumble upon some carefully joined box of yours and embarrass themselves!

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    1. Mike: Great story about valuable tools, made more-so by time, distance and the family connection. Any ideas how we might avoid such confusion with our grandchildren? Maybe a big brass plaque with a curse inscribed? Perhaps something like “Piles shall come on swift wings to him who abuses these tools?”

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  3. Looking again at the gorgeous wheeled nagamochi tansu.

    Apart from the sweet little stool next to it, I notice that the lid of the chest is arched. That is an attractive detail, but it would prevent anyone from stacking other items on top. And the arch would provide I think only a minor increase in volume so it must have been done for esthetic reasons?

    And I like the small drawer accessed from the outside. Is that a common feature of such chests?

    And the wheels. I’m guessing that, as you suggest, these were “in case of emergency” wheels. Because they are made of wood and that bridle joinery between the axle and the side of of the chest is attractive but looks iffy. I would not want to roll that very far on cobbled streets. Much safer to get my minions to carry it.

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    1. Gary: I believe the arched top is probably intended to keep people from stacking stuff on top. I don’t believe it’s a common detail in Japanese tansu, but there are experts who would know more than I do.

      Another upside to the arched lid is that it is more rigid than a flat plank lid and tends to warp less. A warped lid won’t seal tight and looks foolish.

      It has the downside you noted that the interior space may not be used very effectively. Perhaps not too bad if clothing is stacked inside. The other downside I am aware of is that one would need to pull the chest away from the wall, at least the depth of the lid, to open it.

      The little drawer is actually very common in Japanese tansu.

      Remember, this was made before rubber was available in Japan and iron was expensive, so wood was a reasonable material for wheels. It was not that long ago that most wheeled carts in Europe and America had solid wood wheels without tires, not even iron ones.

      Minions are a great idea. Where can I get some of those? …. Wait a minute, my wife thinks I’m her minion….So can a minion have minions?

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      1. Minions of minions, sometimes known as childrens, are a false promise and a veritable pit of constant requirement. Somewhats believed that as they age their usefulness greatens however dissension of opinion states otherwise by the other whatsomes. I am yet to find practical application for my two minions however on occasion great mirth is issued forth because of them and so they remain and so I am their minion.

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