Toolchests Part 4 – Goals & Objectives

It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

More than just keeping tools together in one place, the challenge facing the toolchest designer is how to protect those tools while also keeping them organized and easy to access. So let’s examine some of the things we need a toolchest to accomplish.

Tool Organization

Obviously, the first and most important objective of a tool storage system must be to efficiently house and organize tools. A cardboard box is lightweight and does these tasks inexpensively, but not well. If you have ever worked out of a cardboard box you know how frustrating they can be. These are not easy tasks to accomplish especially when space is as limited as it is in a toolchest. We’ll examine this important subject more in future posts.

Tool Protection

A tool storage system should protect the tools inside from dings, moisture, dirt, corrosion, vermin, insects, and in some cases unauthorized borrowers, thieves and, of course, pernicious pixies during its useful lifetime, in this case 200 years.

Let’s examine the types and causes of tool degradation an effective tool chest must protect against, as well as the miracle of tool evolution.


Ding damage occurs when things strike or grind against tools, especially when they fall, rattle, scrape or bang against each other. Tools stored in a jumble in cardboard boxes are likely to be damaged every time the box is touched. A good toolchest must prevent this.


Assuming the toolchest is not left out in the rain for days at a time or subjected to flooding, what sort of moisture damage is most likely to occur? The answer is condensation corrosion.

When relatively warm humid air contacts relatively colder metal, such as carbon-steel tool blades, condensation will occur and rust will develop, especially if the place where the tools reside is not constantly heated/air-conditioned and has controlled humidity. This is not my opinion, but simple physics, and although it may take years before the corrosion becomes noticeable to the naked eye, it will happen sure as eggses is eggses. 

An example of condensation corrosion in a barn.

To prevent condensation corrosion, an effective toolchest will accomplish two things. First, it will insulate tools from sudden temperature swings due to convection (heat transfer through the toolchest’s walls, floor and lid) and second, it will seal well thereby minimizing temperature swings due to infiltration of colder/warmer humid air that might produce condensation. 

Remember, it is not temperature itself that causes condensation, rather it is the differential temperature between rust-prone metal and airborne moisture. Also worth remembering is the fact that large temperature changes occur in most locations of the world twice a day as the sun rises and sets. If there is moisture in the air, and temperatures are allowed to change, condensation will eventually occur. A good tool chest will satisfy these two performance criteria to effectively reduce long-term corrosion. 

Corrosion aside, moisture and temperature changes can create problems with some tools, especially wooden-bodied planes, which can warp when subjected to sudden swings in humidity causing them to misbehave in frustrating ways. Even a little warpage can make a wooden-bodied plane stop functioning. 

Most people understand that changes in humidity can cause their wooden-bodied planes to warp sometimes to the degree that they will no longer take a shaving, but why is this? The simple answer is twofold. First, wood fibers in a plane body exposed to increased environmental humidity will absorb moisture and try to expand, but if later exposed to decreased environmental humidity the same fibers will release moisture and try to shrink.

The second factor in the equation is that wood absorbs or loses moisture much quicker through end-grain than side grain.

The result is that the exposed end-grain at both ends and the plane’s mouth opening absorb or discharge moisture quicker than the interior portion, and therefore expand or contract quicker, so that when exposed to rapidly changing humidity, the ends of a stick of wood such as a plane body are constantly fighting with its middle, creating differential stresses which cause warping. It is this same phenomenon that causes green logs to split from the ends first. Once the moisture content in a wooden plane body reaches equilibrium, it will usually calm down, and return to functioning normally. 

A tightly sealed wooden toolchest will smooth out the mountains and valleys in the moisture content curve inside itself, and likewise in the wooden plane bodies it houses, helping them reach equilibrium quickly, thereby reducing internal stresses in the plane bodies contained in the toolchest and the resulting warpage. 

Cardboard boxes provide some insulation against temperature and humidity fluctuations, but unless all the seams are tightly taped closed, those changes still occur rapidly. 

Aside from airtight containers, most commercially available metal and plastic toolboxes do not moderate temperature or humidity fluctuations well at all.

Dust & Dirt

Why is dust a problem, you may ask? I have supervised the design and construction of many laboratories and high-level cleanrooms during my career, and know well the damage dirt can cause, and how difficult it is to keep out. Of course, I am not suggesting you should make your tool container from insulated clean-panels and connect expensive and bulky AHU systems with environmental controls and HEPA filters to it. I am only stating that dust and dirt will eventually become a serious problem if not controlled.

Dust consists of particles of whatnot made airborne and blown hither and yon by winds and storms, vehicular traffic, construction, mining, farming, landscaping, industrial activities, forest/mountain fires (California), wood fires, and diesel engines, just to name a few sources. This dust fills the atmosphere and streets and finds it ways into our homes and workplaces. Indeed it rises and billows around us with every footstep, and will infiltrate a toolchest through every opening, crack or gap. Given enough time and neglect, airborne dust literally buries civilizations. You can sweep it, vacuum it and even curse at it but you can’t stop it entirely.

Airborne dust is not just ungodly. When it settles on tools it absorbs and contaminates protective oils and wicks moisture into contact with the tool’s metal surfaces promoting rust. Sawdust has the same effect, by the way. This is compounded by the fact that dust often contains salts and other chemicals that actively accelerate corrosion. Salt in dust, you say? Yes indeedy. If there is salt in the air, as is often the case in locales near the seashore, or where salt or chlorides are used to melt ice and snow on roads, there will be corrosive chemicals in the air and in the dust.

The damage caused by dust and dirt is not limited to corrosion: Dust from outdoor sources always contain particles that are harder than the steel of your tool blades and will dull them. Never forget this fact. So a toolchest that seals out dust and dirt is indispensable, at least if you want your tools to last.


Woodworm Larvae. BTW, this what the EU demands we eat in place of meat. Anyone up for a worm burger with a side of fleas?
Deathwatch Beetle

I mentioned insects above, but bugs don’t eat tools, do they? Well, as a matter of fact they do eat some tool parts, and what they don’t eat they can ruin.

Beetles and termites are fond of wood, and given a moist environment, a miniature bottle of Tabasco Sauce and enough time they will eat most woods including tool handles and wooden plane bodies, not to mention the tool storage system itself if made of wood or cardboard. If you doubt this, go examine some antique wooden furniture, plane bodies, and tool handles.

Termites will march into a toolchest through gaps they find or holes they chew as bold as a Shat Francisco politician lying on CNN. Moths and other bugs fly in and lay eggs, which hatch into caterpillars or beetles, some of which eat natural fabrics, while others eat wood. No doubt you have seen these critters, or at least the holes and sawdust they leave behind.

Termites at Table. Pass me the hot sauce please.

While they can ruin a nice soup, you wouldn’t think of flies as being harmful to tools. But the fact is the little buggers constantly excrete wet corrosive globs everywhere they alight, and these specks make rust. Best avoided.

And then of course there are those tough little cockroaches that may not eat your tools but will lay eggs among them and use them as la cucaracha outhouses. A good toolchest therefore must resist being eaten or infested by creepy critters.


And let’s not forget rodents. Mice and rats are fond of making nests in warm, dry, enclosed spaces, and don’t mind chewing a hole into a box or a baseboard to upgrade their living conditions. Cardboard is especially susceptible to the ravages of rodents, but experience and history shows us that wooden casework is by no means invincible. If you have seen the corrosion rodent feces and urine can wreak, you know why they must be kept far from your valuable tools.

Sticky Fingers

Perhaps you use and store your tools where there are no pilferers, thieves, or eight-fingered pixies, but even then, your tools may be at risk. Have you ever found one of your valuable saws laying rusting in your backyard after being used by a mysterious stranger to prune a tree? Ever have a nice but forgetful neighbor borrow an expensive chisel to open a paint can without telling you? Did he forget to return it, accidentally drop it on the concrete floor of his garage chipping the cutting edge? Did it then roll underneath the broken lawn-mower in the corner rusting silently for months or years? If you have, there were probably other tools that suffered even worse fates that will never be ransomed.

Are you aware of the darwinian evolution of tools, a curious but common phenomenon whereby tools sprout legs and beetle away when you aren’t looking? Between children, helpful spouses, conveniently forgetful neighbors, pernicious pilfering pixies and Darwin’s legacy it’s a miracle any of our tools survive.

A lock won’t even slow down a thief with a crowbar, but it may keep honest people honest. Wooden chests have traditionally incorporated a locking mechanism of some sort. I think this is a traditional feature worth retaining, and one we will consider elsewhere in this series.

Exposed Storage Solutions

While a cardboard box placed under a downspout may be worse, the pegboard or open shelf is a dismal way of storing tools long-term. Ditto for the wall-mounted open sawtills all the woodworking publications cyclically regurgitate like a cat with a hairball fetish.

Many people love to arrange their tools hanging on the wall in full view like a movie film set. Tools are beautiful things, and I understand the attraction of tool porn, but unless you work in a well-maintained, dust-free, environmentally-controlled film studio, or the tools are daily cleaned and re-oiled, tools hung on the wall or placed naked on open shelves are exposed to dirt, dust, sawdust, temperature and humidity swings, and even banging against other tools. They are especially susceptible to damage from corrosive flyspecks in a garage or other workshop with a big roll-up door. Don’t laugh, it happens billions of times every second of every day, and degrades exposed steel like Hollywood movie producers do foolish lasses and laddies.

These tools are handy, but does “patina” improve their performance or add to their longevity?

Case in point (about pegboards and shelves, that is, not flexible virtue): My father was a carpenter and cabinetmaker born in 1930. After retirement he stored his tools in his garage in central Utah hanging on pegboards, stacked on open shelves, and in a jumble under his workbench for several decades. For the last 25 years or so of his life they were entirely neglected. The dust, condensation rust, dings, fly specs, road salt, and rodent doodoo that accumulated during those years turned all of his planes, chisels, and saws to rubbish. Such a waste. The only tools of his that survive in a useful condition today are the ones he gave me when he retired.

A durable, tightly sealed, insulated container that keeps out dust, bugs, vermin and pesky pixies, and keeps your tools from sprouting legs and beetling away to Darwinian adventures when you are not looking is just the ticket.

In the next post in this series we will consider the design process. The anticipation is killing me!


Steel-bound seaman’s chest

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Other Posts in this Series

11 thoughts on “Toolchests Part 4 – Goals & Objectives

  1. Stan,

    Wonderfully articulated as always. It is really enjoyable reading your posts, you cover a lot of great material. One thing I’ve been stewing over is the difference between a well designed wall hanging tool cabinet and the floor residing tool chest. My emphasis is on well designed, because I think you would agree that has to be the starting point. A tool chest is no better off than any other storage method if it isn’t well designed.

    So, a well designed tool cabinet seems to me to just be a tool chest hung on the wall. But they never seem to be given credit for sealing out dust, dirt, bugs, vermin, etc as well as tool chests. Why is that? Couldn’t a lip be produced around the inside lip of the door like a tool chest lid? It seems to me the major difference between wall hung and floor sitting is portability, even if it’s just a major move every 10 years or so. The tool chest wins that game every time I think, but the tool chest always seems to win the sealing game as well and I’m wondering why. Truly curious since I haven’t done either one and you and others have.

    Thanks again!


    1. Jonathan: You make a valid point. As I mentioned before, I have used cabinets and still have a large one in storage back in the US I an fond of.

      Your point about “well designed” is likewise valid. Standard cabinets don’t have astragals or lips, but there is no reason they couldn’t. Cabinets have some disadvantages however, especially if they are expected to carry the weight mine does. The first problem is that heavy wall-mounted cabinets do fail and fall down. It happens a lot. French cleats alone won’t cut it.

      Few people add the structural reinforcing to their garage or workshop walls required to support a heavy tool cabinet without causing the wall to bow out, sometimes failing. Stud walls alone are not intended to handle that much weight in that direction (as in cantilevered outward from the wall, instead of a simple axial load on the studs). In the commercial construction industry where I work, C channel, or LGS structural reinforcing is required per building code. This would absolutely be part of a “well designed” wall cabinet. I could do that if I built or owned the house, but I live in too many rentals for that to be an option.

      Likewise, the weight of tools on shelves and the bottom of wall cabinets can be quite large creating a big bending moment which can creep and bow down over time. This is very real and must be dealt with in a “well designed” cabinet because it would directly impact the seal between case and doors. Can it be solved? Sure, but it means not only a fairly heavy structure, something that looks clumsy on a wall, but it means building in camber to ensure sag at the shelves and bottom causes neutral downward deflection. But that means you need to calculate the weight of the tools…. something that may change over the years.

      The best way to deal with the seal then is flexible gaskets, which deteriorate over time, and can still fail to seal if sag exceeds design parameters.

      All this is made even more complicated if tools are mounted inside the swinging door(s). Big bending moment on the wall and hinges. Big torsion trying to pull the doors off the case and the cabinet off the wall. See my point?

      You can make a wall-mounted, or even rolling tool cabinet like the one I have in storage but the difficulty in dealing with weight, deflection, and sealing is many times more difficult for cabinets than chests. Cabinets are often cheaper, much more convenient and more attractive, but they are not as tough or durable, nor do they seal as well as mine, in any case. Just my opinion, but I own both types of storage solutions and used them for many years.



      1. Stan,

        Great insights, those were exactly the types of considerations I was hoping you would help bring to light and that I was sure I was missing. It seems the complexity in a wall cabinet (if you want it to last) goes up quite a bit when compared to the tool chest. I guess a compromise of sorts is what you have in the states, free standing but taller and narrower with drawers. The depth away from the wall for traditional tool chests is my biggest struggle at this point due to limited floor space which is what attracts me to the Dutch chest. I suppose I can build a chest whatever size I want though.

        This definitely gives me more to ponder and that’s the stage I’m at right now 🙂


        Liked by 1 person

  2. “Woodworm Larvae. BTW, this what the EU demands we eat in place of meat.”

    Really? Really? The EU is “Demanding” that people in the USA replace meat with woodworm larvae????!!!!!!!!!!!

    What? Interesting articles ……..but……….what….????????



      Insect production, distribution, and consumption has been approved and regulations formally established in the EU.

      This has been going on for 10+years. The motivation is the belief that cattle, sheep and other grazing animals produce large amounts of methane, deemed by some to contribute to the vague hazard called “global climate change.” This supposedly man-made catastrophe was formerly called “the Ozone Hole,” later changed to “Polar Ice Melting,” and “Rising Sea Levels.” When New York City did not end up 20 ft underwater as Al Gore promised, they changed the name of the threat to “Global Warming.” When that didn’t happen either, they changed it to “Climate Change.”

      Animal-rights organizations have long been at the forefront of efforts to outlaw the use of animals for food, and supplementing the anticipated protein and calcium deficiencies with insects.

      Once consumers can be convinced to tolerate the idea of eating bugs, and flavor and menu challenges have been overcome (bugs are already served in a few Parisian restaurants), the strategy of the forces inside the EU (and lobbying companies) is to regulate the cost and availability of animal protein and milk to make insect sources the “better choice.”

      The “demand” has been going on for years now as part of the pressure the EU continues to exert on nations around the world to adopt the EU’s vision for prevention of “climate change.” You may remember President Obama was susceptible to this pressure. Australia, the USA , and other countries have flat-out have declined in recent years. Other countries like China have given lip-service to the idea without making any concrete efforts to reduce “hothouse gas” emissions, whatever that includes this week.

      A “demand” can simply be empty words, just like China’s promises to reduce its atmospheric pollution; It need not include threats of warplanes and missiles. That you have not heard of it before is not surprising, but perception is not reality.


  3. It took me two days to go through my Dad’s work trailer separating the complete rubbish from the salvageable . It had been sitting neglected and leaking in the open until a chance visit when I could shove it under cover with a mate. It took two days to strip down, clean and de rust each part and rebuild his 5 1/2 Stanley sweetheart. The cabinets on the back of the trailer were plywood which with a regular lick of paint had held up fine, until there was no regular lick of paint. Time and the elements are not kind sometimes. Damned if I will let that happen to that plane again . I am yet to tackle the No 4. It was his though so I will. Rodents do nothing for your timber stacks either or the insides of stand alone machinery.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I had the privilege to examine the contents of an English-style tool chest that had survived the porches, garages, and basements of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the Twin Cities metro for over a century. It contained the full kit needed for both timber framing and joinery work, all of it as rust-free and sharp as the day the original owner left it.

    The seller told the person who bought it that a young man had left the chest on his aunt’s porch in 1917 and never came back for it. From there it passed down to succeeding generations making its way to the Twin Cities after WWII. I speculate that he inherited or purchased the tools from someone because the contents were all from the 19th century.

    It was built almost exactly as described by the Anarchists Toolchest book. All the joints were tight and gap-free. Not sure it was fit for a second century since there was that whiff of mustiness that comes with the very beginnings of rot, but I have been sold ever since on the virtues of a well-built tool chest. Some construction details:

    * The casework was made from dark reddish-brown, fine-grained material about 7/8″ thick. The 3 trays and the saw till were made from a lighter colored species nearly as thick as the sides.
    * The top was frame-and-panel construction with 3 raised panels.
    * The sides, aprons, skirts, and dust seal around the front and sides of the top were all dovetailed, as were the 3 sliding trays. The pins were very fat compared to the modern preference for wedge-shaped pins.
    * The bottom boards were parallel to the long side.
    * The dividers for the top 2 trays fit into mortises on the long sides.
    * The saw till was removable.
    * It was covered in some sort of brown paint in relatively decent shape.
    * There were 3 forged butt hinges for the top, you could see the hammer marks.

    I believe that the chest was knocked together in the 19th century by a professional woodworker to meet professional needs. After some point on or before 1917, it was very rarely moved or opened. Being well constructed and being left alone were the keys to its survival.

    I would conclude that under the right conditions, the English tool chest pattern does not need heroic measures to last a careful woodworker an entire career of daily use and moving between workplaces. However, it has never faced selection pressure to evolve beyond a 50 or 60-year lifespan.


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