Toolchests Part 12 – The Sawtill

A view of the Sawtill’s lid nested into the opening in front of the trays.

I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.

William Shakespeare – Hamlet

Every woodworker worth his salt uses handsaws. I don’t mean to impugn those who use machines exclusively to perform all sawing activities, I am sure they are all fine folk; I wish them health, happiness, and hundreds of fat children, but they are more machine operators than craftsmen in wood, in your humble servant’s un-exalted opinion.

Saws are important tools deserving of protection, but which we need to access quickly. Not an easy performance criteria to satisfy. Saws have wide metal “plates” that collect dust and condensation and develop rust. And sharp little teeth like those of a Bandersnatch that catch, cut and scratch things and are easily damaged in turn through contact with other metal tools. How best to store this tool in a toolchest filled with other tools unlikely to become fuzzy buddies with the prickly handsaw?

In this post we will examine the challenges involved in storing saws, and the solution I learned from an old dusty book hidden in a Japanese university library far back in the mists of time.

Saw Storage Performance Criteria

High-carbon steel is without doubt the best material for handsaws, but it rusts. Rust produces a rougher surface increasing friction, and if it progresses will cause deep pitting, damaging the teeth forever and permanently impairing cutting efficiency

We can apply oil to the plate and teeth to prevent/reduce rust, but oil attracts dust which often contains hard particles that dull teeth, not to mention chemicals that accelerate rust. Therefore, a good storage solution must protect saws not only from dings, but from dust and temperature swings that invite condensation and rust.

Clearly the exposed saw rack published in woodworking magazines ad nauseam as DIY projects for amateurs is easy to access and great for displaying handsaws for worship and veneration (especially grand are those with twin candlestick holders (ツ)), but they are not a good long-term storage solution because, while the saws are in plain view for daily worship, they are also exposed to dust and temperature swings that encourage condensation corrosion.

One traditional solution is to mount saws to the underside of a toolchest’s lid. I have tried this method before but long ago concluded it takes up too much real estate I need for other tools. And the saws still collect some dust in this location anyway.

I especially dislike one traditional solution, namely nailing a sawtill in the bottom of the toolchest up against the front wall, because it makes the saws difficult to see, a pain to retrieve, and more importantly, limits the travel distance and width of the all-important trays. Codswallop!

Some may insist that the internal sawtill is the only valid “traditional” method. To all the self-appointed Time Lords and Holy Arbiters of Everything Traditional that look down their patrician noses at the solution I selected I respond that there are other traditional designs they may have not seen before. Perhaps they need to… I dunno… do something crazy like… put down their congac snifters and visit different libraries?

After months of deliberation I decided I needed a sawtill that is an enclosed, sealed, insulated space in itself, that can be removed to serve as an independent toolchest most of the time but will still fit inside the toolchest when necessary, will contain many saws, not just five or six, and is at a convenient height where I can clearly see and easily retrieve/replace them. These criteria are what attracted me to this extremely intelligent design when I saw drawings of it in an old bug-chewed British book in the University of Tokyo Library. I modified the design considerably, especially the lid and the drawer, but there is nothing new under the sun.

The Execution

My sawtill nests inside the toolchest, as you can see from the photo above. In this location the lid can be closed without interference. Saws in the top compartment can be accessed, but not the saws in the bottom drawer. Tools in the top tray and those mounted inside the lid are also easily accessible, but those in the 2nd and 3rd tray and in the dungeon are not accessible without removing either the sawtill or the trays. This may seem to be a serious flaw, but au contraire, mes amis!

When the toolchest is in my workshop, the sawtill spends no time inside the toolchest. Instead I take advantage of its greatest virtue, set it off to the side, and use it as an independent toolchest dedicated to saws. In my current workshop it sits on the ledge of a bay window located 1 foot from the mothership. In other workshops I rested it on sawhorses. It is a very intelligent and flexible solution.

Do I need candlesticks and incense? Nah.

The sawtill resting on the toolchest’s walls. The top and drawers are closed. The drawer has recessed brass pulls and a brass lock. Nylon straps attached to each end of the sawtill make it easy to lift out of the toolchest’s interior.

Like the toolchest proper, the sawtill is made from solid medium-density Honduras mahogany joined with dovetails. The lid, central horizontal divider, and bottom are all solid-wood frame-and-panel construction. Like the toolchest, the sawtill’s lid has deep vertical sides to add stiffness and prevent warping, but unlike the toolchest, nothing is mounted inside the lid. A wooden lip projects down from the lid aligning it to the base and sealing it tightly when closed.

When open, the saw handles protrude above the sawtill’s sides making them easy to see, remove, and replace without fiddling around. This is important.

Due to this construction, neither drawer nor lid have ever warped or become sticky.

The sawtill with the lid and drawer open. The top opening is filled primarily with Western saws and larger Japanese saws (e.g. bukkiri gagari), while the drawer is stuffed full of thinner Japanese saws as well as sharpening files, chalk and a sawset. I tend to store many of my saws wrapped in newspaper because the out-gassing of the ink is a good corrosion preventative, at least when the newspaper is new. Strange but true.

The top compartment is sized to house 8-26” Disston No.12 saws, or a mixture of Western and larger Japanese saws. The drawer underneath will hold a dozen Japanese saws along with files and other saw-related tools. 

The sawtill’s width is a hair narrower than Moby Dick’s sliding trays, and its overall height with lid closed is the same as the combined height of three trays. It therefore rests neatly on the bottom tray’s ledge and nestled inside the space created when the three trays are slid to the back. The toolchest’s lid can be closed with the sawtill in this position locking it in securely.


When this saw till was new I installed boards with the classic slits & slots in the top compartment to retain saws, but changed to plywood dividers long ago because they are more flexible, quicker to access/replace, keep saws from banging against each other when removing/replacing them, and allow me to wrap the saws for additional protection during long-term storage and transit. I would never go back to slits or slots.

Due to potential fire hazard I didn’t mount candelabra or an incense stand to it.

In the next post in this series we will examine the finishes used. I think you will find this especially interesting. Until then, I have the honor to remain


© 2020 Stanley Covington All Rights Reserved

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Other Posts in this Series:

10 thoughts on “Toolchests Part 12 – The Sawtill

  1. So it’s a chest within a chest. Chestception. I think I speak for the mob when I say we need more saw pictures. On a related note, this explains why I’ve seen metate with stacked saws in newspaper.


    1. Yes, it’s like a Russian nesting doll, although I don’t use it that way normally.

      Newspaper works! Or at least the ink vapors do. I once asked my brother-in-law in Sendai why the expensive German steel equipment in his book-binding factory never rusted despite no AC or humidity controls. Ink vapor was his response.


  2. I’ve been contemplating for a very long time to make a typical English tool chest to replace my current one displayed in all my photos. I bet people wonder when I take photos of the stuff I make that I purposely display my tools in the background. While they may think it is a great advertising gimmick, I don’t do it because of that. The lighting is far better in that position than any other; go figure.

    Anyway, I’m now contemplating whether I should make something similar to a mechanic’s standing tool chest. That would be considerably easier on the back when retrieving tools and the tools accessibility would be greater than the standard English tool chest. Either direction I go I wish I pull my finger out and start building one.


    1. Traditional toolchests are not for ideal for everyone and every situation As you observed, taller cabinets are easier on the back and knees. I use both styles when I’m back home in the USA ( it’s been a long time…. ) But it’s hard to beat the portability, toughness, and sealing ability of a well-designed and well-made toolchest. The “ well” word is missing in most toolchests that simply imitate traditional English chests IMHO.

      Case in point: My tool cabinets are all in-storage in Nevada, but my toolchest follows me everywhere.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Your toolchest series is flush with brilliant ideas and long thought out solutions to common problems that are often just taken as shortfalls to deal with rather than design out. They give us all much to consider regarding our own unique situations. I appreciate the detailed solutions you have arrived at over the years.

    I too am interesting in additional saw pictures, particularly from the top down. I’m curious about the plywood dividers…are they spaced just a tad wider than the saw handle widths? Do the saws move much? It seems the slits-n-slots prevent movement more but perhaps the movement with the dividers isn’t enough to worry about?

    Thanks again!


    1. Jonthan: I will try to get some pics of the sawtill with the saws out, add them to the post, and let you know when it is uploaded. I don’t recall the spacing between dividers. A little wider than the handles is correct. I got sick of slits and slots because it takes too long to fish the blades into and out of them, and they can bang against each other in the process. Slits and slots move less, but the goal, as I see it, is to protect the saws and make it easy to get them in and out, not to make them appear neat. It’s a working toolchest not a display case. A plain divider space can store two 26″ panel saws with a piece of cardboard in-between. And it will let me store them wrapped in paper or cloth, something slits and slots makes impossible. Much more flexibility for changes and additions. Stan


      1. Thanks Stan. I can definitely see how the slit and slots would be tedious to use. My only thought with the dividers was whether the end of the saw blade leaded against a divider causing a slight bend in the blade and if that had any ill effect on the blades straightness long-term. I’m confident it doesn’t or else you would have landed on a difference solution, but I was wondering how you prevented that. I also look forward to seeing how you have situated your smaller, backsaws.



      2. Jonathan; You make a good point about plate warpage due to uneven support. It may be that slits ‘n slots would be better in this regard, but I doubt it would be greatly superior. The best way to store saws is to hang them from the end of the blade, or from the handle, of course, possible in a cabinet, but not so much in a toolchest. It’s a compromise, one I decided to tilt towards convenience and space savings. Any solutions that don’t take up much more space?


      3. Stan, I am probably overthinking it as if there was any noticeable ill effects you would have surely noticed by now. Two thoughts come to mind though, perhaps making the dividers a 1/4″ wider than the saw handle width which shouldn’t inhibit removal since the handles stick up above the dividers and then having two bits of wood (3/4″ x height of divider) about halfway down the length of the saw plate that are glued to the dividers on either side of the blade and leave a 1/4″ space for the blade. A much more forgiving slit n slot if you will. It should be easy to remove and replace the saw, but the saw could only tilt from vertical 1/8″ either direction.

        The second thought is much less practical and not worth serious consideration in your situation, but it came to mind nonetheless. Since you mentioned vertical storage, I wonder if someone might want to build a sawtill chest such as yours that stores horizontal while in the chest for travel but when removed stands vertical and acts similar to a wall hanging sawtill. The dividers like you have would remain and since one would likely wrap the saw plates in newspaper or cloth for travel, the extra material would serve to help prevent any warpage while stored horizontally in the chest. Of course that would prevent a nice wide drawer for Japanese saws like you have and the design would surely be more complicated. Just musing.



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