The Japanese Gennou & Handle Part 17 – The Drawing Part 6/6

Dom Campbell’s in-progress atedai, and a few of the tools he used, including a most excellent gennou with a Kosaburo head and a handle he made himself.

Used to be that bats had thick handles and a big barrel. Then they found it’s not the size of the bat that gets the home run – it’s the speed with which you can swing it.

Stan Musial

In the previous five posts in this sub-series about making a drawing for a high-performance custom gennou handle, we measured various dimensions and incorporated them into our drawing. In this post we will bring everything together, and then discuss some of the strange features of this design, including a physics equation that drives it.

During this phase of the handle-making process you will have another opportunity to express the minimalist artiste lounging stylishly within your soul, probably wearing a cravat and sipping espresso languidly. C’est Magnifique!

The Sides

Let’s start work by drawing the butt’s width, determined in the previous post, on the plan view (upper half of the drawing above) centered on the handle’s centerline.

Next, once again in the plan view (upper half of the drawing above), draw two lines from where the tenon exits the eye to the butt.

Beginning at the grip area, draw curves from these two lines to to the right and left sides of the butt in a smooth transition, gradually expanding in width. The curvature/flair you produce will depend on the size of your grip, the width of the butt, and your sense of what makes a beautiful line. Feeling artistic yet? More espresso please.

Whither the Bulge?

Gentle Readers will have noticed from the drawings and photographs seen in this series so far that, unlike commercial handles, the handle we are designing does NOT exhibit a cancerous swell just below the eye. This is not a mistake. Remember, we are making a lean, mean, racing machine, not a nail bender with a sloppy eye and mass-produced tenon that needs wedges to hold it together.

This shape, with its narrow neck, flare towards the butt, and lack of the typical bulge below the eye strikes most people as strange, so an explanation may be useful.

To begin with, Japanese gennou heads of the quality assumed in this article are not secured with wedges, but by an extremely tight fit between the wooden tenon of the handle and the surfaces inside the precision-forged eye. Indeed, the fit should be so tight that, if by accident or some terrible oversight, one attempts to drive the tenon of a handle made from a wood too weak for the job into the head’s eye, the handle and/or tenon will fracture. Your humble servant has done this several times. Such a tight fit does not occur by accident. Wedges could only weaken the tenon and handle causing early failure.

To ensure this fit is indeed tight and secure, Gentle Readers must prepare the eye if the head is of lessor quality than the Hiroki or Kosaburo heads we carry, as described in previous posts in this series. If that work was necessary, we will assume it has already been completed.

Gentle Readers must use a strong, tough wood suitable to the task. The selection of wood will be the subject of the next post in this series.

They will also need to create a properly sized tenon on the handle’s end. These are critical points.

Because it is a craftsman’s hammer, not a wood butcher’s maul, there are no wedges to split the handle, and therefore no need for a tumor below the eye to both reinforce the sloppily-made handle and to keep the wedge from pushing the head down the handle.

Indeed, without the cancerous bulge, if the handle loosens sometime in the future, tapping the handle further into the eye will tighten it up, something a bulge would make impossible. Best to eliminate unsightly, unnecessary bulges entirely.

Air Resistance

Your humble servant has previously suggested that the handle we are designing will be a “high-performance tool,” indeed a “racing machine.” While not in the same class as a Formula-1 race car, air resistance is definitely a factor affecting performance, one impeded by an unnecessarily large hammer face, a thick, obese handle, and a bulge below the eye as is typical for commercial handles.

Why is air resistance an issue, you say? Of all the hand tools used in woodworking, aside from the long-handled axe, the hammer is the one that moves the fastest, and since air resistance varies with the square of the object’s velocity, hammers and axes are impacted by air resistance more than any other hand tools. Remember, we are talking about energy created by your body that is wasted by pushing air around unnecessarily.

For those Gentle Readers that enjoy math, the formula for calculating air resistance includes the area of the object, a drag coefficient specific to the object’s shape, and the object’s velocity squared. 

F = Force due to air resistance, or drag (N)

k = A constant that combines the effects of density, drag, and area (kg/m)

v = The velocity of the moving object (m/s)

ρ = The density of the air the object moves through (kg/m3)

CD = The drag coefficient, includes hard-to-measure effects (unit-less)

A = The area of the object the air presses on (m2)

We can’t control air density.

The total CD drag coefficient is a combination of the CDhead of the head and the CDhandle of the handle. We can reduce this combined Total CD by using a more aerodynamic steel hammer head instead of a huge, silly mallet, and by reducing the area of the handle pushing the air aside during the swing. I haven’t made the calculations, but the energy squandered by the excess drag of an obese handle over thousands of swings during a day’s work is not insignificant.

Another advantage of a slender neck on a hammer handle is the surprising reduction in vibration transmitted to the user’s hand, saving wear and tear on joints. This alone makes it a worthwhile improvement in my experience.

But all is not blue bunnies and fairy farts, I fear, for there are two downsides to a skinny super-model neck on a handle. First, if you tend to miss a lot when driving nails, errant heads may chew up the handle in an area where there is not much material to spare. Gentle Readers would be fully justified in blaming this damage on the malicious malfeasance of pixies, or the luck of Murphy, but my advice is: don’t miss.

The second downside to a slender neck in a gennou handle is that it’s inconvenient for choking-up on. But on second thought, that’s not a disadvantage to anyone except mountain trolls and grannies, bless their fluffy-white souls. The solution? Don’t choke up on the handle; The grip is the grip.

All Choked Up

Commercial hammer handles are a one-size-fits-nobody design, intended to accommodate many grip styles, apparently by many species, along most of the handle’s length. Holding the hammer like a hungry troll tenderizing a dwarf for the stewpot (perhaps with a delicate sprinkle of sage or a more bold glob of “floater” spice), and choking up on the grip like a near-sighted grandmother is the lowest-common-denominator design standard for commercial hammers, a crude detail simply not to be borne by C&S Tool’s Beloved Customers and the exceedingly refined Gentle Readers of this blog.

“They should be grilled and sautéed with a sprinkle of sage”

The ultimate goal of this exercise is to produce a hammer that fits Gentle Reader’s body perfectly, not every Tom, Burt or William that staggers into The Home Despot from the Ettenmoors. It will fit your arm, and your hand, and you grip without choking-up on it.

What’s wrong with choking up on the handle? Did I just hear you say: “If it’s good enough for Granny it’s good enough for me?” If so we may need to procure more of the salve Mifune Toshiro lamented not having.

Choking up on the handle is inefficient for two reasons. First, because it changes the balance of the hammer and your working rhythm (pendulum physics). This is bad.

Second, when you choke up on the handle, for at least a couple of strikes you lose the sense of the distance from your hand to the striking face’s center, reducing both your precision and confidence, and the energy imparted to the chisel or nail. Reestablishing the correct distance in your mind requires a glance at the hammer, an adjustment in your head, and an interruption in your hammering rhythm. All this nonsense is easily avoided by gripping the handle in the same location every time.

You have basically designed most of the grip’s details when you set the butt’s shape and dimensions, and the location of your palm’s heel, index finger, and pinkie finger. I suggest you leave well-enough alone for now, and, assuming this is your first custom handle, make it a tad oversized at first, and then whittle, shave, and sand it as you use it until it fits you perfectly.

In the next post in this series we will select a piece of wood from which to make our craftsman’s gennou handle. Soon we will be making sawdust… how exciting!

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please see the “Pricelist” link at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” 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, facist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may the angry fleas of a thousand camels infest my armpits.

Previous Posts in The Japanese Gennou & Handle Series

Hasegawa Kosaburo and the “Classic Profile” Gennou Head

A 200monme (750gm/26oz) classic-profile gennou with a black persimmon wood handle. Notice the swollen area near the eye of this archaic design

“The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,

Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

In this post your humble servant will introduce a famous modern-day Japanese gennou hammer blacksmith and a somewhat archaic product he infrequently forged. It is our fervent hope to provide Gentle Readers some insight into the world of the Japanese blacksmiths of yesteryear.

Hasegawa Kosaburo

Let’s begin with some background about the gennou (hammer) blacksmith known as “Kosaburo.”

Hasegawa Kosaburo 長谷川幸三郎 was born Sakai Kosaburo in 1935 in Sanjo City in Niigata prefecture Japan, the third son of a pruning shear blacksmith. He married and was adopted into the Hasegawa family and changed his legal name from Sakai to Hasegawa, a tradition in Japan used to maintain genealogical lines in the case of acute male heir deficiency.

The Hasegawa family were blacksmiths that specialized in mass-producing hammer heads.

Kosaburo worked in the family business but eventually tired of factory work and began working with his adopted brother, Hasegawa Kanichiro, who later became famous for his “Hishikan” brand gennou heads. After 10 years of practical experience in both mass-producing and hand-forging gennou heads, Kosaburo decided to devote himself to the deceptively-difficult work of hand-forging high-quality gennou heads, eventually becoming independent under his own “Kosaburo” brand.

A more detailed description of Hasegawa Kosaburo’s life and work is found at this webpage. Sorry it’s in Japanese.

Here is a video of Hasegawa-san forging a modern-profile gennou with laminated steel faces, a common method worldwide when steel was still expensive. Seeing this I think you can understand how the swell discussed below was a standard feature of forged hammers throughout most of human history.

Mr. Hasegawa has since moved on to the big woodpile in the sky where he is probably cutting charcoal. His products are no longer being manufactured, of course, but even when he was active, Kosaburo products were widely recognized as the best-quality gennou heads ever produced in Japan. At this juncture, I believe Hiroki heads are the very best new heads available.

Kosaburo’s Students

Kosaburo trained two gennou blacksmiths that are still active today: Baba Masayuki (born 1949), who uses the brand name “Doshinsai Masaykui” (道心斎正行), and Aida Hiroki (born 1964), who uses the brand name “Hiroki” (浩樹).

Mr. Baba produces beautiful decorative gennou heads. Sadly, I am not fond of his products because, in my direct experience, sometimes the eyes are not true. Am I being too severe? Should I value external beauty foremost and wink at the ugly void where the handle attaches?

Here’s my thought process in the matter; You must judge for yourself. Decoration can compensate for many shortcomings, but the used car salesman’s schtick that “It isn’t a flaw, it’s a feature” doesn’t impress me, at least not in a tool as simple as a hammer head and at the prices for which his products sell. Kinda like the city slicker who paid a high price for a stunningly beautiful Arabian horse named “tripod” and justified its missing leg because it had three good ones left, and the hopping was not really that noticeable. For me, craftsmanship and functionality take precedence over decoration. But I won’t tell you what you should think because, well, that’s your wife’s job. (ツ)

Mr. Aida’s products, on the other hand, are less decorative but of accurate construction and hardness of the sort that makes the hearts of true craftsmen sing. Making a precise, properly-forged and differentially-hardened gennou head (hard face but soft body) is no mean feat. When I can’t get Kosaburo heads, Mr. Aida’s Hiroki brand are my next choice. The last I asked Mr. Aida, he had a three-year waiting list for his products. Very popular over here.

Most blacksmith’s shops are dark, dirty, smoky places like a dungeon in hell minus the demon torturers, lakes of blood, and the bitter stink of rotisserie lawyers, but when I visited Mr. Aida’s forge I found it to be neater, cleaner, and tidier than most CNC machine shops.

The Classic-profile Gennou Head

The head pictured in this article is the primary subject of this article. It’s an antique style seldom seen anymore, one that was once the standard shape for blacksmith-forged heads throughout most of the world. I like to call it the “classic profile” gennou head. It really doesn’t have a specific name in Japanese that I have been able to discover.

The polished areas at each striking face are non-functional vestiges of the laminated steel faces applied to gennou heads back when steel was very expensive.
Please be aware that, while new, this head is old-stock, at least 40 years old. Notice the eye. Not only are its dimensions perfect, but it is centered in the body and aligned with the head’s axis in both directions. Not an easy thing to do by hand in yellow-hot steel.

We have a few of these in-stock, but they are now serious collector’s items and pricey. Few were ever made in this style and I have never seen one in an auction. Please be aware that the head shown is old-stock, at least 40 years old. During those years in storage in a cardboard box the head developed some surface rust of the sort antique dealers call “patina” in reverent tones which is easily removed, but no deep pitting.

The shape is subtle. The swollen waist is a feature all hammer heads worldwide once exhibited, a remnant of the blacksmith driving a steel drift into the yellow-hot head to form the eye into which the handle’s tenon fits. Kosaburo used this same technique to create his eyes, as does Hiroki nowadays, as seen in the video linked to above.

Traditionally this swell was very roughly formed, but Kosaburo carefully hand-filed the swells to be smooth and uniform. I am told by those who know how these things are done that it is much more work to create a pretty swell like this than to quickly grind a head into the modern shape with a uniform waist and flared faces.

From a physics viewpoint, given the same total weight, the modern-style gennou head with its narrower waist and flared faces will have a higher moment of inertia, and will therefore be more resistant to twisting out of alignment during the swing. The flared faces of the modern design also have the advantage of protecting the waist from wear and scratches when the hammer is laid on the ground or on concrete. Most people think the modern design with its flared faces to be a more attractive product. I did too until I purchased my first classic-profile head.

You will of course wonder why Kosaburo bothered to even forge this strange antique-style head. I once asked the same question to an ancient joiner that used this style of gennou head. He was much senior to Mr. Hasegawa, BTW. His answer was three-fold:

First, nostalgia. Remember, he was an old dude back when I was a younger man.

Second, while you may not think so, this shape is more difficult to produce by hand than the modern style, and although it is undeniably “jimi” (地味), meaning plain, or understated, those who know the difference appreciate the subtle details of this design. Very much a wabi sabi thing, one only true craftsmen understand. Remember, ancient dude. I thought he was full of crap at the time. Not anymore.

Third, the swell allows one to use the side of the hammer to drive nails or bang wood in tight spaces. Finish carpenters, joiners and cabinetmakers have this need, as I know from my days in the business. Many Western claw hammers have this ability, but the modern-style gennou head simply doesn’t.

So we have nostalgia, aesthetics, and functionality as factors. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a home run, baby!

This was once the standard profile for gennou heads in Japan, but sometime in the late 1890’s, I am told by people who study these things, and perhaps due to the direct influence of an exceptionally talented master blacksmith named Chiyozuru Korehide, the modern profile head with the flared ends and lacking the swell around the eye became popular.

Any old-fashioned styles that appeal to you?

YMHOS

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 1956-ford-f100
Nostalgic, aesthetically interesting, and functional.
Nostalgic, aesthetically interesting, and functional.

If you have private questions or would like to receive information about our tools, please use the contact form located immediately below. Or you can view this link to our pricelist and photos of this gennou head. Please share your insights and comments with everyone using the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, incompetent facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so absolutely will not share, sell, or profitably misplace your information. That would be theft. Cross my heart and hope to die.

The Japanese Gennou Hammer & Handle Part 16 – The Drawing Part 5/6

The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.

C.S. Lewis

In this post we will continue working on the design drawing of a craftsman’s gennou hammer handle designed and made to specifically fit Gentle Reader’s body and way of working.   

We will layout the top and bottom of the grip area, and include clearance for Gentle Reader’s pinkie finger. The resulting curvature will ensure the striking face will be in proper alignment with either chisel or nail when in use, providing improved accuracy and efficiency, while reducing stresses on joints.

Adding the Top and Bottom Edges

We touched on the shapes of these edges in a previous post, but the time has come to add the lines to our drawing. In a previous post, we extended the two lines in the side view drawing from the eye straight back towards the butt.

With the butt sketched on the drawing with the lowest edge of its downward-facing radius just touching the head’s “striking face plane,” draw an arc the length of your grip from the heel of your palm to the second joint of your index finger, with the compass’s leg pivoting on the intersection of the overall-length line, and top edge of the butt.

Then draw a straight line between the intersection of the OAL line and butt’s upper edge and the top line that you extended from the eye previously. This line will be angled downwards toward the butt.

Next draw a straight line from the intersection of the OAL line over and just touching the pinkie finger circle, until it intersects the bottom line extended from the eye. Combined with your body, and nature of your individual swing, the angle of this line will determine the angle of the head at the point of impact.

Since everyone is different, only you can decide what angle works best for you. These guidelines are a good place to start, but understand you may need to modify or remake the handle until you find the angle that works best for you. By recording the angle in a drawing each time you can adjust it to find the angle that works best for you.

Now smooth out the transition of these lines into a smooth curve, with all edges relieved and radiused, but without making the top edge of the grip area too rounded.

Some people prefer to make these lines and the handle more or less straight, and to change the angle at the point where the handle exits the head’s eye. This is entirely acceptable, but realize such a design depends on really tough wood with interlocked grain or an unusual kink in the grain direction to avoid eventual failure.

I prefer to deal with this change in angle by using a smooth curvature instead. I think it looks better. I know it fits my hand better. It is easier to find wood with a gradual curvature than kinked grain. And my engineering background tells me that I want to avoid sudden transitions that induce stress concentrations, especially where steel meets wood and when grain runout is possible. But it is your decision.

Draw the curves with a pencil, then erase and redraw, erase and redraw until it looks right. 

In the next post we will add the handle’s sides to our drawing.

BTW, links to all the published posts in this series are located below.

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please see the “Pricelist” link at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” 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, facist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may the bird of paradise fly up my nose.

Previous Posts in The Japanese Gennou & Handle Series

Clean Wood

Redwoods

Infringe upon the rights of no one. Borrow no tool but what you will return according to promise. Take no wood, nor anything else but what belongs to you – and if you find anything that is not your own, do not hide it away, but report it, that the owner may be found.

Brigham Young

In this post your humble servant will offer some advice that, if followed, will save Gentle Readers time, money, and wear and tear on their valuable woodworking tools. These are not original techniques; I stole them long ago from professional woodworkers in Japan. Wise Gentle Readers will be as bold.

Inspection & Questions

Before we go any further, Gentle Reader, do me a favor. Check the soles of your steel planes. Unless they haven’t been used much, you will probably discover scratches, some of which may even be quite deep. Do you think whatever made these scratches might also have dulled the cutting edges of your planes at the same time?

What could have possibly created these scratches? Have iron pixies been using your planes to shave bricks?

Unless you have a serious pixie infestation, it probably wasn’t anything as large as a brick, but rather tiny particles in or on the wood you have been cutting. Could these vicious, hard particles have grown naturally inside the tree the wood you are using came from? Is there anything that grows naturally inside a tree that is harder than a plane blade’s cutting edge and big enough to cause such deep scratches? Perhaps these abrasive particles were maliciously concealed inside the growing tree by compadres of the shambling horde of 6-armed, green-skinned, Fanta-guzzling aliens that follow me everywhere?

Or could the damage have been caused by nails, screws or staples left in the wood? Perhaps. Pixie toenail clippings? Happens more often than we realize. Tiny fragments of a divorce lawyer’s heart? Maybe, but such particles are rarer than honest politicians and tougher than stellite. No, it’s more likely the culprit is something harder and more insidious than even Murphy’s pointy purple pecker, a substance all around us, one we often ignore.

Nitty Gritty

Logging Redwoods in Humbolt County California, 1905

Politics and journalism aside, we live in a dusty, dirty world, and although the steel in your tool blades is very hard, ordinary dust and dirt contain plenty of particles much harder. I guaran-frikin-tee you that collision with even a small particle of mineral grit embedded in the surface of a piece of wood can and will damage a blade’s cutting edge.

You may believe the damage is minimal and of little concern, but every time your blade becomes dull, you must resharpen it. Every sharpening session costs you time pushing the blade around on stones, time not spent cutting wood. And sharpening turns expensive blades and stones into mud. This is time and money lost forever.

And the abrasive action of dirt and grit embedded in wood is not hard on just chisel blades, plane blades and the soles of steel planes, but is even harder on sawteeth and wooden planes.

The damage is not limited to just your handtools either. Take a closer look at the steel tables of your stationary equipment such as your jointer or tablesaw. Unless they are new, you will find scratches. Has that pervert Murphy been smokin dope and humpin sumpin on your jointer’s bed when you weren’t looking?

Nay, Gentle Reader, supernatural causes aside, and unless you have been dismembering the bodies of divorce lawyers in your workshop, these scratches are clear evidence that the wood you’ve been working is neither as clean as it looks, nor as clean as it should be. You’ve gotta do something about that.

Ruba Dub Dub

So what can you do? Strange as it may seem, the simplest and surest way to get rid of dirt and grit is to follow your mother’s instructions about the cleaning the bathtub: Simply wash it with soap, water and a scrub brush, followed by a rinse.

Bet you never thought of washing wood before have you?

The idea is to wet, scrub and quickly rinse the dirt and grit off the wood, not to make the wood soaking wet, so none of that “rinse and repeat” nonsense, and don’t get carried away with the hose. A bit of dishwashing soap or borax mixed in the water bucket will help lift out dirt and grit.

Don’t forget to pat each board down immediately afterwards with clean rags to remove surface water. Then separate each board, stand it on stickers on-end, or rest it on-edge, and allow time and circulating air to dry it out of the sun.

Remember to wet both sides of each board to minimize warping. And don’t soak a lot of water into the ends.

Disclaimer: It is not well suited for thin material or laminated wood products that might easily warp, or if you are in a hurry, or if you lack adequate space to properly air-dry the wood. 

Whether you wash the wood with water or not, be sure to do at least the following two steps on every board before you process it with your valuable tools.

Scrub Scrub Scrub

If you can’t wash the boards, use a steel wire brush to dry-scrub all the board’s faces both with and across the grain. Yes, I know it makes the surface rougher. Tough pixie toenails. Scrubbing with a stiff steel brush is extremely effective at removing dust, dirt, embedded particles of grit, and even small stones from long grain. Give it a try and you will both see and smell the dirt and particles expelled. Pretty nasty stuff sometimes.

Saw Saw Saw

Second, and this is supremely important, before planing a board either by hand or using powertools, saw 2~3mm off both ends. This is why you have that circular saw with the carbide-tipped blade. If you can’t do that, at least use a steel block plane, drawknife, or other tool to chamfer all eight corners of the board’s ends to remove both surface dirt and embedded grit.

This step is critical because grit and even small stones frequently become so deeply embedded in endgrain that even a steel brush can’t dig them out. But sure as God made little green apples, Murphy will place them directly in the path of your plane blade.

If you do these things, your tools will thank you over many years with abundant chips, shiny shavings and cheerful little songs. I sincerely promise.

Yosemite Valley California, 1865

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with all Gentle Readers using the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, thuggish Twitter, nor a US Senator’s girlfriend and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. May Murphy molest me with his pointy purple pecker if I lie.

Gary’s Tool Cabinet

Figure 1: The Chest front view

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes…

Lord Byron

Gary, a truly Beloved Customer, has produced a well-designed and beautifully-executed chest of drawers to be the base of a future larger tool cabinet. The joinery is amazing, and his solutions to the challenges tool cabinets and chests all face are excellent. He was kind enough to put together this guest post for the edification of our Gentle Readers. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

YMHOS

Introduction

I’ve been avidly following Stan’s series of posts about tool storage because I’m deep into making my own tool cabinet. After some back and forth with Stan to get his input on some design and hardware options, he asked if I would write a guest post to describe my efforts. I now have completed the chest of drawers, which will be the base for a future upper cabinet. In this post I’ll describe my design decisions and the chest’s unusual construction.

If anyone would like more details, I have a lengthy thread describing the build in even more detail at the Woodworking forum at OWWM.org. (Free registration is required. It is a wonderful site if you are interested in restoring and using vintage woodworking machinery). 

Design Criteria: Functionality

Overall Dimensions

I wanted my tool cabinet to hold the hand tools and other items I use frequently at the bench. It had to fit behind my workbench and in front of a dust collector bin, restrictions that defined the cabinet’s dimensions, which for the chest discussed in this article are roughly 37 inches tall (including the casters) by 18 inches deep, by 32” wide. The upper cabinet will be about 48 inches tall, 60 inches wide with the doors open, and 12 inches deep.

Mobility

This chest had to be mobile because I occasionally need to empty the dust collector bin behind it and access both some closet storage near it and a hatch to the garage attic above it.

Durability & Tool Protection

It also had to be sturdy, durable, modifiable, and repairable. I made modest efforts to protect against dust. I was not concerned about protecting my tools from humidity swings or security since the cabinet will stay in a secure, conditioned space where the relative humidity is between 40% and 60% year round. 

Figure 2: A conceptual sketch of the entire cabinet as it will appear when completed, including the chest of drawers supporting a cabinet with doors, shown where it will reside in my shop,
Figure 3: The completed chest of drawers in its native environment.

Research & Planning

Visually, I wanted the chest to appear, in Stan’s words, “Workmanlike…with some subtle decorative details.” I also wanted it to have a Japanese aesthetic without being a reproduction of a Japanese tansu.

After researching different tool cabinet designs that might fit my criteria — Jim Tolpin’s Toolbox Book was particularly helpful — I started sketching a preliminary design. I decided to combine two kinds of storage: a chest of drawers for smaller items below, and a cabinet with doors above for longer and larger tools.

Initially I drew the chest with full-width drawers to hold larger items, but potential sagging became a concern and I didn’t much like their appearance in my planning sketches. I compromised by having one wide drawer on top and two banks of narrower drawers below supported in the center by a stile.

The upper cabinet design is still in progress. The sketch in Figure 2 above shows planes resting on a slanted surface, but I have decided to store them horizontally to maximize space instead.

One goal I had for the chest was to use mostly interlocking mechanical joints rather than conventional glued/screwed case construction. Joining it mechanically was both an intellectual and design challenge as well as an opportunity to learn new joinery skills. My “tutor” in this effort was Chris Hall, who explored and described this kind of construction in his blog The Carpentry Way, and in several self-published monographs and tutorials. Sadly, Chris passed away in April of 2020. While I am not the craftsman he was, I’m pleased to have a made piece that reflects his approach to woodworking.

 I quickly realized that the build would be complicated enough that using a CAD program would help me draw and visualize the interlocking joints. I took a few weeks to learn enough Sketchup to ensure I didn’t miss any critical dimensions.

Wood Selection

I chose to build the chest from black cherry (Prunus serotina) because this wood is readily available at a reasonable price in my area, is excellent for joinery, and ages nicely.

For the interior I used quarter-sawn sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) because it is relatively hard and stable—and I had recently purchased 100 board feet of it for almost nothing.

I used quarter-sawn Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana) for the drawer sides because it is hard, abrasion resistant, and I can get it locally from a friend whose family runs a sustainable forest and sawmill.

Mobile Base & Joinery

Casters

I considered wheels made from plain iron and with rubber, neoprene, or urethane treads, but selected cast iron, industrial-quality casters for their durability and for the look of iron. I also wanted them to swivel.

I spec’d them to accommodate at least twice the combined weight of the lower chest and upper cabinet when fully loaded.

I decided to use vintage hardware, and I eventually found a set of used Bassick brand cast iron swivel casters with hardened steel carriages, needle roller bearings, and grease fittings. Bassick has been making industrial casters since the late 1800’s. These are probably from the early to mid-1900’s but are still in good shape. I could not find their load rating but similar modern casters have load ratings several times the ultimate weight of the cabinet. They should last a long time. I cleaned them up and attached them with stainless steel screws.

Figure 4: Vintage Bassick model 361 casters

These old casters are noisy rolling over my concrete shop floor, but it’s a noise I like. 

Mobile Base Joinery

I began the construction process with the mobile base. Its key feature is the three-way corner joint shown below. Chris Hall called it a sanpō-zashi Tsugi no Henka (三方差し継手の変化). I followed his step-by-step construction tutorial

Figure 5: Sketchup drawing of the mobile base corner joint

This joint has a mitered corner to hide end grain, an internal sliding dovetail, a half dovetail, a stub tenon, and two locking keys. The larger through mortise is to receive a tenon in the corner post of the chest of drawers that also passes through the chest sill.

The grooves in the upper surface of the mobile base seen in Figures 5 and 8 are to receive loose splines to connect the base to the chest of drawers, and to reduce stresses on the tenons when moving the assembly around the shop. 

Figure 5: The two halves of the three way corner joint

The two keys shown in Figure 8 lock the joint together strongly without glue. The keys cannot work themselves out because they are restrained from above by the corner posts of the the chest of drawers. 

Figure 7: The mobile base corner joint partly assembled
Figure 8: The corner joint with keys inserted but not yet cut flush

The Chest’s Frame

The sill and header are constructed with the same joinery as the mobile base but with slightly different dimensions and other small differences. The sill has grooves cut to accept two plywood dust panels. The header is grooved to accept a solid wood top panel.

Figure 9: Corner post connection to sill showing through tenon with flanking stub tenons.

Center posts help support the drawers. The top drawer is full width. I mortised the posts and stiles to receive tenons on the drawer rails and drawer frames. 

Figure 10: Mobile base, sill, posts, and header.

Drawer Frames and Guides

Figure 11: Quarter-sawn sycamore for rails and drawer guides

The drawer frame sides and guides are quarter-sawn sycamore. Gorgeous, but since these are internal parts, no one will ever see the ray fleck figure unless they remove the drawers and peer inside the chest. I like that. 

The drawer frames that support the drawers have cherry front and back rails and sycamore sides. Front rails for the drawer frames are tenoned into the posts with mitered spear points on the show surface. The spear point is partly structural in that it has a larger bearing surface to resist racking better than a typical plain shoulder. It is also a subtle decorative detail that I  like a lot. It was challenging to get them all to fit. I was more or less successful but not perfect. I included dust panels of ¼ inch birch plywood in the drawer frames to help limit dust in the drawers. This picture is of a test fit before assembly. The blue tape covers drawer stops that are detailed below. 

Fig 12: Chest frame and drawer frames assembly test fit

I tenoned the side rails of the drawer frames into the front rails and also tongue and grooved the side rails into the side guides for extra support for the drawers. Further, the tenons on the front rails also intersect and pass through the tenons on the side guides, locking the side guides in place. The post and side guide “ladder” is extremely rigid to resist racking front to back. 

This complicated joinery is difficult to describe and photograph. Here is a Sketchup view of what the drawer rail and side guides to post connection looks like inside the post. A similar joinery locks the drawer rails and drawer guides at the center posts.

Figure 13: Sketchup X-ray view of rail and side guide to post joinery
Figure 14: Joinery of back drawer frame to center drawer guide and back post
Figure 15: Assembled view of joinery of back drawer frame to center drawer guide and back post.

Drawer Stops

I wanted both cushioned pull-out stops and cushioned push-in stops to prevent accidentally dumping a drawer full of heavy and sharp tools onto the floor or my feet. I also wanted the stops to be replaceable and adjustable for wear over the years.

For the pull-out stops I found a compact design by Australian woodworker Neil Erasmus that I like. These fit into the underside of the front rail and fall into place by gravity when the drawer is pushed in. When you pull the drawer out, the inside of the drawer back hits the leather padded face of the stop. They lift out of the way with a finger if you want to remove the drawer.

I secured these in-place with hide glue so that they can be replaced if they break after a few decades of banging. The leather cushion is from an old belt of mine that has mysteriously shrunk in length over the years.. 

Figure 16: Pull-out stop.
Figure 17: The pull-out stop mortised into a rail

The back stops are my own design. They are dovetailed into the lower surface of the back drawer frame rail. They can be adjusted by adding or removing slivers from the back of the stop, and are easily  replaceable.

I will have to use them for a while to determine if these are a good idea or not. A friend suggested that stops that hit the end grain of the sides would be better than one that hits the center of the more flexible back. I suspect he is right but this is what I have for now and I can re-do the back stop later if I need to. 

Figure 18: Back stop

Side Panels

The chest’s side panels are book matched, hammer veneered cherry on birch plywood cores, friction fit into grooves on the posts to further help resist racking front to back. I added the small, spear pointed rail there to carry the theme seen on the front drawer rails around to the sides and also help resist racking. 

Figure 19: Side panels

The Frame & Panel Back

The back of the chest is frame & panel construction with mitered and through-tenoned corners. The panels are cherry veneer, hammer-veneered with hide glue onto birch plywood cores.

I friction fit the panels into the frames, and friction fit the back into rabbets in the posts to help resist racking from side to side. These veneered panels give the chest a finished look from the back as well as the other three sides.

The weight of the back helps counterbalances the weight of an open drawer.

The eight odd white bits seen in Figure 20 are loose, removable sycamore tenons that pass through mortises in the back frame and down into mortises in the sill, laterally into the posts, and up into the header, attaching the back. One might use screws to accomplish the same thing, but I liked this idea, again from Chris Hall, who adopted it from a Chinese Ming Dynasty cabinet. 

Figure 20: View of Frame & Panel back showing 8 sycamore wood tenons that secure the back panel.

Header

The header frame is grooved to accept a solid wood panel fitted tightly at the front and sides to eliminate any gaps that would collect dust and grit. To accommodate seasonal movement I glued the panel’s front edge into the groove and left a gap at the back, which will be covered by the upper cabinet, so the panel can float.

Figure 21: Header with solid wood panel inset in-place

The odd looking projections seen in Figure 21 are twin sliding dovetail keys that will anchor the future upper cabinet. There will be mating mortises on the underside of the top cabinet. The cabinet will drop onto the keys and slide forward, locking the two pieces together. The upper cabinet will be approximately 12 inches deep, leaving 6 inches of the chest top free. 

Drawers

I put extra work into the drawers since they will actually hold the tools. The rest of the chest is just there to keep the drawers off the floor.

I decided early to avoid metal drawer slides because I find side-mounted slides ugly and believe under-mounted slides sacrifice too much drawer depth. 

Figure 22: A drawer

Drawers fronts are attached with half-blind dovetails, and backs with through- dovetail joints. The cherry drawer fronts are cut from a single clear and straight grained 12/4 board that I resawed to match figure and color vertically and horizontally. 

For the sides I resawed 4/4 oak stock and hand planed it to  ⅜” thick. I chose relatively thin sides both to save material and weight and because I like the look of thinner sides. But they don’t leave much room for a typical ¼” groove for the drawer bottom. To correct for that thinness, I glued on drawer slips of quarter sawn sycamore. Oak would have worked, too.

Drawer slips are, from what I have read, probably a French invention, adopted and most widely used by the British in the 1700’s and 1800’s for finer work but not commonly used in America. Besides providing more “meat” for supporting a groove for the bottom, the slip adds more bearing surface for the drawer. Distributing the drawer weight helps slow the drawer sides from wearing grooves in the runners.

I made the drawer bottoms of sycamore. I slotted the back end of the bottom and screwed to the drawer back to allow seasonal movement.

I’ve also since covered each bottom with a thin sheet of rubberized cork to protect the bottoms from sharp tools and to protect sharp tools from the bottoms. 

Figure 23: A drawer slip

The design of the half-blind dovetail joints was for my own amusement. I wanted a Japanese look for the drawers if possible. A friend sent me a poster of Japanese dovetail styles for inspiration, shown below.

Figure 24: Japanese dovetail poster

I chose the design in the middle at the top with the split pins. They remind me somewhat of Torii gates. 

Torii gates mark sacred ground at Japan's holy sites | MNN - Mother Nature Network
Figure 25: Torii Gate in the sea at Itsukushima Shrine near Hiroshima
Figure 26: Half-lapped dovetails with split pins

This is one of those “subtle decorative details” that is also structurally sound. It actually adds some extra glue surface compared with a standard dovetail, without looking like I was trying too hard just to be different. It also is not visible until the drawer is opened, another hidden feature of the chest that I like. 

Drawer Pulls

The only hardware parts on the chest beside the casters are the drawer pulls. I wanted these to be both durable and aesthetically compatible with the design. 

There are thousands of commercial drawer pull designs and an infinite number if you make your own. To narrow the field, I started by thinking of Japanese tansu hardware. Chris Hall’s website came through with a compendium of styles.

Thinking these had possibilities I started looking for vendors. In the USA, I found three: Hida Tool, which sells iron pulls hand forged in Japan. Eastern Classics, which sells antique iron pulls I think are recycled from defunct tansu. I bought a sample from both suppliers. And Whitechapel, who is superb for European hardware and also had a few tansu pulls but not a large selection of styles and sizes.

Stan recommended I consider pulls made by Nishikawa-Shouten in Japan, which has two large catalogs of traditional and modern tansu hardware. They offer dozens of styles, a few in iron, most in brass, and some in zinc pot metal, with various finishes. It is delightful to look through the catalogs to see what is there. But they are a manufacturer and wholesaler, and their catalog text is in Japanese. After a bit of searching for a retailer I found Morikuni Cabinet Hardware, a Japanese retailer that sells retail — in English — to the US market. Their web store has only a tiny portion of the Nishikawa-Shouten items but they can get others if you ask. 

I settled on a simple traditional Japanese warabi style pull, and also bought samples in iron from Hida Tool and Eastern Classics.  

Figure 27: Eastern Classic’s recycled warabi-style pull

And this more refined contemporary version from Hida Tool, which I liked much better.

Figure 28: Hida Tool’s modern hand forged warabi-style pull

But I needed 14 of them, and neither was available in that quantity. Also, both the Hida Tools and Eastern Classic’s pulls attach with cotter pins, and after consulting with Stan I agreed that the modern pulls with screw-post attachment available from Nishikawa Shouten would be more secure long-term. They also were available in quantity so I purchased a set.

This hardware came with beige/ivory-colored plastic covers to hide the threaded post and its nut inside of the drawer. I liked the low profile and finished look but neither the color nor that it was plastic. I wanted something more durable in metal with a black finish to match the outside. Stan suggested a mirror screw cap, and I found one in brass and stainless steel. I spray painted the caps with a satin black enamel.

Fig 29: Nishikawa-Shouten’s Warabi-style pull with substituted post caps

Finishing Touches

I hate finishing. The scraping, the sanding, the multiple thin coats, the waiting for drying times is maddening. I’m not going to invest in sprayers, either. Not for me. I especially hate sanding. So I go minimalist. I have settled on a couple of simple to apply finishes that are also readily renewable. For my laziness and impatience I sacrifice hardness and durability, but I’m OK with that. 

I hand-planed the exterior surfaces of the chest, then finished it with two coats of 1 pound cut shellac to seal the surface and reduce blotching and then lightly sanded to remove nubs. Then I applied three coats of Waterlox satin, which is an old school tung oil/linseed oil/resin that you wipe on and wipe off. It dries in two or three hours and fully cures in a few days. Refreshing coats can be applied at any time. 

I also hand-planed the drawer frames and guides, lightly sanded them 400 grit, and then just finished them with wax. Before assembly I pre-finished he interior surfaces of the drawers with two coats of shellac and wax. After assembly, I shellacked the outside surfaces. The outside bearing surfaces I then sanded lightly to 400 grit and waxed for smooth running. The drawer fronts also got two coats of Waterlox to match the rest of the outside of the chest. 

Final Comments

Fig 30: Completed chest with drawers open
Fig 31: Drawer with rubberized cork mat and two planes

The chest took me about 2 months to design and about 1000 hours (guessing) for construction. Now I have a proper place to put my tools for the work ahead. 

Gary

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