Toolchests Part 6 – Key Performance Criteria Solutions 1: Durability and Longevity

It is not down on any map; true places never are.

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick or, the Whale
<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">In the previous post in this series we discussed the need to develop Key Performance Criteria when planning a tool storage system, some of the pitfalls to avoid when making KPC's, and then listed the KPC's I developed for my toolchest, not as an example to imitate but just for reference purposes. In this post we will examine some of the solutions I arrived at regarding how to incorporate those KPC's into a practical design. I hope it proves informative, or at least amusing.In the previous post in this series we discussed the need to develop Key Performance Criteria when planning a tool storage system, some of the pitfalls to avoid when making KPC’s, and then listed the KPC’s I developed for my toolchest, not as an example to imitate but just for reference purposes. In this post we will examine some of the solutions I arrived at regarding how to incorporate those KPC’s into a practical design. I hope it proves informative, or at least amusing.

Durability

A toolchest should be tough as a whale because a fragile one endangers the tools we trust it to protect. Those Gentle Readers for whom durability is not a high priority should stop reading now and go back to the important task of popping bubble wrap.

When I was researching this performance criteria, I bought books and visited libraries reading everything I could find on the subject. I visited museums and was told to get up off the floor and “move along now,” by security guards more than once. I just wanted to see underneath….

I visited antique stores and the workshops of professional antique restorers and grilled them about what materials and construction details withstood the tests of time best, learning much that wasn’t written in the books.

I incorporated some of the things I learned through this investigative process into the design and construction of this toolchest, so let’s examine a few related to durability and longevity.

Wood Selection

I grew up making cabinetry and casework with my father from readily available commercial materials such as 3/4″ plywood. We would mill solid wood parts to match this standard dimension even though trees don’t grow in quarter inch increments. While the material of choice has shifted from plywood to MDF in recent years, this is still standard procedure in commercial situations. However, since my toolchest was not to be a commercial product for a Client with no understanding of quality casework beyond external appearance, but rather custom casework for my personal use, I tossed those standard procedures out the window and started with a blank page.

My examination of the available literature, museum exhibits and antiques available to me at the time combined with some structural analysis revealed that durability is heavily influenced by the mass and the strength of the wood. This seems like a common-sense conclusion, but it flies in the face of conventional toolchest design, as you will see.

Many advocate making chests from lightweight, inexpensive woods such as sugar pine, poplar, cedar or cypress, and to dimension the walls thin to minimize cost and weight, and to maximize interior volume. This is the traditional approach for chests used by common folk, but anticipating the abuse my toolchest was likely to experience, and considering my longevity goals and the fact that I would never need to carry it far by shank’s mare or mule, I eschewed this philosophy and decided to use stronger more durable wood and thicker, with weight a lesser priority.

One of the so-called “Genuine Mahoganies,” Honduras Mahogany is very resistant to rot and termites although some beetles will eat it if they can find it. We will look more at the sensory capabilities of bugs in another post in this series. HM is strong, not too heavy, easily worked, glues exceptionally well, and is phenomenally stable. Along with Cuban Mahogany, it has been the most desirable wood for luxury furniture in the Americas and Europe for centuries. 

This wood is difficult to obtain in the United States nowadays because of import restrictions prompted by environmental destruction through over-harvesting, but at the time, it was readily available as S2S clear lumber in the People’s Socialist Republic of Northern California. 

HM’s coloration varies from tree to tree. The coloration of the HM I purchased was not the most desireable dark red, but the less-expensive, less-dense orangish variety. However, I splurged and used ribbon-figured HM for the tray sides.

I used no “secondary woods” except for the 5mm plywood non-structural loose dividers in the sawtill. No need to be a cheapskate.

Wood Thickness

One purpose of my research was to gain an understanding of the typical failure modes of chests. You don’t see busted, bug-infested, rotted-out examples exhibited in museums or written about in books, but there are lots of old broken-down chests in antique stores, and restorers are always working on them; I strongly encourage you to venture away from the internet into the dark and foreboding world of reality to examine them with your own eyes and hands to determine the challenges they faced during their lifetimes.

One very common failure mode is ruptured corner joints resulting from what appeared to be drops and impacts. Another common failure mode is cracks, gaps and warped lids resulting from differential expansion/contraction inherent in wood. So I needed to develop solutions to these traditional failure modes.

In a dovetailed chest, impact forces from drops frequently cause corner joints to fail, so the solution I employed was to use plenty of dovetails, and to make the side wall material thick enough to provide adequate surface area for glue to bond and impact energy to be safely dissipated without causing the carcass to rupture.

Obviously (or maybe it is not obvious to some) thicker walls increase the amount of long-grain to long-grain contact area at a dovetail or fingerjoint corner joint by more than the square of the thickness. A simple calculation showed the sides had to be much thicker than 5/8” to achieve the impact resistance and glue strength I needed, so I went with 1-3/16” (30mm) thick sides. And instead of using a lightweight softwood like pine, a weak but delicious wood upon which bugs and fungi dine with gusto, I went with the much stronger and more rot/bug resistant Honduras Mahogany in a medium density as noted above. This proved to be a wise decision as evidenced by the results of multiple drops and several forklift encounters during my travels. And due to its dedicated wheeled platform, the additional mass has not been a problem so far. This was never intended to be a truck-bed toolbox.

Of course, most drops and forklift kisses impact the base first, and if the bottom corner connections fail all is lost, so I made the base (skirt) of tough 40mm thick high-density mahogany, dovetailed the corners, and pinned/glued it to the chest’s sides. These four pieces and the assembly they comprise is the densest, toughest component of the chest. It is scratched and dinged but this is only cosmetic damage, so I feel the base has done everything I needed it to do, at least so far.

I doubt 3/4″ sugar pine sides or a 5/8” ~ 7/8” thick poplar base would have survived the first drop from a moving truck bed, let alone that incident in Bangkok when what must have been a deranged peg-legged forklift driver pushed the tool chest into the conex box with his fork tips while shrieking “From Hell’s heart I stab at theeee!” The madman damaged the toolchest but neither pierced nor cracked it. After that, I rechristened it “Moby Dick. “ Harpoon sockets and grog were not involved.

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“…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

Differential Expansion & Contraction

Changes in humidity make wood expand and contract. You can ignore this natural tendency, as the plastic puppet people that love MDF do, or even fight it if you enjoy humiliation, but given enough time you will lose. Better to plan for it if your longevity goals are 200 years. If, however, longevity is not important to you, please stop reading this article immediately and get back to popping bubble wrap.

Avoiding damage caused by differential expansion and contraction of wood is a problem humanity resolved centuries ago using well-known, but oft-ignored solutions. Some of those techniques are to use mechanical connections (e.g. dovetails, mortise and tenon joints, etc.) without relying solely on glue, avoidance of wire nails, avoidance of wide cross-grain joints, avoiding steel straps hard-connected cross-grain, and using frame-and-panel construction when wide cross-grain joints would otherwise be impossible to avoid, to name some primary solutions.

My design uses few metal fasteners, just stainless-steel screws to attach the lid’s hinges and tray shelves, brass screws to attach the brass lock and recessed tray pulls, and 4 steel bolts to attach the lifting eyes. No metal straps are used.

My toolchest employs a floating frame-and-panel lid with deep sides made from solid Honduras Mahogany. I’ll go into this more in future posts.

The chest’s bottom is also frame and panel construction in solid mahogany. Frame and panel construction was used for all tray and drawer bottoms. No engineered wood materials such as plywood, MDF, LVL, OSB or veneer were used.

All glued joints in my toolchest are dovetails or pinned dovetail mortise and tenon joints, and trenails. If the glue fails, which it eventually will in some places sure as eggses is eggses, the mechanical joints will still hold together. I did not use nails, screws, staples, biscuits, splines or loose tenons as structural fasteners.

Fungus, Insects and Rodents

As noted above and in Part 3 in this series, wood as a material may be economical, easy to work, have decent insulation performance, and make our collective hearts go pitter-patter, but we cannot safely ignore the fact that some fungi and insects love to eat wood, and rats and mice will chew holes in it. How can we adapt our toolchest design to deal with “the crud,” creepy crawlies, and critters? A few possible solutions are listed below:

  1. Select a wood that is naturally unpleasant to chew without using toxic levels of hot sauce. God made some woods yummy, and others noxious. The later typically lasts longer;
  2. Use thicker wood to make the toolchest strong and tough. This will also make it more difficult for rodents to chew holes in it.
  3. Make the wood unpleasant for fungus and bugs to eat and rats to chew through the miracle of modern chemistry available in either commercial or homemade wood preservatives;
  4. Seal all raw wood surfaces, both inside and outside the toolchest, so fungus spores will find it difficult to take root, and insects less likely to detect the savory smells of yummy wood (that is how they find it, you know);
  5. Elevate the bottom of the chest above the ground/floor so there is an “air gap” preventing direct moisture transfer from below thereby keeping the wood’s moisture content at levels less than those preferred by fungus and bugs;
  6. Design the base details so some air circulation underneath the chest is possible to reduce fungus growth and make cleaning possible:
  7. Place vaporized fungus and insect repellent (e.g. moth balls or toilet cakes) inside the toolchest further minimizing delicious woody smells that attract insects while at the same time creating an uninviting or even hostile environment for their kiddies;
  8. Combine all seven of the solutions listed above, which is what I did. You know me: Belt, suspenders, and safety harness.

We will talk about these solutions and other factors that informed the design of the toolchest in future posts.

I encourage you to give similar consideration to the design of the furniture and casework you build for your own use, at least if, like me, durability means more to you than the joy of popping bubble wrap.

In the next post in this series about my toolchest, we will consider some potential solutions to the remaining Key Performance Criteria you may want to consider when designing your toolchest.

Call me Ishmael.

“Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

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. Honest.

Toolchests Part 1 – And Away We Go

And Awaaay We Go

No wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise.

Lewis Carroll, Mock Turtle, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Every woodworker has tools they need to store. The longer one is at it, and the wider one’s competent range of skills, the more tools one needs.

There are those who advocate owning minimal tools, as if owning many tools is an emotional burden and fewer tools is healthier. Perhaps they are suffering from Marie Kondo syndrome.

I have known old men like that. Guys that grew up during the Great Depression and learned to accomplish many tasks with few tools because they could not afford more. Accomplishing the job without adequate tools became a matter of pride to them. But often the quality of their work suffered.

Or perhaps these minimalists are like a guy I used to work with who owned a favorite pair of expensive loafers and wore them to the office, to the beach, and when camping. He even boasted about wearing them last year to climb Mount Fuji. He is wealthy but strangely proud of owning only one pair of shoes.

Last time I saw his shoes they were scuffed and ragged and didn’t look good with a suit, but he never wore business attire even when he should have. His shoes would suck big donkey donuts in the snow or mud so he didn’t venture into such environments. They didn’t have steel toes, so he had to ask someone else to do his jobsite inspections for him. Sure he had fewer shoes, but because of that, he was limited in where he could go, what he could do, and how much he enjoyed those activities. Just another sort of strange obsession, I suppose.

I have a different sort of obsession that I suspect sprang from a time when I had little money, but couldn’t earn the money I needed because I couldn’t afford the necessary tools. A frustrating situation many of our Gentle Readers may also have experienced.

I enjoy the confidence being able to do many different kinds of physical work competently brings. Those skills are useful, however, only because I own the tools necessary to perform that work. Accordingly, I would never get rid of quality useful tools because to do so would mean I could no longer perform the type of work those tools are made for.

So I confess to owning lots of tools. Maybe I need a 12 step program.

I don’t leave my tools laying around in a rusty jumble or, heaven forbid, hanging on pegs in a dusty garage. I store them effectively so they will last and be ready to rock-n-roll when I need them. This, however, takes thought and preparation.

The purpose of my writing this is to share with you one effective solution to tool storage and usage. If even one of our Gentle Readers finds it helpful or even just amusing, then I will count my time writing this well spent.

My Toolchest. Built in Northern California 25+ years old from Honduras Mahogany

This series of posts will be a description of my toolchest, it’s design, and the goals, objectives and rational that drove the design and construction. I have also included some discussion about chests in general and toolchests in particular.

At this point, I can imagine many Gentle Readers rolling their eyes and saying to themselves: “Oh no, not another nitwit bragging about his toy box.” As the Arkansas horndog so often said with a slight crack in his compassionate voice: “I feel your pain.”

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Meet Junior: Someday he’ll be President.

Much like proud parents posting pictures of their child’s alien-looking carrot puree-smeared visage on facebook to horrify the entire world, thousands of people have boasted about their toolchests online.

This is natural: Everyone is proud when a project is complete. We want to share our satisfaction with others at least partly because the accomplishment of the child reflects on the parent. But too often toolchest blogs are boring tales of unoriginal, unimproved, uninspiring designs and mediocre execution, so I don’t blame you if you suspect this just might be another such waste of time.

Considering past blogosphere disappointments, and the fact that even you, Gentle Reader (may you live forever), have limited time, I have worked hard to make this article informative and even useful with explanations, photographs, and even a roughly dimensioned drawing.

Of course, right now you are probably asking yourself “What qualifies this putz to write about toolchests and why should I bother to read it?” Good questions. No, I don’t mind the harsh language because I have often said the same thing to myself when reading toolchest blogs, albeit with great dignity and refinement (ツ). Allow me to explain.

The first qualification is that I know what I am talking about. No, I am not an author or teacher. I don’t even teach classes about making toolchests, and never will, the gods of handsaws willing. I am no longer a professional woodworker, but was for many years when people paid me to make durable, useful buildings, furniture and casework for them. Indeed, now I manage other people to make such items for my customers and am focused like a laser on design, performance, cost and time effectiveness, and quality.

The second qualification is that, while this toolchest has its roots in a traditional design, it is neither a copy of, nor does it purport to be “faithful” to, traditional designs, whatever the heck that means. It was born from original thinking to solve specific problems. Its design is neither accidental nor experimental.

I know how to manage the design of buildings and millwork costing many hundreds of millions of US dollars, and applied that experience to this design. Consequently, I considered, revised and improved each detail and dimension again and again over a period of several years even before buying the wood, and for good reasons. Of course, I continued to tweak the interior fitout and tool mounting methods during the years after it was completed, and repaired and repainted the outside after an attack by a rabid forklift, but the box is unchanged. I will explain those reasons and the resulting details and will share my conclusions with you. Then you, Gentle Reader (may the hair on your toes never fall out), may judge for yourself.

I am not suggesting that the decisions reflected in this toolchest are the best possible, and that you, Gentle Reader, should slavishly imitate them. Each Gentle Reader’s requirements are different. Their sensibilities are their own. Each must reach their own conclusions.

I read constantly, and believe I benefit from learning about other people’s solutions to the problems I face. I certainly learned from others before I designed and made this toolchest. Hopefully the information contained in this series of posts will help you make wise decisions in your woodworking.

Perhaps my most useful qualification for writing this is that I own very valuable, custom handmade tools I enjoy using and want to preserve. I also researched, built, and later tested this toolchest’s actual performance in housing those tools in several locations around the globe. So the results I will present here are not just a reproduction of historical examples, or one intended to photograph well for publication in a book or magazine. It is an original design with a track record of hard use in various climates around the world.

Indeed, this toolchest has not been sitting in one place for 25 years since I made it, but has followed me through multiple international relocations where it has been used and abused heavily, successfully passing multiple endurance tests. This track record sets this toolchest apart from most.

In this series of posts I will first touch on the definition of a toolchest, and the goals, objectives and rationale that drove the design. Next I’ll discuss the pros and cons of toolchests, and how to compensate for their inherent shortcomings. Then I will address the materials and construction of my toolchest followed by the finish I used.

I hope you will find this series interesting and perhaps even useful.

YMHOS

Touch me toolchest, matey, and I’ll pump ye full ‘o lead! Harghhh!

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.

Other Post in the Toolchests Series: