Toolchests Part 5 – Defining Key Performance Criteria: Avoiding The Whirlpool of Indecision

Byodoin temple in Kyoto, Japan

To fail to plan is to plan to fail.

Anon

In the previous four parts in this series about toolchests we examined some aspects of the history of toolchests, as well as the goals, objectives, pros and cons that informed the design and construction of your humble servant’s toolchest, and which any effective design should at least consider.

In this post we will examine some of the design criteria I arrived at after several years of cogitation, and some pitfalls common to the design process you may want to avoid. I hope this discussion will be helpful when you, Gentle Reader, are planning your tool storage solutions.

Background

The subject of this series of posts is a toolchest I made by hand over 26 years ago when living in San Mateo, California.

The basic idea for my toolchest was born many years ago when I found an old British book on woodworking with drawings for a unique toolchest while browsing the darker reaches of the University of Tokyo’s library.

My profession has taken me to many locations around the globe, but even if I don’t use my tools to earn a living anymore, I still need them nearby for the sake of my mental health. I take this toolchest with me when I am working away from home, sometimes in foreign countries and for years at a time. It contains most of the tools I need when working wood by hand. Therefore, the design was heavily influenced by logistical and environmental factors. 

It has English roots, as do I, but it is neither a reproduction of a historical toolchest, nor a slavish imitation of someone else’s. It’s not a haphazard conglomeration of details cherry-picked from books and the internet because they look cool or some internet guru (this was before the internet) did a video on NoobToob. It took me literally years to research, refine, and complete the design, and although it is based on an old British source, I incorporated details from Japanese casework I felt would help me achieve my performance objectives. 

Avoiding the Porcelain Whirlpool of Indecision

Anything of any difficulty worth doing well requires a plan, but a beautiful plan does not spring forth from the mind perfectly shaped. It typically begins with just a framework, or more often, pieces of a framework, to which we attach, over time and through deliberation, the decisions that culminate in a plan. Experience matters during this process, but research and careful deliberation can often compensate for a lack thereof. Let us consider a few aspects of planning in the real world that should influence a toolchest design.

In my day job I manage the planning, design and construction of new commercial buildings and interior fitouts (tenant improvements) in Japan, and while the dollar value of a toolchest is much less than a building, I believe the same planning principles can be applied.

Every building project must have a plan, sometimes called a “program” or “design brief,” that describes in writing what the Client requires the completed construction project to accomplish. This document does not include project-specific design drawings, because those aren’t necessary or even useful at first, but it still drives the architectural, structural and MEP (mechanical, electrical, plumbing) design. Architects, engineers, consultants and I can help a Client develop this planning document, but ultimately the Client pays the money and lives with the results so the decisions are his to make. This aspect of planning can be difficult for anyone, but most especially for those that are inexperienced, insecure, or too proud to admit they don’t know it all.

What many inexperienced Clients don’t realize is that, even though they may not be able to get their minds around the hundreds of decisions that must be made, and frequently fail to make them at all, abandoned decisions will still be made, but by default or happenstance instead of intelligent choice. Sometimes the default decisions are justified as “tradition.” How convenient. How slothful. I call this “design by neglect.”

If a reasonable person manages to struggle through a project, that experience will typically improve his decision-making capabilities greatly. However, occasionally a Client suffers from a mental defect I call “Spiral Decision Neglect Syndrome.”

A sufferer of SDNS may imitate but cannot learn. He will not only fail to make critical decisions, but he will become angry when he discovers he lacks the ability and/or the courage to make them, always a sure sign of shame. To conceal his poor ability and protect his pride, this person will remove those capable people around him that could have helped and replace them with yes-men. From that instant the design process will follow an inescapable spiral path into the slimy depths of the porcelain scrying bowl to the fate that awaits all turds. I’m sure you have known people like this and seen the stinky whirlpool of failure that surrounds them as they rise in the corporate world. But I digress.

The wise person will acknowledge they don’t have all the answers at first (no one does), but will be diligent enough to work for the answers, having faith they will find them. They will also document the criteria that will drive the decisions that must be made so the design does not veer off into the weeds. I call this process “Defining Performance Criteria.” Please note that Performance Criteria typically describe what a thing must do or not do, not so much what it will look like.

Planning Techniques

But what if you don’t have experience, or lack confidence in your planning and/or design abilities? Welcome to the club that includes most of humanity: “Admission is free, please pay at the door. Pull up a chair and sit on the floor.” Here are my suggestions:

  1. Do research, including reading accounts of both traditional and modern solutions, and personally inspect as many physical examples as possible. Antiques can be very educational. Modern cabinetry can be enlightening;
  2. At the time you begin your research, buy a quality, dedicated paper notebook or artist’s sketchbook and fill it with notes of your research and observations, along with hand-sketches, clippings and photographs of your research. Let it ramble. Allow time for all this to percolate in your mind. It’s fine to transcribe this notebook to digital format and store the text along with photographs on your computer or cloud, but don’t abandon the paper notebook: it’s the roadmap that traces your progress;
  3. Determine your Key Performance Criteria (“KPC,” more on this below);
  4. Make a sketch of your tool storage system on paper in pencil. Not in Sketchup or AutoCad because you don’t want it to be pretty and finished-looking too early, but rather organic and flexible. Ugly is OK too, as my mother always told me as a child (ツ). Too many “CAD Monkeys” deceive themselves with perfect-looking digital drawings early in a design process; Just ask any architect or commercial contractor over 60 years old and they will confirm what I mean;
  5. Determine internal and external dimensions. Get tolerances and clearance matters resolved concretely;
  6. Rework the drawing until it meets your KPC, or rework your KPC to match reality. Perhaps a cardboard mock-up will be helpful if you have difficulty converting lines on paper into a 3-D image in your mind, as many do. This is a skill that can be learned and is worth developing, BTW, and mock-ups can help, a lot;
  7. Get the opinions of independent third parties you trust;
  8. Repeat steps 6 and 7 until you are satisfied, allowing time between each iteration for your brain and eyes to reset. Perfection is unattainable;
  9. Make a final drawing by hand or in digital format. Perfection is unattainable;
  10. Buy wood and hardware and start making sawdust. Don’t worry about getting it wrong, just get it made. Perfection is unattainable.

Don’t give a thought to appearance until after Step 7. It is human nature to focus on appearance when beginning a design, but that is counter-productive. To the contrary, a wise man will formulate his Key Performance Criteria (Step 3) long before focusing heavily on the project’s appearance, because the KPC comprise the key supports in his planning framework. He can then do research and formulate possible solutions in harmony with them, and in due course, after careful consideration, make the myriad necessary decisions before the onset of “design by neglect.”

If the process seems overwhelming, break it into little pieces that are not, and knock them off one-by-one.

Part of the planning process must include a thorough understanding of both historical needs and traditional solutions, but with a sharp eye to avoid past mistakes, while at the same time seeking solutions that meet your specific needs instead of the traditional needs of others. Monkey see monkey do may work for monkeyshines, but tis a piss-poor plan for bespoke casework, in other words.

How do I know this process works? I learned it from world-class architects. Spend a few million dollars of other people’s money on architects and designers over 30 years and you too will be convinced. But don’t take my word for it, look at history: the process described above is older than the pyramids of Giza; It helps you think; It makes you think. If you do it, your design capabilities will dramatically improve.

Key Performance Criteria

The following are some of the Key Performance Criteria I developed when designing the toolchest in question. If you are thinking about making a tool storage system, be it cabinet, toolchest, or pegboard, you will need similar criteria, whether you realize it now or not. Please observe that most of the items in the list below do not describe how the toolchest will look but rather what it must accomplish, so function dictates form. Notice also that, while it includes no dimensions other than the designation of the longest handsaws, it could well include actual overall dimensions, but those can be determined later.

  1. Internal Dimensions: Long enough to house a self-contained sawtill with several 26” Disston No.12 handsaws stored inside along with other essential hand-powered woodworking tools (no powertools), and as wide as practically possible;
  2. External Dimensions: Narrow and short enough to fit through Asian residential doors and up narrow stairways;
  3. Depth Dimension: Deep enough to contain three sliding trays in the upper portion of the interior, all dimensioned to accommodate specific tools, and two chisel boxes stacked on top of each other in the lower portion below the sliding tills (the “dungeon”). And not so deep one can’t easily reach to the farthest, deepest corners without having a 14 year-old girl’s flexible joints;
  4. Tool Access: Tools used frequently to be quick to locate and easy to remove and replace without bending, kneeling, or shifting trays around;
  5. Durability: Tough enough to survive international moves, and loading and unloading from trucks, ships, and containers by drunk, one-eyed tweakers using malevolent Cyberdyne Systems forklifts and predacious pallet jacks without being punctured, racked, or spilling the contents. Short-term toughness and strength, in other words.
  6. Longevity: Must last for many generations of constant use (minimum 200 years) in indoor situations without experiencing warping, structural degradation, rust, rot, or damage from insects and vermin. This criteria depends on the durability criteria listed above, but instead of just surviving short-term knocks and dings, it includes surviving long-term damage from within due to design failures and/or long-term infestation;
  7. Sealing, Insulation & Security: Seal tightly in all temperatures and humidity without relying on petroleum-based seals, and without the lid racking, warping, gaping, cracking, or binding, all the while protecting the contents from temperature swings, condensation, dust, bugs, rats, sticky-fingered pixies, and Darwinian shrinkage (pilfering);
  8. Portability: Light enough to be carried up stairs by two men when empty. Easily moved over flat surfaces by one man with a full complement of tools inside, and without marking or degrading interior floor finishes;
  9. Tie-down and Lifting: Can be secured to the walls or floor of a shipping container or moving truck, and lifted by crane quickly and easily and without employing complicated rigging or straps touching the wooden surfaces (straps and ropes tear things up);
  10. Appearance: Attractive and workmanlike in appearance with some subtle decorative details. No inlay, carving, fancy molding or extravagances.

When planning your tool storage system, you will either develop your own key performance criteria, or fall into the trap of “Design by Default.” Hopefully you will avoid the slimy whirpool of SDNS.

The criteria you decide on will be different from mine, but similar, just as your tools are different from mine but similar. However, I hasten to add that it would be a mistake to design a toolchest solely around the tools you own and use right now since those tools will change over the years. As someone who has plenty of “planning experience” (also read “made lots of mistakes”) I assure you that “Future-proofing,” meaning to provide “flexibility” and “adaptability” to deal with future changes in the tools you will store and the way you will use them, is always superior to a tidy but inflexible storage plan. For instance, while it is necessary to design rigid provisions for tools stored inside the lid to keep them from falling out, in most cases French-fitted trays are not an efficient long-term solution IMO.

While I have tremendous respect for successful ancient designs, the concept of imitating traditional details and features just for the sake of “historical correctness” was never a consideration for me because, like outhouses, straw roofs, blood-letting and ducking stools, some modern alternatives are superior to tradition.

German postcard depicting a ducking-stool being used to punish a baker accused of making his loaves too small. Would that such public persuasion could be dealt to every politician caught lying or public employee that takes bribes. I think the world’s lakes and rivers would be overcrowded with ducking chairs greatly improving society.

In the next post in this series we will examine the durability and longevity criteria and the solutions I employed. We will also take a stab at the other criteria listed above in future posts.

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 everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may I disappear forever into the whirlpool of indecision.

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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.

Dings

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.

Moisture

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 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.

Insects

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.

Rodents

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!

YMHOS

Steel-bound seaman’s chest

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 everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may cockroaches use my toolchest for a bathtub.

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Toolchests Part 2 – History

An Egyptian Chest with a very warlike decoration of chariots with archers, the main battle tank of the ancient world. What did the boy king store in it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chests throughout history have been mostly simple, durable boxes, but at times they have been fabulously expensive pieces of fragile high-art intended to communicate status and wealth, as many museum collections can attest. 

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

Throughout history chests have been carved, painted, lacquered, covered with nails, inlaid with mother of pearl or chased metal, and even gilded with gold leaf. They’ve served as strong-boxes for crusader banks, transported Inca and Aztec gold on Spanish galleons, and accompanied Italian princess to their new, married life. But whatever their purpose or appearance, chests were once the most common storage container in human civilization, with every well-established household throughout the world possessing at least one.

Regardless of where you live now or where your forefathers originated, it is safe to say that thousands of chests served your ancestors down through history. The chest is older than the 4-legged chair, certainly older than the elevated bed. Only dirt has a longer track record.

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

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

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

A very traditional “Nagamochi” tansu from Japan. These chests were specifically designed for not only general storage, but for transporting goods during the periods of Japan’s history when animal-powered carts were forbidden to all but royalty. The rectangular bit of hardware seen at the ends was rotated up and a wooden yoke passed through so that two or more men could carry the chest on their shoulders.
アンティーク家具 古民具 骨董 江戸時代 味の良い車長持ち(時代箪笥)
Another traditional Japanese chest called a “kuruma dansu 車箪笥,” which translates to “wheeled chest.” It too has the same nagamochi hardware on each end. Japan has a long history of fires that destroyed entire cities on a regular basis, so one justification for this style of chest was it could be wheeled out of the house or business quickly before the building burnt to the ground saving valuables. Try doing that with a wall cabinet! My chest borrowed from this traditional design, but substituted modern materials and detachable wheels. I have no patience with tiny, fragile casters.
This antique example is made from softwood in the dimensions of the traditional chest used to store tea, but without the tin lining. A lockable drawer can be accessed from the front, a detail commonly found in Japanese tansu chests. The lid’s top panel is not floating but is constrained by the side pieces, and although it appears to exhibit little or no cracking, please notice that the top panel has separated from the perimeter framework in places and busted the left-hand corner joint, a failure common to this style of construction wherever it is employed.
Hand-forged wrought-iron (minimal carbon content) hardware in a pine-bough motif. The original black lacquer finish can still be seen in a few places, but corrosion has patinated the metal nicely.

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

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

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

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

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

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please 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 everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may the wheels on my toolchest become square.

Other Posts in this Series

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 could not afford many good tools and so learned to accomplish many tasks with the few tools they had. Accomplishing the job without adequate tools was a necessity, which became a habit, and later a matter of pride. But often the efficiency and 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 beloved 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 Gentle Readers may have also 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, so long as I have the space, 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 make possible.

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 series of articles is to share with Gentle Reader one effective solution to tool storage and usage. If even one Gentle Reader 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 ago from Honduras Mahogany

In this series of posts we will discuss storage chests in general and toolchests in particular. I will also share a description of my toolchest, it’s design, and the goals, objectives and rational that drove the design and construction. I will even reveal some its failings and the remedies I employed. Chuckling may ensue (ツ).

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.”

Related image
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 other’s toolchest blogs, albeit with great dignity and refinement (ツ). Allow me to explain.

My first qualification for writing this is that I know what I am talking about. No, I am not a journalist, an author of books or a 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, casework and joinery 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 on paper 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 itself is essentially unchanged. I will explain those reasons and the resulting details and will share my conclusions. 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 should slavishly imitate them. Nay, 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, nor one intended to photograph well for publication in a book or magazine. It is an original design with a track record of hard travel to multiple nations.

Indeed, this toolchest has not been sitting in one place for 25 years, but has followed me through multiple international relocations where it has been used and abused heavily, successfully passing all trials. This dynamic track record sets this toolchest apart from most modern examples.

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. Chuckles are welcome.

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 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 everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may pirates pillage my toolchest.

Other Post in the Toolchests Series: