Toolchests Part 7 – Key Performance Criteria Solutions 2: Sealing, Insulation, Security, Portability & Tiedown

Bernini’s David, completed in 1624. I have seen all three of the famous David sculptures in-person, but this is my favorite because David is not depicted as a static, obviously posed, formulaic study-in-marble or bronze of the human form as he is by the other masters. Instead, Bernini used his chisel to tell a dynamic story of a young man staring intently into his enemy’s eyes as he winds up to deliver a sling stone to his fuzzy forehead, a single, unlikely rock that changed world history forever. Although Bernini portrayed the face of a shepherd boy risking all in front of two opposing armies, this determined visage could just as well be that of a surgeon, a baseball pitcher, or a woodworker, of course.

Three things are needed for success in painting and sculpture: to see beauty when young and accustom oneself to it, to work hard, and to obtain good advice.                        

Gian Lorenzo Bernini

In the previous post in this series about toolchests we examined solutions to two of the Key Performance Criteria I established when planning my toolchest, namely durability and longevity. In this post we will examine the solutions to three more performance criteria: Sealing, Insulation, and Security. It may be long, but I hope our Gentle Readers will at least find it diverting.

Sealing & Insulation

Sealing the toolchest tightly and insulating it are important factors to consider when planning a toolchest, as mentioned in previous posts in this series, because a leaky chest can allow cold air, dust, and insects access to the tools stored inside it, potentially soiling, corroding, and damaging them. There are several details one can include in a toolchest design to minimize this problem. Some of the measures I employed are explained below.

The Lid

Front elevation of the toolchest. Please notice the depth of the lid, and the 3 raised floating panels in the frame & panel lid. Odd numbers are considered more fortuitous in Japan than even numbers. The chest rests on a wheeled torsion-box base, but it is not affixed to it. Please also notice the simple, old-fashioned half-inlet chest lock, easily defeated but easily repaired.

The role of a toolchest’s lid in sealing and insulating it over many years cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, many historical examples eventually failed miserably either through poor design or poor execution. I was determined to avoid those failures.

As I mentioned in previous posts, chests in museum exhibits and books all look great, many having been at least partially restored, but if Gentle Readers want to get a sense of how chests fail, they should also inspect the busted examples in antique stores and restoration shops.

The first common failure I found when inspecting antique chests was a poor seal at the lid. This is almost universal. It frequently stemmed from a poorly-fitting lid, one that probably fit nice and tight when new but warped over time. In other cases, the lid had cracked and split like the seaman’s chest in the photo at the end of Part 2 of this series. Another common problem was due to what could only be an intentional gap on the hinge side of the lid. And then there were the gaps caused by thin, narrow and weak iron hinges secured by short wood screws bending, wearing and/or loosening. So how to avoid these problems?

Let’s look at wood first. A policy that has served me well over the years is to always assume that a solid board of more than a few inches in width will eventually warp if left to its own devices. Of course, in the real world this is not always the case, but I’m a belt & suspenders & safety harness kinda guy. Besides, remember the 200 year useful life-cycle objective.

I also assume that a board more than a few inches wide will eventually split, or cause damage to another board in the assembly, if overly constrained from responding to both normal seasonal changes in humidity and the unnaturally dry conditions created by air conditioning systems inside modern buildings. Am I overly cautious? Perhaps more so than captain Edward Smith of the RMS Titanic was on a cold night in April 1912.

The historical record represented in the museums and antique stores I visited support this assumption in the long-term, especially when one considers the effects of AC and central heating systems lacking expensive humidity controls. Therefore I designed and constructed the lid so it included no constrained boards more than 2-13/16″ inches in width. In addition I also reinforced the lid from warping as a unit to prevent it from self-destructing during the planned 200 year useful lifespan. Not that hard to achieve with a little thought and a few sharp saws and chisels.

The lid is comprised of two main components: A horizontal top which is joined to the lid’s vertical sides. The top is frame and panel construction, a technique which allows the cabinetmaker to build wide, stable surfaces using a joined framework of narrower pieces of wood with free-floating panels set in between. The framing pieces are narrow enough to accommodate cross-grain construction at the joints safely. The larger panels are too wide to permit cross-grain construction without eventually failing, so they are not glued to the frame members, but are free-floating so they can expand/contract with humidity changes without cracking, splitting or breaking the frame. Gentle Readers who have never done F&P work before should learn how. It is a skill every self-respecting maker of solid-wood casework or joinery must have.

Side view of the toolchest. Once again, please notice the frame & panel construction of the top and depth of the lid, a detail which provides great strength and stability to the normally failure-prone lid. A hardened lifting/tie-down ring through-bolted to the sidewall is also visible, as is the end view of the torsion-box base with urethane wheels which makes it possible to move the toolchest over level surfaces and up loading ramps when full of tools without damaging floor finishes.

The top’s frame consists of 6 pieces of wood 30mm (1-3/16″) thick by 70mm (2-13/16″) wide. Four perimeter pieces are joined at the corners using pinned (wooden dowels) dovetail bridle joints to form a rectangular frame 1,015mm (39-15/16″) x 595mm (23-7/16″). Two pieces of the framing wood divide the long dimension of this rectangle into 3 equal-sized spaces filled with 21mm (13/16″) thick free-floating raised panels using a tongue and groove joint. Both tongues and grooves are coated with Briwax (beesewax and naptha) to prevent glue squeeze-out and paint from gluing the panels into their grooves, something that happens frequently and almost always causes the panels to crack and even split. I just hope that future generations are wise enough to not refinish the chest by glooping paint on these joints effectively gluing the panels in-place eventually destroying the lid. Much excellent antique woodwork has been destroyed by careless painting.

Given the thickness of the frame, the sturdiness of the corner joints, and the quality of the wood, the lid is an extremely stable construction all by itself, one that has not warped or cracked in 25+ years. Good enough, perhaps. But wait, were are my suspenders?!

This top is attached by glue and wooden pins to a vertical four-piece perimeter framework that extends downwards an additional 130mm (5-1/8″) making the total external depth of the lid 160mm (6-5/16″). Theses four vertical boards are also 30mm (1-3/16″) thick, joined at each of their four corners by 7 pinned through-dovetails. Even if the glue fails someday, the pins will keep the dovetails locked in-place. This construction makes the lid assembly extremely rigid and resistant to wracking and prevents the top and sides from warping. This lid assembly has never warped, stuck, bound or even squeaked. Not once.

Besides providing stability and a gap and crack-free seal, this construction creates the space I required to house many heavy tools inside the lid as well as the structural strength to handle the load without noticeably flexing or twisting. This is directly related to Performance Criteria No. 4: Accessibility.

A wide, bold surface like this lid with exposed joints just begs for the addition of engraved metal plates and hand-forged straps of the sort easily obtainable in Japan. I freely admit that decorative hardware would really look cool, but I managed to avoid the temptation because history shows that, if firmly affixed to the wood, metal plates and straps tend to constrain the wood’s natural expansion and contraction often eventually opening joints and cracking wood totally defeating the purpose of the elegant frame and panel construction. None of that nonsense for me, you wascally wabbit.

Front and top view sketches of the toolchest with minimal dimensions. All the drawings will be available for free download in a future post.

The Seal Between Lid and Case

Chests made in the tradition of Western countries often have an interlocking lip between lid and base which more or less seals three sides, but which leaves a gap at the hinge side where dust, humidity, cold air, fungi, insects and pixies can enter. That’s nonsense. But what are the realistic options?

One well-published toolchest has the hinges supported on corbels attached to the exterior back wall of the chest. I think this is a clever solution, and one I considered, but ultimately rejected because it increases the toolchest’s overall width by the corbel dimension without increasing internal storage space. I of course considered rubber gaskets, and even magnetic refrigerator gaskets. Either would have sealed well at least until the unavoidable day of reckoning when the rubber and plastic oxidized, cracked and crumbled. They won’t last 200 years anymore than Cher’s beauty will. Oops, sorry. Too late.

The solution I eventually settled on was a detail common to Japanese casework, namely a lip applied to the inside of the lid where it meets the lower case. While not quite airtight, this lip does ensure the lid and case are precisely aligned when closed, that there is no gap at the hinge side, and that very little cold air, dust, fungi, bugs, or even anorexic pixies can infiltrate the toolchest once closed. I used a tough, fibrous, exotic hardwood for this lip that has held up well. The seal is so good that, even with 25 pounds of tools mounted inside the lid, I can drop the lid from full-open and the air-pressure created by this tight seal will make the lid close slowly without a sound. I have not had to replace it in 25+ years, but it would be easy to do if necessary.

This simple detail, combined with the natural thermal properties of the 30mm thick wooden sidewalls and lid, satisfied the criteria for insulation too.

Hinges

We discussed a few methods involving wood to prevent drafty lids above. Next let’s examine metal hinges.

Another failing of antique chests common to all the traditions I was able to investigate was inadequate and/or poor-quality hinges. When hinges are lose and sloppy when new, or become loose and sloppy over time due to wear and/or corrosion, or when the tiny often poor-quality nails, staples or screws used to attach most hinges loosen and become “idiots” as they say in Japan, the lid won’t align with the case and/or a gap develops between lid and case. Secondary damage results. Dirt, air, bugs and pugilistic pixies infiltrate. It’s the beginning of the end.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Pandora_by_Arthur_Rackham.jpg
Another look at that horrendous pixie infestation in a toolchest with a leaky lid located in a clothing-optional workshop. Bad hinges, no doubt. How embarrassing!

Traditional blacksmith-forged iron or steel hinges with decorative engraving or hammer marks are extremely attractive, but they just don’t meet my performance criteria. To begin with, iron/steel always rust. Rust then expands, becomes abrasive, and wears off destroying tolerances, a nasty cycle. Handmade hinges look cool, but tolerances are poor. And most importantly, traditional hinge pins are short and small in diameter with tiny bearing surfaces that wear quickly, and since their ends are peened, they cannot be removed easily. That would never do.

Instead of installing pretty traditional hinges or the cheap hardware-store hinges most people use for chests, I chose to use five solid-brass commercial door hinges with removable steel pins, made possible by the 30mm thickness of the case walls. I give them a dab of oil every couple of years. There is a reason modern door hinges can endure a lot of wear and abuse, and it has nothing to do with historical accuracy, I promise you.

I inset both leaves of these hinges and attached them using 2″ long grade-8 stainless steel screws (made in the USA not China) after dripping glue into the holes. They have not loosened or even developed a squeak in 25+ years.

The long strap hinges used on American and British chests may look sexy, but they often cause the lid to crack and split. Think about it.

Security

More often than not, quality chests have historically had locks of one sort or another installed. If you, Gentle Reader, decide your toolchest needs a lock, you should develop a security strategy early in the design process. Here’s mine.

As part of my day job I have talked with a lot building security experts when planning restricted-access facilities for Clients that have a lot to lose if their corporate secrets are stolen. I’m not suggesting you need 10-lb locks with biometrics, multiple layers of 1/2″ hardened plate steel doors, contact switches, keypads, cameras backed-up in Colorado, or armed guards. But I can share with you something I have learned applicable to cabinetry.

A lock won’t dissuade a determined thief with a crowbar for even a minute, but it may help keep an honest man honest.

But thieves are not all we need to worry about.

Ever have one of your adoring children or your loving spouse (yes, the one that thinks you have too many tools already and should buy new kitchen counters instead) borrow a tool, or even worse, lend it to a friend or neighbor without telling you? How often did that tool find its way back to its proper place in your toolbox or workshop?

How often has one of your precious, carefully-sharpened chisels ended up being used as a combined paint can opener and stirring stick only to spend the following months or years smeared with paint, humiliated, alone, forgotten, sadly weeping behind old paint cans in your neighbor’s garage? Besides the indignity of paint spots (chisels are often vain, you know), imagine the emotional trauma the poor thing suffered. Not to be bourne….

To help preclude this sort of trauma, Gentle Readers have three choices when it comes to casework locks. The first is to use standard locking hardware that requires a modern keyed lock with a tumbler. These work pretty well, but most look ugly in handmade casework. Appearance aside, the real problem is that, given time and privacy, and lacking lock-picking skills, a determined thief will simply break wooden casework with a crowbar. We see this sort of damage in modern cabinets frequently. It’s expensive to repair.

The second choice is to use heavy bars, locks and chains. I use this technique when I ship my toolchest by first padding the chest with plywood and blankets and then running a 10mm hardened-steel chain (chain-hoist chain) around the chest through the hardened-steel lifting eyes on both ends crossing underneath and on top of the case. This I secure with a heavy, high-security padlock underneath the rolling base. Bolt cutters won’t cut the locks or chain, but a largish hydraulic bolt cutter could. Likewise, an angle grinder could get through given some time, noise and sparks. This is a lot of trouble both for me and the thief, but it will absolutely stop a pilferer with a crowbar. 30mm thick sides and lid, remember. But it is not at all practical for routine access to the tools inside.

A half-mortise chest lock. A classic.

The third method is to install a lock that is convenient to use but easily defeated so a determined thief won’t destroy the chest in the process of bypassing it. A strange approach, I know, but it is logical and practical. The locking system I selected is a simple, old-fashioned brass half-mortise chest lock. You could pick it with a hairpin if you know how, or pop it open with a clam hammer. It’s quick and easy to lock and unlock, and it deters rugrats, wives, casual pilferers and even pernicious pixies, all while looking classic and unobtrusive. If a determined thief has the opportunity, he can easily break the lock and get in. The upsides are that he can do it without destroying the chest, and you will know he did it. Not ideal, but nothing ever is.

Portability

The portability criteria I established during the planning phase required the toolchest be light enough in weight to be carried up stairs by two men when empty. It had to also be easily moved over flat surfaces by one man with a full complement of tools inside.

Gentle Readers may recall the following image of a Japanese kuruma dansu from Part 2 in this series. This tradition served as inspiration for my design.

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)

In Japan this type of chest is called a “kuruma dansu 車箪笥,” which translates to “wheeled chest.”

You may wonder why anyone would need wheels on a piece of casework intended for interior use. The reason is simple practicality: Japan has a long history of urban fires that destroyed entire cities on a regular basis, but the addition of wheels to casework made it possible to quickly roll them out before the house burnt down, thereby saving valuables. Try doing that with a wall cabinet! Or try doing it over unpaved streets with tiny fragile casters screwed to the base of a loaded chest.

Wooden wheels are cool and mecha retro, but I rejected them for two reasons. First, they have solid axles, and if rolled around much both the wheels and the floor will be damaged, a lot, especially if grit and small stones become embedded in the wood. Not practical.

The second reason is more complicated. To begin with I wanted to be able to remove the wheels at times to comply with the maximum height criteria I had established in order to move the chest up narrow Asian stairs. Even with the current design, I need to remove the lid to get it up some stairs, including the house I currently live in.

The wheels in a kuruma dansu not only add a lot of fixed additional height, but that height is volume I would prefer to have inside the chest for tool storage instead of being occupied by an integral undercarriage, wheels and axles. But by using a detachable torsion box base with modern extra-heavy-duty lockable industrial casters with urethane tires, ball-bearings, and crazy pivots (free to rotate around a vertical axis), I was able to raise the chest further above the floor to improve access, satisfy the maximum height and portability criteria, and secure more interior space. If the casters go bad, I can replace them easily without impacting the chest in any way, unlike some examples where the casters are screwed to the bottom of the chest.

Besides, there have been a few years when the toolchest spent time in state (in full view) in our living rooms, and while my wife is Japanese, she simply doesn’t like the appearance of kuruma dansu. Go figure. During those periods, I simply removed the wheeled torsion box and rested the chest directly on the floor. My wife placed a colorful cloth noren over the chest with a flower vase on top. Some of her lady friends from church who visit occasionally liked it enough to ask if I would make chests for them.

Tie-down & Lifting

The performance criteria for tie-down and lifting were as follows: “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.”

As seen in the picture above, a hardened steel ring is through-bolted to each endwall of the toolchest. These are not reproductions or homemade rings, but certified load-rated hardware that serves three purposes. First, they make it easy to secure the toolchest to the side or floor of a container or truck. This capability is very important in the case of a toolchest that must make international moves frequently. If you think it would be easier to just have the movers throw blankets over the chest and strap it down, you’re absolutely right. The problem is that the likelihood of those conscientious, patient and gentle professionals that load conex boxes and trucks properly positioning the toolchest so it won’t shift, and then tightening the straps or ropes (if they even bother to use straps or ropes) so they don’t loosen, or scratch and abrade the toolchest, are slim and none, and Murphy always makes sure Slim is drunk on moving day.

The second purpose of these rings is to make it easy for two men to carry the chest by looping straps through each ring and over a 2×4 passed over the chest and placed on each man’s shoulder. This too is a traditional Japanese method of transporting heavy boxes, and is directly related to the “Portability” criteria discussed above.

And third, if I need to chain the chest closed to prevent pilfering, as I do when it is stored in a warehouse, I can pass a hardened chain through the rings, over the top and secure it with a padlock under the base without fear of the chain being slipped off, as described above under “Security.”

Sorry this article was so long. Perhaps these scribbles will suggest some solutions to our Gentle Reader’s tool storage systems.

In the next post in this Homeric tale of mystery and adventure we will take another look at hinges and examine the tools mounted inside the lid.

YMHOS

芹沢模様 のれん 縄のれん文
A dyed cloth noren, traditionally hung in door openings in Japan to provide decorative privacy while allowing airflow during hot months. Also makes a most excellent toolchest cover when company visits.

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 won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. May I swallow a thousand needles if I’m lying.

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 my 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 is also 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, especially 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 spiral 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 people 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, adding numbers;
  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 considering 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 it is 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 handsaw 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 the lid racking, warping, gaping, cracking, or binding, and 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;
  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 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 smelly pit 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 an 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 overflow 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

Other Posts in this Series:

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. Promise.

Toolchests Part 3 – Pros & Cons of Wooden Toolchests

An antique “Steamer Trunk” with a domed lid to add strength and to keep people from stacking other trunks on top of it.

Short cuts make long delays.

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

In the previous two posts in this series about toolchests, we examined a few aspects of their history, as well as a few of the goals and objectives I applied when designing mine.

In this post we will consider the pros and cons of the chest as a tool container and a few methods to maximize the pros and minimize the cons. The ultimate purpose is simply to provide examples of points to consider when planning and designing a toolchest.

As stated previously, this article is not intended to suggest the toolchest presented here is superior to any other. I, your most humble and obedient servant, am neither a Time Lord nor Holy Arbiter of Everything Traditional, so my efforts are unworthy of emulation. I respectfully present this series of articles merely as an example of one planning process and the lowly toolchest it produced.

Points in Favor of Wooden Toolchests

Wood as a material has some advantages over metal and plastic for making toolchests. Namely, it is often relatively inexpensive, can be easily worked, and has relatively high thermal insulative value. And wood is more appealing to many people than plastic, steel and aluminum. I think it’s safe to say that human attraction to wood is deeply rooted in our DNA. I don’t want to anthropomorphize, but I understand that robots feel the same way about aluminum, at least that’s what they tell me (ツ).

If you have ever used a steel or aluminum gangbox, basically a welded metal toolbox used on construction jobsites, often with huge locks housed in bolt cutter-proof recesses to prevent theft, or kept your tools stored in a metal toolbox mounted in your truck’s bed, you know what I mean. The metal transmits the heat or cold into the chest and the tools it contains very quickly resulting in condensation on metal surfaces and eventually rust. And the metal box itself dings and grinds the tools. But wood cushions tools and moderates these temperature swings providing the contents additional protection from wear and condensation corrosion especially if the container seals tightly.

Gang Box (60"L x 24"W x 24"H) (Knaack) - Farrell Equipment ...
A steel gangbox typically used for tool storage on commercial jobsites. A padlock inserted into the square hole at the upper left-hand corner protects the chest from theft.

As a structural system the wooden chest is easy to make stronger and more durable than modern cabinetry of the same volume, is much more portable, and can easily be sealed much tighter.

And finally, given the same amount of volume, there are many instances where the chest is a more economical storage system than modern cabinets, depending of course on the design and how the chest is used. That’s ten points in favor of wooden toolchests.

Points Against Wooden Toolchests

Wooden chests have fallen out of favor in modern times for valid reasons. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of traditional chests in general is that items stored inside tend to get stacked one on top of the other in a jumble, and that darn Murphy (may he suffer the exquisite torment of eternal languishment in a liberal big-city Department of Motor Vehicle line) has often hidden the item we need in the last place we could possibly look, at the very bottom.

Well-designed toolchests, on the other hand, have traditionally and quite successfully overcome this organizational challenge by using sliding trays and mounting tools to the lid’s underside and elsewhere. But of course, the effectiveness of this organization depends on the user.

Some people never get the knack, or simply lack adequate organizational self-control, and for them toolchests are not a viable solution. Indeed, for the person that lacks basic housekeeping skills and does not value their tools enough to care for them properly, there can be no effective method of storage better than a pile on the floor.

I am not like Adrian Monk when it comes to tool organization, but more than any other tool storage system, the toolchest is easiest for me to keep organized simply because, perhaps like some millionaire American politicians who only remember to wear pants in public because they need someplace to tuck-in their shirt-tail, I must.

Another disadvantage of the traditional chest is its low height compared to modern cabinetry. Space and weight practicalities typically limited the volume and height of traditional chests, resulting in a low profile. Mounting them on bases or adding legs made access easier. This transition from chests resting on the floor to cabinets supported on legs is well-documented in the historical record.

Compared to modern cabinetry which can be built as high as the ceiling permits and attached to walls, the chest may occupy more floorspace per square meter of internal storage volume. Whether that is a practical disadvantage or not depends on the user’s requirements for portability, which the chest excels at, and if storage space inside fixed cabinets located at a height above the user’s line of sight is considered useful or not.

While typically far superior to modern cabinetry, perhaps the most difficult long-term challenge of the toolchest is the lid. Traditional Western wooden chests frequently had a poor seal at the lid. To make things worse, their lids routinely warped over time and with changes in humidity and due to design defects creating gaps and cracks which became the primary avenue of humidity, dust, insect and pixie infiltration. But fixing this detail is not rocket surgery.

Gaskets are one solution, I suppose, but an effective design, combined with skillful execution that lacks gaps to begin with and won’t develop cracks over time, is the most effective solution IMO.

Convenience, including kinky backs and creaky joints, is another shortcoming common to traditional chests. Chests often served double-duty as benches, tables and even beds positioned along the wall of the longhouse, at the foot of the bed or under a window, and so tended to be low, stable boxes. Digging stuff out of a traditional low chest requires contortions such as bending over, squatting, and even kneeling, motions hard on old backs and rickety knee joints (tu fui ego eris).

But I don’t sleep on top of my toolchest, or use it as a seating bench, or strap it to a mule when transporting it so a low height is not necessary. Therefore I see no need to make a toolchest squat or lightweight in order follow an inconvenient and even painful tradition that conflicts with function, especially when there are superior traditions to draw on, as we saw in Part 2 of this series.

Another disadvantage of the chest is that, when closed, it is tempting to stack stuff on the closed lid or use the lid as a work surface, making it difficult to open the lid without removing the accumulated stuff. This is a workflow management problem and not insurmountable, but does require self-control. The historical record gives us us several solutions to the “stacking” problem.

Travelers and traders in past centuries often had their chests made with arched and even peaked lids to prevent shippers and stevedores from stacking stuff, especially other chests, on top of theirs in wagons, trains or ship’s holds. Please see the photo of the steamer trunk at the top of this post or the seachest below. While bulbous lids may work well for storage and shipping of clothing, linen and bedding, I doubt they make a toolchest more efficient. For instance, a chest with an arched lid stored against a wall cannot be opened without pulling it away from the wall at least the thickness of the lid wasting precious floorspace.

Another disadvantage of the wooden toolchest, at least compared to high-impact plastic and steel or aluminum toolboxes, is that it is less resistant to impact forces when dropped, possibly resulting in catastrophic failure. This damage is a real possibility, so a wise man will design and construct his toolchest to mitigate this risk. In my case, besides drops due to careless movers, I needed to plan for rude truck bumpers and vengeful forklift blades. Thank goodness I did.

And finally, wood can be weakened and destroyed by fungus, plenty of bugs love to eat it, and rodents can easily chew holes through it to build their dream home. That makes eight or nine points against the wooden chest, so if you are considering one, you will need to plan appropriate solutions.

Allow me to state an important related point: A bad design constructed perfectly is a still a failure; A good design executed poorly will eventually fail. Your tools deserve better than good-looking sucky failure, so proper planning and skilled execution are both essential.

So far we’ve discussed some pros and more cons of the wooden chest without delving deeply into solutions. I could of course have dived right into a discussion of the solutions I employed, but in the words of Professor Tolkien quoted above: “Short cuts make long delays.” But never fear, Gentle Reader, in the next post in this raucous tale of swashbuckling high-adventure, we will take a gander at some planning techniques and design criteria you may want to consider to overcome these shortcomings.

YMHOS

A seaman’s chest with an arched top. At first glance the thick walls, plentiful dovetails, and elevated bottom appear to have held up well. But notice what happened when the cross-grain construction at the ends of the lid and the steel straps constricted the wood’s expansion and contraction. Notice also how shrinkage has caused the long escutcheon plate (at the keyhole) to bow outwards. This is a direct result of the wood shrinking more over time and with changes in humidity than the maker anticipated. Some may say the steel straps are holding the chest together, and that may be true now, but only because those same straps caused the wood to crack and fail over many years. Be careful of the unintended consequences of restraining wood movement.

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. Cross my heart.

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 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 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.”

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 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: