Toolchests Part 2 – History

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

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 perhaps the most ancient hard-sided container used by humankind. This fact alone makes it a method of tool storage you 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, stone and metal.

It 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 rush lights when 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 to knead the dough to make the “daily bread.” When done, the lid was cleaned, turned upside down and placed on the base to as a lid once again protecting 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 can be simple, easy to make, relatively inexpensive, and very durable. Or they can be fabulously expensive pieces of 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 Incan gold on Spanish galleons, and accompanied Italian princess loaded down with rich dowry goods. 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 chair, and much 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 and 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. Europe and the Middle-east are not the only sources of inspiration available.

A very traditional “Nagamochi” tansu from Japan. These 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 ordinary folk. The rectangular bit of hardware seen at the ends was rotated up and wooden yoke was passed through so that two or 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 quickly before the house burnt down saving valuables. Try doing that with a wall cabinet! My chest borrowed from this traditional design, but subsituted modern materials and detachable wheels. I have no patience with tiny, fragile casters.

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 I strongly dislike, 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 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 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. We swears on the Precious.

Other Posts in this Series

Toolchests Part 1 – And Away We Go

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 are 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

Toolchests Part 2 – History