Toolchests Part 11 – The Bottom

When I’ve painted a woman’s bottom so that I want to touch it, then [the painting] is finished.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
A famous bottom painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814, Oil on canvas, 36″ x 63″ (91 x 162 cm), (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

A worthy toolchest’s bottom should be like that of an elegant woman: well-formed, seldom seen, and never heard. Not that I have an obsession with bottoms, mind you, it’s just that my goal of a 200 year useful lifespan for my toolchest compelled me to give this obscure oft-neglected component bottomless thought. If you expect your toolchest to endure eight generations, you too may want to give it some fundamental consideration.

The Historical Record

A strong, rot-resistant bottom panel that shuts out moisture, dust, insects, and vermin is critical in my opinion.

You may think these are easily satisfied common-sense performance criteria, but the historical record shows that such is not the case. Indeed, a problem commonly seen in antique casework is rotted-out, bughole-weakened, rodent-nibbled bottom panels. One cause of this damage is that, during much of their lives, the bottoms of many chests rested directly on damp floors or even the bare ground, absorbing moisture and creating a damp, woody environment for bacteria to run riot for decades on end, with no air circulation to remove dampness, and no exposure to sunlight to either dry the bottom or retard fungal growth. And don’t forget that yummy unprotected, unsealed softwood just begging to be munched on by bugs (with a drop o’ Tabasco sauce, of course).

The bottom panel of my toolchest. Solid Honduras Mahogany with floating frame and panel construction, treated with CCA and painted with high-quality exterior-grade washable latex paint. The runners that trays slide on are visible at the chest’s sides. Keruing strips are glued to the them to compensate for wear over the years.

Indeed, damaged bottoms were so common in casework in past centuries that it appears to have been standard practice to make them easy to replace. Or perhaps they rotted because they were less visible, excusing the use of cheaper, less-durable, unfinished secondary woods attached using nails instead of more expensive and durable woods, finishes and joinery techniques, with easy replacement being just an unintended side-benefit of cheaper construction. 

I will let the preservationists and historians argue this chicken-or-egg problem, but being a belt-and-suspenders-and-safety harness kind of guy, I’ll have nothing to do with a flawed chicken even if it was hatched from a traditional egg.

Frame & Panel Construction

Of course, the bottom is frame-and panel construction, glued and pinned to the sides with horizontal bamboo treenails.

There are a number of ways to build a toolchest’s bottom panel. Perhaps the worse material to use would be MDF, or as I like to call it, “garbage.” Marine-grade plywood is a much better choice, but it too will delaminate and rot given enough time, moisture, and micro-organisms. Solid wood is not perfect, but it is better than either garbage or plywood on condition that the F&P assembly is built correctly, and some of the measures listed below are employed in tandem.

So what goes into a proper F&P assembly? I can’t go into great detail here, but the general principles are as follows:

  1. Properly Acclimated Wood: All the wood to be used must be well dried and its moisture content be in equilibrium with the local environment at the time you make the assembly;
  2. Properly Sized Frame Members: The width of the frame members must not be too wide or the corner joints will fail and/or the frame may push the casework apart when it expands, or leave gaps when it shrinks, due to seasonal humidity changes;
  3. Properly Sized Panels: Panel width and the dimensions of the tongues and grooves that connect panel to frame must be sized so that seasonal humidity changes do not cause the panel to swell enough to break or warp the F&P assembly, or shrink enough to leave gaps between the panel and frame members;
  4. Unconstrained Movement: A very important consideration is related to number 3 above, namely that the movement (expansion/contraction/sliding) of panels must be unconstrained. A common failing in F&P assemblies is glue squeeze-out or finishing materials inadvertently gluing the panel’s tongues inside the frame’s grooves resulting in broken assemblies and more frequently cracked/split panels. The solution is of course to use the right amount of glue and be careful when finishing. But since Murphy is a clever lad adept at concealing glue squeeze-out and finish infiltration until it’s too late to detect (and pixies), I always coat tongues and the inside of grooves with wax to prevent glue/finish adhesion. One must also be careful that nails/screws/dowels used to fasten F&P assemblies into the structure do not prevent panels from moving freely.

Isolation

With a lifespan criteria of 200 years in mind, the first solution I employed to maximize the bottom’s longevity was to make it nearly impossible to place the bottom in direct contact with the floor or ground. I did this by dropping the skirt below the chest’s bottom panel so its weight rests on the perimeter skirt instead of its bottom, leaving an air-gap between the floor and the bottom panel. This gap isolates the bottom from the most likely source of moisture greatly reducing the potential for moisture absorption from the floor. Better-quality casework in past centuries often incorporated this design detail.

Ventilation

The second design detail I employed was to scallop the base/skirt to allow air to circulate underneath the toolchest from all four sides, and to facilitate cleaning. This too is a traditional detail superior to simpler modern designs.

Better Woodworking Through Chemistry

The third rot-prevention measure I employed is more or less modern. I saturated the frames and panels of the chest’s bottom as well as the skirt in CCA (chromated copper arsenic) wood preservative using plastic bags and a vacuum pump, then let the wood dry thoroughly. I also primed/painted the bottom panel with high-quality latex paint to keep out water and seal in the nastiness in CCA.  

CCA is a very effective chemical that was not available before the mid 1930’s. It’s use is restricted in the USA in some places, and is no longer available for retail sale in a few States, but despite what the coke-snorting enviro-despot lying lawyers in North Venezuela (nestled between Mexico and Oregon) opine, it is quite safe if used properly. The key is to not ingest it. Everyone say the wood finisher’s pledge along with me now: “I will not drink wood preservatives or wash my face with oven cleaner.” Don’t you feel safer now?

Wood treated with CCA has a greenish color. No doubt you have seen construction lumber pressure-treated with this chemical. Copper is the active ingredient which prevents the growth of bacteria and fungi. Arsenic is the primary insecticide. The chromium component has little if any direct preservative effect but serves to fix the copper and arsenic to the wood.

So far, the bottom is holding up perfectly even after spending years resting directly on the concrete slab-on-grade floor of a non-air-conditioned garage on the very humid (80~95% RH year-round) and horrifically termite-infested Pacific island of Guam, but the final verdict won’t be in for another 175 years. I’ll let you know the results when they are in.

In the next exciting chapter in this tale of high adventure I would like to present the most unique feature of my toolchest, the sawtill. Trust me, you have not seen one like it before.

YMHOS

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The diligent Plumber

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Toolchests Part 10 – The Dungeon

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.

JRR Tolkien – The Hobbit
Welcome to the Dungeon. Please relax, take off your shoes, pull up a chair and sit on a spike.

In the previous post I described the three sliding trays in my toolchest. In this post we will descend beneath those trays into the lowest depths, a lonely space I call “the Dungeon.” So light your torches, unsling your axes, and let’s see what lurks in the dark. Don’t worry about me, Gentle Reader, I’ll be right behind you.

Chisel Storage

Many things suffer durance vile in the toolchest, but by far the largest number of denizens are chisels. They are sharp, dangerous tools and difficult to store securely and access safely.

As mentioned in previous posts in this series I have a handy dandy 10-pc set of chisels mounted in the lid. This is a high-quality set of hand-forged shinogi oirenomi but they are not my best chisels. Those are stored in four wooden chisel boxes kept in the dungeon.

One chisel box contains a 10pc oirenomi set, another a 10-pc mukomachinomi (mortise chisel) set, the third and fourth boxes contain various usunomi, kotenomi, atsunomi, and other specialty chisels. Approximately 38 Kiyotada-brand chisels reside in these boxes, mostly custom-forged.

The Toolchest’s Dungeon with its residents. Neither gold nor gems nor dragons are to be found here, but there are plenty of pokey things. The green box contains mostly paring chisels. There is an identical box underneath it which contains mostly atsunomi and kotenomi. Not seen, because they are shy, are two old re-purposed cryptomeria (akita sugi) wood chisel boxes, one containing a 10 pc set of mortise chisels and the other a 10pc set of oiirenomi chisels. These boxes were originally made to house precision measuring tools in the Tokyo Imperial College’s artillery department. Pre-WWII, of course. The 2 brown plastic boxes on top contain mostly plow planes. The canvas rolls contain handmade files and rasps. The black and white thing in the front is a box containing a traditional Japanese tool for checking plane soles called an “Awase Jogi,” the first tool I made during my training in joinery, and one which may or may not be the subject of a future post. The Lie-Nielson box contains a router plane, a tool not available in Japan.

l have, and use, too many chisels to store in trays, so my work philosophy is to store them, sorted more or less by types, in wooden boxes which protect them thoroughly even outside the toolchest. I can remove my box of mortise chisels, for example, along with my box of usunomi paring chisels from the dungeon and set them either on or under my workbench and have quick access to all widths without wasting time digging around in the toolchest. When I am done with a chisel for a time, I wipe it down, oil it with my oilpot and return it to its place in its box keeping my workbench uncluttered and my valuable chisels protected.

Removing these four chisel boxes is as easy as sliding the 3 trays to the rear and reaching down into the dungeon which, along with the trays is designed specifically to provide adequate clearance for easy removal.

When I need to grab an oiirenomi chisel for a quick job, however, the 10-pc set mounted in the lid is handiest.

Four chisel boxes have been released from the dungeon and opened for your perusal.

Other Implements of Torture

You will also notice two tan-colored plastic containers holding plow planes of various widths and a moisture meter. To avoid noise and dust problems I don’t have any electrical routers with me here in Tokyo, so while not as efficient, these rather old-fashioned and sometimes cantankerous tools are the best alternative.

Also visible in the photo are several canvas tool rolls containing mostly handmade rasps and files, as well as a cardboard box containing a router plane, another essential tool for the unplugged shop.

Besides chisels and planes I can also store a hewing hatchet, an adze, and a large Japanese “gagari” rip saw on top of the chisel boxes, but I usually remove them, wrap them up, and hang them on my wire shelf when the toolbox is in residence.

In the Dungeon’s far left-hand corner one American framing square and two Japanese kanejaku squares, one in centimeter scale and the other in shaku/sun scale, can be seen resting against the back wall. They were sleeping quietly at the time of the photo probably because of a late night. Judging by the ruckus they made and the dead soldiers they left laying about, they spent the entire evening drinking, playing dice on the chisel boxes and arguing loudly about the superiority of the Japanese “Shaku” measuring system vs. the metric system vs. the imperial system. Fortunately, while squares have both tongues and blades, they do not have arms or legs, so their drunken deliberations seldom devolve into violence. I don’t allow them any stogies, however; One must draw the line somewhere.

This arrangement keeps everything ship-shape and Bristol fashion, an idiom especially suitable to a toolchest with so many tools mounted in the lid.

In the next post in this we will examine the toolchest’s bottom panel. Not as sexy as you might imagine, but more important than you may know.

Hmmm, now where did I put that darn ootsukinomi?

YMHOS

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Toolchests Part 1 – And Away We Go

And Awaaay We Go

No wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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