Toolchests Part 12 – The Sawtill

A view of the Sawtill’s lid nested into the opening in front of the trays.

I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.

William Shakespeare – Hamlet

Every woodworker worth his salt uses handsaws. I don’t mean to impugn those who use machines exclusively to perform all sawing activities, I am sure they are all fine folk; I wish them health, happiness, and hundreds of fat children, but they are more machine operators than craftsmen in wood, in my un-exalted opinion.

Saws are important tools deserving of protection, but which we need to access quickly. Not an easy performance criteria to satisfy. Saws have wide metal “plates” that collect dust and condensation and develop rust. And sharp little teeth that catch, cut and scratch things and are easily damaged in turn through contact with other metal tools. How best to store this tool in a toolchest filled with other tools unlikely to become fuzzy buddies with the prickly handsaw?

In this post we will examine the challenges involved in storing saws, and the solution I learned from an old dusty book hidden in a Japanese university library far back in the mists of time.

Saw Storage Performance Criteria

High-carbon steel is without doubt the best material for handsaws, but it rusts. Rust produces a rougher surface increasing friction, and if it progresses will cause deep pitting, damaging the teeth forever and permanently impairing cutting efficiency

We can apply oil to the plate and teeth to prevent/reduce rust, but oil attracts dust which often contains hard particles that dull teeth, not to mention chemicals that accelerate rust. Therefore, a good storage solution must protect saws not only from dings, but from dust and temperature swings that invite condensation and rust.

Clearly the exposed saw rack published in woodworking magazines ad nauseam as DIY projects for amateurs is easy to access and great for displaying handsaws for worship and veneration (especially the ones with twin candlestick holders (ツ)), but they are not a good long-term storage solution because, while the saws are in plain view for daily worship, they are also exposed to dust and temperature swings the encourage condensation corrosion.

One traditional solution is to mount saws to the underside of a toolchest’s lid. I have tried this before but long ago concluded this method takes up too much real estate I need for other tools. And the saws still collect some dust in this location anyway.

I especially dislike one traditional solution, namely nailing a sawtill in the bottom of the toolchest up against the front wall, because it makes the saws difficult to see, a pain to retrieve, and more importantly, limits the travel distance and width of the all-important trays. Codswallop!

Some may insist that the internal sawtill is the only valid “traditional” method. To all the self-appointed Time Lords and Holy Arbiters of Everything Traditional that look down their patrician noses at the solution I selected I respond that there are other traditional designs they may have not seen before. Perhaps they need to… I dunno… do something crazy like… put down their congac snifters and visit different libraries?

After months of deliberation I decided I needed a sawtill that is an enclosed, sealed, insulated space in itself, that can be removed to serve as an independent toolchest most of the time but will still fit inside the toolchest when necessary, will contain many saws, not just five or six, and is at a convenient height where I can clearly see and easily retrieve/replace them. These criteria are what attracted me to this extremely intelligent design when I saw drawings of it in a dusty old British book in the University of Tokyo Library. I modified the design considerably, especially the lid and the drawer, but there is nothing new under the sun.

The Execution

My sawtill nests inside the toolchest, as you can see from the photo above. In this location the lid can be closed without interference. Saws in the top compartment can be accessed, but not the saws in the bottom drawer. Tools in the top tray and those mounted inside the lid are also easily accessible, but those in the 2nd and 3rd tray and in the dungeon are not accessible without removing either the sawtill or the trays. This may seem to be a serious flaw, but au contraire, mes amis!

When the toolchest is in my workshop, the sawtill spends no time inside the toolchest. Instead I take advantage of its greatest virtue, set it off to the side, and use it as an independent toolchest dedicated to saws. In my current workshop it sits on the ledge of a bay window located 1 foot from the mothership. In other workshops I rested it on sawhorses. It is a very intelligent and flexible solution.

Do I need candlesticks and incense? Nah.

The sawtill resting on the toolchest’s walls. The top and drawers are closed. The drawer has recessed brass pulls and a brass lock. Nylon straps attached to each end of the sawtill make it easy to lift out of the toolchest’s interior.

Like the toolchest proper, the sawtill is made from solid medium-density Honduras mahogany joined with dovetails. The lid, central horizontal divider, and bottom are all solid-wood frame-and-panel construction. Like the toolchest, the sawtill’s lid has deep vertical sides to add stiffness and prevent warping, but unlike the toolchest, nothing is mounted in the lid. A wooden lip projects down from the lid aligning it to the base and sealing it tightly when closed.

When open, the saw handles protrude above the sawtill’s sides making them easy to see, remove, and replace without fiddling around. This is important.

Due to this construction, neither drawer nor lid have ever warped or become sticky.

The sawtill with the lid and drawer open. The top opening is filled primarily with Western saws and larger Japanese saws (e.g. bukkiri gagari, while the drawer is stuffed full of thinner Japanese saws as well as sharpening files, chalk and a sawset. I tend to store many of my saws wrapped in newspaper because the out-gassing of the ink is a good corrosion preventative, at least when the newspaper is new. Strange but true.

The top compartment is sized to house 8-26” Disston No.12 saws, or a mixture of Western and larger Japanese saws. The drawer underneath will hold a dozen Japanese saws along with files and other saw-related tools. 

The sawtill’s overall height with lid closed is the same as the combined height of Moby Dick’s three trays, and nestles neatly inside the space created when the three trays are slid to the back. The toolchest’s lid can be closed with the sawtill in this position locking it in securely.

Dividers

When this saw till was new I installed boards with the classic slits-n-slots in the top compartment to retain saws, but changed to plywood dividers long ago because they are more flexible, quicker to access/replace, keep saws from banging against each other when removing/replacing them, and allow me to wrap the saws for additional protection during long-term storage and transit. I would never go back to slits-n-slots.

Due to potential fire hazard I won’t mount a couple of candelabra or an incense stand to it.

In the next post in this series we will examine the finishes used. I think you will find this especially interesting. Please come back.

© 2020 Stanley Covington All Rights Reserved

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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 8 – Under the Lid

Even the smallest person can change the course of history.

Lady Galadriel – The Lord of the Rings

In previous posts in this series about toolchests, and your humble servant’s toolchest in particular, we looked at how the design was guided by performance criteria such as portability, tie-down and lifting, and pixie infestation prevention. In this post we will examine one solution to another performance criteria. Perhaps the solutions I settled on will help you solidify your storage requirements.

Inside the Lid

Key Performance Criteria No.4 defined in Part 5 of this series is as follows:

Tool Access: Tools used frequently to be quick to locate and easy to remove and replace without bending, kneeling, or shifting trays around.

The solution I selected was to mount many of the tools I use most frequently inside the lid where they are in clear view and quickly accessible. This technique is one seen in historical examples, but as always, I wanted to do things a little bigger, a little better.

Alas, I had fallen under the spell of a philosophy that many suffer from, indeed one that has destroyed entire civilizations and can be summarized as “ if a little bit is good then too much must be better.” I began the planning of this space with visions of Mr. Studley’s famous toolchest dancing in my head. The image in my mind was mahvelous dahling, simply mahvelouse, but the conceptual drawing was only good. While I was distracted by my dreams, reality snuck up behind me, shot me in the head and dumped my virtual body in the river. The water was cold!

After a refreshing swim I realized my plan was too dense, too inflexible, too expensive, and most importantly, violated the unwritten performance criteria common to most human endeavors: “It must be finished in my lifetime.”

The compromise I arrived at is shown in this post. It is not perfect. You should not emulate it. But it is the fruit of trial and lots of error over many years and it works reliably.

A view of the inside of the toolchest’s lid with all the tools in residence. Please also notice the 5 heavy brass butt hinges, the sealing lip around the inside edge of the lid, and the brass chain which keeps the lid open. The unusual wooden tool mounted nearly in the center is an unused, hand-carved Japanese inkpot called a “sumitsubo,” an excellent tool for snapping straight lines on wood. In this case, it is purely decorative. My daily-use sumitsubo is the blue plastic widget located below the wooden sumitsubo; much more practical but not as traditional or as sculptural.

An obvious problem with mounting tools inside a lid is their rebellious desire to drop to the bottom of the chest when the lid is closed, especially if the petty pernicious pixies that sometimes skulk in the shadows of my workshop lend a claw. To deal with this mischievous propensity, each tool’s mounting mechanism must retain the tool securely in place while the lid is opened, closed, and even while the toolchest is being moved around. At the same time, the mounting mechanism must be simple and quick to operate. This combination of security and speed is not as easy to accomplish as you might think because, well, tools can be naughty, and gravity is not our friend when the lid is closed. And pixies.

In the center of the picture is a favorite old Japanese screwdriver with a bulbous handle made from keyaki (zelkova wood). Behind it are mounted two Yankee screwdrivers of different lengths along with driver and Japanese-style gimlet bits. To the left, most of the wooden sumitsubo, secured to its mounting board by a leather thong, is visible. Under it you can see the fire-damaged end of the handle of a Millers Falls eggbeater. To the right is the hopeless set of oiirenomi (since replaced) and the handles of gennou hammers. Bits for the brace mounted behind the hammer handles are stored in the space behind the chisel blades. The sealing lip attached to the inside of the lid is visible just above the brass butt hinge. This is simply nailed in place to be easily replaced if damaged, but that has not been necessary yet.

So let’s examine the tools and how they are secured.

The upper third of the lid is dominated by two full-width parallel boards secured to both sides of the lid. These two boards have edge lips and matching notches . The left side holds 7 marking gauges of various lengths and types. Four of them are dual-blade mortise gauges (kamakebiki) made by Kinshiro. After placing a marking gauge in its designated set of slots, it is secured by extending the tool’s beam or blade upwards and locking it in place with its own adjusting screw. This mounting method has been entirely successful.

The right hand side of these parallel boards holds 8 hammers (gennou). The back-side of each notch and the surrounding lip is shaped to fit a specific hammer, and super-magnets help hold each hammer’s head in place. The handles of the chisels mounted below also help to retain the hammers, as you can see from the photo. This is not a perfect solution, but it works well enough.

The tools stored in the lid’s right-hand side spread out for your inspection. The 11 chisels are not shown.

The 11 chisels on the right side are held in place by friction between the chisel’s cone-shaped ferrules and the closely-fitted wood notches, and stay in place even when the lid is closed. But vibration can become a problem if I need to move the chest over a rough surface with the lid closed, so I wrap a rubber bungee cord around the chisel’s handles to keep them in their slots during rough transport.

The cutting edges are oriented downward when the lid is open, close to the lid’s side (below) so that there is little danger of snagging a finger or wrist on the extremely sharp edges. I strongly dislike any storage system that leaves sharp blades exposed. Whatever chisel storage solution selected, I strongly urge Gentle Readers to ensure there is no opportunity for chisels to express their peckish nature for three reasons: First, 10 fingers is better than 9; Second, sticky red stuff promotes rust; and Third, Murphy always has the last laugh. I promise you won’t like whatever gives that bastard the giggles when chisels are involved.

A 10-pc set of Kiyohisa oiirenomi with white oak handles mounted inside the lid. I was deeply dissatisfied with the poor quality of these chisels and have since replaced them with the higher-quality but much less expensive set with red oak handles shown in the next photo. A sokozarai chisel with a red oak handle is mounted to the far right of the row. An antique brace with rosewood fittings, as well as an old Starrett protractor head are mounted behind the chisels and gennou hammer handles

Behind the chisel and hammer handles, you can see my Starrett protractor head, and my father’s old Stanley brace with rosewood fittings. Bits are placed in tool wraps and stored in a compartment behind the chisel blades. Not easy to get at. I have thought about combining the chisel rack into a drawer to hold the bits, but have not done anything yet.

The tools mounted in the lid’s left-hand side are removed and displayed for your inspection. A different and far superior set of chisels is visible in this picture. The zelkova wood sumitsubo hand-carved in the turtle and stork pattern can be seen in profile with its ebony karuko needle and bamboo sumisashi marking stick below. The black plastic bottle with the blue and white lid at the far right contains ink for the sumitsubo.

On the left side, a Starrett 92 divider and two spring dividers are secured by a block screwed to the far left sidewall. Chastely closing the divider’s legs together pinches a screw head locking them securely in place. If you don’t already own a Starrett 92, you need to get one.

In this photo the sumitsubo is front and center. The tails of 6 marking gauges, 4 of which are dual-blade units by Kinshiro, can be seen in the rack above.

Behind the dividers, there are several steel rulers and a bevel gauge secured by a hook on top and retained by the Starrett 92’s arm. In the center are mounted 3 Matsui Precision hardened stainless steel squares, a Starrett combo square, a Starrett adjustable mini square, and a thickness caliper.

I also mounted an unused hand-carved Zelkova-wood Japanese inkline/inkpot (墨壷 sumitsubo) with silk wadding in a central position of honor. While this is a practical tool, I mounted it there just as decoration, as you can tell because the silk line is still blue and the silk wadding is still white. I have a more convenient sealed plastic sumitsubo stored in the top tray I use when I need to snap a line.

At the bottom of the lid I mounted an old Millers Falls eggbeater drill. I don’t recall the model number, but I purchased it used in Delaware, Ohio. The cap on the handle was damaged by fire sometime before I bought it. It’s a handy a little guy, but nothing special.

On the left side of the center vertical divider are mounted 2 Yankee spiral screwdrivers, bits and gimlet blades, as well as an antique Japanese screwdriver with a polished steel shaft and a bulbous Zelkova wood handle. I am irrationally fond of this old tool.

I have tried different arrangements for mounting tools inside the lid over the years, and I will continue to improve it because I am confident this is not the best possible arrangement. It’s a difficult planning problem for two reasons. First, the tools in the lid are the most easily accessible and therefore must be ones I need all the time. Assigning priority and ease of access seems as easy as falling off a greasy log, but it isn’t. The Studley solutions to storing tools are amazing, but not really practical. Second, I need to be able to remove and store these tools quickly, but at the same time, they can’t be so heavy or so difficult to secure they fall out when the lid closes or opens. Once again, the conflict between safety and security is tricky to resolve.

Regarding priority, marking gauges and other layout tools see the highest frequency of use, followed by chisels, hammers, drills and screwdrivers. This priority is reflected in their location inside the lid, as you can see.

I don’t use the protractor head, brace or bits very often, so they are assigned a lower priority and reside behind the hammers and chisels. It takes time to remove them, but on the other hand, they would always be in the way if placed in the trays, which is more valuable real estate, so this is their home.

To hold the lid open and keep it from flopping back, I installed a brass toilet chain on the left side, and boxed out a space so it doesn’t get hung up on tools. When the lid is closed, it automatically lays along side the top tray. This chain is strong, will never rust, and has never caused me a second of grief.

Well, that’s all for this post. Next time we’ll look at the trays. There will be planes. Oh joy!

YMHOS

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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 6 – Key Performance Criteria Solutions 1: Durability and Longevity

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

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick or, the Whale

In the previous post in this series we discussed the need to develop Key Performance Criteria when planning a tool storage system, some of the pitfalls to avoid when making KPC’s, and then listed the KPC’s I developed for my toolchest, not as an example to imitate but just for reference purposes. In this post we will examine some of the solutions I arrived at regarding how to incorporate those KPC’s into a practical design. I hope it proves informative, or at least amusing.

Durability

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

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

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

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

Wood Selection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wood Thickness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Differential Expansion & Contraction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fungus, Insects and Rodents

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

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

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

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

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

Call me Ishmael.

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

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions form located immediately below. Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google or incompetent facebook and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. Honest.

Toolchests Part 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

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.

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Toolchests Part 4 – Goals & Objectives

It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

More than just keeping tools together in one place, the challenge facing the toolchest designer is how to protect those tools while also keeping them organized and easy to access. So let’s examine some of the things we need a toolchest to accomplish.

Tool Organization

Obviously, the first and most important objective of a tool storage system must be to efficiently house and organize tools. A cardboard box is lightweight and does these tasks inexpensively, but not well. If you have ever worked out of a cardboard box you know how inefficient and frustrating they can be. These are not easy tasks to accomplish especially when space is as limited as it is in a toolchest. I’ll discuss this important subject more in future posts.

Tool Protection

A tool storage system should protect the tools inside from dings, moisture, dirt, corrosion, vermin, insects, and in some cases unauthorized borrowers, thieves and, of course, pernicious pixies during its useful lifetime, in this case 200 years.

Let’s examine the types and causes of tool degradation an effective tool chest must protect against, as well as the miracle of tool evolution.

Dings

Ding damage occurs when things strike or scrape tools, especially when they fall, rattle, scrape or bang against each other. Tools stored in a jumble in cardboard boxes are likely to be damaged every time the box is touched. A good toolchest must prevent this.

Moisture

Assuming the toolchest is not left out in the rain for days at a time or subjected to flooding, what sort of moisture damage is most likely to occur? The answer is condensation corrosion.

When relatively warm humid air contacts relatively colder metal, such as carbon-steel tool blades, condensation will occur and rust will develop, especially if the place where the tools reside is not constantly heated and air-conditioned. This is not my opinion, but simple physics, and although it may take years before the corrosion becomes noticeable to the naked eye, it will happen sure as eggses is eggses. 

An example of condensation corrosion in a barn.

To prevent condensation corrosion, an effective toolchest will accomplish two things. First, it will insulate tools from sudden temperature swings due to convection (heat transfer through the toolchest’s walls, floor and lid) and second, it will seal well thereby minimizing temperature swings due to infiltration of colder/warmer humid air that might produce condensation. 

Remember, it is not temperature itself that causes condensation, rather it is the differential temperature between rust-prone metal and airborne moisture. Also worth remembering is the fact that large temperature changes occur in most locations of the world twice a day as the sun rises and sets. If there is moisture in the air, condensation will eventually occur. A good tool chest will satisfy these two performance criteria to effectively reduce long-term corrosion. 

Corrosion aside, moisture and temperature changes can create problems with some tools, especially wooden-bodied planes, which can warp when subjected to sudden swings in humidity causing them to misbehave in frustrating ways. Even a little warpage can make a wooden-bodied plane stop functioning. 

Most people understand that changes in humidity can cause their wooden-bodied planes to warp sometimes to the degree that they will no longer take a shaving, but why is this? The simple answer is twofold. First, wood fibers in a plane body exposed to increased humidity will absorb moisture and try to expand, but if later exposed to decreased environmental humidity the same fibers will release moisture and try to shrink.

The second factor in the equation is that wood absorbs or loses moisture much quicker through end-grain than side grain.

The result is that the exposed end-grain at both ends and the plane’s mouth opening absorb or discharge moisture quicker than the interior portion, and therefore expand or contract quicker, so that when exposed to rapidly changing humidity, the ends of a stick of wood such as a plane body are constantly fighting with its middle, creating differential stresses which cause warping. It is this same phenomenon that causes green logs to split from the ends first. Once the moisture content in a wooden plane body reaches equilibrium, it will usually calm down, and return to functioning normally. 

A tightly sealed wooden toolchest will smooth out the mountains and valleys in the moisture content curve inside itself, and likewise in the wooden plane bodies it houses, helping them reach equilibrium quickly, thereby reducing internal stresses in the plane bodies contained in the toolchest and the resulting warpage. 

Cardboard boxes provide some insulation against temperature and humidity fluctuations, but unless all the seams are tightly taped closed, those changes still occur rapidly. 

Aside from airtight containers, most commercially available metal and plastic toolboxes do not moderate temperature or humidity fluctuations well at all.

Dust & Dirt

Why is dust a problem, you may ask? I have supervised the design and construction of many laboratories and high-level cleanrooms during my career, and know well the damage dirt can cause, and how difficult it is to keep out. Of course, I am not suggesting you should make your tool container from insulated clean-panels and connect an expensive and bulky AHU and HEPA filters to it. I am only stating that dust and dirt will eventually become a serious problem if not controlled.

Dust consists of particles of whatnot made airborne and blown hither and yon by winds and storms, vehicular traffic, construction, mining, farming, landscaping, industrial activities, forest/mountain fires ( California), wood fires, and diesel engines, just to name a few sources. This dust fills the atmosphere and streets and finds it ways into our homes and workplaces. Indeed it rises and billows around us with every footstep, and will infiltrate a toolchest through every opening, crack or gap. Given enough time and neglect, airborne dust literally buries civilizations. You can sweep it and vacuum it but you can’t stop it entirely.

Airborne dust is not just ungodly. When it settles on tools it absorbs and contaminates protective oils and wicks moisture into contact with the tool’s metal surfaces promoting rust. Sawdust has the same effect, by the way. This is compounded by the fact that dust often contains salts and other chemicals that actively accelerate corrosion. Salt in dust, you say? Yes indeedy. If there is salt in the air, as in near the seashore, or salt or chlorides are used to melt ice and snow on roads, there will be corrosive chemicals in the air and in the dust.

The damage caused by dust and dirt is not limited to corrosion: Dust from outdoors always contain particles that are harder than the steel of your tool blades and will dull them. Never forget this fact. So a toolchest that seals out dust and dirt is indispensable, at least if you want your tools to last.

Insects

Woodworm Larvae. BTW, this what the EU demands we eat in place of meat. Anyone up for a worm burger with a side of fleas?
Deathwatch Beetle

I mentioned insects above, but bugs don’t eat tools, do they? Well, as a matter of fact they do eat some tool parts, and what they don’t eat they can ruin.

Beetles and termites are fond of wood, and given a miniature bottle of tabasco sauce and time will eat most woods including tool handles and wooden plane bodies, not to mention the tool storage system itself if made of wood or cardboard. If you doubt this, go examine some antique wooden furniture, plane bodies, and tool handles. 

Termites will march into a toolchest through gaps they find or holes they chew as bold as a Shat Francisco politician lying on CNN. Moths and other bugs fly in and lay eggs, which hatch into caterpillars or beetles, some of which eat natural fabrics, while others eat wood. No doubt you have seen these critters, or at least the holes and sawdust they leave behind.

Termites at Table. Pass me the hot sauce please.

While they can ruin a nice soup, you wouldn’t think of flies as being harmful to tools. But the fact is the little buggers constantly excrete wet corrosive globs everywhere they alight, and these specks make rust. Best avoided.

And then of course there are those tough little cockroaches that may not eat your tools but will lay eggs among them and use them as la cucaracha outhouses. A good toolchest therefore must not only keep bugs out, but resist being eaten or infested by them.

Rodents

And let’s not forget rodents. Mice and rats are fond of making nests in warm, dry, enclosed spaces, and don’t mind chewing a hole into a box or a baseboard to upgrade their living conditions. Cardboard is especially susceptible to the ravages of rodents, but experience and history shows us that wooden casework is by no means invincible. If you have seen the corrosion rodent feces and urine can wreak, you know why they must be kept far from your valuable tools.

Sticky Fingers

Perhaps you use and store your tools where there are no pilferers, thieves, or eight-fingered pixies, but even then, your tools may be at risk. Have you ever found one of your valuable saws laying rusting in your backyard after being used by a mysterious stranger to prune a tree? Ever have a nice but forgetful neighbor borrow an expensive chisel to open a paint can without telling you and find it laying discarded under the old lawn-mower in his garage months or years later? If you have, there were probably other tools that suffered even worse fates that will never be rescued.

Are you aware of the darwinian evolution of tools, a curious but common phenomenon whereby tools sprout legs and beetle away when you aren’t looking? Between children, helpful spouses, conveniently forgetful neighbors, pernicious pilfering pixies and Darwin’s legacy it’s a miracle any of our tools survive.

A lock won’t even slow down a thief with a crowbar, but it may keep honest people honest. Wooden chests have traditionally incorporated a locking mechanism of some sort. I think this is a traditional feature worth retaining.

Exposed Storage Solutions

While a cardboard box placed under a downspout may be worse, the pegboard or open shelf is a dismal way of storing tools long-term. Ditto for the wall-mounted open sawtills all the woodworking publications cyclically regurgitate like a cat with a hairball fetish.

Many people love to arrange their tools hanging on the wall in plain sight like a movie film set. Tools are beautiful things, and I understand the attraction of tool porn, but unless you work in a dust-free, air-conditioned film studio, or the tools are daily cleaned and re-oiled, tools hung on the wall or placed naked on open shelves are exposed to dirt, dust, sawdust, temperature and humidity swings, and even banging against other tools. They are especially susceptible to damage from corrosive flyspecks in a garage or other workshop with a big roll-up door. Don’t laugh, it happens billions of times every second of every day, and degrades exposed steel like Hollywood movie producers do foolish lasses and laddies.

These tools are handy, but does “patina” improve their performance or add to their longevity?

Case in point (about pegboards and shelves, that is, not flexible virtue): My father was a carpenter and cabinetmaker born in 1930. After retirement he stored his tools in his garage in central Utah hanging on pegboards, stacked on open shelves, and in a jumble under his workbench for many decades, and for the last 20 years or so of his life they were entirely neglected. The dust, condensation rust, dings, fly specs, road salt, and rodent doodoo that accumulated during those years turned all of his planes, chisels, and saws to rubbish. Such a waste. The only tools of his that survive in a useful condition today are the ones he gave me before he retired.

A durable, tightly sealed, insulated container that keeps out dust, bugs, vermin and pesky pixies, and keeps your tools from sprouting legs and beetling away to Darwinian adventures when you are not looking is just the ticket.

In the next post in this series we will consider the design process. The anticipation is killing me!

YMHOS

Seaman’s Chest

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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.

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.

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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, wicker, bamboo, tree bark, stone and various metals.

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

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

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

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

For millennia chests were used to house and protect clothes, blankets, linens, armor, weapons, boots, horse gear, cooking and eating utensils, food, and money, just to name a few categories. Nowadays we tend to think of chests as storage space for clothing and blankets, or as a bench seat placed at the foot of a bed, but they were also practical household tools used to store grain in hovels shared with livestock and lit by 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 inside the lid to knead the dough to make the “daily bread.” When done, the lid was cleaned, turned right-side up and placed on the base to once again 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 fragile high-art intended to communicate status and wealth, as many museum collections can attest. 

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

Throughout history chests have been carved, painted, lacquered, covered with nails, inlaid with mother of pearl or chased metal, and even gilded with gold leaf. They’ve served as strong-boxes for crusader banks, transported 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 4-legged chair, certainly older than the elevated bed. Only dirt has a longer track record.

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

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

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

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

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

Based on statistical data, the vast majority of modern buildings have a useful lifespan of around 50 years. Furniture and casework is much less nowadays. While this mindset has been a reality, indeed has been celebrated for the last 80 years or so, it is a wasteful attitude 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 a few of the things I make with my own hands will, including this toolchest. Do you have useful lifespan goals for your woodworking?

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

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

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

YMHOS

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