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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Other Posts in this Series
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