Toolchests Part 2 – History

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

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

This is the second part of our 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 Gentle Reader 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 stinky rush lights when beeswax 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 protect 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 Inca and Aztec 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

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” 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, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may the wheels on my toolchest become square.

Other Posts in this Series