Not going to pretend any of this is ground-breaking, just jotting a few notes to LJs that others may find interesting or useful as part of their own, unique journey. Building a tool chest is one of a number of ‘trend’ activities that have captured the attention of a significant number of people. Just like building a Roubo, constructing an auto-adjust leg vise and using a portable twin screw vise (or “Moxon”) specifically for joinery or a ‘bench on bench.’ There’s a particular interest in the Dutch form of travel-ready chests too, in addition to the traditional English variety. That C. Schwarz has blogged or written about each of these topics is not the point of these comments at all. It’s that I have a tool chest (product of a rebuild blogged about here) and have struggled somewhat to make it anything more than glorified tool storage. Is that necessarily a problem? For me, it’s more of an admission than a problem, but one that I’d like to correct over time. And that’s what this (long) blog explores.
So You Have a Tool Chest, Now What?
Familiarity with hand tool woodworking is a must to me. The precision that comes from a truly sharp plane, chisel or saw enables trim-to-fit precision with one-off pieces that’s unequaled. There’s a close connection between worker and work piece, I think, when hearing protection isn’t required. Just the ‘schhhhck’ of the plane… Nice. And when you have hand tools piling up on and under the bench, the merits of storing them in a tool chest vs. pegboard or wall cabinet became apparent. A toolchest could very well be the answer to storage problems in a small or large shop, but I’ve reached an impasse with mine: Love the idea of a tool chest, it’s a welcome addition to the shop, but it’s simply not the place I reach for first when I’m at the bench and have a task to do. Without re-inventing the wheel, why?
Tools come first, then the challenge of where to put them settles in. I have a window rack for hand saws, an open plane till, a saw till, under-bench storage and two wall cabinets. Part of the reason for not depending on a tool chest should be apparent: I have other places to put tools that already support the way I work. Take, for instance, the tool rack that’s nailed to the back edge of my bench:
It’s a pine hack-job of a project, but holds a bench pup, several sizes of dividers, every screwdriver I normally reach for, two sizes of combination square and my everyday mallet. To insert the tool chest as the de rigueur starting point for every task, the tools in this rack would be in the top drawer of said chest. Have I moved those tools and emptied the rack? Nope. Going to? Double nope. And that’s the opening bar of a recurring theme: Unless my ‘favorites’ go into the box, what’s in there won’t come out. But tool chests aren’t an all-or-nothing proposition, at least for me. It’s a battle for relevance, then, and not supremacy. As long as a tool is accessible, I win.
The second (and probably largest) contributor to tool chest disuse is my Roubo cabinet. It has drawers dedicated to purpose, like a chest would; marking / measuring, hammering / cutting, drilling/chiseling and filing / shaping. Here are the top two, then a decent view of all five drawers as well as the bench and block planes that sit between the cabinet and bench top, always at the ready.
Logistically, I couldn’t fit all of the tools from this cabinet into the tool chest even if I wanted to; there are more than what could fit AND the dimensions of the sliding tills within the chest aren’t right. The largest till has an inside height of 3”; I had to carve the bottom out for the knob of my favorite brace (an Oak Leaf model from my dad’s shop). Not sure where to go with all this, but that’s been the problem exactly. I have four sets of chisels; they’re not all going into the chest. The two most-used sets are in the Roubo cabinet. One set is in the chest, but in a tool roll inside the bottom compartment, so I had ‘cats and dogs’ in the top drawer and none of those got used either. So yesterday I pulled the roll to the top till and the stray chisels were removed altogether. A positive development for sure.
That move allowed me to reorganize everything in the top till according to useability. I don’t foresee a pressing need to keep a curved spoke shave handy at this point (it isn’t sharpened and I don’t know how to use it yet) so it came out. To others it makes sense to fill a tool chest as you see fit and live with it a while. At some point the day may come (like it did for me) that contents get dumped onto the benchtop and culled for keepers vs. ‘other.’ At that point there’s progress towards making the chest a real contributor.
Unless You Are a Minimalist…
… you’ll have more than one copy of most of hand tools. Some will become favorites, too. I can’t imagine the Dutch chest is anything more than a smaller set of otherwise-favorites tools that travels easier than a traditional chest. That’s not a bash, but a realization to share. Building a tool chest won’t redress the natural tendency to accumulate quality tools. To the contrary, it will highlight the fact that a builder may have too many tools. Stuff them in if you’d like, but that ease of access will suffer. Two suitable wall cabinets help me keep a handle on unique, but seldom-used tools that aren’t in the Roubo cabinet or the tool chest. And it’s an on-going challenge to limit myself to what fits. I doubt it gets any easier over time, but I remain committed to outfitting the chest with user tools that I want to reach for.
Cabinet vs. chest boils down to choice, of course, but even that reality is sometimes transitive. Take my handsaws (please!), for instance. I chose to build a sliding saw till inside the tool chest. It’s cool, and took a decent amount of time to assemble and fit.
There are two full-sized saws inside, a rip and a cross-cut, so all is well, right? Well, not exactly. I actually prefer 20” panel saws over these full-sized examples, so the chest is not required for the typical sawing task. Ah, another blow to utility… It’s not a big deal, but I’ve decided not to change the till to fit smaller saws. I have decided, though, to sharpen the saws in the chest to enhance their user appeal… And there there are the backsaws in the main compartment.
Having saws buried in this way is already a user-loser when compared to the window rack and saw till, but bear with me. These backsaws are Cincinnati Saw Co. (re: Geo. Bishop) models and represent my first forays into vintage tool buying.
I put them in the chest as a reward of sorts, but now I don’t reach for them. Why? Because they’re hard to get to AND because (until yesterday) there was a chisel roll on top of them. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere!
So What’s the Payoff, Anyway?
Here’s the irony of the entire situation: celebrating the use of a tool chest as if it were inherently virtuous to do so. Some will no doubt build a chest without realizing they’re big, really big actually, and take up floor space that otherwise might have more productive uses. And those builders may, at some point, get rid of the chests in some fashion. I’m guessing that’s what happened to 90%+ of the chests that were otherwise common at the turn of the last century. Without purpose, nothing survives in our workshops very long.
I’m not one to celebrate ornamentation over purpose. I want the chest to represent capability, in a sense. I’d like to be able to point to my tool chest and state with confidence that I could build a table or bench or whatever using only the tools inside. That’s efficiency and proficiency, and I can’t get there if the chest doesn’t become something that is opened and orchestrated on a regular basis. A long-term objective, one I don’t think I’ll be giving up on. Do I ever envision taking the chest somewhere and working out of it? Yes, all the time. Will I? Doubt it. But the idea that I someday could holds value for me.
The saga continues, then! As always, thanks for reading.
-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. -- OldTools Archive