Traditional Chinese Woodworking #5: Liu Shifu's Toolbox

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Blog entry by chscholz posted 02-19-2010 07:16 AM 6856 reads 0 times favorited 3 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 4: Chinese Hammers: the Common Unknown Tool Part 5 of Traditional Chinese Woodworking series Part 6: Sharpening »

Chinese Toolboxes
Say you are a Chinese woodworker and, during your seven years of apprenticeship you have made a full set of tools. Because much of your work will be on site, you will have to find yourself a toolbox to carry your tools around.

Introduction to Chinese Toolboxes
On first sight toolboxes are simply boxes to hold and transport tools. Upon further inspection one quickly realizes that toolboxes are fairly complicated tools that must meet many often conflicting requirements. On one hand tooboxes must store and protect tools while they are not in use on the other hand, the tools must be easily accessible in the toolbox such that the work of the woodworker is not slowed down.

Much of the work of a Chinese woodworker was done on site. Cabinet makers (including their apprentice) were hired for a few weeks or months, ate and literally lived in the home of the contractor while working on the furniture. For that reason Chinese woodworkers had to carry their tools to the respective job site. In other words the Chinese toolbox had to be light and small enough to be transported to the jobsite as well as containing a complete set of tools.

History of Chinese Toolboxes
Chinese toolboxes have been around since professional woodworkers have been around. Obviously there is a need to carry an extended set of tools from one jobsite to another. In contrast to Western woodworkers where toolboxes at times became a purpose in itself, Chinese toolboxes never seem to have been elevated to that level.

Types of Chinese Toolboxes
Old prints of Chinese cabinetmakers at work often show tools that peek out of a woven bamboo basket.

The toolbox that I have seen in use at Liu Shifu’s shop was a wooden box that contained all his tools with exception of the frame saws.

Liu Shifu’s toolbox is not dissimilar to a Western toolbox. Compared to Western toolboxes Liu Shifu’s toolbox is relatively small box. The box has a hinged lid that opens the top and a small drawer in the front and a handle on each side. The box has a padlock on it’s front.

Liu Shifu's Toolbox

Liu Shifu's Toolbox

The lid of the toolbox has a simple bar that holds ten chisels in place. Two wide board divide the main box into two layers. Removing the front board shows that the drawer slides on two L-shaped rail.

Inside of Liu Shifu's Toolbox

The lid is well fitted to the box. As typical for Chinese carpentry corners are mitered. It is not clear what joinery was used to assemble the toolbox. It could also not be determined what type of hinges were used to fit the lid to the box.

Altogether the toolbox appears to be well-worn. It is very likely that Liu Shifu designed and built this box for his own use possibly from left over wood.

With the exception of the top edge of the box, Liu Sifu has as no moldings, carvings or other adornments of any kind. It is a simple well-executed box that is build for a single purpose: storing the tools of a professional woodworker.

Usage of Chinese Toolboxes
As mentioned in the introduction, much of Chinese furniture was built at the customer’s location. A major advantage of Chinese woodworking tools over American tools is that almost all woodworking tools had wooden bodies and hence much less weight than American tools. It is truly impressive how many tools Liu Shifu was able to store in a, by American standards, small toolbox. Although Liu Shifu seems to work mainly out of his shop, it is conceivable that he uses his toolbox to perform repair work in the field.

Modern Chinese Toolboxes
Given the similarity between Liu Shifu’s traditional toolbox and equivalent toolboxes in the West, I would not be surprised if there is very little difference between contemporary Chinese toolboxes and Western toolboxes. In fact, it appears to be very likely that a large percentage of modern Western toolboxes are manufactured in Chinese factories.

Chinese Toolboxes in the West
The similarity between Liu Shifu’s toolbox and Western toolboxes is indeed striking. But it is completely unclear if this similarity is simply coincidence or if Western woodworkers adapted for and function of Chinese toolboxes. Of course we don’t have any information how traditional Liu Shifu’s toolbox is. In addition the history of Chinese toolboxes is completely unclear. Lastly, it is certainly conceivable that Chinese woodworkers adapted Western designs for their toolboxes.

-- Chris Scholz, Arlington, TX,

3 comments so far

View Sawdust4Blood's profile


405 posts in 3046 days

#1 posted 02-20-2010 05:53 AM

A few years ago I was in a factory in Dongguan China where they restore antique furniture. One of the things that struck me was a home made coping saw they had fashioned by knicking wire with a chisel then stringing it across bowed bamboo. It was surprisingly effective and the workers used them to create some fine pieces.

-- Greg, Severn MD

View chscholz's profile


36 posts in 4100 days

#2 posted 02-21-2010 03:31 PM

A coping saw made of bamboo and a wire!
Amazing work that the Chinese woodworker are able to do with “rusty old junk”. I never gained access to any of the furniture restoration places in the Pearl River delta. How did you get in there?


-- Chris Scholz, Arlington, TX,

View Sawdust4Blood's profile


405 posts in 3046 days

#3 posted 02-22-2010 02:07 PM

I was in in Hong Kong for a few days with Chinese friends that import Chinese antiques. We got a mainland visa through a travel agency in Hong Kong, took a train to Shenzhen, then drove to Dongguan.

While we were there, also hit some Chinese flea markets selling old pieces. It was a great trip.

-- Greg, Severn MD

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