In “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,” I make the case that a traditional-scale tool chest is the right size and shape to hold all your tools and make them easy to get to.
Not everyone believes me. That’s OK. But after working out of a traditional and large tool chest since 1997, I am confident in my opinion.
The one thing I don’t like about my large tool chest has nothing to do with my tool chest. It has to do with my car. I have a small two-door hatchback. And while I can haul an incredible amount of tools and lumber in that car, the hatch is too small to receive my chest.
This makes me grumble because I’d like to work out of a chest when I’m traveling. Right now I wrap all my tools in old socks and pile them in some luggage. I am regularly mocked for it by students and other instructors.
So I’ve been meaning to design a traveling tool chest that fits in my car and holds a working set of tools. I’ve been looking at historical examples of chests, and this week I found one that I am quite fond of.
It’s owned by Thomas Lie-Nielsen of Lie-Nielsen Toolworks, and it was hiding below a bunch of tools in his personal shop next to his home. The interesting curved detail on the lid caught my eye, and after we finished shooting a DVD and a couple videos for YouTube, I dug the chest out and went over it with a tape measure.
There are some really great things about this chest, and some disappointments. Here’s the good and the bad.
1. Good: The size is about right for my tools and my car. It’s 33-3/4” long, 15” high and 20” deep. It has two sliding trays, a tool holder and even a small sawtill. I think this chest would work for me.
2. Bad: The carcase is nailed together. The skirts are mitered and nailed. Still, it has survived a long time.
3. Good: The top panel is very attractive.
4. Bad: The coved detail on the top is just nailed on. It’s not a raised panel.
5. Good: The sliding tills are made from some great rough material. The bottom of one of the tills is an old painted sign.
6. Bad: The lower tray is locked into the chest by the runner system.
7. Good: The chest has survived a lot of abuse.
8. Bad: A big section of the bottom is rotted. And is that a mouse hole?
9: Good: The proportions of the chest are very pleasing. And the thing is painted black. Sweet.
10. Bad: I’d have to redesign this chest to suit my taste in joinery and function.
I made a nice detailed sketch of the good parts. So that’s a start.
— Christopher Schwarz
18 thoughts on “A Tool Chest at the Lie-Nielsen Shop”
I have read all your posts and have a number of your books that I find quite interesting. After a long day of work I may have a couple drinks and find myself reading some more of your blogs and wonder….has Chris been drinking when he comes up with these grand ideas about a portable tool chest for his car? Either way, I commend you for your clever ideas!
Chris, if you are ever in Dallas, you need to stop by Dowd’s Tools and take a look through Lynn Dowd’s collection. He has an amazing array of tool chests in all shapes and sizes–probably enough for a book.
Nice toolchest – very inspiring to make the inside trayers etc. of my toolchest. Just two questions How thick was the material of the carcase? I assume 1″?
Who put the tools in? Looks they are not as old as the chest 🙂
All the material for the exterior is 7/8″ material. The trays have a variety of thicknesses involved.
What about a modular system? Maybe one box with the saw till and planes, and one with just sliding tills? Is there a historical precedence for using two smaller boxes (for transporting in small hatchback oxcarts, of course)? It would be easier to carry.
The painted sign says “Baled Hay”
My very first eBay buy, about 8 years ago, was a dovetailed walnut chest with two sliding trays inside. It came from MA – the guy said it was in a barn on his family farm. Sniped it for a good price.
If you’re interested, I can send you pictures/dimensions. Don’t remember off the top of my head just how big it is, but I know it sits on top of an oak filing cabinet and the length of the chest takes up the whole width of the cabinet. Missing two of the four pieces of trim and the top has warped just a bit so that the lock (which I don’t have a key for) doesn’t engage, but… it’s still a pretty cool chest.
Let me know!
I built an old-style wooden tool carrier recently, with the flared sides like a boat, and one set of instructions I found noted that it fit under the seat of a buggy… which is wonderful, but not especially useful to me. So I had to make sure it was long enough for my handsaws but short enough to fit in my hatchback. This is the trouble mixing my centuries… all these things were part of a sort of ecosystem once, everything functioning together. So clearly what you need to go with your traditional-scale tool chest is a traditional-scale wagon and a couple of traditional-scale horses!
[Is there a word for an ecosystem-like thing that’s made up not of living things but of tools, technologies, and patterns of work?]
How about culture?
Well, yeah. I guess that should have been obvious!
I’ve been thinking about building a traveling chest(s) based on a interesting (fully filled) chest I found a flea market in march. It was clearly made and used by a tradesman and had a very specific set of tools, probably a finish carpenter/ handyman. It wouldn’t have every necessary tool in it, but the ones that I would take for a class or would be useful working onsite or in public shop. I even thought it might be nice to build two smaller chests that could be (more) easily managed by one strapping lad. Divide and conquer!
I like the idea of a traveling tool chest for classes, but then think about having to lift that into my Jeep with all my tools in it. Perhaps a combination solution might work out better for me. My (future) plan is to make one based on the anarchist chest (petite anarchy?), but just enough to fit the tools I generally need in classes–a jack, a smoother, all the layout items, chisels, etc, but keep my modern saw bag made out of nylon w/a shoulder strap. That way I have one chest to lift and carry, and one bag for saws, but can still have most of my needed tools. Another alternative I thought of was having two chests that I could stack onto a portable hand cart. In any event a thicker shop mat for concrete floors is also a must-have. My dogs have been barking since last week.
Or you could just borrow the CRV – I think your ATC would fit.
Maine Maritime Museum (Bath, old shipyard campus, near Phippsburg) has old shipwright’s chests in their collection, and it is a half-hour from where you are. Eat at Moody’s Diner, too.
I’m building a portable tool chest inspired by a jewelry armoire. The idea hit me during last year’s WIA. I sketched my thoughts at the end of one of Jim Tolpin’s classes.
By going vertical, I get a lot more portability but at the loss of some flexibility. I have to build bracketing for specific tools and locations. My first pine mock up went OK, but taught me that I didn’t have near enough tools at the time. The 5 and 7 bench planes are in the left door. The original plan had the saws and chisels on the right side , but I ended up with chisels and smoothers (2) instead. Layout tools and hardware are in the drawers.
I hope to start Mark II this Winter. One change I’m making is inspired by ATC; I’m installing sliding trays in a large bottom central drawer of the cabinet.
If only I didn’t suck so bad at woodworking. Sigh.
Chris, I have been struggling with the same problem. I want my toolchest to be more portable (smaller and lighter), but have not been able to find any historical designs for smaller chests or a woodcarvers toolchest. I am primarily a carver with a few joinery tools so a smaller size is perfect. Regardless, I look forward to seeing your progress on this. Thanks again for such interesting posts.
You should try racking your Acura:
Then you’d be envied instead of mocked. 😉
How about Roy Underhills’ chest from PWW issue 176? He even mentions the reason for the smaller size is so that it can travel. I really like the skirt/side connection, neat idea.
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