Tool Chest Finish: Make it Stick

When it comes to finishing a tool chest, I feel a bit like Henry Ford. I like any tool chest finish as long as it’s paint.

That said, my finishing procedure outlined in “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,” has bemused some readers. It shouldn’t work – adding a water-based product to a thing covered in oil, right? It seems like the folly of painting a live duck with latex.

Well it does work. But before I get into the details, let me say that my goal for finishing the chest was to have a chest that was mostly black with red below on the rubbed-through areas that will inevitably occur.

You don’t have to do this. You can go to the store and get some latex paint in any color and go to town on your chest.

But here is what I did and why.

1. Raise the grain of the bare wood with a wet rag and sand down the nibs with #220 sandpaper after the water has dried. This will result in less grain-raising when you apply the water-based paint.

2. Apply two coats of milk paint, sanding between coats with a #330 sanding sponge. This will give you a chalky look. Even a little pastel-y. You can leave it like this and be done. Or you can go on to the next step.

Milk paint is easy to use – just follow the directions on the box. If you want to get great results, Mike Dunbar wrote an article about how to use it in Popular Woodworking’s February 2010 issue. It is, hands down, the best explanation for best practices with this paint.

3. You can now go one of three ways. A) Add a coat of wax and be done with it. Wax will remove the chalky look. B) Add a coat of boiled linseed oil. Oil will remove the chalky look and add a little amber. You can stop after the oil, or you can let it cure and add more paint over it. C) Go right to adding more paint of a different color.

I added oil, let it cure and then applied more paint. Why? I didn’t want the chalky look to show when the topcoat rubbed through.

4. Add another color of paint. It can be milk paint, latex or oil-based paint. All three will stick just fine to paint or cured oil. If you use milk paint or oil-based paint, the top color will be quite durable. I didn’t want a durable topcoat. I wanted it to wear through sooner rather than later. So I added two coats of black latex. After six months of use, the paint is starting to wear a bit at the corners – it’s not dramatic like a crackle finish.

So there you have it. No matter what painted finish you choose, it will look great – after it gets beat up in your shop for a while. Pristine tool chests look wrong to my eye, probably because there are so few of them.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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9 Responses to Tool Chest Finish: Make it Stick

  1. Mark says:

    Glad you addressed this. I’m not particularly knowledgeable on finishes but the linseed oil / milk paint thing somehow didn’t seem right, yet, in every photo of your chest that I’ve seen, it looks great. I had resolved to simply follow along as directed and hope for the best. It’s nice to know the reasons why something is done a certain way. I noticed in the photo that the sun room is still commandeered by LAP and, unless I’m mistaken, it looks like someone brought a certain tool chest home from Maine. I’m forecasting a build of a more portable version of the tool chest in the coming months.

  2. Not the same Mark says:

    Is it possible that we’re obsessing a little bit?

    Strictly speculation — it’s unlikely that a craft/tradesman in the glory days of hand tools would have fussed so much over a tool chest finish. Milk paint was used in the late 18th/early 19th centuries because it was *cheap*. A neat and durable; yes, relatively inexpensive; absolutely, good-looking; maybe, but all of that in a minimum amount of time — he didn’t get paid for time spent on a perfect tool chest finish.

    When the time comes (soon!) it will be oil paint. I might splurge on the good oil-based boat paints mixed up by the George Kirby, Jr. Paint Company. Maybe black over red. But that it’s. The next finish will be put on (decades from now; hopefully) by my son.

    Mark in the desert

    • lostartpress says:


      I agree. I obsess. As I noted in the book ad the blog entry you can paint it once and be done with it.


      • lostartpress says:

        I did the last time I crossed over three years ago. Apply now!

      • Not the same Mark says:

        Nothing wrong with obsessing. I’ve just noticed that as time goes by, I get more discriminating about what to obsess over, and what should be left at “good enough.” Too many projects, not enough time, and actually *finishing* something is often more important than a Quixotic pursuit of perfection.

        Just completed moving most of the big iron (except the bandsaw) out of the shop and into the storage shed. This had been brewing for some time, but your book was a kick in the pants. An inventory of my hand tools against the Anarchist’s Recommended Tool List reveals significant gaps. Selling off some stuff to pay for better hand tools. Should be fun.

        Looking forward to seeing/meeting you in Port Townsend.

        Mark in the Desert

    • Dean1 (was Dean) says:

      I’m guessing maybe personal pride and personality differences might also have influenced how a given craft/tradesman tool chest was finished.

  3. Dave says:

    Peter Galbert posted a painting proceedure that he has use for his chairs on his “Chair Notes” blog. I tried it, although not on a chair (it was actually the cabinet for a guitar amp), and it worked great. The same aged effect, but very natural looking and warm. I love the effect on my cabinet. If I ever build a tool chest, I will be using the same finish on it.

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