I have no delusions that the following blog post will change a single person’s mind about traditional tool chests. If you think chests are a vestige of the pre-Industrial craftsman, if you think they are awkward, they are hard on your back and make it hard to find the tool you are looking for, this post is not for you.
If you’ve worked out of a traditional chest and like it, this post is not for you.
Instead, this post and the book “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” are for the beginning woodworker who hasn’t yet formed opinions about tools or chests.
I started working out of a tool chest in 1998 when I built an adaptation of Benjamin Seaton’s famous chest, which was featured on the cover of Popular Woodworking’s September 1998 issue. Yes, that’s me in the photo. Yes, that’s a pistol-grip dozuki in the sawtill.
After completing this English chest I bought a slightly smaller one while visiting my mother in Connecticut that I used in my home shop. It had two sliding trays and an open area at the bottom.
I’ve also worked out of a number of wall cabinets, wall racks, suitcases and things that looked like kitchen cabinets. But I keep coming back to my chests. Here’s why:
1. When set up properly, every tool is only one hand motion (or less) away. Most people don’t believe me until I demonstrate this in a deliberate way. See the video above for a quick demo. Step one: Pull out the bench planes and put them on the shelf below your bench. That’s where they belong. Stagger the trays as shown. Then play this game: Get the carcase saw. Get the chisel. Get the beading plane. Every tool is no more than one hand motion away.
2. What about chisels? I keep my chisels in a tool roll to protect them. If I’m working all day, I’ll put them in the chisel rack on the back of the bench. If I’m working on a small job I’ll just leave the open chisel roll on the benchtop.
3. Now take a look at your staggered trays. All of the common tools are arrayed out there so you can simply snatch them. You can then get all your gauges, your knives and your sliding bevel just by reaching out and putting your fingers around them. Nothing is in a drawer or hidden away. I cannot overstate how nice it is to work this way.
4. Why no dividers in the trays? I am a little OCD – I think most woodworkers are. But I don’t make little dividers for my tools in the trays. Dividers take up space and restrict how you can arrange your tools for any given project. Yes, your tools will touch one another. If their cutting edges are protected, then this is a non-issue.
5. What about the backsaws? I keep the backsaws in the sawtill. The carcase saw and dovetail saw are nose-down in the till. Yes, I could make little hangy-thingys for them. But I haven’t found it necessary. The saws are easy to get now. They aren’t damaged. Yes, they might occasionally touch one another. But I got over that.
I could put the backsaws in a till affixed to the underside of the lid. That works – I had one on my 1998 chest. That till, however, eats saws for breakfast and lunch. If you joggle the chest, the saws can slide left or right a bit. Then when you close the lid – snap. The falling lid can dent a tote or even break off a fragile horn. I did this to one dovetail saw.
There are other kinds of sawtills for lids that don’t have this problem. You hang the saws on little turnbuckles on the inside of the lid. These are fine by me.
6. Aren’t tool chests a hog for precious floor space? Yes, they can take up about seven or eight square feet of space in your shop. But they earn it. I have my chest on casters so I can use it as an assembly table. I sit on it while I’m working on something at the bench that requires close-up attention. I stack rough stock on it while processing it on my sawbenches. I use it for planing down dovetails on carcases. Here’s how: I push the chest against the wall and then put the carcase on the floor and push it against the chest. This gives me a good planing stop and nice clearance, even for a jointer plane, so I don’t hit the wall with my plane.
7. Aren’t they too heavy to move? I have yet to weigh my tool chest, but I know that two people can lift it fairly easy. It is pine. And I don’t have way too many tools in it. And that’s the final lesson of the chest, which is the underlying text of “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest.” If your chest is full then you have to ask yourself: Do I need any more tools? Or, if you are struggling with handwork: Do I have the right tools?
A full set of tools fits just fine in a chest. But if you have six smoothing planes, four jointer planes and 10 sets of chisels, the chest isn’t the problem.
— Christopher Schwarz
Music: “Wild Horse of Stony Point” (by Black Twig Pickers).
35 thoughts on “How I Use a Traditional Tool Chest for Woodworking”
Very nice Chris…thanks for the video!
Mmmmmm, mutton tallow.
Yup. Got that at the tool store above Roy Underhill’s.
Ha, that’s why I recognized what it was. I’m going to pick up some this weekend and see if I like it better than the paraffin I normally use.
Ed got in 300+ moulding planes last week, plus a bunch of other really cool stuff. Had a fun time Saturday helping him sort some of the planes. Found some really interesting stuff (like a John Green straight rabbet plane in fantastic condition).
But is that a flannel shirt you’re wearing? I can’t tell.
It is a Schlafly beer T-shirt. Yum.
Great demonstration. As 30+ senior who has always worked with racks I have been skeptical of your approach. The book, DVD, watching you work has me almost convinced. But where to you store your bench hook, shooting board(s) and other appliances? I keep mine under the bench and my planes are in a drawer at my foot (at a level where I can hook my foot under it :-)). When the planes come out they end up on the top of the bench because the space under the bench is full with appliances.
My appliances are under the bench, out of frame here. I don’t have too many, actually. Two shooting boards and a bench hook.
Only have one Charlesworth style shooting board with related attachments, bench hook and Robert Wearing dovetail transfer jig from The Essential Woodworker. They take up too much room. Another reason for new longer bench. My five footer is just way too short.
Apparently, you left your razor in the old tool chest.
After having used pegboard and generic shelving for tool storagee for all of my woodworking life, I am convinced that a dedicated tool chest is in my immediate future. I have been reading Jim Tolpin’s Toolbox book, and I am approaching the conclusion that a wall-mounted chest will work best for my particular needs. I am intrigued with the idea of using a floor-standing toolbox as an “auxiliary bench,” but I’m still not convinced that reaching down into a traditional chest would be more convenient for me than reaching into a wall-mounted box near eye level. I’m not sure if my opinion is a hold-over from being used to grabbing tools off of peg-board, or if the concrete floors in my shop are making me think that bending over will be a pain in the back. . .
Regardless of whether you convinced me (or anyone else!) to work out of a traditional tool chest, I am quite appreciatiave of your willingness to share your insights into how you use your tools!
(waning: rambling to follow. . . )
So, for my personal score card: I don’t use your sharpening method (neither oil stones nor water stones), but reading about how you sharpen has helped me get the most out of my system (diamond “stones” and strops); I don’t use O1 plane blades, but reading your take on tool steel has helped me get the most out of my planes, I typically use a dovetail jig and a router rather than hand-cutting dovetails, but reading your take on joinery has helped me make sure those machine-cut joints fit right; I hate using an english layout square, but the article describing the process of making one led me to re-true the squares I DO use; I’m probably not going to take your advice about working out of a tool chest, but all of this discussion has pointed me in the direction of a cabinet that will work for me, etc. etc.
I’m not sure if this really has a point other than to say “thanks” for bringing up pertinent topics and suggested solutions, and encouraging people to consider other potential solutions that will work best for their particular situation. Regardless of whether your specific suggestions have ended up being right for me, they have always been insightful, well reasoned, and well explained. To me, this “why” behind your opinions has always been much more helpful that the specific “what” that you are advocating.
So, thanks, and please keep making suggestions that I won’t follow!
Thanks for the video, it is nice to see how someone use to working that way does it. And where you have your tools is especially helpful to me.
I was looking at a Roy Underhill book today at a used book store and he has a chapter on tool chests. On the “main” chest (which looks similar to your “anarchists tool chest) it had drawers like the chest on the cover of the magazine. Apparently you’ve gotten away from those in favor of sliding tills; what is the reason for that?
It seems you COULD make those drawers a part of a sliding till, though if they were non-movable that WOULD limit your access to the lower parts of the chest.
Visigoth! You let your tools touch each other? You are probably one of those who let their mashed potatoes touch their vegetables.
The most awkward movement was pulling the lower till from front to back. What do you think about finger holes in the back of the lower tills?
I can’t say I am an unbiased beginner. Working out of a tool chest has always seemed like a fussy, precious sort of thing to me. But lately I have had to rethink all that. I am teaching a woodworking class emphasizing the use of hand tools…and suddenly I had a need to transport a whole kit of tools and actively use them to demonstrate and work along with my students. You’re emphasis on the cabinet makers chest really got me to look at my assumptions and I am in the process of building a chest now. Just doing that has changed the balance of things in my shop and now my Nicholson style bench is coming to the fore and other things are literally ‘moving around’.
Keep shaking things up.
I start jonesing if I don’t get a daily Lost Art or PW blog, however I will continue to use my waterstones and upright tool cabinet.
Keep em comming.
Thanks for taking the time to do the demonstration and all the editing. You are not using it as I expected and have seen others use one. That’s not a bad thing. What I have seen most people do is to have the toolbox up next to their bench and pick up a tool from the box, use it, and replace it in the box. Either that or behind them and always twisting around to get to things.
Using it like this for storage and just getting the working set out for the job (except for an occasional specialty tool) is not nearly as bad. I would have described it as pulling a subset up from storage in the toolbox and working from that on the bench rather than working from the toolbox.
You can label me semi-convinced.
Gee. Is it a chest or cabinet?? Decisions, decisions. Think I’ll work on my school box while I dither about this choice. BTW, How is the budding woodworker doing with the 5-1/4?
I don’t get it. Why can’t you leave your tools in the positions you placed them on the bench? You’re going to put them there anyway? Unlike a powered shop a handtool shop doesn’t generate fine dust to coat the tools so I’m not buying the dust = rust argument. Besides, if it’s rusting you probably are not using it, right? I think of my work area the way a bar tender lays out a bar; keep the back bar close to you with all of the licquor close at hand and you minimize the your motions when reaching for the next tool. Regardless, to each his own and it’s always good to challenge what, why and how you do something.
Chris, Very nice. Now I have another “project” to add to my list that seems to be growing. I used to ask/submit questions back at Popular Woodworking, been sending emails to ya the last couple of weeks with no reply so I thought I would do a Google search and that’s when I discovered that you had started this new venture. Just wanted to say good luck with it and congratulations. I will be following this site as well. If I could, may I ask my question, I know your a die hard hand tool man but I live a lot by the table saw. Mine has finally met it’s end and ready for an upgrade. Do you have any suggestions, links to ratings, etc… that might help in my decision. Looking in the $500-$900 range. Thanks Tim
By far my favorite “tool chest”
Simple and effective
After seeing this video I realized that a tool chest forces you to do a lot of unnecessary work…
I just converted from a wall hung tool cabinet to a tool chest and have not noticed having to any more work in retrieving tools than I did with a wall cabinet. I actually find the chest more convenient since I can move it about to a more convenient location. The old wall cabinet was not mobile at all.
Informative video. Nice box. It’s application will apply to many. Unfortunately, with my back, it would be difficult for me to do all that bending over to pull out and put away tools. What many folks might miss is the box’s versatility. You can put casters on it and roll it around. You can load it up, throw it in the back of your vehicle and take it to a job site. You can even use it as a movable bench in the shop. But, best of all, when you grow tired of using it to hold your tools, with a few minor alterations, you can turn it into one fantastic BEER COOLER.
All it takes is about 20 sf of solid foam insulation, about the same amount of heavy gauge sheet copper and a boat plug. Ice is optional.
Yes, this video is very informative because it shows the working style of Chris.
It would call it “semi-mobile” – because he wants to use his personal set of hand-tools at different locations. (maybe I am wrong) In such cases the tool box makes a lot of sense. And for excatly such a use case I am planing my toolbox too.
BUT if your working all the time in a fixed location, in your own shop, using most of the time a certain set of tools then I think a wall hanging tool storage is much more effective.
Of course this is a question of personal work style. I will build a mid-sized tool chest for “portable” use on site and in the shop I will continue to place tools on the wall.
Thank you Chris for making this video – helped me a lot to think about my own working style
Well I dunno, Chris; I think this is probably the best depiction of an evolutionary stage in how the wall-hung tool cabinet came about as I have ever seen. Sorry.
I understand what you are trying to argue — that I’m my own enemy. And that’s cool.
But just to be clear, I don’t think there’s any evidence that chests pre-dated racks. Egyptian images of woodworking show the tools hanging on the wall. I think chests and racks are two competing philosophies of work (like English vs. European saws, Mac vs. PC, dog vs. cat, chum vs. hamburger).
Chris, noooo, you’re not you’re own enemy at all. Although I tend to worry you might be the enemy of others as a result of The Schwarz Effect. It’s interesting you see chests and racks as competing styles though, when much of what I’ve read and seen (including your own video) suggests they’re symbiotic. A tool cabinet seems to me to be the natural result of combining the two into one (efficient) product. Protection, security, and convenience. But hey, I’m probably trying to convince you so you can do all the legwork and come up with the definitive book on the matter so I don’t have to thrash out my own solution to it 😉
Ooops, that should have been in reply to… well, you can work it out. Sorry.
I’m really anxious to build my own tool chest similar to Chris’ chest. I wanted one before I read the book, but hadn’t gotten around to finishing one. I did start to make a wall hanging cabinet once, a la Studley, and realized after it was nearly done that there was no way it would hold what I needed. Adding insult to injury, my tool collection is still growing and a tightly fitted wall cabinet pretty requires fitting the tools around each other meaning I would have to reconfigure everything with each change. Ugh. I gave away the mostly finished cabinet pieces.
However, for smaller, static collections of tools for experienced woodworkers who are working on specific types of projects (like pianos, for instance), I’m thinking that wall hung cabinets are somewhat superior.
However, for most modern hand tool workers, I think chests are superior because of their flexibility combined with good usability. Undoubtedly, there will be some who will build a chest and within a few years build a wall chest as they turn their focus towards specialized types of woodworking. Even for those people, there is a high likelihood they will keep their old chests for their oddball tools, IMO.
Just on my second reading of A.T.C., and am about 80% convinced that a chest is the way to go. I am currently working with a chest of drawers and a “Gerstner” style toolchest (L.V. plans) which is not ideal.
“My other job” is a chocolatier and pastry guy. For each task or recipie I make, I take out the appropriate tools and equipment, and lay them out on my bench (Maple, natch.). However cooking and baking professionaly is all about multi-tasking, whereas woodworking is all about focusing 100% on the task at hand. I guess this is what attracts me so much to woodworking.
After Christmas is over, I’ll probably have time to make the chest. Haven’t costed out the price of pine but I do know poplar and alder are cheap and plentiful here (west coast of Canada) and have a pretty low weight, about the same as pine. If things don’t work out, the chest will make a pretty good blanket chest to give away.
I’m one of those neophyte woodworkers you’re trying to reach, and while I haven’t read The Anarchist’s Tool Chest yet (ordering it on payday), I fully intend to. However, your comments on how else you use a tool chest has me convinced. I will be working out of an 8×10 building most likely, so there isn’t a lot of room for extra things. A tool chest that can serve as an assembly bench, stool, and whatever else? That’s a win for me. Some might argue that a wall mounted tool cabinet would be the way to go, but I’m not so sure. After all, I’d still need somewhere to assemble projects and would still need somewhere to sit.
One of my other past times is backpacking. I’m an ultralight backpacker, where weight and space is at a premium. I pack a lot of items that have more than one use to minimize the amount of gear I need to carry. A small shop is no different. If a tool storage container can do double duty, so much the better. Then I can use the walls for other things. like storing wood.
Still going to have at least some kind of tool rack though. of course, you use one as well it seems 😉
I’ve worked with both. I’m going back to a tool chest, even though it will take up precious and scarce floor space in the shop. Not that I’ll convince anyone, but here’s why:
* The ritual of taking out the tools I need at the start of the work day means I’m thinking about what I’m going to do and how I’m going to do it — mental rehearsal. This has always paid big dividends.
* At the end of the day, I take a few moments to look at each tool as I put it back in the chest — a quick hone of an edge, a drop of oil, a quick wipe with an oil-charged cloth. I find that I keep my edges sharper and the tools in generally better shape when I do this, and I know they’re ready to go for the next session.
* The finite space of the tool chest is an effective restraint on compulsive tool acquisition. Every tool in the chest has to justify its existence. This is an enormous benefit. Better in the long run to gain skill with a limited tool set than go looking for a purpose-built tool every time I have a challenge.
Mark in the desert
Nice article a nice tool chest seems to be the way to go.
Hi, Over here in England getting hold of Eastern pine is a bit difficult but I have managed to get at least some of what I will need to make a chest. This will be for me to use but also be a heritage to keep together the tools that my Father and Grandfather used, tools that I now use and to which I have added much along the lines that you spell out so well in the ATC. I guess that I am somewhat reassured that your thoughts run parallel to mine and that quite independently we have reached very similar conclusions or is that beginnings. By the way thanks for the tip about Olson coping saw blades they are great. I try and discover some of the lost arts of working with wood and pass them on to other people.
Two things I would say. Firstly I always give my appliances a couple of coats of shellac just so they stay clean and I will do this inside my chest. Secondly I do not like fitting the hinges the way you do, and as Hayward describes in “How to Make Woodwork Tools.” and intend to fix mine between the top rib and the rear lip of the lid. Perhaps not so strong but it will do a better job of keeping dust out. Oh and I am going to fit my own stays that will be stainless steel rods running in slots in the top edges of the carcase walls that will automtically engage when the lid is opened. I am interested that you did not make the rib, skirt and lid frame from hardwood as that was how most chests seem to have been made and I have some lovely old reclaimed quarter sawn oak that I will use for this and there is no way I will paint that and will wait and see if I want to paint the outside of the pine.
Christopher you are an anarchist and I am glad to say you have motivated me to continue to innovate but that is me and not a direction that most should take. And I do start with old ways.
Regards, Bernard Naish
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