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).