Using your Tool Chest as a Sawbench

Though some books decry the act, the archaeological record is clear: Woodworkers used their tool chests as sawbenches.

Many tool chests I’ve examined have edges that have been scarred by saw teeth. And as a woodworker, I’ve also felt the urge to saw upon the lid of my tool chest. OK, confession time: I’ve done it.

The only real problem with using your chest as a sawbench comes if your lid has a traditional raised-panel lid, such as the one on my current tool chest. The problem is that the raised field of the panel leaves some portion of your work unsupported, hanging out and vibrating like crazy when you saw.

The solution, according to Australian woodworker Phil Spencer, is the “Spratling Bead.”

This feature, named after Spencer’s grandfather, Lindsay Spratling, adds a raised bead between the lid and the dust seal that helps support work when you saw it on top of the chest. It also will help support work when you clamp it on top of the chest – something I do all the time.

Spratling was a carpenter and later a woodwork teacher at the former Caulfield Tech in Melbourne.

“I remember when he had his apprentices building their tool boxes he would have them incorporate two raised hardwood strips into the lids running along the edges of the lid,” Spencer wrote in an e-mail. “The idea of the strips was to sit proud of the raised panel and gave the owner something solid to rest a plank on so it could be cut, if the plank was rested on the raised panel it would usually rock.”

I must admit that the Spratling beads are quite clever. And if you think you might saw anything on the top of your tool chest, they would make an excellent addition.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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21 Responses to Using your Tool Chest as a Sawbench

  1. eeyoris21 says:

    Is it just glued into the seam where the raised panel meets the dust seal along the 2 longer edges? No nails or joinery to secure in place?

  2. Eric R says:

    Thank you Grandpa Spratling.

  3. Ryan Bishop says:

    My only concern is that the beading might be too fragile, especially if it’s made out of pine. Would it be a bit more hard-wearing and serviceable if they were made out of hardwood?

  4. figwoodworks says:

    The beading is made from hardwood, the lid is deliberately cut slightly undersized so it can sit on the frame of the box. it is glued and nailed to the lid and then the dust seal added.
    Thanks Chris for posting this on your blog.
    Lindsay Spratling was my maternal Grandfather, and my paternal Great, Great, Great Grandfather George Thwaites was a prominent furniture maker in Melbourne Victoria in 1842 and his work is exhibited in the National Gallery of Victoria and many of his pieces are still being used today in Government House Victoria; so sawdust runs in my veins.

  5. Rob says:

    Crafty piece of back-pedalling with the odd-looking bead to rectify this problem, but one day you’re just going to have to admit a raised-panel lid ain’t traditional for a tool chest. Maybe as a showpiece for a furniture maker here and there, but the vast majority of tool chest lids in the record are flat!

    • figwoodworks says:

      That is how it was done in Australia mate. Apprentices built their tool chests to learn their joinery, dovetails, mortice and tenons and raised panels, to make something practical is better than making sample pieces that will never be used.

      • Rob says:

        Agreed on all points except for the lid, mate. It was exactly the same with British apprentices/ tool chests but flat lids were the norm, raised-panels the exception.

        Here’s a more typical example of a traditional Australian tool chest:

        • figwoodworks says:

          Don’t believe in looking at pictures, there are many ways of doing things, and the box you refer to was most likely made when wide boards were available that luxury did not exist in later years. I know what my Grandfather made I saw it, I saw him teaching these methods.

      • figwoodworks says:

        I think Rob, that you are making the mistake of people who think that they know everything, I am making the tool box to house tools that I made in the first year if my apprenticeship as a fitter last century 41 years ago, around that time in Australia wooden tool boxes were still popular, my Grandfather was still teaching apprentices in the 1960’s so, I am using his style including the beads to build a box from a similar era to hold the tools I made. It just happens that Crisis’s box in his book has a lot of similarities.
        I suspect that raised panels were used because a flat panel would shrink and jam the lid with the dust skirts, a panel in the lid would allow for expansion within the frame and therefore not jam the dust seal to the frame of the box. I can’t ask my grandfather because he has passed on.
        To follow your train of thought I would be building a tool box that is out of time with the tools I made.
        I suspect that your mind set is stuck in the 17th century Rob, and is closed to anything that came along later I also suspect that there is also a degree of vitriol in what you are saying.
        Having said that, tomorrow, I will be making a journey to see the tool box and tools owned by my Great Great Great Grandfather who was a prominent furniture maker in the city I live in. His work is displayed in Galleries here and still used by Government departments and furnishes Government House here, his work is also highly collectable. So I will see if the lid on his tool box is flat or not it would have been built is the late 1700’s to early 1800’s.

    • John Switzer says:

      WHile I am sure that a flat lid on a tool chest was common. I have also seen the raised panel lid on old chests. Where do you think Chris go tthe idea? He studied many old chests and took what was most typical. Roy has featured old tool chests in the past as examples on his show and they had the rasied panel lid. Even if it was not the most common it is the best approach. My antique tool chest does have a flat lid. It used to have a dust seal, but the lid has shrunk up so much that at some point the dust seal was torn free. The only way to replace it would be to add more material and make the panel wider again. When I make my own chest I will go with the raised panel grove in grove method, it is far supperior and every bit as traditional.

      • Rob says:

        figwoodworks: No questioning your Grandfather’s tool chest, nor the excellence of his teaching. But if we’re talking about tradition in the sense of what was the commonly established practice, a flat lid outnumbers the raised panel. A lid was often of panelled construction but not a raised panel, for the very practical reason that it did serve as an impromptu bench, especially for journeymen taking their tools to the job rather than vice versa – shipwrights, for example, who made thousands of these things. If a craftsman wanted to display his skill he would incorporate quality panelling on the inside of the lid.

        John Switzer: No one denies that raised panel tool chests exist – and they’re increasing by the day! Pity that to use it to saw wood efficiently you’ve got to screw extra bits to it, though – sort of spoils that dainty raised panel look…
        You can have a dust seal with a flat panelled lid.

        Peter Follansbee went with a flat lid:

        …and I like his trademark carving on the inside too.

        Might an answer be to plane the raised panel down to the level of the surrounding panel?

        Interesting discussion. I would certainly agree with not believing all you read !

  6. rmcnabb says:

    I like it. A strip of 1/4″ square white oak held down with brass screws and varished would last a long time. Touch up the varnish every year or so. Or paint. I’d rather have it be a “sacrificial” piece that could be easily removed and replaced as needed, rather than something built deeply into the fabric of the lid.

    • figwoodworks says:

      I like your idea of making the strip removable, do you think that 1/4″split when it was screwed down maybe a bit wider would work better.
      BTW. I had a look at your web page and I liked your work especially the mitred tenon on the box lid I will have to try it.

  7. Just a thought… Perhaps when adding them or designing them into a tool chest lid, you could make the Spratling beads replaceable. Instead of glueing them in, why not friction fit them in a dado or screw them into that channel from behind? That might allow you to be less reluctant about leaving saw marks in your beads…

  8. Rascal says:

    Raised or flat, it seems eminently practical to use the chest as a sawbench. Just try to avoid the ‘Doh!’ moment when you’ve clamped something to the chest and then discover you need something from inside!

  9. Rob says:


    I don’t know why you made that ‘vitriol’ remark. I’m also a little taken aback that you think I think I know everything and that my mind set is stuck in the 17th century and closed to anything that came after. I’m just talking about tool chest lid design, which is the subject of this post, especially as it pertains to using the lid as a sawbench.

    Why would a flat panel lid shrink and a raised panel lid not shrink? They’re both panel and frame construction. A panel inside a frame can move whether the panel is raised or flat (flush). If Chris wanted to use his lid as a sawbench, as he says he does, and he has been having difficulty with that, it would have been more practical to have a flat (flush) framed panel, in the first place wouldn’t it?

    Of course I respect your own tool chest design choice, and the design choices of your ancestors, and I have respect for the project you are undertaking.

    From a vitriolic, know-it-all, 17th century Luddite.

    • John Switzer says:

      I think I see the problem. To me the flat panel using the grove in a grove technique that places the the panel above frame is raised, although no the beveled decorative raised panel found on doors. When you say flat panel lids, I picture a soild panel of either one wide board or smaller boards glued into a wide panel. This moves as a unit and does not float the way a trapped panel in a frame can. This is also why my antique chest pushed it’s dust seal off as the panel shrunk and is now narrower than the tool chest. A panel set into a frame that is flush with that frame would not have that problem and should not shrink. The probelm with that design is that the tongue and grove relies on the strength of the lower lip of the grove and the tongue which would be half as strong (in theory) as the Grove and Grove methode where the lower edge of one grrove rides on the lower edge of the other grove while the upper edges do the same thing providing a double tongue and grove effect. I don’t have access to a large assortment of old chests, but an internet search for antique toolchests shows a significant number of the flat elavated panel variety, not as many as the truely flat lids (and hard to say if they are solid boards or floating panels from the pictures) I suspect we may have been talking about the same thing all along. But in any case since Roy Underhill And Chris Schwarz both seem to advocate the elevated grove in grove style and I belive that they have both done their research and have access to many more old chest than I will ever see, I will tend to go with what they have to say. They are what you might call “experts”.

      In any case to me a traditional chest is simply a large wooden box with tills, trays and tool wells designed to hold an impresivly large numbe rof hand tools. The exact specifacations of that chest and what kind of a lid it has on it does not make it something else. Dovetails or nails (or even screws), drawers or trays, solid board lid, flat inset panel lid or rasied panel lid doesn’t matter. All of things have been done on toolchests of the past and are all traditional. traditional and most common are not the same thing to my way of thinking.

      • John Switzer says:

        OK so I can’t spell 😦 . In all of my previous posts please replace the word “groove” everywhere I spelled “grove”. It just doesn’t pay to not proof read your work. Sorry for being a duffus.

  10. eeyoris21 says:

    I’m still not getting it, where can I find more photos or see it in use?

    On a more personal note, I don’t fucking care which was used more often historically.
    If it works, then it works! Can’t we all just play nice?

    Thank you for sharing your own personal experiences Phil.

    • Here’s my version of a groove-in-groove “raised panel” tool chest lid:

      I first saw the design in a Roy Underhill book, in which he explains that it’s probably designed to keep out rain in the event of a sudden downpour on a worksite. A traditional raised panel, as you see in regular cabinetry, would allow water to pool along the grooves and eventually leak into the chest. That was his explanation, anyway.

      I won’t be using my tool chest for a sawbench any time soon, though. For one, it’s much too high for comfortable sawing. More importantly, it’s on casters and rolls very easily. I’ll stick to my sawbenches, which don’t tend to move when I put a knee on them.

  11. Rob says:

    John Switzer: Thank you for your considered thoughts, John, especially your point about the difference in strengths depending on the arrangement of grooves. For one who places pragmatism above a tool (a sawbench we’re talking about here, essentially) looking fancy I would prefer the lid with the panel set flush with the frame, as I described, using an adequate size tongue, than going to the trouble of making a raised panel and then stricking bits on afterwards to bring the frame up to panel height, or complicating the construction by incorporating an extra piece in the framing/ seal arrangement. But it’s personal choice and I hope we can all agree to disagree on such things and respect our differences.

    Regarding ‘tradition’, the word is a stinker in my opinion, and too often used as a euphemism for ‘what I think is best’, especially where someone is trying to sell you something. To the extent that, in boatbuilding, we have people building ‘traditional fibreglass’ boats – using fibreglass trees, presumably!

    I find the origins, designs and uses of hand tools and their associated equipment very interesting, adding a little extra appreciation in their use, and I apologise to anyone who doesn’t – but they don’t have to read it, do they.

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