Invent Nothing: Volume II


In my early days at Popular Woodworking magazine, we would draw up the projects we wanted to build for an upcoming issue and present them to the other editors for review and comment.

On the one hand, it was a great idea. After years of the process I learned to receive criticism with grace and now look forward to it.

On the other hand, there are cupholders.

When presented with a design, a group of woodworkers will complicate it until it is unbuildable, unsittable and will require custom titanium hardware made by a water-jet cutter.

And that’s just for the birdhouses.

So I also learned to keep things simple. I’m always trying to take things away from a design instead of adding them. But last week I forgot that lesson.

Right now I’m building a traveling tool chest for an upcoming article that’s also a prototype for future classes. I spent two days designing the thing in SketchUp and was convinced I had created the Tardis of tool chests. It was a traveling chest that could hold a full set of tools, including full-size handsaws instead of the shorter panel saws. Plus a full working set of full-size planes.

On Saturday night I glued up the dovetailed carcase and I saw the folly of my design. While it might hold all these tools, I could see that the chest’s proportions were going to be totally wrong at the end. Ugly even.

I walked outside and stared at a tree for a good five minutes.

Then I came back inside and redrew the chest using the same proportions and principles I’ve used since I built my first tool chest in 1997. And these are the same proportions used since tool chests first emerged in the furniture record. I pulled some more rough pine from the woodpile and fetched my jack plane.

Anyone need a dovetailed pine casket for an Oompa Loompa? Cause I’ve got a nice one right here.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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20 Responses to Invent Nothing: Volume II

  1. John Rowe says:

    Looks like a nice box for firewood if you have a fireplace.


  2. joemcglynn says:

    The Traveling Oompa Loompa Tool Chest, sorta rolls off your tongue. I can imagine some inspired marquetry inside to dress it up…


  3. Ryan Starkey says:

    “Stared at a tree for a good five minutes”…I think we can all relate! Although in what other blog would the readers wonder or care what kind of tree?


  4. jonathanszczepanski says:

    I too just made an big mistake in the shop recently. I cut a dado on the outside instead of on the inside face of a piece. I had to go on a walk for 30 minutes to cool down.


  5. Rachael Boyd says:

    I have a couple of those in the shop. don’t worry stuff will find a way to make it a home.


  6. gooldca says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who has had a clever idea only to find halfway through the project it’s not going to work. Did the same thing on a workbench recently… On the good side to though, it’s always nice to have some good scrap wood laying around for future projects.


  7. bloksav says:

    Based on actual experience, you can get a lot of woodworking done without a full set of planes.
    I only bring one “smoothing” length wooden plane with me at sea, I have two blades for it, one ground as a scrub blade and one as a smoothing blade.
    A grooving plane is an advantage to bring as well.
    I made a shooting board on the top of my chest, so it is always there.
    My problem is that I made it too delicate. The stock is merely 5/16″ thick, so being thrown around in airports have sort of messed it up along the way.
    3 chisels are enough, 1/4″, 1/2″, 1″
    Maybe my set is a bit on the meager side, so if you make the chest a little bit bigger you can have a No 6 plane to use as a jointer, and also a normal panel saw that can be stored flat diagonally on top of the rest inside the chest.

    If it really is intended for travelling you shouldn’t bring all your stuff. Cut it down to the bare minimum. You wouldn’t want to travel to some remote godforsaken place just for the purpose of building a highboy.
    If you bring your tools for travelling (where you know or expect that you will return home in a reasonable time) I would adjust the projects to be built according to what is inside the tool chest.

    Like Joe Mcglynn says, Oompa Loompa tool chest has got a nice ring to it.


  8. Farmer Greg says:

    I’m thinking feral cat shelter.


  9. toolnut says:

    Might make a nice shop cabinet with a back and door added. (Make it a glass door and you can display the Oompa Loompa.)

    Serious question, didn’t the proportions look wrong/ugly in the sketch up model?


  10. Sean Hughto says:

    Stout top with hinges and it’s a fine small chest for nearly anything. Add some cedar lining for sweaters or blankets. Doubles as a bench for putting on your shoes or boots. Practice base for some wild painted finish …. Etc. Who can’t use a nice box?


  11. The magazine process sounds like the Pentagon procurement process.


  12. Bartee says:

    Great Post. We all need a reminder. Keep on being you and teach us all to walk outside and just think less.


  13. I’d be interested in the end of this as a thought experiment, at least. What made this idea attractive in the first place? Does the piece you’re building instead improve on the utility that appealed to you, or is it somewhat of a compromise for the sake of aesthetics?


    • Sorry Trevor,

      Too much on my plate these days to engage in a detailed analysis.

      It wasn’t quite right. I started again. I lost a day and gained an odd-sized box. My daughter says it could store her vinyl.

      In any case, one day and $30 in pine lost. No biggie.


  14. martybacke says:

    … and will require custom titanium hardware made by a …

    You do realize that much of your current work promotes the use of high end hardware (Horton brasses, etc.) or blacksmith crafted components. I for one like this, but the irony in your above statement didn’t escape me.


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