How Big (or Little) is Your Chest?

New Anarchist Tool Chest 2015

A common bit of advice on building tool chests goes like this: “You should build the chest to fit your tools.”

I’d like to amend that melba-toast statement to this: “You should build the chest to fit our tools.”

Woodworking tools come in standard sizes, and the standard tool kit hasn’t changed much since Joseph Moxon laid it out in “Mechanick Exercises” in 1678. So if you are in the craft to build furniture, your tool kit probably looks a lot like mine. If you are in it for type studies and patented tools, ignore the rest of this blog entry.

When I started studying tool chests (several years before writing “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest”), I noticed that they were built in some fairly standard sizes. Most of the outliers were actually for other trades or specialists. In truth, there are more than three basic sizes of chests, but I’d like to discuss three sizes I have found most compelling.


The Floor Chest
This is the massive tool chest I built for “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” and have subsequently built more than 20 times for classes and customers. It is the Denali of tool chests. It’s bigger than it has to be, but it’s still not big enough.

It is roughly 24” x 24” x 40”. And if you can’t fit a tool in this chest, then you don’t need it. This chest will swallow full-size handsaws, over-sized jointer planes, 18th-century tenon saws, straightedges, a full set of hollows and rounds and all the other tools you need to build furniture.

The standard model usually has three sliding trays, though I have seen them with as many as eight.

During the five years since I built this chest I have modified small sections of it, but it is still basically the same design as when I drew it out in 2010.

What’s the downside to this chest? It is a floor hog, taking up as much square footage as a table saw. If you have a small shop, this chest might be too much for you. But after working out of a chest this size since 1997, I decline to downsize.


The Traveling Tool Chest
If you need to move your chest frequently, the full-size chest is a heavy burden. Moving that monster by yourself is difficult but doable – if you first remove the trays and heavy tools. If you need to be mobile for work or to attend classes, a scaled-down chest might be the answer.

I just finished building one of these chests for the August issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. I built the carcase and Jameel Abraham built the marquetry panel for the lid. This chest’s design is based on the length of a panel saw, one of the longer tools in a furniture-maker’s tool kit.

While full-size handsaws are more than 30” long from toe to tote, a panel saw takes up less space – 26” give or take. That’s not much longer than a standard jointer plane. This chest can be 20” x 20” x 30”. That might not seem much smaller than the full-size chest above, but I can tell you that the slightly smaller dimensions allow you to move the chest easily by yourself.

The downside? You can still pack a standard toolkit in the chest if you omit the moulding planes. (OK, that’s not entirely true; you can build a removable tray that holds moulders thereby squeezing every cubic inch of storage out of the chest. It’s just not convenient to work out of.)

These chests typically had two sliding trays for the small tools. And the tool well below held all the bench planes, saws and joinery planes.

The other advantage to this chest is it will fit in the back seat of most passenger cars. The full-size chest will not (unless you first remove the door).


The Tallboy
The other curious chest I’ve been toying with is a mix of the full-size chest and the traveling chest. While I’m sure this chest was made all over the Western world, I’ve encountered most examples of it in North America.

It is generally a nailed-together carcase that is designed to hold full-size handsaws, a full set of bench planes, joinery planes and lots and lots of smaller tools. Like the traveling chest, moulding planes are rarely provided dedicated storage space in this variant. But they still can hold a handful of moulders if need be.

So the defining characteristics of these chests are they are long, shallow and tall. The one I’m building now for a series of classes in 2015 is 15” x 17” x 34”. This chest will easily fit into the back seat of a car. It will accommodate the (less expensive) full-size handsaws and is super simple to build. It’s all rabbets and nails.

All three forms have their charms. But their dimensions depend more on how you live than on what sort of stuff you build.


Disobey Me
If you want to design your own chest from scratch and ignore the historical patterns, here’s how to do it:

  1. Measure your longest saw. That (plus 2”) is the interior length of your carcase.
  2. Group your bench and joinery planes together into a tight formation that is the same length as your longest saw. Measure the depth of that pile. That is the interior depth of your chest.
  3. If you have moulding planes, add 5” to that depth.
  4. Take the interior depth of your chest and make that the interior height. Most tool chests are square in profile view.

My guess is you will end up with one of the three sizes above.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
This entry was posted in The Anarchist's Tool Chest, The Art of Joinery, Woodworking Classes. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to How Big (or Little) is Your Chest?

  1. Matt Merges says:

    Will those of us taking the class have the option of “disobeying you” in the class? I.e., can we make a Traveling Chest or will you prefer we stick with the Tallboy?


    • I have never stopped any of my students from going “off the reservation.” But I can only offer limited help to those who do – my main priority is trying to keep the remainder of students on track.


  2. beshriver says:

    I’m still working on my cheater chest…traditional tool chest in two days….three weeks later I still need to paint and add hardware.


  3. Tom Reber says:

    Chris, I am glad that you stand by your declaration of “disobey me.” The greatest joy that any teacher can experience is that of seeing knowledge adapted and applied. Disobedience has a bad rap as a defining concept in the world of toddlers and young children; and yet, as adults, we tend to forget that questioning and adapting are (under)valued traits.



  4. Although I built your weekend tool chest (and love the design), I still have all of my tools in an old sears metal carpenter box. I have an idea for another tool chest made from real oak and black walnut. I only need to know how to make the cool handles. Help….?

    The weekend tool chest will become a blanket chest for my future (ex)wife’s birthday. In a fit of anger she will give it to her family, in order to rid her (formerly our) home of my presence. They will pass it down through the generations.


    • beshriver says:

      I saw the picture of your weekend chest on Twitter…now that’s a shame…it will however be a very nice blanket chest


  5. turdfighter says:

    The full size chest makes an awesome in feed table for my table saw.

    Thanks for writing the book, it changed how I look at woodworking.


  6. Farmer Greg says:

    Where do you think the dutch tool chest fits in this taxonomy?


  7. Deniseg says:

    I decided to merge your Anarchist lid with Paul Sellers recent reproduction jointers tool chest. I’ll live with it a year or two and then know enough to build the final chest that fits the needs and tools I’ve not yet discovered. I think we just have to work with one for awhile before we know what size and design works best.


  8. woodworkerme says:

    I will stick with my full sized chest. and if I need to run to Seattle to work on my brothers yacht I will take one of my dutch tool chests.I also have the travel chest that my great grandad built that I worked out of for a few years.Out of all of them I like the big pink anarchist chest with the cute daisy’s the best.


  9. bloksav says:

    My travelling tool chest is only 16″ x 8″ x 9 5/8″, but that will fit in a bag to travel on an airplane.

    The only saw I fit in the chest is a small dozuki, and apart from that it holds a few basic tools.
    Due to the more spacious design of the new chest I have also been able to ad a moving fillister plane to the set.


  10. So the chest that we would be building in the Anarchist’s Tool Chest class in Beverly would be more like the Tallboy rather than the Floor Chest?


  11. It’s interesting that even the metal tool chests (I use a Craftsman topchest as my mainwoodworking chest) maintain the same approximate dimensions. I can’t fit panel saws in mine (they hang off the sides of the rolling cart on which I keep my top chest), but with a tool chest at 12x15x26, they are about the only basic tools that don’t fit.


  12. Bob Jones says:

    If I build another “traveling chest” it will be too totes like the one in “Hand and Eye”. Super portable and if you have two you can carry lots of tools.


  13. bernardnaishb says:

    I ferry my most expensive tools to my workshop every day. Trying to get them all in a single chest was not practical as my hand saws would set the size. I found his was too wide to allow easy lifting in and out of the boot (trunk) of my car. It has caused no problems to put the saws in a separate case and I recommend this solution.

    My traveller’s chest is quite small at15 ¼” deep, 15 3/8” high and 20” wide curiously close to the Tallboy and with a laden weight of 88 lb (40 kg) quite enough for me to lift in and out of a car. I am able to tackle most jobs with the contents.

    Were I to make it again (I might) it would be longer, deeper and lower – perhaps with just two layers of trays.


  14. darz3 says:

    Hi Chris , the other day I took some photos of a circa 16th chest, storage rather than tools probably, at Chichester Cathedral , I thought they might be interesting but not quite sure how to post them


Comments are closed.