The Japanese Toolbox (Finally)


When I got the privilege to measure an antique Japanese toolbox in 2013, I knew I had to build a reproduction. I just didn’t know it was going to take me two years to get around to making this simple but beguiling box.

The first problem was the hardware. I spent entirely too much time searching all over the world for manufactured dome-head nails to secure the toolbox’s finger joints. I came very close to finding the right nails in France and then again somewhere out in the desert. But there was always something fouling the works – the size of the head, the length of the shaft or the raw material (silver is probably a poor choice).

So I conned John Switzer at Black Bear Forge to make the nails and pulls. Note to self: Start with a blacksmith next time.

The wood was the next hurdle. Logically, I should build the toolbox using pine or cypress – a lightweight and strong wood that is easy to get. But I want the venti experience, so I started looking for Port Orford cedar. A fair amount of this stuff is exported to Japan for woodworking and building temples, so that would be a nice wood to use.

As I’m in the Pacific Northwest this week, I decided to spend a morning hunting up some Chamaecyparis lawsoniana in the Portland, Ore., area. After about 10 phone calls, I found a yard that had some. When I got there, I found they had three short boards. Three short boards that were split, warped and pecked with loose knots. I call this stuff: firewood.

Luckily, the yard had some gorgeous, dry-as-a-popcorn-fart vertical-grain Douglas fir. So I purchased an 16’-long clear stick of this wood as a backup plan. The antique toolbox I measured was quite possibly made from Douglas fir, according to the people who studied the box along with me.

The employees at the lumberyard were nice enough to cut the stock up into manageable chunks for my rental car so I could ship it back to Kentucky.

Mission accomplished. Or perhaps not. More on this story on Monday.

— Christopher Schwarz


About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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19 Responses to The Japanese Toolbox (Finally)

  1. I’m checking with my dad to see how hard it would be to get some Port Orford cedar. He runs the worlds largest cedar fencing mill in Morton, WA.

  2. joemcglynn says:

    Jackel Enterprises in Watsonville, CA carries Port Orford Cedar and beautiful, fine grained, vertical grain Douglas Fir. I’m on my way there shortly to get some of the Fir for a toolbox project.

  3. Jeremy says:

    I’m interested in seeing what you come up with here. To me, they seem like ideal modular tool storage especially for trades tools that I have around but use infrequently.

  4. Call Reichert’s Shake and Fencing: (360) 864-6434
    Apparently they ran some Port Orford last summer and may still have some available. Wouldn’t hurt to ask.

  5. I am extremely interested in this series. You can throw everything Japanese at me, I’ll take it. Thank you very much for starting this!

  6. occasionalww says:

    Hey Chris,
    Those nails look like the tacks used in making Taiko drums
    Admittedly expensive at $120 per 300, but perhaps cheaper than custom smithing?

  7. tsstahl says:

    Congratulations, you have an ammo box.

    The Original gun powder warfare Campaign Furniture. 🙂

    External similarities aside, what is the interior partitioning (roughly) like?

  8. woodewe says:

    Would clear alder work? It is light in weight and color, and not too expensive.

  9. justin says:

    Nice, I can’t wait to see what you come up with! I just finished building my first (self-made) toolbox, and did it in the japanese fashion, as well.

  10. Brian Clites says:

    The photos you posted look like they’re from a yardsale. Did you buy the chest and some of those tools, or just take the measurements?

    Shipping douglas fir accross the country? Doesn’t sound like you. But I understand that you probably wanted to give the mill some business after the miscommunication.

    It looks like David, Joe, and Tom have some great suggestions for materials on version 2.0.

    Looking forward, as always, to where this project takes you! Thanks!!

  11. Crosscut Hardwood in Portland Oregon had a bunch of Port Orford Cedar this last week so I imagine it is still available.

  12. Clear POC is difficult to find. You’re in the wrong part of the state. A reasonable facsimile and much easier to find, is Alaska Yellow Cedar. It’s really a cypress in disguise. And the best place to buy it is at Eden Saw: In this case, you’re in the wrong state, but you’re getting close. Eden Saw is Lumber Heaven and well worth the drive.

    Welcome to Oregon.


  13. Brian Clites says:

    By the way, I had no trouble finding Japanese nails…

  14. Joel says:

    I’m assuming you called Woodcrafters, in Portland, OR? I used to work there and we usually had POC in stock. And certainly more than just a few boards, they were very well stocked on exotics. Either way, I’m sure doug fir would work very well. I don’t live in Oregon anymore and I miss the easy and relatively cheap availability of very straight & clear DF.

  15. Chris,
    If you are still in the area you should contact Les Stansell Hope this helps, thanks for all that you do.
    PS just received my copy of A Chairmakers Notebook, wonderful just like everything else from Lost Art Press that I have.

  16. Hank Cohen says:

    I have a couple of these given to me by the carpenter who worked on my house. They are apparently a standard piece of apprentice work for all Japanese carpenters. I suspect that mine are cedar. Cedar is the most common soft wood in Japan. After reading this post I’m going to have to go out and make a definitive identification. The really amazing thing about them is the way the lids fit.

  17. Jennie Alexander says:


    You might ask Carl Swensson if he has written up anything about Japanese workboxes. He makes and has taught an excellent one.


    From: Lost Art Press Reply-To: Lost Art Press Date: Friday, April 10, 2015 at 2:01 PM To: Jennie Alexander Subject: [New post] The Japanese Toolbox (Finally) Chris Schwarz posted: ” When I got the privilege to measure an antique Japanese toolbox in 2013, I knew I had to build a reproduction. I just didn¹t know it was going to take me two years to get around to making this simple but beguiling box. The first problem was the har”

  18. potomacker says:

    I tried to comment on this example when it first came up on this weblog to say that I don’t think that this box was ever meant to be used as a toolbox by a Japanese tradesman. I cannot verify with certainty but the Japanese writing on the interior seems to imply that this was a case made to protect a kimono or other valuable textile. This also explains the decorative details and lack of normal wear for such an old item. The handles are far too lightweight and worthy of mockery by other Japanese carpenters who are much more likely to make their travelling toolboxes with integrated handles.

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