I’m going to be living in Quito, Ecuador for the next six months. I wanted to bring some tools with me to try out on those notorious tropical hardwoods (and whatever else I might encounter). Unfortunately, with all that iron and steel, woodworking tools are heavy. I decided at the outset that my weight and size budget would be one standard checked bag, which is 50 lb and 62 inches, length + width + height.
The first thing that comes to mind when transporting items that need protection is a Pelican case. But Pelican cases are heavy, and one of an appropriate size would put a pretty big dent in my weight budget. So I started looking around at alternatives, including standard hard-sided luggage (mostly the wrong shape, and of questionable protective ability for a 50-lb. load), and eventually decided that I would have to build a lightweight wooden box and ship it inside a padded duffel bag. The good news is that woodworking tools generally aren’t too fragile as long as you keep them from banging into each other.
I had already started down the path of designing the box when I chanced upon an ad in a web site somewhere, advertising the new line of lightweight Pelican Air cases. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation revealed that a 1605 case would be the right size, and would weigh no more, and probably a little less, than my proposed box. So, out with the box and in with the Pelican Air case. But when I tried to order one, I discovered that the Air cases truly were new, as in, not yet released.
I spoke with Gary at Midwest Case, and after he did some checking with his supplier, we concluded that the case would probably arrive in time. So I crossed my fingers and waited, and used Pelican’s CAD drawings to design the internal dividers that I would need to keep the tools from attacking each other. (The case arrived on 24 May, in plenty of time. I heartily recommend Midwest Case for anyone who needs a Pelican or similar case in or near Ohio; the customer service I received was above and beyond.)
I’m an iron plane kind of guy, but I knew that an iron jointer plane would completely blow my weight budget, so I briefly entertained the idea of building a Krenov-style wooden jointer plane. Instead, I decided to go all-Charlesworth and take only a single jack plane, with an assortment of blades for different tasks, and a couple of low-angle block planes for small stuff. I left out things like a rough panel saw and hammer/mallet, since I knew that I could buy those things at a big box store once I arrived.
Once I got everything together and fitted, I was still a few pounds over my weight budget (as I had expected), so I had to give up a few tools that I would have liked to have, like a couple of paring chisels, a heavy-duty diamond plate, a Starrett compass, etc.
This is the final layout; the empty spaces are where tools had to be omitted:
The tray bottoms are made of 1/8″-thick paulownia plywood, chosen for its ridiculously low weight. I was also going to go with paulownia for the dividers, too, but after cutting a few pieces I decided that I didn’t like its workability, being rather coarse-grained and crumbly. So I went with basswood instead, which in addition to being lightweight (though not as light as paulownia) has a very high strength-to-weight ratio. The basswood is a dream to work with.
The end result is not exactly the Studley tool chest, and the fit and finish could best be described as “utility,” but I think overall it was a successful exercise. We’ll know for sure once TSA and the baggage handlers are through with it. I’m going to include an instruction sheet for TSA so that if they remove the trays they will (hopefully) get them back the right way. Wish me luck.
– Steve Schafer