Traveling light(ish)

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


All stacked up and ready to go.

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24 Responses to Traveling light(ish)

  1. Eric R says:

    Very nice indeed.
    Safe travels.

  2. I think you might be surprised at what tools will be available there. At least I hope that will be the case. You will encounter some beautiful woods that you won’t find through the northern regions. I hope you have plenty of time to search, find, and experience varieties available through that region – and will be able to tell us all about it, when you return.

  3. Curtis Buchannan has worked in Central America. He might have some suggestions about your kit.

  4. Doug Leonard says:

    Looks good. Since weight was an issue instead of wood for the trays could of used Kaizen Foam from Fastcap.

    • steveschafer says:

      I experimented with Kaizen foam and decided that I didn’t like it. Too much trouble to work with, basically. It would have saved me a bit in weight, though.

  5. knewconcepts says:

    That is an excellent selection of tools! I’m envious.
    Glad to see the knew concepts saw in there 🙂

    Lee (the saw guy)

    • steveschafer says:

      As if you looked at anything else once you spied the Knew Concepts saw. 😉

      • knewconcepts says:

        Well, that’s fair…remember, right now, my time is totally wrapped up with making tools, with no time left for making wood chips 🙁

        Lee (the saw guy)

  6. All the contents of my son’s bags were stolen in the airport between the plane and the baggage pickup area in Ecuador. I wouldn’t pack anything of sentimental value. Your crate and it’s dividers look super!

    • steveschafer says:

      The case will be locked, so they’d have to steal the whole thing. And I’ll have photos to document what’s inside.

      I’ve been to Ecuador and various other places in Latin America over twenty times. There are certainly stories of people having things stolen, etc. (I even know someone who was briefly kidnapped from the airport in Guatemala City), but the incidents are actually not very common. The only place I’ve ever personally had something stolen from my luggage (a new camera, still in the box) is SFO.

  7. I love the idea of taking a classic thing (traveling carpenters box), and updating it to meet modern needs. Super slick!

  8. Rachael Boyd says:

    My thinking would be to take the Jack (with a couple different irons),smoothing and block plane. brace and bit set. a 14in back saw. and a 4 piece chisel set. the mallet and making gauges and may other tools can be made.Hammers and saws would be around if you looked.

  9. toolnut says:

    Very slick. Have fun and looking forward to your follow up posts on what you might do differently and what you made.
    Your last line about instructions for the TSA cracked me up given that you numbered the trays and still think they need extra help. (Which I’m fairly confident that most air travelers would agree whole heartedly with.)

  10. Jeremy says:

    I thought the same thing when I saw the lightweight pelicans announced.
    +1 on disassembling the BU jack tote, saves quite a bit of space. you have quite a working shop there, I’m surprised you included so many chisels, given the requirements.
    Please keep us informed of woodworking opportunities etc while there, I will have a brief stop there shortly after you return, and always try to squeeze something wworky into trips.

  11. Niels Cosman says:

    Yes! That’s ridiculously awesome!

  12. I made a dutch tool chest small enough to fit in the trunk of a Mazda Miata…. but this is on a whole different level. Nice work.

  13. As the owner of only one brace, I find it interesting that you have prioritized packing two braces.

    • steveschafer says:

      The small brace is in lieu of an eggbeater drill (my eggbeater is much heavier than that little Bridge City brace).

  14. I love those Pelican cases. I loaded up a Pelican 0450 mobile tool chest with most of my tools. I used Kaizen foam in each drawer. My loaded chest is much heavier than your setup, however, and would never meet your requirements. (I had some difficulty getting it up the stairs while attending a Lie-Nielsen weekend workshop.) Your tool selection and layout are impressive!

  15. Steve,
    Did you include any files for sharpening your saws or did you figure they would be available if needed? Just curious about the priority.

    • steveschafer says:

      You can’t really see it but there’s a 5″ saw file in the upper right compartment of tray 3. The three saws that I’m taking are 12-14 ppi, so I don’t really need a larger file. I thought about packing a mill file, but I decided that I could get one there that would probably suffice.

      Two of the saws are in good shape, and I’m having the third one professionally sharpened right now (and hopefully delivered before Saturday…). I’m going to try to avoid sharpening them while I’m there as far as possible, since I won’t have a good vise, etc. But if all else fails, I will have the one file with me.

  16. fitz says:

    Safe travels – and I hope you’ll blog from there and show us what you’re making!

  17. abtuser says:

    Yea, I’m jealous. I’ll second Megan’s comments, have a safe trip, and hopefully you’ll maybe find some interesting Ecuadoran woodworking and let use know about it.

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