Consider the Used Tool Chest


Though you might find this odd, a sizable chunk of my commission work is building tool chests and workbenches for people.

When customers first approached me with these jobs, I resisted. My response was: You’re a woodworker; you can build your own for much less money. But after further discussions, I realized that I could say this to almost any aspect of the craft.

Don’t have a shop? You’re a woodworker – build one.
Don’t have a handplane? You’re a woodworker – build one.
Don’t have a wooden floor?
Don’t have a dovetail saw?
And etc.

When it comes to the great Time Vs. Money Scale, some of us have more time. Others have more money. (Few of us have both or neither.) And so I started making workbenches and tool chests for customers. This also conveniently drained my supply of half-built tool chests and workbenches in my garden shed that were left over from classes.


For woodworkers who can’t afford a tool chest from me (they cost $2,000 to $3,500 depending on the options), I encourage them to buy a vintage tool chest. In the Midwest, South and East, almost every antique store has a chest to sell. You just have to tune your eyes to see them. Typically they are holding other items – plates, glassware or creepy dolls – and so they are easy to miss.

They often show up in local auctions – an Amish auction near me usually has a dozen chests each year.

And the price is right. About $200 to $400.

Most of them need to be cleaned up. The tills are worn out and need to be repaired. Mouse holes are common. Rot in the bottom boards is a frequent feature. Dislocated hinges and a pink paint job round out the list of things you’ll want to remedy.

But it is a great alternative. Most chests can be fixed up with a day of work in the shop. And you will get a gold star in woodworker heaven for saving a tool chest from its doom as another plant stand.

— Christopher Schwarz, editor, Lost Art Press
Personal site:

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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33 Responses to Consider the Used Tool Chest

  1. mcqacp says:

    I’m guessing we’re looking at a $3500 chest. Awesome as usual but where can you find clear pine like that? I live somewhat close to your area.

    • I used to buy my pine from Midwest Woodworking. It is now closed.

      • Daniel Rode says:

        Yeah, I’m having a heck of a time finding a source for decent pine. The local mills/kilns and retailers here in NE Ohio that I normally buy from don’t sell it. Owners tell me there’s not enough profit to justify stocking it.

        • Keith says:

          A friend of mine made a pie safe a number of years ago from clear pine. He said it cost as much per b.f. as walnut. That may be why the low demand. Have you considered poplar?

          • JohnQ says:

            I’m generalizing, but pine is light, strong and usually inexpensive compared to “nice” hardwoods. Seasonal across the grain is also relatively small. t works nicely as long as you keep your tools sharp. So, It’s ideal for tool chests and the like but I like pine in general.

            Popular is plentiful and fairly inexpensive but it’s quite a bit heavier and I don’t love the green and purple. It does go to a warmer brown with age but it pure utility wood to me.

      • mcqacp says:

        Just found a place in Cincinnati that has 5/4 sugar pine (graded C and better) for about $6/BF. Would this be good pine to use and if so are you interested n getting some too. It would be through a lumber wholesaler.

  2. nordichomey says:

    $75 on Craigslist for a big chest. Bones were solid but nasty dirty. 3 weekends to re-furb. Easy decision.

  3. Keith says:

    I just got one to auction at the woodworking club in January. Funds go to charity.

  4. Chris Ayers says:

    I can’t remember if you said it. I do recall it being said. If you can find a well built work bench, buy it. It’s much less frustrating than building your own and you can get started with the projects you want to build.

    I think the same might apply to tool chests. I’m building one right now (right out of your book TATC).

    I did build my own work bench – A Roubo. And it’s nice – also based on your guidance.

    Where’s that Time bank? I need to trade some hours?

    We all just want to get to the fun part without paying the dues.

    Next on the agenda: build a garage that just might have a dedicated work space where wood working projects occur.

    OK, I’ve whined enough. Back to work.

  5. The “pine machinists chest” I found on CL for $150 was actually a full-sized walnut tool chest. It had s few remaining tool holders that I want to duplicate because I love the idea so much. The thickness blocks are all walnut, but the tabs that rotate to hold them in place are all thick copper sheet. It matches the copper-clad corners on the outside.

    I didn’t think it was pine from the pictures in the listing, but didn’t say anything. And tried tovery hard not to grin from ear to ear when I picked it up.

    Will work on fitting out the inside after I finish up some commissions I have.

  6. Jeff Hanna says:

    I built mine out of poplar–that was a mistake. I would have preferred pine, but I had some 21″ wide boards that were just long enough for the chest lying around. Poplar moves a lot and no sooner did I get all the boards flat and the tails cut than the boards started to cup. It was manageable, but a pain to work with. I was also surprised at how heavy the shell was when I got it together.

  7. Rachael Boyd says:

    so your saying that my pink tool chest with daisy’s painted on it is bad? I put a good 40 hours in to building that chest, and I think it’s cute. I guess in 100 plus years the person that buys it at an auction may wish to repaint it.

  8. luce32 says:

    People are getting rid of their TV armoire and hanging the TV on the wall. The armoire sells for almost nothing (I got mine for $30) and am turning it into a standing tool chest. I am not a cheap person I’m just frugal. The basic framework is the expensive side of making a standing tool box so I have avoided it.

  9. Jacob Eickstead says:

    I think I’ve only seen one or two toolchests in TX. There just isn’t much woodworking items here. Sigh.

    • Jeff Faulk says:

      There is a definite geographic distribution to antique tools and accessory items. The stronghold seems to be above the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Mississippi, though Kentucky can get lucky. The South is pretty bare, as is the Southwest.

      My working speculation is that the post-Civil War industrialization of the North, and the economic adversity in the South, forced woodworkers in the South to either migrate to better-paying areas in the North, or to work their tools down to the bone rather than putting them on the market to pay for newer, nicer tools like Bailey planes.

      The South was also heavily agricultural, with a greater emphasis on plantations before the war, and afterwards sharecropping; far more people had far less money, and as a result they would not have had a chest of tools in every barn. A few basic tools to do basic maintenance, worked down to nothing.

      Certainly there were woodworkers aplenty in the South… but most of them worked in the major cities in small individual shops. By the post-CW era there were factories for furniture in the North, and I would not be surprised at all to hear that most furniture in the South came from those sources.

    • Jim Lancaster says:

      You can find old toolchests in Texas if you keep your eyes open. I see them on Craigslist or in antique stores fairly regularly. And Dowd’s Tools in Garland, TX (suburb of Dallas) usually stocks quite a selection. (That’s where I got mine.)

  10. roccaways says:

    $50CAD. Its painted baby blue on the outside and hunter green inside. Corners are rebbated, and the lid is mitred. All the things you’re not supposed to do. It’s at least 80 years old and came with a few of the previous owners tools. It has one sliding till, a spot for a saw in the lid, and a couple spots for chisels that simply doesn’t suit me. I’ve added some heavy duty wheels and would like to retrofit the internal storage at some point, but its miles better than what I was using which was whatever flat surface was free.

  11. Royce Eaves says:

    Sounds crazy, but I’m thinking about putting my Dad’s WWII era Army footlocker on its end, maybe installing some casters, making tool holders, etc. I also have a much bigger sized old Army plywood footlocker (Cold War era) to do something similar for bigger tools like bow saws, frame saws and hewing axe. That will keep me busy for a while.


  12. Kevin thomas says:

    I find most tool chest have been turned into “Primitive ” coffee tables.

  13. wow you have built some lovely tool chests.

  14. afoundsheep says:

    Any advice for closing up mitred skirt/dust seals? The main body on my great grandfathers chest uses box joints and is in good shape, but the mitred skirts are gappy (I remember seeing that advice in your book).
    Also, what cleaning solution would you start with for general grime/oil? Am over thinking just using soapy water?
    Alright, enough advice seeking, back to the shop.

  15. kendewitt608 says:

    Ten years ago Was talking to the RE broker who sold me my house, He said he was putting a tool box in a garage sale next weekend for 5 or 10 dollars. Said I wanted to see it. Oak with brass corners, 2 saw holders and a sliding tray.
    He said I could have it for free. Rather be lucky than smart.
    It came from a clean out he did to sell a house.

  16. fatfrogdecoys says:

    This is a good idea.
    In Virginia and Maryland I find them in antique shops in various conditions and the prices, even for the larger floor models, never seems to go above 300. I have bought two workbench sized boxes both each were $!00.00 and enjoyed the hours invested in cleaning and repay. Bonus- each has initials carved into them.

  17. Tracy says:

    I’d been hunting for an old tool chest for a very long time and finally found one last year while visiting friends in Reno. Prior to that some of the tools lived in a vintage wall hanging tool cabinet. Yes, I could built either-or but there’s just something about the history of these that really appeals to me. They each still need more than a fair bit of refurbing, and I’ll get to that someday (said like every woodworker ever, right?). Perhaps someday I’ll actually build my own as well.

  18. paul6000000 says:

    The greater Toronto area has a lot of them (as well as carpenter’s jobbing boxes). Central Ontario received a steady flow of British tradesmen right into the 60s. I’ve found that people often list them as captain’s chests.

  19. Paul Gardner says:

    Both of my chests have been rehab jobs. Got the first one for $20 and the second one was free. Very satisfying to give something a 2nd life.

  20. Ryan says:

    A few years back I happened upon a blanket chest that was built with wide boards and dovetailed together. It was going to be thrown in the dump. I retro fitted it with 3 sliding drawers, 4 place saw till and storage for planes. My favorite part is you can still feel the scallops left from the plane that built it on the inside of the panels. Makes me sick to think that it was hours away from being junk.

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