I don’t make many unequivocal statements, but here’s one: Some non-stringy species of white pine is the correct wood for a tool chest. And if you can get it, choose sugar pine or Eastern white pine. These are lightweight woods that are easy to work with hand tools, and they are typically less expensive in the U.S. than any hardwood, with the possible exception of poplar. And while poplar will work for a tool chest – as will any wood, really – it’s heavy and harder to dovetail than pine. And that will make your tool chest heavier than it needs to be.
Fully loaded, a sugar pine “Anarchist’s Tool Chest” weighs in the neighborhood of 200-225 lbs. (The hardware and choice of wood for tills and other interior bits will affect the weight, as, of course, will the specific tools inside.)
And while I’ve never weighed a pine Dutch tool chest fully loaded, I used to work out of a poplar one while teaching on the road, and I had a heck of a time lifting it in and out of my car. So I’m keeping one of the pine ones I’m building right now to make my peripatetic woodworking life just a little easier.
For the tool chest classes I teach here, I do my best to source beautiful, clear sugar pine, which is typically available in wide widths – the fewer pieces in panel glue-ups, the better. But every once in a while, someone will ask if they can prep their own wood for a class – and it’s usually for the anarchist’s tool chest class – the one for which the wood prep is the most demanding and most critical that it be good. I say sure…but you darn well better do a good job of it. A) I won’t have time during the class to fix any out-of-square edges for you and B) I won’t have on hand matching stock to replace a piece should something go terribly wrong. C) I don’t want to help lift your full-size oak or purpleheart tool chest into your car at the end of class.
But if you insist on bringing your own, below are the steps to follow (some of which are pretty basic…but you never know what people already know).
The flatter the wood, the easier it is to prep – and the more plain the grain, generally the easier it is to dovetail. I don’t want any points of cathedrals or bird’s eyes in my pins and tails (or knots, or course). So the first thing I do is to lay out rough cuts to avoid anything problematic. I start with the largest pieces (above, that’s the front and back of the ATC), and try my best to have all my glue-ups be only two pieces (you can see above that I typically have to use three pieces in at least some of the carcase and lid panels).
So first, I mark out all the pieces, and if they’re longer than 14″ or so, I rough cut them about 1″ overlong at the chop saw and about 1/2″ overwide at the band saw (or I joint one edge then cut them overwide at the table saw). For pieces that are shorter than 14″ (and therefore can’t safely go through the planer), I keep them attached to another piece until after the surfacing is done. You don’t, however, want to leave the pieces much longer than they need to be. The longer a board, the more likely it is to be twisted – the less of that you have to take out, the better. Because the more you have to remove from one surface to correct twist or a cup, the more will go into your dust collector.
In order to run the wood through the planer to get it flat (and all of it to the same thickness), you need one flat face; that face registers on the bed of the planer. If you’re good with a jointer plane, you may not need a jointer. If you’re decent with a jointer plane but have to prep wood for seven people and have three days to do it, you definitely want an electric jointer.
If you have a helical head on your jointer, you don’t have to worry much about grain direction, but run the stock in the correct direction anyway; it’s a good habit to adopt. The grain should be running downhill. And if there’s a crown in the board on one face, there’s probably a cup on the other. When you run the wood across the cutters, you want it supported as much as possible at the outside edges, so the cupped face should face down. If you’ve already arranged it with the grain running correctly but the cupped face up, simply flip the board end for end, before jointing it. (Odds are pretty good that the heart side will be facing up.)
With thick wood, you can get away with jointing it only enough to create flats at the outside edges to register on the planer bed. But the planer rollers will flatten thin wood…which will spring back after it exits the planer. So for 3/4″ (or thinner) stock, I always run the stock as many times as necessary across the jointer to flatten one face completely. And because I think it’s unsafe to have to push too hard, I’d rather make several light cuts than one deep cut; I usually have the cut set to no more than 1/16″
After the final jointer pass, I stack the boards atop the planer, flat face down, with the last end that went over the jointer facing toward the planer mouth – that’s the way they get fed in (last off jointer, first in planer). Though again, if you have a helical cutter, it’s not (usually) that critical.
I follow the same steps every time I use the planer; that way, I never get turned around. As I pull pieces off the far end, I stack them back in the exact same orientation as they were run through the machine. Then if I have to run them again to get to a certain thickness and the first face is flat, I flip them end for end as I feed them into the planer for the second pass. And repeat. That way, I’m removing wood from both faces, and hopefully equalizing the moisture exchange. (And if I have someone catching for me, I make sure they don’t flip the boards as they stack them.) Same steps for the operator every time. And if the first face isn’t flat after one pass, the board is in the right direction without flipping it to simply run it through again.
And here’s the critical part for classes when it comes to thicknessing: I run all the wood that has to be the same thickness at the same time. I would never run, say, the front and back of a through-dovetailed carcase then come back three days later and run the ends. In order to avoid problems, all the pieces must be the exact same thickness – your best shot at achieving that is to do it all at once. I don’t care if the pieces are a hair over or under 7/8″ – I just care that they’re all the same.
Once all the stock is flat and to thickness, I joint one edge in preparation for cutting it to final size (even if I’ve already jointed an edge to cut a piece to rough width, I do it again, in case it got bashed up), and mark the jointed edge; that edge will run against the table saw’s fence.
But it’s the table saw work that scares me the most in folks prepping their own stock; if the pieces aren’t square, the person’s class experience is doomed – and I don’t want that. But if I have to take the time to correct problems, the other students in the class suffer. So at least one person (in addition to me) is going to be unhappy.
So I am ultra careful at the table saw to make sure my cuts are square. First, I rip the pieces to final width, making sure I keep the wood tight to the fence. Then I triple check that the crosscut fence is dead square to the blade, and before we got a reliable slider, I clamped like pieces together to make sure they were the exact same length. (Now I trust the stop on our slider. But I don’t trust the stop on your slider.)
So after setting my stop I raise it, then crosscut one end square (with the jointed-edge mark against the fence), then drop the stop, flip the board and cut it to length. Boom – two square ends, and the right length. Repeat.
Once all the pieces of that length are cut, I reset the stop and cut the mating pieces. And so on with the rest of the stock.
Note that all of the above assumes no glue-ups. Throw wide panels into the mix and you add glue-ups to the prep. I’ll write about those in a few days.