Traveling Tool Chest

1508 toolboxHistoric proportions and details are still the best.

by Christopher Schwarz
page 22

Since I started woodworking in about 1993, I’ve stored my tools in almost every way imaginable – from plastic buckets to wall cabinets, racks and a variety of tool chests.

After exploring each of these methods, I kept coming back to a traditional tool chest because I have not found a better way to protect and organize my tools. I also appreciate the finite capacity of a tool chest – it forces me to think hard before buying an additional tool.

During most visits to the tool store I conclude: If it doesn’t fit in the chest, I probably don’t need it.

Tool chests are built in a number of fairly standard sizes that are based on the sizes of typical tools and the limits of our bodies.

Large floor chests are usually about 24″ x 24″ x 40″ and are designed to hold full-size saws and large jointer planes, which can be longer than 30″. These chests also hold a full set of moulding planes, bench planes and all the small tools needed to make any piece of furniture. These chests are difficult to move alone, which is a disadvantage if you are by yourself, but is an advantage if someone is trying to steal your chest (the thief needs an accomplice).

Medium-size chests are just big enough to hold panel saws and smaller metal jointer planes – about 18″ x 18″ x 30″ – and can be picked up by one person. It’s an ideal size for someone who works alone, has to move the chest on occasion and doesn’t require a full set of moulding planes.

This medium-size chest can hold a remarkable amount of tools – two panel saws, three backsaws, the three standard bench planes, a rabbet plane, plow and router plane all fit on its floor. The two sliding trays and rack hold everything else you (should) need.

Smaller chests – the third size – were usually used for site work or by “gentlemen” woodworkers who had a small kit of tools.

The medium-size chest in this article is ideal for someone getting started in woodworking with a small shop and a budding kit of tools. It’s easy to build, fairly tough and can easily be transported to schools. When I build tool chests for customers, this is far and away the most requested size.

The carcase is dovetailed together – the strongest joint available. The bottom boards are, however, nailed onto the carcase so they are easily replaced if they rot. Speaking of rot, the entire chest sits on two oak “rot strips” screwed to the bottom boards, keeping the chest off a wet floor.

The bottom and top skirts on this chest are mitered and nailed to the carcase. I typically dovetail the skirts at the corners, but a well-made miter can survive just fine.

The lid is a thick panel that is surrounded by a dust seal on three sides; the seal pieces are dovetailed at the corners because this area of a tool chest takes heaps of abuse.

Most of the carcase is made from a lightweight and inexpensive wood such as pine. The parts that will see heavy wear are oak. We’ll discuss the interior fittings after we get the carcase complete.

Video: Take a short video tour of the chest
Blog: Read more about “dog bone” chest lifts.
Blog: Read about a commercial crab lock.
Plan: Download a free SketchUp model of the traveling tool chest.
To Buy: “Build a Traditional Tool Chest in Two Days,” a video by Christopher Schwarz available on DVD or as a digital download.

From the August 2015 issue

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Popular Woodworking Magazine August 2015 Cover