This 18th century English tool chest is one of the more interesting mysteries in the history of woodworking. Unlike other tool chests of its day, this chest and its tools — which are now in the Guildhall Museum in Rochester, England — went virtually unused and are in the same condition as when they were new in 1796.
How did this chest survive? Why didn’t Benjamin Seaton, the maker of the chest, ever use his tools? Was he planning to come to the New World to begin a cabinetmaking business? While historical records cannot fully answer these questions, they do tell an interesting tale of a would-be woodworker.
Benjamin was born in 1775, the son of a cabinetmaker and church elder. When Benjamin turned 21, his father bought him a complete and very expensive set of woodworking tools, and Benjamin began building this chest to house them on Jan. 1, 1797. He finished it April 15. Three months later, Benjamin made an inventory of the chest’s contents (which survives to this day). The Guildhall Museum suggests that Benjamin was preparing to emigrate to America. However, Benjamin remained in Chatham and tended to his father’s business after he died in 1811.
Benjamin died in 1830, and his will describes him as a cabinetmaker, upholsterer, auctioneer and undertaker. His chest remained in his family, with the tools intact, until it was given to the museum in 1910.
A few years ago the Tool and Trades History Society in England published a book, “The Tool Chest of Benjamin Seaton,” which is now available in the United States. After reading the book, I became convinced that this tool chest would be great for a set of 20th century tools — with a few modifications. So I built one. And it didn’t take three-and-a-half months.
The large outer case holds many of my modern hand-held power tools: a jigsaw, drill, router, circular saw, random-orbit sander, belt sander and biscuit joiner (with room to spare). The removable case (called a till) with its lids and drawers holds just about every hand tool a well-equipped shop needs. If I wanted to go overseas and set up a cabinet shop, I could load the chest on a steamer and go. Instead, the large case now sits on the floor next to my bench, protecting my power tools until I need them. The till sits on top of my bench, keeping my hand tools at arm’s length. It’s a perfect system for a small shop that’s low on both space and built-in cabinets.
Constructing the outer case is pretty simple. Finger joints join the four sides; the bottom is captured by a groove in all four sides. The moulding is nailed or screwed to the exterior. The lid has a small piece of moulding attached to it that acts as a dust seal. Begin building the case by gluing up the 7/8″-thick panels for the sides, top and bottom (Benjamin was lucky enough to have some 24″ wide pine boards and didn’t have to glue up his sides). Now make the jig to cut your 3/4″ x 7/8″ deep finger joints. Take your time with the jig because a little precision and patience will result in joints that won’t split or beg for putty.
Cut Your Joints
Now that the jig is built, it’s time to cut the joints. The trick with finger joints is to get all of the “fingers” and “spaces” to line up and mate correctly. If one board begins with a finger, then its mate must begin with a space. To make a board that begins with a finger, place it on end on your table saw against the tooth on the jig and make your cut. To begin a board with a space, place a spacer between the dado stack and tooth. I used some scrap finger joints that I ran as a test with this jig; these worked great. Then place your board on end against this spacer and run it through the saw. Remove the spacer and cut the remainder of the joints on that edge. Now cut the 7/16″ deep by 7/8″ wide grooves in the sides that hold the bottom in place. The grooves should be 1″ up from the bottom edge. You can stop these grooves before you cut into your finger joints and finish the grooves with a chisel. Or you can just run these grooves right through your joints — after all, they will be covered by the moulding on the outside of the case.
Begin making the moulding by routing a small ogee profile on the bottom moulding pieces. Miter the pieces, then attach them with nails or screws (Benjamin used screws that he recessed into the wood and then covered with putty).