If you ever write a book on workbenches or tool chests, be prepared for this question: “Off the record and just between you and me, what’s your favorite chest or bench?”
The easy way out would be to give them a direct answer: a Dutch Roubo Nicholson with Japanese planing stops and Krenov-style tills. But that answer would be a lie.
Many of the strong opinions and hard-and-fast rules in our craft are formed out of intellectual laziness, in my opinion. Yes, your bench works, but have you examined why it works? Have you considered that those core attributes might be present on other benches that you dislike?
I’ve written a lot about the core ideas behind good workbench design (check out “Workbenches: From Design & Theory to Construction and Use” or “The Workbench Design Book”). But I haven’t written much about the core principles of tool storage – chests, cabinets totes and racks.
As a devoted user of hand tools, I have strong ideas about what’s important. But I don’t give a squirrel’s kiester how you put those ideas into practice. I use an English floor chest and a small rack above my bench. But these ideas can be transferred on to almost any form (except for the tool pillowcase).
Before I lay these out, I ask that you be intellectually honest with yourself when you evaluate the way you store your tools. It’s easy to think you’re doing a fine job when things could be improved if you just look around at what others have done.
1. Everything in reach. Ever had surgery? There’s a reason that surgeons don’t roll into an operating room with a Kennedy box filled with scalpels, speculums and sponges. If you want to work efficiently, you should have all your tools under your eyeballs.
After working in lots of shops with a wide variety of arrangements, I have concluded that an optimal and realistic set-up is to have every tool – at most – one hand motion away from your eyeballs. Most of your tool set should be visible at all times. But the lesser-used tools can be one hand-motion away: Move a till to see a tool below.
Where it gets silly is where you open a door, pull out a drawer and slide an internal till to reach your nailset, which is actually in the drawer above…. If you have to think: In what drawer are my trammels? You have too many drawers or a memory that isn’t sharp enough for that approach.
For me, I have concluded that a floor chest is as close to the surgeon’s set-up as is possible. Other approaches that work equally well: Wall racks or open shelving that does not allow you to pile everything on top of or in front of other tools. The key word is visibility. You can’t grab it if you can’t see it.
2. Realistic protection. If you are off to repair the International Space Station, then your level of tool protection should be fairly insane. There aren’t many mil-spec tool stores in orbit. But for the rest of us, the enemy is not radiation or the vacuum of space.
Where does rust come from? No, I know you aren’t stupid. It’s a real question with a surprising answer. Yes, water will grab your poor iron molecules and create iron oxide (rust). So we need to protect them against humidity and direct contact with water.
But why do tools rust so quickly in the sea air? Humidity and salt. What is shocking is that salt is a problem even if you don’t live on the coast. Salt is frequently found in the dust floating around our houses. The salt settles on your tools and grabs some water from the air to have a rust party.
So wipe down your tools with an oily rag (any oil will do) and put them in a place where the dust and humidity can’t get them – a box of some sort.
Tool chests, wall chests and Tupperware are great at stopping both humidity and dust. Racks and open shelving are not.
3. Overall dimensions accommodate common tools. When I started studying traditional tool chests, I was amused at how many of them were almost the same size: 24” high, 24” deep and 38” long. After studying traditional tool storage, I found that the length – about 35” to 38” in most cases – was the most critical dimension. Without that dimension you can’t store a common handsaw that has a 26”-long blade and a 5”-long handle.
I’ve seen a lot of tool chests that can take only panel saws – shorter saws that were more commonly used by furniture-makers. If you want to go this route, that’s cool. You can make your chest a little smaller. But the trade-off is money. Panel saws – vintage or new – are always more expensive than the ubiquitous handsaw with a 26”-long blade.
If you decide to go with panel saws, then you have another hurdle to cross. If you make your tool-holding thingy less than 24” long then you will have trouble storing a jointer plane, the longest of the traditional handplanes.
The Stanley No. 7 jointer plane is 22” long, which is the bare minimum interior dimension I would ever consider for a chest or cabinet.
When I design a tool chest or cabinet for me or a customer, I stick with 34” long as the minimum dimension. Though the customer might not be interested in handsaws now, it’s only a matter of time.
Next up: Volume and mass.
— Christopher Schwarz