Chris Schwarz's Blog

A Most Unusual Tool Chest


I’ve always liked artwork and woodworking pieces that were executed by someone with a good deal of talent but a lack of formal training. Some people call this “outsider” work, so I guess that makes a lot of us outsiders.

Recently, tool seller Patrick Leach sent me some photos of an interesting tool chest he bought years ago at auction. This chest straddles the line between folk art and practical woodworking. I think it’s a great piece of work.

The 19th-century chest is unusual in the way it is built and decorated. The shell of the chest is built in the style of… um … lots of strips and screws I suppose. I’ve not seen anything like it. Correction: I’ve not seen anything I like that is like it.

While the construction is interesting, it’s the ornament on this chest that sets it apart. All of the exterior and interior surfaces are embellished with parquetry of a joiner’s tool kit. The detail is quite remarkable. Plus, many of the surfaces are adorned with diamonds and other elemental shapes that suggest the maker was aware of other ornamented tool chests. Or had heard of them. Perhaps smelled them?

In any case, I’m not being snarky here. This stuff is what I have filled my house with. I love it.

So I’m going to shut up and let Patrick “Got me some 043s” Leach take over the conversation.

— Christopher Schwarz

I purchased this with my wife’s wedding money, sparing me of the usual wifey things like Wedgwood china, Waterford crystal, and Hummel figurines. My wife is a real catch – we went to a tool auction on the day after her wedding. All us tool guys should be so lucky!

The dimensions are 37″ wide, 28″ tall, 26″ deep. The lock is an early Yale, with 1861 and 1865 patent dates, so the chest is likely from the 1870s. I bought it at an auction in Brockton, Mass., a city formerly known for its shoe production.

It’s made of laminated ash and walnut; there are “stiles” at each corner and “rails” along each edge all of which are secured with roundhead screws arranged regularly to add some decorative appeal. The screws are not countersunk.

There are six handles for lugging it around. Either it weighed a few tons when stuffed with all the tools, or the maker planned to use it later as his coffin, curled up in the fetal position inside (it seems he never got around to dying so it was spared from that fate).

Most tool chests have drab exteriors; examples with exterior decoration, such as this one, are uncommon.

The real decoration, however, is in its full glory once the lid is lifted – a panoply of the typical Victorian-era carpenter’s tool arsenal is replicated using several species of wood inlaid into the trays, till covers and lid. Many of the inlays are then detailed to add some realism in case the viewer might be confused about what’s being represented.

The interior of the lid has a screwdriver, hammer and plane inlaid into a hinged panel that, when opened, reveals a shallow recess in which the carpenter stored his papers.

Within the chest proper are four sliding and removable trays, the topmost having a hinged cover
with its maker’s initials, “ALJ,” and some geometric details.

The four trays have fronts of alternating wood, again walnut and ash. The tray fronts have an Aikin-like tool handle, chisel, dividers, spool (for a chalk or plumb line), file, pocket knife, oilstone, sliding bevel, protractor, clamp and level.

The removable saw till has a cover with an oil can, screwdriver bit, and the two most-detailed tools: a try square where even the pins of the escutcheon are detailed and a marking gauge that is graduated in inches.

I’d like to say that I have this stuffed with tools, but that would be a lie. I have all my Matchbox cars and trucks (from when I was a kid) stored in it. It’s been a real chore to keep the tool model (Ed note: Patrick’s son, aka “The Boy”) out of it as he’s got a keener nose than a bloodhound’s when it comes to sniffing out hidden toys.

— Patrick Leach

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