I’ve seen a lot of vintage tool chests in my travels, and most of them have been made of pine. What kind of pine? Hard to say. Most pines look the same when they are covered in paint, dirt, grease and what looks like monkey dung.
But pine is not the only wood appropriate for a tool chest.
When you set out to choose a wood species, it’s best not to be dogmatic about the genus and instead try to get into the mindset of the pre-Industrial chest builder. Did they pick pine because it was anointed with the magical juices of Care Bear glands? Probably not.
Instead, pine was cheap, lightweight, widely available and strong enough for a tool chest.
So those are the same guidelines I would recommend you follow when picking a species for your tool chest. Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) is readily available only in a small section of North America. Is it awesome? Yes. Should you break your bank account trying to get it? Absolutely not.
I recommend you try to find any species that fits the above criteria. In most of North America, tulip poplar is an excellent choice for a tool chest. It is dirt cheap, available in wide widths and has a face for a paint brush (if you know what I’m saying).
Other pines would be suitable for a tool chest. Sugar pine is a good choice. In some parts of the United States (such as where I live) we are lousy with walnut. In the western states, take a look at alder. Heck, even basswood is strong enough for a tool chest.
What species should you avoid? Heavy woods (maple, yellow pine, insane exotics), ring-porous woods that are difficult to dovetail (ash and the oaks), pines that crumble (radiata). But despite that last sentence, I’ve seen fantastic tool chests made using all those species and they can do the job. But they wouldn’t be my first choice for a chest wood.
Bottom line: Don’t let the species of woods available in your area force you into making a crazy decision, such as buying Eastern white pine for $8 a board foot. Instead, look around you. Look to the skies – and I mean that literally. What trees are in your backyard?
— Christopher Schwarz
If you want to learn about the other specifications for a good tool chest, check out my latest book, “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,” available in Shopwoodworking.com with free shipping.