Chris Schwarz's Blog

Rethinking the Traditional Tool Chest

When it comes to most things in woodworking, I’m an easy-going guy.

But not with tool chests.

I’m OK if you make your sliding dovetails with a router. I’m just Jim Dandy if you sand, scrape or plane your finished surfaces – we all end up at the same place (with differing amounts of debris in our nostrils). You can cut your tenons with a tenon jig, dado stack or multi-router. You won’t hear me complain.

But I’m adamant about the superiority of tool chests.

I’ve been working out of a traditional tool chest since 1997, and I did everything I could to resist it. Before I built my first chest, I built a wall rack. Then I built a wall cabinet based on an old Stanley design. Neither the rack nor the cabinet were as capacious or convenient as the simple tool chest I built based on an 18th-century design.

At the time, I wasn’t expecting the chest to be the answer to my prayers. It was a box to store stuff – nothing more. But after years of kicking the thing and reaching into it to grab the tool I needed, I began to understand things about tool chests that aren’t easy to explain with words.

Their design transcends rational thought. They are like an ark that carries something more than mated pairs of every living animal. They carry the ability to shape the environment around us – to change the future.

After I built my first chest I tried to deny its superiority. I built several wall racks. Then I made a beautiful tool cabinet. And I made even more racks in the window above my workbench. But my old tool chest was always right at my left hand. It held everything (and then some). It protected every tool from dust. I’ve never pulled a tool out of my chest and found it spotted in rust. That’s a big deal. I’ve had tools go to ruin that were wiped down and stored in the special “plane socks.” But tools in my chest have always stayed clean.

Why? In the end, who really cares why? The tools stay clean. They honestly and really do. I want to know why, but in the end I am just grateful that they are as pristine as the day they were made, even though they are 12 years old (or older).

In the December 2011 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine I have an article on how to design a good tool chest. It’s an OK article, but it doesn’t address they fundamental and crazy advantage of tool chests – that they are the ultimate vault for the objects that allow you to build anything.

I don’t expect to convince the tool cabinteers or the wall rackers that they should build a tool chest. They have made their choice, and they can write their own articles or blog entries. But me? I have many long years invested in trying to snuff out the idea that tool chests are irrelevant to a 21st-century woodworker. I can’t. So I won’t.

— Christopher Schwarz

Want to explore tool chests in a deep way? I spent more than two years probing the historical and physical record of tool chests and their contents. The results changed the direction of my woodworking (and my career). You can read all about this in my latest book “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” available in ShopWoodworking.com. Click here to begin your journey.

31 thoughts on “Rethinking the Traditional Tool Chest

  1. ranger100

    Hello Chris!

    Thank you for writing the article on the “Traditional Tool Chest”. It was very good.

    Woodworking is a craft and art form. We each have to choose what we like and what works for us. There is no right and wrong in personal taste. I see some furniture designs and styles that I can’t stand and make me sick. I see other styles that resonate deeply with me. To each his own. Personally I don’t want do work in shop that looks like “a store”.

    My good tools I want protected, organized and accessible.

    I’m wondering how I can access the original other article that you wrote, I think in 1998?

    Your Tool Chest resonates with my tastes. That article will inspire many!

    Sincerely,
    Ranger100

        1. Megan Fitzpatrick

          I’ll see what we can do – but that one may predate electronic files…I’ll have to check. But I’m sending you a scan (which we may also post if all other avenues fail).

  2. corgicoupe

    Although not mentioned in the article, you show a lock for the chest in the book (pg 149). My vintage chest came sans lock, and I would like to put one in for completeness. Where do I start looking for a supply of them?

  3. rockyferraro

    Hi Chris,

    Great article in the December issue on tool chests.

    I noticed your had casters.

    Any tips on which casters to use and how to mount them?

    Thank you

    Rocky

  4. tsstahl

    I believe Thomas Edison is responsible for the death of the tool chest.

    Artificial lighting created unprecedented wall space in shops. The need for natural light to do the work necessitated unobstructed large windows/openings. Wall racks and such are a hindrance to lots of good clean light (hey, go with the nostalgia here).

    I have no scholarly basis for this assertion. However as a lad visiting family in appalachia, I spent a lot of time with ‘the menfolk’ in workshops. They all had large windows (glassed if they were lucky) with nothing above the sill line to obstruct the light.

    A workshop for a farm that has neither electricity or mechanization is Oz and Neverland all rolled together for a visiting ten year old.

  5. markholderman

    Chris, I just ordered your Anarchist Tool Chest book and have been seriously looking at reducing my “machines” and working more with hand tools. I haven’t yet set up my garage shop and was planning on the “racks and cabinets” approach, but I may hold off until I read your book. Do you think a good chest would be enough to replace all the stuff hung on the walls (hand tool-wise)? Mark

  6. Jim McCoy

    Hi Chris,
    I thoroughly enjoyed the ATC and really appreciate you putting into words the feelings I’ve had my entire adult life in such an eloquent and straightforward way. Even though I’ve been working wood with power tools (and some hand tools) for a long time I feel like a newbie as I move towards a more hand tool based approach. This new learning curve has been rewardingly steep and your books and DVDs have helped emmensly.

    I don’t think I’m interested in joining the debate about chests, cabinets, racks, or whatever. I want to build a tool chest because, at the level I’m currently at, it looks like a good challenge and an excellent way to further hone my hand tool skills, not to mention it looks like fun. When I build it I will try it out and see if it suits me. Even if it doesn’t I believe it will have been a worthwhile investment. But my guess is that I will like it because, hey, you’ve been right about most everything else.

  7. Derek Cohen

    Hi Chris

    I have both your book and DVD, and they have left me with a question that I’ve been dying to ask you for a while …

    Do you use the tool chest to store ALL your tools and, if not, where does the excess go? For example, the DVD did not show all the planes you use, just the jack and a block plane, as I recall. Where was the jointer (LN #8 I believe), shooting plane (LN #51), and I think you alo have a LV LA Jack? Is there space for them in the chest? Where do you store the Miller’s mitre box (perhaps that goes under the bench) and where the mitre saw? I do not recall these tools being mentioned in your book, and I wondered what happened to them as I recalled the joy you shared after purchasing them.

    A corollary that follows is whether a tool chest is intended for all tools, or whether it is intended for only specific tools. Again, I do not recall whether this point was discussed in the book.

    Regards from Perth

    Derek

    1. corgicoupe

      I think you need to think about the tool chest in light of chapter 2 of the book, where Chris is suggesting the minimum of tools required. We all probably have tools that are rarely used and could be stored elsewhere.

  8. corgicoupe

    Chris,

    I’m looking forward to that issue. I was intrigued by the idea after hearing you speak at Woodcraft here in Atlanta and motivated to build one after reading Anarchist’s Tool Chest. Then the reality of the time frame and my still very limited abilities brought me back to earth. Instead, I purchased an antique one last week that I’m told is probably from New England and built in the 1850s. Now I’ve got to make a bunch of decisions about modifications. It’s full-size at 24″x24″x40″, but only has two tills that are the same size. Makes it difficult to get the lower one out because it is trapped by the runners for the upper shelf. And, the saw till was built to ride on the same runner as the lower shelf, leaving a lot of dead space below it. Build a new saw till that rests on the floor? Add a third shelf? Resize the lower shelf? Each choice has an impact on the next choice, so I just sit in the garage looking at it and waiting for a revelation.

    1. Christopher SchwarzChristopher Schwarz Post author

      I’d try working out of it as-is before you start altering it. I almost never take the sliding trays out of my chests unless I’m doing some demo to show construction details.

      The chest and your work will tell you what needs to be changed. you might like all that acreage at the bottom of the chest.

      1. corgicoupe

        I had considered that possibility and discarded it as escapist. However, your comments have nudged me back to that position, and that is what I plan on doing. After all, the original owner must have had a reason for designing it that way. Thanks for your help.

  9. MarkBrooks

    Let me just preface this by saying that I am completely new to woodworking. And by new, I mean I am still planning out my first project (my bench). I have spent the last several months perusing the internet, reading blogs, watching videos and just trying to get a handle on where to begin this journey.
    Most of the comments that dismiss the idea of working from a tool chest seem to dislike the idea of having to bend over to get tools or banging your knees into it when moving around the shop.
    My question for those nay-sayers is, “Is it considered taboo to elevate the box on a stand?”
    It was also my first inclination to not want to look towards the floor for my tools, but it wasn’t more than a nano second later that I told myself, that if I were to work from a tool chest in my shop, I would somehow elevate the chest to make life easier.
    I should also admit that I am 6’6″ and many of my thoughts are based on my height. (which furniture to buy, which seat to choose on an airplane, etc.)
    Seems simple to me. I would love my second project to be an “elevated” tool chest. Thanks Chris!

    1. Gary Roberts

      Mark, there is no one answer. There are as many answers as there are questions, which someone said some hundreds of years ago. Do whatever you will and make whatever suits you. If you want to be a social anarchist, that would be true to the spirit. To follow a particular path in order to fit a given mold would be contrary and counter productive. Have fun and don’t fret about it. A toolchest is only a container for holding tools, it’s not a statement of purpose.

      Gary

    2. Christopher SchwarzChristopher Schwarz Post author

      I elevated my second tool chest (which Megan purchased from me) on a stand for many years and worked out of that from home. Works fine.

      Good luck with first steps into the craft.

      Chris

      1. MarkBrooks

        Thanks Chris! I look for your blog posts almost everyday. Your approach to the craft, has inspired me more to jump in to the more traditional form of woodworking. And, I really can’t thank you enough.

        Mark

        1. Megan Fitzpatrick

          True – but I need to build the ATC or something close to it (and wear heels in the shop, I guess). Chris’s second tool chest is considerably smaller than the one he’s using now…and my tool collection has grown considerably larger in the last couple years.

    3. Bernard Naish

      Mark,
      Charles Hayward describes a chest like Chris and says “It is often an advantage to fit a tool chest of the kind on a stool, or stand, so the top may be raised to table height (say 2’6″). Such a stool can be made using legs 6″ by 2 1/2″ square and rails 2 1/2″ by 1 1/2″. The rails will be tenoned in and braced at the corners. Over-all size may be 3 ft. by 22 in., the chest being held with a few screws through the bottom so that it may be removed at any time.”

      So that it is how it was done early in the twentieth century. Why not try it and tell us all how it works out.

  10. jimithing616

    This is somewhat on topic and off topic at the same time. (I like to make sense… especially at 2am in a seedy Montana Motel)

    Anyway, point is, I saw an EXACT (down to the sliding compaartments and what not) tool chest like your Chris. It was at an Antique shop in Minnesota, not far from my home town. It is probably, by the shop owners best guess, a late 18th, early 19th Century design. (American I would assume)

    anyway, I do not have pictures, but I would have bought it had it not been like. well I forget, but it would have had to been full of tools to pay what they wanted for it (I think it was $1,000) to put that in prospective, that is 100,000 rubies, or 5,000,000 yen I believe (Don’t quote me on that)

    So if you want to buy it…

  11. Dean

    I can’t think of any valid reason a tool chest shouldn’t be the first choice in storing hand tools. However, there are some good reasons for wall mounted tool cabinets and wall mounted tool racks. Most have been listed in the comments. Like others, since my future hand tool shop will be a workbench off of the end of my bed in my bedroom, I’m restricted on space. That is, what little floor space I have I need for working at the workbench. However, I do have a decent amount of wall space above the future workbench.

    I’m debating between a wall mounted cabinet and a tool rack. A cabinet would require more cost and effort to construct, but it can be left open for ease of access while one is working and closed for dust control. However, I’m thinking more about a wall rack so that all of the tools (yet to be purchased or acquired) can be easily seen and reached for (as the wall cabinet), but also easier and less expensive to make. As one poster commented, “…their home is eye-level in front of you.”

    I did find a wall rack that I think is the one I want, after looking at many wall racks. It was published in the American Woodworker (apologies to Popular Woodworking). However, unless you happen to have issue #138 (Oct/Nov 2008) the link below has a version of the AW tool rack that one person built a little differently (just scroll down to see all the pictures).

    In regard to dust, I plan on mounting a canvas cover over the tool rack. It would be secured at the top of course, but I would hem in a long dowel at the bottom of the canvas. When I want to start working at the bench, I would roll up the canvas and lift the long dowel onto a couple of hooks (wood or metal) to hold the canvas out of the way while I worked. When done I would recover the tool rack. As far as rust goes, I’m still cogitating on that matter.

    http://www.woodshopics.com/html/tool_rack_0.html

    One poster talked about a weak back, and issues with stooping over to retrieve tools. I think a low roll around stool would resolve that. A small roll around stool will typically fit under something to be out of the way when not in use. I know Chris’ tool chest is on casters and does elevate the tool chest a bit. Chris also mentions that one of the tool tills can be used to transfer tools to the workbench top for use as needed. You can always get one of the hydraulic lifts from Harbor Freight and elevate the chest for use. :-) That idea is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it could probably be done if someone really wanted to pursue the idea. I can’t remember, but I think Chris posted something about putting legs on the chest to elevate it. I imagine that casters could still be mounted on the ends of the legs.

  12. Bill Lattanzio

    I love the idea of a tool chest. I have a tool rack above my bench for my chisels and saws and another under my bench for my planes. They do not protect from dust and certainly not from rust. I actually have two minor problems with tool chests. Firstly they are big and my shop is at the back of my garage so there isn’t alot of extra space. I know I could make a smaller chest but that would kind of defeat the purpose of a chest to hold ALL of my tools. If I’m going to build one I want everything in it. Secondly, I would want it to be off the ground and able to roll around the shop. I’ve thought of making a small stand with casters so I don’t have to stoop. I don’t have what I would call a bad back, but it isn’t great. I’ve herniated discs and torn a muscle in the past so I don’t think it’s going to improve with age.
    Still, I’ve heard people say that tool chests are a thing of the past, in fact from many of the same people who’ve never used a hand plane. But they are hardly more irrelevant than any other system of storing tools, including cabinets and wall racks. Maybe it’s because you can’t buy a tool chest in a store? Maybe building a tool chest means a little bit more? (maybe somebody will get the reference)

  13. BLZeebub

    I have toyed with the idea of building one ever since seeing Duncan Phyfe’s chest at Williamsburg. I have the book on Benjamin Seaton’s chest too and have absorbed it as well. The only annoying part of the chest is having to stoop or otherwise bend over to retrieve the tools. Still that is no real caveat only a nit-pik. I could make a trestle to hold it up for a more convenient height. But wouldn’t that turn it into a cabinet? Hmmm…..

  14. HughReeves

    As a new woodworker I think a chest would be a disadvantage to me. My tools do indeed get dusty on my wall racks but they are all in my line of site. I often have to experiment with various tools to see what will work well for a job. I am sure once I gain the experience to know immediately the right tool for the job, a chest would be a better choice. Also, once you are mid-project, don’t your tools end up strewn about everywhere? To my eye, it is easier to put up tools up as you work if their home is eye-level in front of you. Interested in your thoughts as I try to imagine what my dream future workshop will look like.

  15. Mitch Wilson

    Chris, the problem with your perspective is that you are still a young whipper-snapper. Your knee is not one misstep away from a full joint replacement and your spine has not had two intimate sessions with the neurosurgeon. (Can you say “Ygor”?) For me, having a really spiffy Glen Huey designed tool cabinet at waist level and a pegboard above it with most of the rest of my tools at eye level is vastly superior. The small vintage tool chest sits below these for those infrequently used items and all of these are the same two steps away from me as are yours. I suspect that your attitude will change as the circle game goes round and round.

  16. Frank Strazza

    Chris, after attending your seminar at WIA entitled 12 rules for traditional chests, I was absolutely convinced I needed to go home and build a traditional chest just like yours! Thank you for doing the research and inspiring the rest of us. Right now I have a nice tool chest I work out of, machinist style with drawers etc. that I built to house my tools. Needless to say, I have started my traditional chest patterned after yours, we will see, I think I am going to like it!

  17. AAAndrew

    I have to say, starting as a tool chest doubter, you’ve almost got me convinced. I’ve been reading the ATC and even before I started reading it, reading about it, and looking around my shop, has convinced me that I need to reduce the number of tools I have. I have a small shop and when I can’t move around, it’s difficult to feel comfortable in it. i guess it’s a process. First, admit you have a problem. Second, realize you need to reduce tools. Third, realize the best way to store them is a tool chest. I’ve made it through two steps. Not sure if I’ll completely succumb to the third. I still think a hanging rack for my chisels and another for my layout tools will still be a part of my workshop. But I’m willing to be proven wrong.

    First your workbench book lead to me making a massive and wonderful Roubo bench. Now the ATC. Again, causing me to rethink what I need. Thanks.

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