Chris Schwarz's Blog

Screw this Anarchist’s Tool Chest Stuff


I’ve now built more than a dozen traditional tool chests entirely by hand. Hand-cut dovetails. Hand-cut mouldings. Hand-cut shiplaps and beads. Hand-cut blah blah blah.

These chests take me about 40 to 50 hours of pedal-to-the-metal work to get ready for finish.

Today, I built the entire shell and lid of a chest in less than five hours. The secret? Screws, of course.

When it comes to building a chest, I prefer the old methods. But not everyone can spend a month of Sundays building a chest to protect their tools. In some climates, their tools might be piles of rust by the time they finish building a chest.

And so I have reluctantly spent the last few weeks designing a chest that uses home center materials, home center joinery and only 16 hours of shop time to complete. To be a success, it had to function just like a traditional chest. It had to look like a traditional chest. But it had to be built with tradition shackled and gagged in the trunk of my Toyota.

The entire process is being filmed at F+W Media Inc. for a forthcoming DVD.

In the meantime, here are some details about the project that I think are interesting:

1. It requires one sheet of 3/4” shop-grade birch plywood and one sheet of 1/2” shop-grade birch ply. These make the carcase, lid and sliding trays.

2. The skirts and dust seals are made entirely out of one 12’-long 1×12 of some solid wood.

3. The case is assembled with No. 8 1-1/4” screws, plus some finish nails and glue.

4. The required tool list is shockingly small.

5. Most shocking is how quickly the thing goes together. As one female friend would say: It’s faster than a hormonal teenage boy.

Of course, skeptics will say that I am building something that will not last. To which I say: poppycock. The construction methods I am using are taken directly from historical chests from my personal collection. And these chests are at least 150 years old and have been beaten like a filthy rug.

Yes, I will always prefer dovetails and the mortise-and-tenon joint. But not everyone has the time to do this. And if I had to choose between having a home-center chest or no chest at all, the answer is simple.

— Christopher Schwarz

If you want to know how I build a tool chest, you can check out the many videos and blog entries I’ve written on the topic here on the blog. A good place to start is here.


40 thoughts on “Screw this Anarchist’s Tool Chest Stuff

  1. rnorman33

    Looking forward to this one. Read ATC twice now. Love it but don’t have the time for such a venture though I try to apply the philosophical concepts. My 6 year old son loves spending time in our 10×10 wood working shed and can handle a block plane like a champ. I love teaching him hand tool work becasue safety and supervision is easier. The Mrs doesn’t give a rat’s tail about how complicated the joinery is, the box was made just for her by us and that makes it special.

    We get by with a plywood workbench and a 5 gallon bucket for a saw bench and have a blast doing it.

  2. milesthom

    It’s like the tool rack I cribbed from a PW article, and built last summer. Schwarz & co used 1/4 saw white oak, mine’s construction grade spruce. The important thing is that my tools are where I use them, not buried on cheap metal shelving, like they used to be.
    Fine furniture? Nope.
    Practical and useful? Oh yes.

    Plywood, pocket screws, etc. for a good utility box, that I can customize for my use? Bring it on!

    1. corp-mule


      If you don’t want to build the “good” tool box …or buy the plastic one … I’m sure you can figure out how to slap together something that’ll just do “for now.”


      I hold a great deal of respect for Mr Schwarz. My comments are not intended to be a slap to him and, I hope they aren’t taken as such.

  3. Bill Lattanzio

    Great idea/post. I would rather make the traditional anarchist’s toolchest and use it to store blankets and such and make your new version for storing tools. While I’m not prepared to just throw my tools into any old milk crate; I do like my shop furniture to look decent, but I would rather spend 10 weekends worth of shop time making a piece of furniture for my actual house, not the garage.

  4. Clay Dowling

    How does the weight compare with one built out of pine? While I love dovetails, my biggest interest in a tool chest is utilitarian. I’ll be loading this thing into and out of my truck to work on site, and I’m not a fan of heaving extra weight around if I don’t have to.

    1. fortrat

      Clay, knowing birch ply the finished product is undoubtedly a lot heavier than one built with pine. A solution here for weight might be to buy some good grade pine boards at the home center, and glue them up into the size panels you need for lid, carcase, etc. It will add some time, but definitely cut the weight, and you could then build it pretty much like Chris’ example

  5. jagriz

    I built a scaled up Shaker style blanket chest, with a drawer on the bottom, out of cabinet grade ply that was edged with solid poplar and painted with milk paint. Normally it would have been a solid wood / hand cut dovetail project but the intended use for the piece was as a firewood / kindling box. Everyone involved in the decision making knew it was going to be trashed over time and not given good care. The same experience was had by most of the old tool chests I’ve seen over the years so I’d think ply is a reasonable alternative.

    On another note, what is that tool chest / cabinet on the work bench in the background? I have need for something like that on one of my side benches…

  6. James Vroman

    I still have to say that the more I look at the Baby Dutch chest the more it appeals to me

    I think Megan needs to do a version of it for the “I can do that” section

  7. woodworkjay

    I’ve appreciated your work and writing on your four tool chests (ATC, Traveling ATC, Dutch, and Little Dutch). As I need to build one myself, this ply version may be the key to its realization. A few questions though.
    What are the comparative overall (case only) dimensions for the four tool chests as they appear to hold virtually the same tool set? Will their comparative dimensions, and their respective tool lists (as in your ATC book), be identified either in an upcoming PW article or online here (or at LAP)?
    Second, in your (ATC) book you’ve made a point to address keeping dust out of the chest with the lid’s seal. How is this concern addressed with the two dutch chests?

  8. xMike

    Allright! The Schwarz who got me moving into serious woodworking in the first place! Welcome back, Chris.
    Great post.
    Re making a sturdy box out of plywood, because I’ve read a hundred statements that glue onto and screws into plywood end grain start great but don’t have any lasting holding power, I build plywood boxes that have to be moved or take abuse by including a long 3/4″x3/4″” screw & glue block running the length of every long seam. This produces a very strong and square box, very quickly. What has been your experience with plywood and joint strength.


  9. shannonlove

    I couldn’t agree more. There is an old (30+ years) programmer’s axiom:

    80% functionality now is better than 100% functionality never.

    Waiting for perfect can be self-defeating, especially when the project has a very practical purpose such as a toolbox intended for real use.

    All my life, I’ve had to struggle against a fussy desire for perfection that often became nothing but procrastination. It has slowed me down in everything from programing to my woodworking/sawdust-production. I have after many years trained my self to grit my teeth and bang something imperfect out just to start.

    Besides, I find I often need to create several iterations of a project to get it right anyway. I’ve even started building smaller projects like tool holders/organizers in sturdy cardboard just to test how they work before committing to even the roughest wooden model.

    Execute first, polish later. Get SOMETHING done with the time and materials available and worry about cranking out the heirloom later.

  10. ffhyatt

    I built my prototype that way. It sits in the back of my truck holding all my hand tools & keeping them dry. In my experience, the plywood handles a beating far better than any hardwood & when it does get a new ding? Who cares? It’s just plywood.

    Whether form follows function or vice versa nothing follows snobbery but the Joneses

    1. gumpbelly

      “Whether form follows function or vice versa nothing follows snobbery but the Joneses”

      Awesome statement. At the end of the day, it`s a wooden box, into which one puts their tools. I don`t keep mine in the living room, so it`s form seldom enters into my consciousness, however it`s function does daily. Possibly we should all upload photos of us standing next to our boxes. My guess is those who have their pinkie up in the air about it must be traditional, couldn`t produce a photo.

  11. Dazzzle

    Echos of my bench building experience,workmate + plwood, magazine project bench built with home centre materials, still in use as a potting bench, John Brown Chairmakers bench in Spruce, Nordic Redwood, still looking as good as the day it was finished 20 years ago.
    We should not be too sniffy, lets get people interested, I think this is a great way to start, its functional and probably more practical than a wall cabinet set up

  12. Kenny

    Looks like a comparison of fine woodworking and Ikea. A keepsake and a throwaway. I guess to each their own.

  13. Mark

    I assume we won’t be building one of these at Roy’s anytime soon.

    Phillips head screws (Spax?) of have you maintained some of your religion?

    1. Christopher SchwarzChristopher Schwarz Post author

      The counterbores will be filled by hardwood plugs. In the end, it will look almost identical to the traditional one.

      I am discussing pocket screws, biscuits, Dominos etc. as alternatives in the DVD.

  14. Popgun

    I am an, on a budget woodworker and built mine out of some good used plywood I got. Put it on a stand and I really like it. Hand tool all in one place. A dovetail hardwood chest would look better but it is real handy sitting at the end of my work bench, also out of used lumber.

  15. pmac

    Is the top an illusion of a frame and panel that is actually 3/4 in ply with 1/2 ply glued to the center? Hard to tell for sure from the pic on my computer screen.

    1. Christopher SchwarzChristopher Schwarz Post author

      Yup. The top is a lamination of a 3/4″ panel with a smaller 1/2″ panel in the center.

      You see this “fakery” all the time in tool chest construction. Almost as much as a “real” raised panel.

  16. villaggiowoodworks

    Yep, plywood, screws, a few bits of solid lumber and I had my very own ATC in a weekend. Chris even had it on his Lost Art Press Blog last summer. That chest protected all my tools during a cross country move and has allowed me to experiment with how to work out of a chest for very little up front cost and time. It’s easily the best thing I’ve ever built!

    At some point, I’ll build another chest out of solid wood with dovetails, but this first chest has already shown me what I need to change to make my next chest even better. This video will be a must have for anyone on the fence about working out of a tool chest!

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