Chris Schwarz's Blog

Tool Chests for Ladies & Gentlemen

Though I like to work out of a full-size tool chest (38” x 24” x 24”), it’s obvious that a chest like that would be too big for a job-site carpenter or for someone who needs to do only household repairs.

So during the 18th and 19th centuries, ironmongers offered a range of tool chests for the professional cabinetmaker all the way down to the lady of the house, according to “Tools for the Trades and Crafts” by Kenneth D. Roberts.

So in 1855, you might buy the Joiner’s Tool Chest, a 36”-long chest made from pine and lined with oak. If you were a serious home woodworker, you might buy the House Tool Chest, a 24”-long pine chest lined with oak. Old catalogs also listed “Warehouse Tool Chests,” which could be 21”-26” long. And sellers carried “Gentlemen’s Tool Chests,” which could be anywhere from 15” to 17” long.

These chests were all available with a set of hand tools included in the price – everything from a jack plane, chisels, a glue pot, saws and gouges. With the larger chests, you had enough tools to actually build simple pieces of furniture. Some smaller tool chests would come with a multi-tool – a fancy handle with a variety of tools that would snap into the handle. You could switch between awl, chisel, gouge, saw and gimlet with just the press of a button.

For the December 2011 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine, Managing Editor Megan Fitzpatrick built a gentleman’s tool chest that is based on an example that I own. The chest I own was most likely built by its owner – some of the trim still bears imprints from its former life as a wooden fruit box. But the maker really wanted it to look like the fancier chests in the catalogs. He or she even applied a fake raised panel to the lid.

It’s a fun project to build for someone in your life who might have an interest in woodworking. You could knock the chest out in a couple days (it’s all nails and butt joints that are cleverly concealed).

And if you really want to give the recipient a push into the craft of woodworking, you could fill the chest with a small set of hand tools. Here’s one typical set from an 1855 book of tool engravings suitable for the gentlemen or “emigrant.” I wish I had this set when I started.

5 chisels (3/8” up to 1”)
Small and large hammers with cross-peens
Padsaw, 10” backsaw, 15”-long panel saw
4 gouges (3/8” to 3/4”)
A hatchet (every gentleperson needs a hatchet!)
Wooden mallet
Marking gauge
Nail pincers
6 gimlets
Glue pot and brush
Pliers
Jack plane and smoothing plane
Sliding bevel
Try square
Rasp, 2 files and sawfile
Oilstone in a box
2 spokeshaves
2’ folding rule
compass/divider
Iron crow (a small crowbar)
Drawknife
Striking knife
Three turnscrews

So be sure to check out the project in the next issue – it’s in the I Can Do That column.

— Christopher Schwarz

And if You Do Build the Chest for Someone…
Here’s a great (and inexpensive) idea for a book to give them: “Exercises in Wood-Working.” It’s a fantastic little book from 1889 that we reprinted last year (in hardcover and in the United States). It is an excellent place for beginners to start into the world of hand tools. I’ve done many of the exercises myself and often recommend this book (and it’s only $14.39). It’s available in our store.

13 thoughts on “Tool Chests for Ladies & Gentlemen

  1. corgicoupe

    I saw an interesting tool chest today at an antiques mall. It was full size with a rudimentary saw till and 3 sliding shelves. The top and bottom were made of pine, but the four sides were laminated maple (I think) with alternating strips being shorter or longer by the thickness of the boards. The front, sides, and back were then joined in what were effectively finger joints. I’m contemplating purchasing, but have no idea what it would be worth. Oh, the top is frame and panel.

    1. tommyd

      “Deal” would have been a pine or fir which in the case of these tool boxes was painted (milk paint?)with an interior made of oak.Deal was no doubt less costly than oak.

  2. Bill Lattanzio

    I would like to see a chest that would be small enough to take with when going to woodworking classes. I try to take 2 or 3 a year especially being that I’m a beginner. It would carry your basics: chisel set, Jack, Jointer, and block plane, dovetail and carcase saw, marking guage, mallet, rasp, sharpening stone, possibly brace and bits. Something bigger than a tool tote but half the size of a tradtional chest. Possibly the size of one of those Craftsman tool boxes with the inset drawers that’s portable. I’ve thought about designing one myself with a dovetailed case and a nice tote. Some starting points on the design would sure be helpful though.

    1. woodcanuck

      Bill,

      You might find Tom Fidgen’s Cabinetmakers Toolchest is close to what you need. It is from his book ‘Made by Hand’ (which is a great book by the way). I’m planning on building something similar for classes and for carting back and forth to the cottage.

      http://www.theunpluggedwoodshop.com/made-by-hand/project-1

      The link provides some of the detail, but reading the chapter in which he builds it shows you how much more really went into the design. It can be used as a portable mini-workbench for small joinery through the use of some really clever design elements.

      Ian

      1. Bill Lattanzio

        Thanks, I checked it out and it looks like it will work. I will most likely modify the plan(I very rarely actually follow plans) but the ideas are all there. It looks like a good December/January project. Thanks again!

  3. Gary Roberts

    Ken Roberts, for whom I have the utmost respect, having met him and discussed his books back when Richard Crane was in business (blatant name dropping), was, as with many of the researchers of his day, subject to the as yet inadequate fund of knowledge concerning early tools and trades. Some perspective on the Gentleman’s Tool Chests and other manufactured chests might help here.

    It’s safe to say these tool compendiums were marketed to the newly moneyed middle class who needed to outfit country and city homes, to show that they could pursue the acceptable leisure activities of the day and that they had the cash to buy expensive sets instead of piece by piece. No deal box for this people. Fancy looking veneer and inlay was the thing.

    The tool sets were selected to look good, to appear complete and as if the buyer knew what he was doing. The actual user of the tools most likely had his own set or the bought set went to the son of the house who might have read of Ebenezer. Those few extant sets show middling quality tools rather than trade quality tools.

    The larger tool chests were most likely marketed to the factories and warehouses that needed to fit up numerous workstations rapidly. No self-respecting tradesman would show up on a job site with a bought chest for his own tools. If the tools belonged to the employer, the employer had to supply the chest, wall hung or floor.

    This is a generalization based on photographs and written descriptions, not an absolute. It’s just a note to keep in perspective that marketing of goods was as focused then as it is now.

  4. jakobhenriksen@yahoo.com

    Chris.

    How about designing a wall hung hand tool cabinet and make the plan available for sale? I have your book “Handplane essentials” and have seen the cabinet in there – however – I would like to include saws, chisels, bevel gauges etc. It doesn’t have to be Studley’s but a nice wall hung tool cabinet made with and for hand tools.

    1. corgicoupe

      Something to consider? Modify a wall-hung tool cabinet that could also be transported to a woodworking class. Being taller and thinner than a chest would permit carrying a couple of saws and being more selective about large planes. The first step would be to compile a list of tools that are usually required at most every class and then add a “creative space” for when the instructor requests an unusual tool. Chris’s use of the french cleat for that wall cabinet makes it ideal for transporting.

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