The Great Tool Tray Debate

One of the great controversies of modern times, right behind “what’s the best media to sharpen tools on?” and “why can’t/won’t somebody make great tools for big-box store prices?” is the question of whether or not to include tool trays on a workbench. I have them on mine, but they’re unconventional – they are short and removable, and they live in the middle of the bench, not on the far side. In the article about building the bench, I talked about having a love/hate relationship with tool trays. There are some truly great things about tool trays, and at the same time there are some things that really stink. When the pluses and minuses are at the extreme ends of the spectrum it’s easy to jump on one end or the other and become a zealot for the stuff you like, or want to exterminate the things you don’t care for. My attitude towards tool trays hasn’t changed, but I’ve found some ways to minimize the bad and maximize the good.

The bench in the photo above looks like mine, but it belongs to one of the students who took a bench-building class with me last fall at Kelly Mehler’s woodworking school in Berea, Kentucky. When I teach, I try to get across what I was thinking as I developed the design, and how I adapted things to the way I work. My students were willing to travel to the dark and sometimes scary place called “what was Bob thinking”, and most of them made a change or two to my original design. Many of these changes were improvements, and the benches fit the users like tailor made suits.

Jay sent along these pictures last week, and I especially liked his approach to this particular tool tray. Here’s how he described it: “I customized one of the center tool trays. The two rows of longer slots provides a 1/2″ space, the
one row of shorter slots provides a 1/4″ space, for upright tool
holding.I also milled a shallow finger recess in the each end of each tray to make removal easier. You may be a tool tray hater, but wouldn’t it be nice to have the tools you’re working with held safely, right where you need them. And wouldn’t it be nice if you’re having an anti-tool tray day to flip the thing over and pretend it doesn’t exist.

Robert W. Lang
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6 thoughts on “The Great Tool Tray Debate

  1. Bernard Naish

    Rorbert, I was trained as a joiner by my Father who was trained by his Father who was trained by his Father hence the information I got about trays dated from at least 1860 and probably much earlier. As you know hand work joiners need to mortise window frames etc. laying across their English workbenches and across the trays. The chips removed from the mortise could not be swept to the floor because the style was in the way so they were swept into the CHIP TRAY to avoid them bruising the wood. Joiners can quickly plane a large pile of shavings and these were also swept into the chip tray as otherwise they were liable to get underfoot and upset the rhythm of their work. One of my tasks as a learner was to keep the tray and the floor clear and it was impressed upon me that I was to ensure that tools were NEVER left in the trays because otherwise they could be thrown away with the waste. Hence when I built my English workbench I included a removable waste tray both to make it easier to empty and also to allow clamps to be applied to the back edge of the bench. I also made a cover for it that extends the width of the bench that comes in handy when I am carving or assembling. I find that tools in use are best placed in racks close at hand. These racks can either be in a chest or a cabinet and as they are free standing they can be lifted out and placed at hand but not on the bench. Regards, Bernard Naish

  2. Scott Stahl

    Gah! a pox upon you! I’m building my new primary bench. I use the term ‘building’ loosely because I’m at an impasse on the tool tray question. I have a 9′ X 13" X 3" slab of ash waiting to either be cut in half and joined, or dressed to accommodate a tray.

    Now, I have even MORE points to consider before making a decision. However, in my experience, a plethora of choice is always better than a dearth. :)

  3. Bob Lang

    Thanks for the kind words Don. You and I should talk sometime about variations on this theme. Several of the guys in my class made the front section wider by a lamination or two, or three. They also pinned me down on my logic for the width of the trays in the original version. I was convinced that I had a specific tool that I used all the time that needed 6". Some smart-aleck asked "which tool was that" and I couldn’t find one. The trays would be a bit narrower and still be useful.

  4. Don Williams

    Bob

    An excellent alternative! In the past I have shared your ambivalence for the tool tray, and have finally arrived at a point of a conceptually similar but much less elegant solution.

    BTW the video is "must watch" for anyone interested in a high performance hybrid work bench. Which of course I am.

    Over the next couple of years I will be building perhaps as many as a dozen benches for myself and students, and yours will definitely be represented in the mix. I have a sneaking suspicion that it will become a favorite…

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