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During the last six years, I’ve built a lot of tool chests for customers. To many woodworkers, this might seem odd. Why not build one yourself? The answer is simple.

Why not build your own handplanes? Your chisels? Forge the steel for your tools? Mine the iron ore and learn to transform it into steel? We all have a point at which we’ll say: Someone else can do that job. And that point it is different for each person.

When a customer asks me to build them a tool chest or a workbench, my first response is this: You can build it yourself for a lot less, or you can buy a vintage chest or workbench and save a ton of money.

A 19th-century tool chest that is beautiful but suffers from lots of problems.

That statement is entirely true. But I the following statement is also true: Most old workbenches and tool chests are ragged out beyond belief.

I’ve inspected a ton of old tool chests and workbenches and the following things are true:

  1. If something slides, it will be jammed.
  2. If it screws, it will too loose or too tight.
  3. If it’s supposed to be flat, it will be twisted.
  4. If it is supposed to open, it will be falling apart or wedged tight.
  5. If it is supposed to move, it won’t.
  6. If it is supposed to be immobile, it will sway dangerously.

The sliding till on this chest ran on a brass rod. Despite this, the till jammed constantly.

My theory is that a lot of these problems are caused by abuse, not from careful use by a woodworker.

So the reason to build a new chest or a new bench is to own something that hasn’t been abused. Something that has been built to high standards (your standards). And something that you can break in gently and use for the rest of your life with ease.

That’s the allure of building a new chest or workbench. It will start off life as a perfect thing and can be gently broken in and used.

To be sure, that approach isn’t for everyone. But it is totally valid.

— Christopher Schwarz


P.S. Want to build a new tool chest? I have two videos you might like. One is on building a tool chest using modern methods and materials – quick and effective. The other video covers building a tool chest the old way – all dovetails.

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  • Johnjohnjohn

    I have a problem understanding the practicality of the tool chest.

    It seems to be more appropriate to hang your tools on the wall or in a cabinet on the wall. Rooting through a tool chest seems to be cumbersome an impractical.

    If however, your work was transient the chest would make more sense, but given its weight it would require wheels. Not casters but rather large wheels that could traverse rough or uneven terrain but i don’t see that as part of the design.

    I’m sure that in the past it had its practical function but it seems out of place in a modern shop.

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