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ShopCab1When I was a new woodworker in the early 1980s I was in need of a general-purpose shop tool and storage cabinet. I had recently completed a cabinetmaking course at the Los Angeles Trade Technical College and was eager to put my new skills to work.

At about the same time I signed on to a small group tour that would spend  a day with Sam Maloof in his shop. He lived and worked at his compound outside LA amidst acres of orange groves in Rancho Cucamonga. Need I say it was an inspiring experience! One of the many things I took note of that day was a storage cabinet Maloof had behind his table saw. He was known for using the saw as a workbench so the cabinet location was handy for his style of work. It was totally utilitarian and plain as dirt but I figured if it was good enough for Sam it was good enough for me.

So I built the cabinet you see above, based on my mental notes from the Maloof visit. His was different insofar as it had doors and mine was intended to have doors. I guess you could say 30 years on it’s still not finished. I’m not the ultimate procrastinator. I’ve concluded, or convinced myself, that door swings in a space-challenged shop is a luxury I can’t afford.

For my purposes, this cabinet has served me well. How well? Well enough that I stood the expense of moving it (along with my family, other household and shop goods) from Los Angeles to Ohio 20 some years ago. Good enough that I cut the bottom riser section off to get it down the basement stairs and into my shop at our last house, then cut out a chunk of the riser so it could straddle a hunk of foundation footer that arose from the floor.

I have a real relationship with old the piece. It’s like a close friend of 30 years. I know everything about it. I know exactly where to find everything, in spite of the fact that it appears rather disorganized. I’ve used the graduated drawers to hold the same categories of tools or supplies in the same order since day one. I have a history with it.

This cabinet will never be written up in a woodworking magazine. It’s just not pretty or exceptional in any way except to me. It doesn’t have a grand theory or historical rationale for its appearance and how it should be used. It’s no “Anarchist’s Tool Chest.” Yet, it could very well be the most useful thing I’ve ever made.

My grown son and I now share a shop space and that’s where the cabinet resides. He knows the contents as well as I do. After all, he’s been rummaging through it since he was a young boy.

We woodworkers often talk about building “heirloom” furniture that may be handed down to future generations. Here’s an example of a strictly utilitarian cabinet that was never intended to be such a thing yet seems to have made its first step in that direction. And it isn’t even finished.

– Steve Shanesy

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Showing 11 comments
  • themavericktexan

    I’m reminded of an episode of Top Gear (the Bolivia Special I think) where Jeremy Clarkson is comparing an old teddy bear from his childhood to the truck he’s driving, “I have a teddy bear. I’ve had it since the day I was born. One of its arms has fallen off, one of its eyes is missing, his head’s come off more times than I can mention. To you it would be worthless junk, but to me it means everything, and it’s the same story with this car.”

    It’s a similar sort of thing here.

    To put it another way: “If it’s stupid but works, it isn’t stupid.”

  • Steve-o

    What a great piece for out of the woodwork! Your tool storage is priceless in the utilitarian purpose it serves and the bond it created between you and your son.

    I just deleted the small novel about my dad’s old carpenter’s tote. Suffice it to say that shared function of an object ties many of us tighter to our loved ones more than a thing of me mere beauty.

  • John Hutchinson

    SketchUp? Details? Maybe I missed something, but I read this as a series of beautifully-written love stories. Where can I get a set of your plans for maintaining a relationship with a son?


    Hi Steve,

    On a similar note, I built a cherry wood gun cabinet for my dad when I was in 11th grade (1967). He had it and used until he passed when I was 27. My mom kept it for a long time, but eventually it came back to me. I don’t hunt so it just sat in the back room covered with an old sheet. When I retired in 2007, I cranked up my workshop in my one car garage and needed a tool cabinet. Not needing a gun cabinet, I decided to re-purpose it. It is great and has a history that I know very well. I also know where everything is in it as well. If you are interested, I can send you a picture, it sorta cool. My login shows my email address.

  • pmcgee

    Well made is well made, and pretty is different again. 🙂

  • djmueller1

    How about a Sketchup plan for the challenged among us? While it may not make it to the pages of PWM, it’s a great shop project, that has, as you note, a lot of life to it.

  • dndculp

    I now know what I’m going to be doing for the next few days. My shop is a smallish 1 car garage shared with shelves for COSTCO boxes of food and supplies and your storage solution fits so well. It won’t be the same, of course, but I have the perfect spot that is now occupied with various pegs and makeshift shelves.

  • peppersvnv

    I recently started a shop cabinet designed by Shannon Rogers of It will be a combination of utilitarian and handsome. I hope. Made of cheery with maple doors, lots of dovetails (I need the practice) and finished with many coats of Danish oil. The stock has been thicknessed with power tools ( shhh – don’t tell Shannon) but every other process will be by hand including final smoothing. Thank you, Shannon!! What a joy it is to work by hand!!

  • gumpbelly

    There are 2 definite camps when it comes to shop furniture. Those who fuss over looks and details, and those who do not. I`m of the later, however like you I do look for that blend that makes a piece of shop furniture a useful friend, and for that reason I find your heirloom quite attractive, doors or not.

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