In Shop Blog, Techniques

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I’ve hauled my tool chest all over the United States and Canada, and I remain impressed – deeply impressed – by how it has handled all the miles.

I’ve even dropped it from a height of 36” – fully loaded – onto concrete. One corner of the chest’s dust seal splintered a bit, but the case took the abuse and looks all the better because of it. So I wouldn’t change a thing about the joinery – dovetails, dovetails and more dovetails.

But not everyone has to hump a tool chest across international borders and down narrow stairwells. So for those of you who might build a chest that will see a only cushy life in your shop (“Look, Biffy, here’s my bon-bon drawer”), here are some thoughts about how you can make the chest easier to build.

Simplify the Skirts
One of the most time-consuming parts of building the chest is fitting the three dovetailed skirts and seals around the carcase and lid. There is a lot of fussy layout, and your carcase has to be square.

Simple glued miters will not survive. I know this from my first tool chest from the 1990s.

Instead, consider cutting miters for the lower shirt and reinforcing the joints with screws. Drive the screws through the miters from both directions and fill the counterbores with water putty – I’ve seen this strategy work in some old chests.

For the top skirt and the dust seal, I still recommend dovetails. These areas of the chest get the snot beat out of them.

If you don’t want to use screws, consider reinforcing the miter with a loose tenon (such as a Domino), or even a biscuit or splines. Anything will help.

Dumb down the Dovetails
If you aren’t up for the 100-plus hand-cut dovetails in this chest, consider using finger joints at all the corners. You can make these on a table saw (with a stack dado) or with a router. I built my first chest with finger joints, though that wasn’t my decision to make.

I have to say that my finger joints have endured 15 years of abuse. And with a coat of paint they look just fine.

Nail the Trays
Many old chests feature sliding trays that are nailed together. This is a good compromise if you need to get the chest up and running so you can get on with your life. You can always come back and rebuild the trays with dovetails when your kids are away at college. Or, perhaps your nailed or screwed-together trays will survive just fine.

In the end, I still recommend using only top-shelf joinery for a tool chest. And whenever I’ve built a chest during a woodworking class, I have refused to take shortcuts. But that’s the sort of pigheaded Arkansan that I am. And this reminds me of my favorite scene from “Life of Brian.”

Brian: “Look, you’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody. You’ve got to think for yourselves. You are all individuals.”

Crowd: “Yes, we are all individuals.”

Brian: “You’re all different.”

Crowd: “Yes. We are all different.”

One man: “I’m not.”

Second man: “Shh, shh.”

— Christopher Schwarz

This week, I am teaching a class on how to build my tool chest at Kelly Mehler’s School of Woodworking in Berea, Ky. The chest is from my book, “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest.” I’ll be posting video and photos from the class this week, so be sure to check up on our progress through the week.

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Showing 6 comments
  • phoneman

    Chris, good suggestions. However, I think changing the joinery would lessen the value of the chest building experience. Part of the value of building such a tool chest is the learning experience. This shouldn’t be something built hurriedly. Such a project is a fine opportunity to learn and hone one’s skills. Why short circuit the process?

    Those in a hurry will probably use milled 3/4 stock and a dovetail jig or nails and glue. For a working carpenter, the chest is no time/cost match for a run to the local Sears store. That’s not a criticism; just a statement.

    By the way, I have the Anarchist book and DVD. Both highly recommended. I won’t be building a chest for an unusual reason. I have inherited my great great grandfather’s tool chest. It is slightly smaller than the chest you built, but otherwise quite similar. I like the idea of working out of a tool chest which has been in my family since the 1850s. Your book is a valuable reference for me.

    My great great grandfather lived in New Hampshire and also developed land in Iowa he had inherited from his father’s service in the War of 1812. I don’t know if he travelled with the chest. It has survived well.

    I enjoy your blogs; keep up the good work.


  • 12strings

    To simplify construction for my chest, I simply made the dovetails slightly bigger…and made the pins MUCH bigger (Klaus style). You’re going to pain over them, right…who needs tiny pins? This significantly cut down on the number of dovetails…I think I had 6 tails per corner for the carcass.

  • Bill Lattanzio

    I’ve always thought that cutting dovetails was easier than making a box joint. But then again I have very little experience with box joints so it may be worth a try.

  • bsddude

    How do you secure the drawers and contents when you travel? It seems like the drawers don’t have any way to keep them from sliding back and forth nor do planes and saws have any way to secure them from bouncing up and down. Also how do you keep the planes and other stuff in the bottom from banging around into each other (fitted trays)?

  • xMike

    I like the picture of the tool chest. It seems to have …a something….an inner glow perhaps. It seems….well, it seems .. enlightening! Nah! that’s silly. Shhh. Shhh. 🙂

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