The 9 Principles of Hand Tool Storage, Part 3 - Popular Woodworking Magazine

The 9 Principles of Hand Tool Storage, Part 3

 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Woodworking Blogs
Tool Storage

If you plan your storage correctly, you can maximize limited space. Here I’m using a rolling cabinet as an outfeed table.

My kids – even the 18-year-old in college – do not want their meats to touch their starches or vegetables. And so we have divided plates for them – just like at the school cafeteria.

If they keep this habit up, I’m sure their weddings will be interesting, but I’m not one to mess around with their personal way of organizing their world. So this is my way of saying if you need to have a French-fitted spot for every one of your hand tools, go forth and go nuts.

However, if you are unsure about how to keep your tools organized, consider the pros and cons of French-fitting vs. the peas-mixed-with-turkey-and-taters approach.

Tool Storage

7. French-fitting, pros and cons. If you run a school or shop where people share tools, I recommend some sort of system where every tool has a designated spot, and it is easy to tell whether or not all the tools are accounted for. So the first advantage of French-fitting is that you will always have an excellent accounting of the tools.

The second advantage is that the tools will be protected. Not just the tools’ sharp edges, but also their bodies and handles. No more toolbox dings.

And the third advantage is that your tools will have a fixed location. Your combination square will always be in its velvet-lined womb – not below the auger bits or covered by coping saw blades.

The obvious disadvantage to French-fitting is that it takes up a surprising amount of space. It also requires a good deal of planning, plus a considerable amount of work and material.

All those are personal choices – it’s just time, space and wood.

But for me the primary disadvantage to the fitted approach is that it reduces flexibility. There are times that I want my carving tools easy to snatch. If I’m building a workbench, the drill bits need to migrate to the top of the pile. I don’t change the arrangement of tools on a whim, but things do creep around as my work changes.

It was only when I didn’t have this flexibility that I noticed it. In 1998, after making chisel racks for a tool chest, plus cubbies for my shoulder plane, block plane and drill bits, I bought a 1/16” chisel for installing locks. I didn’t have a place for the chisel, so I stashed it in another drawer until I could figure out how to re-do the rack.

I never re-built the rack. Instead, I piled any new chisel sizes on top of the old ones. It wasn’t ideal, but it did get me accustomed to the idea that edge tools could live in a tool chest while touching one another.

Soon after that, I began to research traditional tool chests, and I found that most of them didn’t have much in the way of French-fit compartments. While they had dedicated spaces for unwieldy tools such as a framing square or handsaws, most had open trays with few dividers and tool racks that weren’t dedicated to holding only one kind of tool.

Edge tools that needed to be protected were stored in the rack or in a tool roll. The other tools (squares, gauges, mallets etc.) could float in the open trays. Yes, they would get the occasional toolbox ding, but I could get a lot more of these tools into a small space. To me, it was worth it.

Tool Storage

8. The non-interference principle. When you build your first workbench, one of the primary urges is to fill the space below the benchtop with drawers, doors and what-not. Just like the Shakers did with some (but not all) of their workbenches. I freely admit I did this with a couple of my benches (here’s one). After all, I’ve never heard anyone say: “I have too much storage space.”

But those below-the-benchtop tool chests are frequently in the way of other woodworking chores. Many woodworkers forget to allow some space for the shafts their holdfasts. Or they make it impossible to clamp things to the benchtop with F-style clamps. Or they make it so you can’t have a board jack and hold wide boards on edge for planing. Or if you do have a board jack, it is blocking the drawers you need to get into.

So you get to store a bunch of tools that are frustrating to use.

Another common problem is putting your wall cabinet directly above your workbench. We had some of these cabinets at the first shop I worked in. Inevitably, their doors would be closed and there would be a huge piece of cabinetry on the bench when you needed a tool inside the cabinet.

Other tips: Drawers below a benchtop are almost always a bad idea. You’ll have something clamped down when you need something in the drawer. I’d rather lock the shop than the tool chest if possible – the keys for a chest are easy to lose. Flat-top tool chests attract clamps, project parts and junk.

Tool Storage

Here I’m using my tool chest to brace a workbench as I flatten its top with a jointer plane.

9. BONUS: Storage can serve other shop functions. While you need to keep your woodworking activities and your tool storage from interfering with one another, you also can have them work together at times.

A traditional tool chest can also serve as a sawbench, an assembly table and a nice place to sit while you do some close-up work at the workbench. Small tool chests can be used as stepstools to get to things that are out of reach, or you can put assembled carcases on top of them so you can plane down their joints or surfaces.

I use a rolling tool cart as an outfeed table for my table saw. I have a second rolling cabinet that holds my portable thickness planer. Because I’ve thought these things through (after many years of doing dumb things), they never interfere with my work – they only help it.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 16 comments
  • bobdutica

    Great set of principles. I just changed direction in my tool organization and storage with my geriatric tool chest .
    I love your books and enjoy your blog writing. I must say that with the volume of your writing combined with your woodworking you could be considered a “workaholic”. But, when you are doing what you love that’s the only way to live!

  • Shawn Nichols


    Do you have any shots of your portable planer cart?


    • woodwk

      Like Shawn, I’d like to see that planer cart. I can’t heft that thing around much longer, but need it up at a reasonable height.

  • gumpbelly

    “My kids – even the 18-year-old in college – do not want their meats to touch their starches”

    I’m guessing then, they do not know the joys of a properly made sammich, which of course is the quintessential mixing of meats, laid on starches. Yummmmm I’ll be eating their share.

    Personally I have been really enjoying this series. If you end up writing a book about what you are covering here I wouldn’t mind that either. Seems you’ve gotten yer knickers all in a twist based on some drivel a guy wrote, who doesn’t know that names are Capitalized. Have one of the expensive beers tonight, life is too short.

  • tailwagger

    Thanks Chris. This was helpful.


  • wesleyb

    As someone who’s only been dabbling in this hobby for less than a year so far, I’m enjoying this series, and waiting to learn about the flaws with the pegboard and shelving unit I use now. I know that I will need to develop something else before long, once my tool collection grows a bit.

    So far the pegboard has worked well for me, for the tools can be stored on it anyway. It is on the wall just behind me while I’m facing the bench. There’s something like 4 feet between the bench and it, so it’s not so close that I ever feel crowded, and it’s not so far that I can’t reach it without leaving the bench.

    I try to keep things that I use nearer to the parts of the bench I find myself using them at.

    As stated, I’m enjoying this series, and still new enough in my system that I’m completely willing to change things up as I hear good ideas.

    I firmly agree/believe that things were done particular ways in the past for a reason, and not being born into our professions, we have to work a bit harder to learn how and why our predecessors arrived at the way of doing things, especially when that system was seen repeatedly, unchanged much, for centuries.

    Keep it up!

  • deric

    PS. My grandson loves that English chest that I despise. I’m happy that he’s putting it to good use. Everyone is different.

  • apbeelen

    I’ve really enjoyed this series of posts. For a guy who likes a lot of tools (yes, I have two smoothers) and a very small shop, I need a place for everything so I have a place to work. I also need to have everything accessible quickly, since I don’t have much time to work. Its a constant search for the perfect balance as I get new tools that I think I need, and try to bang out projects at a speed which keeps my wife happy. I have a long shelf at eye level for all my moulding planes, all my bench planes are on a shelf under my bench, along with a few commonly used saws in a rack. I also have a relatively small chest with bits, layout tools, a chisel roll, and a few other tools in it. My most commonly used layout tools (folding rule and marking awl) are stored on a shelf right in front of my face. I’ve found that each tool I need is easy to get when I need it, and they often hang out on my bench with the other tools until I’m done with them, then they’re easy to put away. Since none of my planes have metal bodies, they don’t rust, and I occasionally rub some wax on my saws. Other than that, all the rustable tools are closed in the chests, so I haven’t had a problem in my non-climate-controlled shed in Michigan.

    Aside from the wisdom of guys who work in a similar way that I do, with similar tools, I really like to seek the wisdom of my old tools and tool chests. They are the way they are for a reason, and I’m not about to throw them aside and reinvent the wheel just because I can’t figure them out. I just keep listening to them, trying different methods, and looking at them from different perspectives. I appreciate what guys have to say who have the opportunity to do this more than I do, and take the time to write about it.

    So thanks Chris, keep it coming!

  • tropicalww

    Not to hijack this thread, but are the plans for that rolling cabinet still available? I know I’ve seen it in the magazine, but I can’t seem to find it with a search. (I need an outfeed table and something that does more than just being a table would be helpful!) 🙂

  • deric

    Chris, I started with a Kennedy toolbox over 30 years ago. Being a toolmaker that’s what I was familiar with and I wanted a new one for work. The old one I brought home served me fine for a few years while I developed my woodworking patterns. After a few years I decided to build a roll around cart out of wood. I’m not a fan of bending over so I have it sitting high. The lowest drawer sits about a foot off the floor. It’s a tall drawer for those big items that need the height. Above that sits drills, drill bits, augers and the like. About half way up is a large drawer for my planes. At the top are things like marking tools, squares, straight edges, chisels, things that fit in short drawers. Saws hang in a till on the wall. Nothing is French fitted but everything has it’s place and stuff doesn’t get banged up . I never have to search for anything and it’s easy to put things away so it gets done. It’s all enclosed so dust and rust are never a problem either. My roll around takes up more vertical space than your English chest but less horizontal space. I find it ideal for me. I have tried using a chest that I inherited but I don’t like it. I’d never criticize anyone by telling them that my way is better and their way is wrong. I think that’s the biggest difference between us as woodworkers. I agree with many of your preachings but I don’t agree with them all and I’m not about to tell you that you are wrong on them. It’s what works for the individual in my book. I like my roll around cart. It works great for me. You like your chest storage. I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong for liking that. Your method has its merits. So does mine. Maybe if I had a book for sale on the subject I’d be pimping roll arounds and dissing chests. Nah, I’m not like that.

    • Christopher Schwarz
      Christopher Schwarz

      If you are saying this series is an ad for a book, I’d disagree. Note the roll-around cabinet above, the copious references to racks, the praise for wall cabinets in saving space….

      Most woodworkers re-invent the wheel when it comes to their tool storage. And that wheel is oblong and difficult to roll around.

      And do I have to start every blog entry with “I’m OK, you’re OK?” I hope not. Anyone who follows my writing knows that there are 100 ways to skin a cat – with A2, O1 and PMV-11.

      • deric

        …and the slam on roll around carts. I make surgical instruments. The instruments are organized in a stainless steel case and French fitted. These are placed on a roll around cart with multiple racks. They slide out the case to gain access. Not exactly a Kennedy but far from an English chest sitting on the floor. btw, the surgeon tells a surgical nurse which tool s/he wants and it is handed to them. They don’t have time to dig around for saws and hammers and chisels and all sorts of nasty looking stuff they use to rip you open and tear you apart.

        You are correct that most woodworkers re-invent the wheel for not only tool storage but just about everything else too. It’s human nature, especially for the type of person who has to make things to stay sane. I’ve taught apprentices for ~ 40 years. It’s amazing the ways that they modified what I taught them to suit their style. I’ve learned a few tricks from watching them develop over the years. Yes, the student sometimes teaches the master. It’s not only humbling but it makes you better at what you do.

        I’ve learned quite a bit from reading your books and blogs over the years. You’ve managed to re-invent the way I do things many times. For that I’m grateful and appreciate the time you’ve spent researching and sharing these ideas with the world. I even think it’s great that you can make a living from it. I don’t fault you at all for that. Where I struggle is with your forays into telling us that your way is best and everything else is inferior. (read part 1) Next thing we know you’ll be telling us that research shows that workbenches should be X” tall and that’s the way you’ve always used them and everything else is wrong. I know how you feel about that. So do I. Stay humble.

        • Christopher Schwarz
          Christopher Schwarz

          I have never (and will never) label my writing as a gospel or the gospel. If you read my stuff and get that impression, that’s not me. That might be the way you are interpreting my writing.

          After 18 years of writing stuff for woodworkers, I have found that readers have a distorted and twisted view of who an author is – be it Toshio Odate, Frank Klausz or Mike Dunbar. Usually I ignore stuff like this. For some reason, today I’m not.

          Oh well.

          • tailwagger

            Chris, I find Deric’s post ironic (see intro to part 1, which Deric refers). The only strongly presented opinion here is his, not yours. Plus, I think Deric crossed the line and got personal with the “stay humble” bit. For what it’s worth, you come across as very humble, professional, and humorous.

        • GyeGreene



          You make some good points. However, I think there are a few key differences between the working practices of surgeons, and those of woodworkers — particularly home hobbyist woodworkers. These differences in working practices would lead to differences in their “tool” storage — particularly how “sorted”/”compartmentalized” versus “jumbled” their tools are.

          -Surgeons can spend $15,000 for an instrument trolley with form-fitted slots. Home woodworkers (probably) can nont.

          -Simiilarly, surgeons “order out” for their multi-slot, French-fitted storage drawers. Woodworkers must make their own. Any time spent laboring over shop fixtures is time that isn’t spent on “real” projects (note my bias). 😉

          -With few exceptions, I would think that 99% of the list of surgical instruments used within a surgical speciality (e.g. eye surgery) are fairly “set”. There there may be the occassional change or improvement to instrument, but I suspect this “drift” is slow. And when change occurs, it is probably an improved model superceding an older model, rather than an **additional** instrument. In contrast, to the extent that woodworkers generalize and branch into new realms, their array of tools is probably growing and expanding. Thus “compact storage” would be more important to a woodworker than to a surgeon.

          -Operating theatres are fairly large. Therefore surgeons can have four or five vertical storage cabinets. Many woodworkers do not have this luxury, and thus must figure out ways to economize on space.

          -Surgeons have assistants. These assistants fetch the tools for the surgeon, even if it is many steps away — and potentially do this in preparation of the next step. Woodworkers typically fetch their own tools, and thus “tool density” at one’s fingertips is more important.

          -I suspect that operating theatres are fairly standardized: within a hospital, the equiptment is all located in the same space; the top-to-bottom ordering of drawers are the same; and the contents **within** each drawer is the same. This would allow the surgical theatres, and the assistants to be interchangeable: no matter which theatre, and which assistant, specific items are easy to find. In contrast, woodworking is fairly individualistic (and ideosyncratic): everyone sets up their workshop to their **own** style — and thus it’s hard to find tools in someone **else’s** workshop. But this doesn’t matter, like it would in surgery. And thus the difference in standardization.

          -And etcetera.

          FWIW, my tool storage is completely different from yours or from Chris’: my “high frequency” tools are on shelves and pegs behind the workbench. “Medium frequency” tools are in a (university-surplus mail-sorting) cubbyhole rack. My shop is long and narrow, so a rolling cart is not practical. And I don’t use a tool chest because I want my tools at waist-to-head height, not ankle-to-knee height. 😉

          So, my system makes me happy — just as yours makes you happy, and Chris’ makes him happy.

          It’s good that we’re all happy woodworkers. 🙂


      • jim childress

        I read that book, and my wife and I raised four children using this basic principle. Now, we are attempting to do the same with a grandson, 11 yrs..
        Boy, have we added to that philosophy! Chris, I appreciate your approach to everything you write about in your books, and they are excellent
        guides for me as a new woodworker in my retirement. I follow all the editors and contributors to Pop Woodworking. I modified the size of
        your Thomas Jefferson book boxes to fit my wife’s area; this was my first time cutting dovetails anyway-by hand- and I thought I would
        never finish. Now I plan to build his laptop desk with the guidance of Glen Huey. Keep on trucking—-I REALLY LIKE YOUR STYLE.

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