With the plans for the Dutch Tool Chest in the October 2013 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine now out, several readers have been asking about how they should finish the inside surfaces of the chest.
Here’s the short answer: Don’t.
Many of the vintage tool chests that I have encountered have just bare wood inside. There is no evidence that a finish was ever applied. The downside to this approach is that the wood gets fairly dirty from contact with your hands, the tools and any lubricant on them.
I don’t mind this grungy look – but it’s an aesthetic thing. And it is the one and only “foolproof” finish I know of. So I don’t finish the insides of my tool chests.
A number of readers have asked if they should apply boiled linseed oil to the inside of their chests. I think this is a sub-optimal idea. Linseed oil has a smell that won’t dissipate when it’s applied to enclosed surfaces, such as drawers and chests. I’ve opened chests that were finished years earlier that still reek of linseed oil.
If you would like to finish the inside of your chest, I have a few recommendations.
1. Shellac. Shellac dries fast, offers good protection, is easily repaired and its smell dissipates quickly. I’ve seen many vintage chests that were finished with shellac that have survived quite well.
2. Lacquer. Lacquer offers a lot of the qualities of shellac, but it has a longer stink time. If you use lacquer, I’d let the chest sit open for a week to let the smell escape.
3. Alkyd varnish. A varnish thinned with low-odor mineral spirits makes a nice wiping varnish that can offer protection and is easy to apply. Some varnishes have some oil in them that can leave an odor. So because of that, you might want to try one of the other options.
4. Paint. Some chests are painted inside and out. My guess is that this happens later in the chest’s life when someone decides to add a coat to the outside of the chest. This is a valid option. I think it looks odd. But it’s not my chest, so go wild with some low-odor paint.
5. Water-base varnish. This modern film finish is actually a good option for people who want a “bare wood” look but want to protect the wood. Water-base finish (usually) adds little color to the wood and has almost no odor.
So here’s the bottom line: If the finish stinks, keep it off your chest.
— Christopher Schwarz
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