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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