Thursday, April 12, 2012

Tool chests Part 1

Recently, Matt asked that I post about my tool chest.  I decided that I will write a series of posts about tool chests in general and include a description of my current prototype.

I should say first of all that I built mine prior to the publication of the The Anarchist's Tool Chest by Chris Schwarz, though I have subsequently read and enjoyed it.  I did read The Toolbox Book by Jim Tolpin, which I like because of the diversity of toolboxes it covers, both historical and modern.

I should also make clear that my primary goal is functionality.  I learned a great deal from reading about and seeing historical chests but, in the end, I built a practical user, definitely not a showpiece.  I think it's fair to say that mine is faithful to the historical concept of a cabinet maker's tool chest.  That's not to say that building a more historically accurate chest  is a bad idea, and in fact I admire many that I see, but I enjoy the creative challenge of adapting it to my preferences.  Do what you want.

The first issue I want to address is whether you should build a tool chest or wall cabinets, a subject that is hotly debated in forums.  My answer is yes.  Which you choose is a matter of personal preference, what tools you use, what your shop is like and other factors.  For many of us, the best answer is both.  Chris Schwarz, for example, has both.    It's flat silly to make this a global either/or debate.

If you want to see a great example of how functional wall cabinets can be, look at one of Bob Rozaieski's podcasts at The Logan Cabinet Shoppe.  He has a small, climate controlled shop with a wall behind his bench.  He can easily reach up and grab a tool and then quickly replace his tool when he is done with it.  All of his tools are instantly visible.  Bob did build a small tool chest for travel though, illustrating the value of having both.

I, on the other hand, work in a garage.  It is subject to wide swings in temperature and humidity.  My bench is under a large window.  To the right is a standard door and to the left is the garage door.  Wall cabinets would have to be mounted some steps away from the bench or I would have to have rolling cabinets.  I really like having all my tools no more than a step away in storage I can protect from the elements and move around easily.  A tool chest is the right solution for me and I hope never to be without one.  If my shop space ever changes though, I will probably build a small wall cabinet in addition.

There is, in my opinion, one reason for not wanting a tool chest that isn't valid for most of us:  that you don't want to bend over to access your tools.  I confess to being concerned about this myself but, in the event, it has proven to be unfounded.  I am a long way from being able to touch my toes and definitely don't like constantly bending over.  That's not a problem.  Convince  yourself with this experiment.  Put your largest plane on a platform 8" off the floor next to your bench.  Put one hand on the bench, reach down and pick up the plane.  If this bothers you, there are ways to make it easier.

These posts will be about a tool chest that is designed to hold substantially all of your hand tools.  In fact, one of the things that I decided going in is that a part of building a tool chest is that I would limit myself to a set of hand tools that would fit inside it.  That has been a very good thing.  I have sold quite a few tools and upgraded the ones I have.  It's a useful exercise and I like the discipline.  Historically, chests of this kind were about 2'x2'x3' and I have found that this is a good guideline.  It's big.  Assume for discussion that your wall cabinets are 6" deep.  You'd have to have 4 wall cabinets 2'x3' to get the same storage volume.  Not apples to apples, but you get the idea.


  1. Looking forward to your series on toolchests.

  2. Andy, If you can talk about how you protect your tools from the climate in your shop I would appreciate it. The humid season is coming up here in North Carolina :)

    1. Dan,

      Our humid season is in the winter. I use a radiant heater when I am working and keep the box closed when I'm not; that has proven sufficient. In your climate, more active dehumidification may be necessary. I read about two solutions. One is silica gel canisters, available from Highland Woodworking and elsewhere. Another is an electric dehumidifier designed for cabinets, such as this one available from Lee Valley:,43456

      I don't have experience with either product, though I read good things about the electric dehumidifier in forums.