Thursday, November 28, 2013

Tool tote

Now that I have a shop again, it's time to get back to woodworking.  I feel like an athlete who didn't do anything in the off-season and needs to get back in shape, so I wanted to start with an easier project.  The perfect one came along in a video by Shannon Rogers of "The Renaissance Woodworker."  It is a copy of the tool tote that Roy Underhill carries in the introduction to his show (I read elsewhere that there are plans for building it in his book Woodwright's Apprentice.).  I can recall seeing my grandfather carry a similar tote when I was a child.

The design of this tote is a classic, outstanding in form and function.  It's strength is in the center "I" composed of the ends and the handle/divider, allowing the long sides to be thin and light.  The angled sides make it easy and convenient to access tools.  I think that, in different sizes, it is ideal for lots of things other than woodworking tools, from gardening tools to knitting.

I decided to make a prototype from some alder I have.  It is too short to fit full size handsaws, which I see as a requirement for a tool tote, but it will be useful for other purposes.  I also decided to angle both sides because I don't like the look of the straight side and don't see how it would make the tote that much easier to carry.

I am embarrassed to admit it, but I could not understand Shannon's explanation of the need for compound angles, a lack of visual/spatial intelligence on my part I am afraid.  I decided to go ahead and just make simple angles, see what was wrong when I put it together and hope I'd be able to saw or plane compound angles if necessary.   As it turned out, I never did discover a need for them and am puzzled.  Shannon's design obviously differs from mine in some way.

Shannon joined the center divider/handle to the end pieces with an angled through mortise, which I am sure is traditional but seems to create a weak point.  I decided to use an alternative that has worked well for me in the past.  I created a dado for the handle/divider to sit in and fastened it to the ends with dowels.  Quick, easy, and strong, this distributes the force generated by carrying the tote among the dowels.  The sides sit in rabbets and are also fastened with dowels (I would like to have tried cut nails like Shannon used, but I don't have any).  I made the dadoes with a saw, chisel and router plane.  I made the rabbets with a saw, chisel, and plow plane.  So this is what my end pieces look like:
My center divider is made just like Shannon's, except for the tenon.  I drilled out most of the waste for the handle and then used rasps and files to finish it:

Notice the blotching.  I went to a lot of effort to cut this tree, have it sawed up and then air dry it, only to discover that most of it is like this, apparently from minerals in the soil, so it gets used for a lot of shop projects.  I used a scrap piece of baltic birch plywood for the bottom, so expansion isn't an issue.  Add the sides and it's done:

I'm pretty happy with how this came out and it was definitely a good project to begin to get in shape with.  It's easy to see why woodworkers went to the trouble of creating the angled sides as it makes seeing and accessing tools very convenient.  The "I" is a full 1" thick and the sides are 1/2" thick on this prototype, making for a stout but heavy tote, overkill I think.  Shannon's was 3/4" and 3/8" and I think that is better.

I am thinking about buying some dye to see if I could mute this blotching.  I tried stain in the past and it didn't work.  Milk paint might look good.  Ideas welcome.


  1. I'd opt for the milk paint. I'm terrible at using dyes/stains and trying to blend.
    How about a stopped dado for the next handle? No need for dowels with that.

  2. I second that! We just made a couple of totes for some youngsters and tried milk paint. They came out really nice, especially a blue one that we mixed kind of thin, lots of grain shows through. I'll bet after the two little roughnecks bang them around a while they'll look like antiques. I like your design and the next one will probably be like that. All ours have been standard carpenter style til now, but various sizes from huge to tiny. My daughter and many of her friends are just at flying the nest age, and I give them each a tote with a few essential hand tools when they get their own places.

  3. So are you confused by why I used hopper style construction or how I did it? That's my bad if I didn't explain the how part of it. The why is really about access but also because it allows you to taper the bottom panel and just let it float in the bottom to expand and contract.

    I'm curious also why you felt a through tenon was a weak joint? What am I missing there?

    Regardless, nice job, you will like this little guy. I just slathered some shellac on mine while I was finishing something else. It gets all banged up in use anyway so I didn't bother to be fancy about it.

  4. Shannon,

    Thanks for your great video and your comment. I really enjoyed making the tote and find it very useful. I understand the hopper style construction and really like it. It was just the specific discussion at minute 4:00 that I couldn't follow, as I said a mental block on my part I am sure. My sides and ends are both cut at an angle but neither cut is compound the way you mark yours out. That was the only thing I couldn't figure out.

    As for the through tenon, I may be thinking about this wrong, but here is my reasoning. Since the force of the tools is downward it is all being applied to the top of the mortise on the end. Cedar splits very easily and I was afraid the end would split at that point. Since the force would be distributed along the upper semicircle of both dowels in that alternative, it seemed like it would be stronger. I may well be thinking about this wrong though and would be interested in your observation. Of course, the fact that the dowels are easier and I am lazy played no part in my reasoning. :)

    Thanks again for making the podcast.