United Patternmakers Association Tool Chest

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To reach Well B, two motions are required: sliding over the shelf and then reaching in.

To reach Well C, either lift out or slide out saw till.

Victorious Sleepover Sikowitz Jade

While we know quite a bit about how cabinetmaker's chests were built, we know very little about how they were used on a daily basis. To a modern woodworker (myself included), the chests look clunky. Having to crouch down and grope about in a deep, dark box, sliding the tills and drawers to and fro to get at a single tool, seems awkward and time-consuming.

At first I speculated that at the start of each workday, the cabinetmaker would remove the tools he thought he would need for that day's tasks. To maximize efficiency, he would then either place them on his workbench or set them nearby on an open shelf. But after talking to several researchers and to one woodworker who has spent many years working out of a traditional chest, 1 came to a different conclusion. While it's possible that many tools may have been left out in a one-man or a small family-type shop (sec the photo of the Dominy family's shop on p. 64), it seems more likely that most cabinetmakers worked out of their toolboxes on a tool-by-tool basis. Indeed, judging from the wear seen on the runners of many chests, the tills experienced a great deal of sliding back and forth.

A woodworker at the bench at Colonial Williamsbug. Photo courtesy of Jay Gaynor. Colonial Williamsburg.

To get a better feeling for how these toolboxes were used—which means understanding a toolbox-to-workbench relationship that essentially no longer exists-put yourself for a moment in the hobnailed shoes of an 18th-century cabinetmaker. As you take your first look around, you may be amazed at how small your workspace is, until you realize that it doesn't have to be large because there is no machinery. Because you are not using machines, you discover an entirely new-relationship between the tools and the wood: Instead of having to carry lengths of wood around your shop to feed to the machines, you can bring the tools to the wood. And the wood generally sits clamped to your workbench while you size and shape it by hand.

As you work on the wood over the course of the day, you realize you rarely move very far from the bench—or from your toolbox, which is just a step or two away. Your hands, now familiar with your tool chest (not only did you make it, but you also use it constantly), can find any tool almost instantaneously. With this kind of efficiency, then, what need is there to clutter the bench with hand tools or to leave them lying where another cabinetmaker might mistakenly pick them up or accidentally knock them to the floor? Knowing the value and expense of hand tools, the 18th-century cabinetmaker probably kept them secure in his tool chest most of the time.

these tools had their own specific niche within the chest. With a little practice, the working craftsman could find any tool within his toolbox on the first try and usually without even looking.

The interior fittings for storing tools in such a well-organized way were made as light as possible-most of the till components were Vs in. or smaller in thickness and often made from pine—to maximize the amount of room left for tool storage and to minimize the weight of the chest itself. For beauty's sake, however, the faces of the drawers, tills and tray lids were faced with thin veneers of exotic furniture woods such as mahogany or walnut and were embellished with inlays and stringing of boxwood, holly, satinwood and ebony. The joinery of the drawers and trays was

On this tool chest, sliding bolts keep the trays from opening when the chest is being transported. Toolbox courtesy of Donald Wing; photo by Vincent Laurence.

almost universally fine dovetails, even it it was permanently hidden from sight under a facing. (Showing off joinery is, it seems, a relatively modern phenomenon.)

The End of an Era

In the early 18(X)s, a group of workers in Leicestershire, England, gathered together under the leadership of a craftsman named Ned Ludd. The Luddites, as they were called, attempted to destroy the machines that threatened to put an end to hand-tool craftsmanship. Their noble, but woefully naive, campaign tailed absolutely. Inexorably, machines began to transform the workplace, and the golden age of hand-built f urniture drew to a close, not only in the Old World but here in the United States as well. Though fine hand-built furniture persisted late into the 19th century (as did the building of a number of traditional, ornate tool chests), by the Civil War the era of hand-tool craftsmanship was all but over. Cabinetmakers building fine furniture with hand tools alone couldn't compete in production or in price with factories fitted out with the latest in machine woodworking tools.

Probably with great reluctance, cabinetmakers and their offspring left their quiet shops behind to find work in the din of mechanized furniture factories. Because most of these shops supplied the basic tooling to size and shape the wood, many craftsmen probably also left behind their tool chests. Young woodworkers just entering the trade had little reason to build more than a rudimentary box in which to keep their personal tools at work.

By the turn of this century, in factor)' shops across this nation, the traditional, embellished cabinetmaker's tool chest was rarely seen by a craftsman's side. But the tradition didn't die entirely; patternmakers, coachwrightsand piano builders continued to build their own wall-hung tool cabinets (see Chapter 5). Some, like that of patternmaker 11.0. Studley, were magnificent.

Today, likely just in the nick of time, a widespread resurgence of interest in fine woodworking has brought the building of toolboxes back to life. The lx>xes shown in the balance of this book are the work of woodworkers all over the United States and represent a variety of solutions to the craftsman's age-old problem of storing tools. The quality of the workmanship is high, the designs eminently practical—a worthy continuation of the tradition.

Storing Tools Wood

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  • Felix
    How to build a 18th century tool chest?
    10 months ago

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