Toolboxes And The Building Of A Nation

Furniture Craft Plans

Furniture Craft Plans

Get Instant Access

In the early 1600s, English adventurers and would-be colonists sailed into the Chesapeake Bay area of the New World to settle what would soon become Jamestown, Virginia. Even during the earliest landings, it's a good bet that wooden boxes full of building tools were among the first items to be set down upon these fresh, exciting shores. (We know from the ship's manifests of some of these early voyages that "tool boxes" were listed as cargo.) With the tools carried within these boxes, the settlers would create one of the first European toeholds in this vast, and largely unknown, continent.

Though it will never be known for sure what those first toolboxes may have looked like, Jamestown's historians feel they probably were similar to the ship's storage boxes found preserved on the Mary Rose, a late 1500s British warship recently raised from its mud-encased grave near Portsmouth, England. Though these boxes were simply

In Jamestown, ship's storage boxes like this reproduction were probably pressed into service as carpenter s tool chests. Photo courtesy of Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. Williamsburg. Va.


Wrought-iron strap hinges

Wrought-iron nails

Yorktown Tool Box

End cleats fall to outside of box.

Dovetail joint

Bottom and side of tray insert into stopped dado.

Chisel and screwdriver rack (attached to inside back of front board)

Bottom molding (1-in. quarter-rouncf/ mite red at corners

Wrought-iron strap hinges

Chisel and screwdriver rack (attached to inside back of front board)

Wrought-iron nails

Bottom molding (1-in. quarter-rouncf/ mite red at corners

Approximate size: 16 in. wide. 16 in. high. 42 in. long

End cleats fall to outside of box.

Dovetail joint

Bottom and side of tray insert into stopped dado.

This toolbox, thought to be from Pepperell. Mass.. is typical in size and construction of a colonial carpenter's box of the late 1700s. Photo courtesy of the New York State Historical Association and the Farmers' Museum. Inc.. Cooperstown.

toolboxes on their shoulder or slung to one side from a leather strap had good reason to keep them as small and light as possible. When fitted out with notched tool perches and lidded trays, these boxes could hold an array of tools sufficient for a variety of tasks, from building a simple piece of furniture to cutting the timber-frame joints for an entire building. These chest-type boxes had greater storage area than the old ship's boxes with canted sides, and they allowed easier access to the tools stored within.

Though these boxes were simply built and plain in appearance, they were not uncraftsmanlike in construction. The corners were usually dovetailed, and the interior tool braces were mortised into the end panels. The side and bottom of the tray compartment were often dadoed into the box's side walls. In some boxes, such as the one shown in the photo above, the tray lid was cleverly hinged by extending rounded tenons into holes on either side of the box. Countless carpenters carried these rather crude but eminently practical toolboxes throughout the colonies, hammering together the foundation of their new nation.

Knot Handle Lid

Stopper knot on inside ends of _ rope handle .


Angled rabbet

Jamestown Ship's Box

Wrought-iron hasp

Wrought-iron hook-and-eye hinges

Approximate size: 16 in. wide at base, 16 in. high, 24 in. long

Note: English white oak is used for most parts.

Clenched wrought-iron nails

Battens fall to outside of box.

Wrought-iron nails clenched (turned over) on inside of box


Wrought-iron lower brackets

Bottom in rabbet

Skids nailed across bottom and economically built of oak planks with a minimum of joinery, there is much cleverness in their design and construction. The end planks, for example, were locked in place by a full-length angled rabbet joint. In addition, the box's front and back were canted inward, forming a trapezoid, probably to allow the boxes to fit tightly up against the curved hull of the ship, thereby making the most of the limited cargo space. Another speculation is that the canted sides made the boxes more stable in shipment. The shape is inherently bottom-heavy, and it also tends to compact the contents toward the lowest regions of the box.

Carpenter's Boxes

While ships-type boxes probably served the settlers well enough during their first years, by the mid- to late 1700s many carpenters had substituted a box modeled after the type of household chest used to contain blankets and other domestic goods. At the time, there were few roads and vehicles, and itinerant carpenters who had to carry their

Woodworking Tools Used The Late 1800s

This Dutch chest was brought to America in the late 1800s. but thought to have been built several generations earlier. Photo courtesy of J. Francis Pfrank.

Though starkly plain on the outside, a cabinetmakers chest when opened often reveals the epitome ol the craftsman's art. This extraordinary example is attributed to an anonymous ship builder who lived somewhere on the Maine coast in the last century. Toolbox courtesy of Stern Spirt; photo by Susan Kahn.

Enter the Golden Age: The Cabinetmakers Chest

Eventually, many craftsmen settled down in and around the burgeoning townships and cities of the colonies. With the rapid expansion of the well-to-do merchant class came a market for specialized workmanship of the highest order. Woodworkers no longer had to be jacks-of-all-trades, and many tradesmen began to specialize in cabinetmaking: the building of fine English and European style furniture. By the mid-1700s, increasing numbers of experienced cabinetmakers were emigrating from England and elsewhere to set up shops. Workmen offloading a heavy, trunk-like chest from the back of a wagon and trundling it into a new woodworking shop was a common sight along the bustling boardwalks.

Unlike the ship's boxes of the early woodworkers or the chests of the itinerant carpenters, the toolboxes of specialized cabinetmakers were so large and heavy that it took at least two men to carry them. Luckily, they weren't moved often. The toolbox normally sat next to the workbench, unless the craf tsman moved on to another shop. If he had to take some tools to a work site, he would generally place them in a bag or basket, looping the carry strap over an ax handle or a stick specifically cut and shaped for this purpose.

These stoutly built cabinetmaker's chests looked plain, hiding humbly under many coats of dark paint. Inside, however, there was often a glorious display of meticulously polished exotic woods, ivory knobs, inlays, stringing and highly figured veneers mimicking the most impressive and expensive furniture of this era. Unless the underside of the lid was used to store saws, tools were nowhere to be seen—you would need to pull open one of the many drawers or lift the lid of a tray to see what treasures might lie within.

Why were these toolboxes so large and heavy? Why were they built in the shape of a chest? And why did craftsmen go to such extraordinary lengths to make their chests masterpieces of woodworking?

The first question is relatively easy to answer: 18th-century cabinetmakers built big chests because they had a lot of tools to store. They had a lot of tools because they were being asked to build furniture featuring fine joinery, extensive inlay and stringing, exotic veneers and complex moldings. Which came first, the demand for a style or the tools needed to create it, is anyone's guess. But we do know that by the mid-1700s the tools needed to apply veneers, create inlays and run moldings were being mass-produced in numerous factories throughout England and Europe. Possessing a chest full of these tools was a sure sign that you were an up-to-date master craftsman who was capable of building the high-style furniture of the time.

But why did these skilled cabinetmakers build their toolboxes in the form of a humble chest instead of a chest-on-frame? With some minor modifications, these furniture pieces would have offered a great deal of highly efficient tool storage. Cost was definitely a factor. First, a low chest would have been considerably cheaper to build in labor and materials) than almost any other type of furniture offering equivalent volume. The cost of overseas shipping, which was figured on the volume of an object, not its weight , was also a consideration. To save money, 18th-century craftsmen had to fit their tools into the smallest amount of space possible, and not much beats an unadorned cube.

The low-chest configuration was also functional. This style of toolbox would fit easily under the end of a workbench yet still offer relatively easy access. (As long as you could open the lid, you could probably get at everything within the box.) By contrast, a box built in a vertical orientation would necessarily take up precious wall space and, in the invariably small, poorly lit shops of this era, might get in the way or block a window.

There may, however, be yet another explanation for the low-chest style: adherence to tradition. You built what your master taught you to build, which is what his master taught him to build, and so on back into antiquity. There were few books, and certainly no magazines, to spark fresh ideas.

It seems quite likely, then, that the cabinetmaker's chest was a direct descendant of the medieval coffer—a common, versatile piece of furniture found throughout Europe and the British Isles. While often used as a seat or table, the coffer also served another, perhaps more important, function: the safekeeping of valuable household goods. In the event of fire or attack (two rather common annoyances of those dark days), two people could easily hoist this furniture up and cart it away to safety. I surmise that the 18th-century craftsman learned early on in his apprenticeship the techniques of building a coffer. That being the case, it's not surprising that a cabinetmaker would house and protect his valuable collection of hand tools in a coffer-style chest.

One question still remains: Why did craftsmen lavish such fine artistry and technique upon their utilitarian toolboxes? One popular theory is that the building of a tool chest was a requirement of apprenticeship or a rite of passage to Journeyman status. It might follow, then, that to da/./.le the master and ensure passage, young apprentices would put all they had into the project.

Is this theory borne out by the facts? It's not clear. We do know from some 18th-century apprenticeship contracts that many apprentices received tools from their masters upon completion of indenture. It seems obvious that these young men would have been expected to provide a place to keep their tools. Indeed, the making of a chest would

18th Century Tool Chests

Coffers were used as seats, tables and storage for household goods. They were probably the ancestor of 18th-century cabinetmaker's tool chests.

19th Century Woodworking Chest

In addition to intricate inlay work, some chests exhibit extensive banding and relief carving. This example appears in the interior of an early 19th-century American chest. Toolbox courtesy of Donald Wing; photo by Vincent Laurence.

have been an excellent and practical exercise. But there doesn't seem to be any hard evidence that there existed, at least in the New World, any formal rite of passage concerning the building of tool chests. In fact, the institution of the apprenticeship itself was a far more informal affair in the colonies than it was in Europe.

It seems more likely that masterpiece-quality tool chests were the products of master craftsmen rather than some singular expression of youthful exuberance. And perhaps for these masters, their chests were not particularly extraordinary at all. Instead, these toolboxes simply represented the level of skill the craftsmen expected of themselves and were offering to the world. (If the work were only for show, you would not find—as I did under a loose piece of molding—exquisitely made dovetails hidden under overlying moldings or veneers.) This fine work was probably done in the spirit of pleasing oneself and one's comrades rather than in some vain attempt to impress the world. It is also worth noting that a craftsman's tool chest may have been his most valuable asset, and perhaps the only piece of fine, high-style furniture he would ever own. Perhaps built largely from scraps saved from paying work and embellished over an extended time, this was magnificence that a craftsman of the 18th century could afford.

This inlay detail, typical of the work found in the finest period furniture, appears on the inside lid of the Dowling chest, an English toolbox built between 1780 and 1790. Photo courtesy of Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry. Birmingham. England.

Cab inetm ake

Ch est


n9 tray


n9 tray


Was this article helpful?

0 0
Woodworking Tools and Installation Tips

Woodworking Tools and Installation Tips

There are a lot of things that either needs to be repaired, or put together when youre a homeowner. If youre a new homeowner, and have just gotten out of apartment style living, you might want to take this list with you to the hardware store. From remolding jobs to putting together furniture you can use these 5 power tools to get your stuff together. Dont forget too that youll need a few extra tools for other jobs around the house.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment