Traditionalstyle Tool Chests

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If you arc an ardent collector of hand woodworking tools, you probably already keep them in a traditional tool chest. If not, finding one is likely high up on your wish list. Unfortunately, chests in good condition and of an efficient design are not only hard to come by but expensive, too. But instead of discouraging you, let me offer a few words of encouragement: Building a traditional tool chest, while certainly time-consuming, is not that difficult an undertaking. Unless you intend to do fancy inlay or banding work (which you could always add later when you feel up to it), you need only be familiar with basic woodworking tools and skills.

Building a reproduction of any period piece is an engrossing and enjoyable experience. When I make a reproduction piece, as the object of another era begins to take form beneath my hands I sometimes have the sensation of reaching back into the hearts and

Tim Kimack's tool chest is modeled after traditional master cabinetmaker's chests of the early 19th century. Photo by Vincent Laurence.

Tool Chest With Till

Tim Kimack's tool chest features extensive inlays, crotch walnut veneer and a sliding drawer till. Photo by Ray Fischer.

minds of the craftsmen who first built the piece. This experience deepens as I slow down to shape the various parts using only hand tools—perhaps because it gives me the time I need to observe how the elements of the piece go together. Watching closely, I can see how the various components of the piece proportion themselves elegantly and harmoniously with one another. I admit, too, that I relish the epiphany that sometimes comes in doing reproduction work. I low that sudden gut understanding of why somet/n'ng was done in a certain way.

While for me these experiences are often reason enough to build a period piece, there is at least one strictly practical reason that might entice you to go to the trouble of building a traditional-style tool chest: Such a box offers you one of the most secure ways to keep and to transport a cherished set of hand tools. In size, shape, and construction, a traditional joiner's chest is ideally suited to this purpose. And even if you intend only to display your tools, a classic cabinetmaker's or machinist's chest offers you the most authentic manner in which to do so.

In the rest of this chapter, you'll see how five different woodworkers went about creating traditional-type toolboxes for themselves. None, however, is an exact copy of a surviving period piece. This means the boxes are reproductions not in the strict sense of the word, but in spirit. Just as the toolboxes of old were designed to suit their owners, these five examples have been designed with special fittings, unique interior layouts and original decorations to suit the needs and fancies of their makers. If you decide to make one of these boxes, you don't have to limit yourself to the exact design shown here. Don't be afraid to make your toolbox your own.

A Cabinetmaker's Chest Built with Hand Tools

Finish carpenter and furniture maker Tim Kimack, of Simi Valley, California, added to the challenge of building a typical early 19th-century master cabinetmaker's chest by using only hand tools to do so. Though he lost track of his hours after counting to 250, Kimack inured that he probably put at least 400 hours into the project. Why did he do it? Much of his inspiration came from the magnificent Studies' tool chest (see the photo on p. 76); after viewing it, Kimack came away convinced that he had to own a similar box. Kimack also liked the idea of using his cherished collection of hand tools to craft elegant and secure storage for those tools. So, like the craftsmen of old, he accepted the challenge of building his own tool chest, and the result is shown in the photo on the facing page.

In designing his chest, Kimack stuck closely to the traditional layout of an early 19th-century cabinetmaker's chest: three wells in the bottom of the box, one each for bench, specialty and molding planes; a sliding till of seven drawers (constructed vising half-blind dovetails) running on a ledge from the front to the back of the box; and a till for saws resting against the inside front. For an impressive decorative effect, he designed his own unique pattern of inlaid maple

Forged iron handles are set into sculpted walnut blocks on the sides of the chest. Photo by Ray Fischer.

bandings and burl and crotch walnut veneers, and created a total of 18 false fronts on the sliding till faces. He finished this interior woodwork with many coats of hand-rubbed tung oil.

Like most builders of traditional cabinetmaker's chests, Kimack chose to use wide pine planks for the carcase, joining them at the corners with through dovetails around a bottom also made from pine planks. 1 le made the top and bottom skirt boards of solid walnut, mitering them at the corners. However, unlike the skirting joints on most traditional chests, Kimack inserted mock dovetails across the miter—a decorative, yet secure, technique for ensuring a tight miter joint. Though this joint is rarely seen in period work (probably because its security depends so much on the strength of the glue holding the mock dovetail in place), it is easy to produce with hand tools. Modern glues ensure that it won't loosen over time. Kimack cut the mock dovetail with a handsaw and cleaned out the slot with a paring chisel. The sidebar on p. 26 shows how to make a mock-dovetail miter joint using a table-mounted router.

While Kimack painted the outside of the pine case with milk paint, he again deviated somewhat from tradition by varnishing the skirt boards. It seems he just couldn't bring himself to hide that beautiful walnut. He also lavished attention on the side handles, carving graceful chamfers in the blocks and hand- forging shapely handles.

Kimack's magnificent chest now houses his fine hand-tool collection and also offers a sample of his skills to potential clients. For himself, the chest is an unending source of pride and inspiration to do high-quality work.

The mock-dovetail miter joint is easily cut on a table- mounted router fitted with a dovetail-cutting bit and a shop-built sliding carriage that holds the assembled skirt boards securely at a 45° angle to the table. Begin by cutting the mitered ends of the skirt boards to their exact length. Assemble the four boards using glue and clamps. The addition of screws or nails is optional. If you choose to use fasteners, keep them out of the area where you will cut the slot. When the assembly is dry, take off the clamps and remove any glue residue.

Now adjust the depth of the router to cut the slot at the size you wish (the more the bit protrudes above the table, the larger the slot will be), and set the table's fence to guide thf r.trri.tfff:>T Thr desm*ri inset. Clamp a piece of scrap with a mitered end into the carriage and make a test cut. Be careful to keep the carriage riding tight against the fence as you slide it along. Adjust the bit and fence until the slot is located where you want it. Again note that the deeper the cut, the larger (and more conspicuous) your mock dovetail will be.

When you are satisfied with the settings, set the skirt assembly against the carriage. Carefully align the mitered

Dovetail bit

Assembled skirt boards

Miter Frame Clamp

clamps

Cut mock dovetail from a length of hardwood, setting angle of edges to match pin angle.

Slot cut across miter joint

Fence

Router table corner of the skirting to the bottom edge of the fixture and then secure it firmly in place with two hold-down clamps. Run the assembly through the bit, then lift the carriage away from the table. Unclamp, shift the skirting to the next corner and repeat the process.

After the slots are cut, make the four mock dovetails from a single length of stock. Cut the side angles to match the slots you have cut in the skirting. To ensure a tight joint, rip the stock oversize on the table saw and then hand-plane it to fit. Cut the length into four pieces (cut them oversize) and glue them into the slots. When the glue is dry, use a sharp paring chisel to trim the mock dovetails flush to the tace of the skirt boards.

Mock-dovetail miter joints at skirt-board corners add a decorative touch when contrasting woods are used. Here, the mahogany dovetail contrasts nicely with the walnut skirting. Photo by Ray Fischer.

clamps

Cut mock dovetail from a length of hardwood, setting angle of edges to match pin angle.

Fence

Router table

Slot cut across miter joint

Dovetail bit

Assembled skirt boards

A Shipwright's Chest Built to Fly

Having been accepted into a four-week boatbuilding class at the YVoodenBoat School in Brooklin, Maine, Superior Court Judge Bill Tinney, of Tucson, Arizona, realized he would need to build a toolbox to carry his tools across the continent. After some research, he settled on a design of an 1820s shipwright's box whose plans were published by Roy Underhill of Colonial Williamsburg. Tinney then proceeded to modify the overall dimensions, not only to fit the tools he was required to bring to the boat school, but also to accommodate the baggage size limitations set by commercial airlines.

After some hesitation, Tinney decided to build the case sides and top, as well as the inside trays of the box, from a prize piece of 16-in. wide mahogany he'd been treasuring for years, even though it was a much fancier wood than the white pine used by the original maker. Tinney justified his choice by thinking of all the work he would be putting into the box and of how he would treasure its use over the years. Since it takes the same effort to build with cheap wood as with rare and beautiful wood, he figured, why not use the latter and enjoy it?

After observing how baggage is handled at airports, Tinney made another modification to the design: the addition of three steel reinforcing bolts across the grain of the tongue-and-groove beechwood floor. This reinforcement keeps the floor of the box from breaking through from the weight of the tools, no

Ship Wright ChestShipwright Tool Box

Bill Tinney's shipwright's chest was designed to contain boatbuilding tools. A raised frame-and-panel top prevents splitting (above). Other features include a tray with fold-down handle and a sliding three-drawer till (right). Photos by International Photographic Associates.

Reinforced Floor

Shipwrights Tool Chest

matter how roughly the box is handled. As you can see in the drawing above, the ends of the bolts are covered by the lower skirt board. Tinney also designed his own spring-loaded saw retainers, shown in the drawing at left, to hold his assortment of handsaws to the underside of the lid.

Tinney designed the interior of the box not only to fit his particular assortment of tools, but also to suit how he would be using them at the boat school. First, he designed the well in the bottom of the box to be just deep enough to clear his planes. Then he covered the well with a tray featuring a fold-down handle that would allow the unit to convert quickly into a hand tote for carrying an assortment of tools. At the school he could haul this tote up into a boat under construction, then return the tray to the box at the end of each workday. A three-drawer sliding till fits between the tray and the top lid (clearing the saws). The till is narrow enough to slide back and forth in the box, allowing access to the hand planes in the well below.

Building a Masterpiece Tool Chest

When you understand that Tony Konovaloff, of Bellingham, Washington, once made a living building Shaker-type furniture entirely by hand, it is not too surprising to learn that he built a most impressive tool chest with hand tools only. The chest, shown in the photos on the facing page, is made primarily of black walnut and contains more than 4(X) tools—nearly all the tools of his trade. From the outside, KonovalofPs toolbox is similar in shape and size to a late 18th-century cabinetmaker's chest, but inside there are many significant alterations to the traditional design.

The most immediately obvious design deviation is the unusual orientation of the drawer tills—they slide across from side to side within the box rather than from front to back. Why this change? After working with a traditional layout for a few years (and hating it), Konovaloff decided that narrower tills would bind less than wider front-to-back tills, and that they would require only one hand to manipulate. 1 le was tired of constantly having to withdraw tills entirely from the box to make them easier to access, and then balancing them precariously on the corner of the box or on his tool bench. After working with the new box for a few years now, he feels the change in orientation was a good idea. The side-to-side tills are definitely much easier to get into, and they tend to stay in the box where they belong.

In addition, these tills, which are smaller than was traditional, leave ample room for another innovation: lift-out sharpening and drill boxes (see the top photo on p. 30). To get at the tools stored in the bottom well, Konovoloff removes these boxes and reaches down between

Lag screw

Spring

Washer

Piece cut to fit saw handle screws to underside of lid.

Top part of catch turns to lock saw handle in place.

Lag screw

Spring

Washer

Piece cut to fit saw handle screws to underside of lid.

Tony Konovaloff Tool Chest

Tony Konovaloff's tool chest holds more than 400 tools and weighs close to 400 lb. when fully loaded. In the photo at left, the tills and boxes have been lifted out. Note the drill box (shown open at right). Photos by Vincent Laurence.

Tony Konovaloff Tool Chest

the sliding tills. The lift-out boxes are normally removed at the beginning of a typical workday and set next to the chest. At the end of they day, they're the last items to be returned to the box.

In yet another departure from traditional chests, Konovalotf created storage for many of his most frequently used tools independent of tills or trays. Because he was going to attempt to make his living working out of this tool chest, me of his prime design objectives when creating it was to make the tools as i!y accessible as possible—a single motion was the goal. Beneath the lift-out boxes, knives and spokeshaves hang on hes at one end wall of the box while marking knives and a straightedge along the back board. (Also on perches when the lift-out are removed are a folding rule, a framing square and the beam of a panel-marking gauge.) At the other end of the box Konovaloff placed a wide variety of chisels, their handles set upright and immediately accessible. Since the blades aren't visible, he has to rely on memory to grab the one he wants.

In a departure from tradition, the tills and boxes in this chest slide side to side, creating easy access to the bottom of the box. The Latin motto "Art endures, life is short" is a fitting testament to this lengthy, painstaking project. Photo by Vincent Laurence.

Finally, take a look at the inside of the chest's hollow lid (see the photo above). While you occasionally see hollow, or even double, lids in traditional chests (see the bottom photo on p. 16), it is rare to see one that contains this number and variety of saws—there are 15 mounted here! To support the weight of this saw-studded lid, Konovaloff added a pair of sturdy hinged supports to the back of the box. While lid supports are undoubtedly a useful feature in any lidded box to prevent the hinges from pulling out or racking, it's surprising how rarely one sees them in traditional boxes. When you do they are often only in the form of a narrow ledge, which, because it acts as a fulcrum for the stress against the hinge, often does more harm than good.

DESIGN NOTES Like Tim Kimack, Tony Konovaloff stopped counting his construction hours after about the First 250-art to last the ages obviously takes time. But art won't happen at all until you take the first step, and for Konovaloff that meant laying out all the hand tools he used in furniture building to determine how big a chest he would need to contain them. In essence, Konovaloff designed his box from the inside out.

It is interesting, though not surprising, to note the size of the box Konovaloff wound up with: 21 Vs in. wide by 39% in. long by 225/s in. high-dimensions that are well within the range of a number of measured traditional cabinetmaker's chests (see the discussion on p. 13). To determine the footprint of the box (the width and length), he laid out the hand planes and other large tools that would be kept in the bottom well, nesting them closely to minimize the space they would take up. (Me represented the dividers with masking tape.) The inside height of the front case had to be at least 16 in.— enough for the standard framing square that would hang against it.

Konovaloff had to take two things into consideration when he developed the size of the two sliding tills. The First was the size of the tools they would contain. The second was the amount of room he needed to leave between the opposing tills to allow him to lift his largest tool, a #7 jointer plane, out of the bottom well of the chest. Once he knew how much space he had to leave between the two tills, he designed the lift-out sharpening and drill boxes to fit. He was careful to leave room for the rack of chisels and the perches for the drawknife and spokeshaves. Finally, Konovaloff designed the size of individual drawers within the tills to contain certain groupings of tools.

Tony Konovaloff's Tool Chest

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    How to build a shipwrights tote?
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