Will the workshop please come to order!

Workshops have strong tendency toward chaos:  The collection of tools (and the cabinets required to store them) seems to grow year by year along with various jigs, templates, and scraps of leftover lumber that are for the most part “too short to be saved” (but still get saved anyway!)

Last Spring when I decided to put my woodworking business into hibernation for awhile,  my workshop was about as functional as ever, but none-the-less “out of order.” There were simply too many unused tools, too many storage cabinets and shelves intruding on the space; too many unused jigs and older templates, and way too many scraps of wood that I just couldn’t part with.  I simply had to invest some serious time in bringing some order and simplicity to my shop during this time of hibernation.

While I was in the process of rethinking the workshop, I came across Christopher Schwarz’s book The Anarchist’s Tool Chest In this book I found someone of like mind who was actually doing something about chaos in his workshop in a coherent step-by-step manner.  Front and center in this process was a traditional tool chest which clearly brought focus and order to the shop, and provided some means of limiting future acquisitions. (If it doesn’t fit in the chest then it is part of a tool collection, not a tool that is necessary for woodworking!  –  and while there is nothing wrong with collecting tools, it is good to have a reminder that that is what one is actually doing!)

About 15 years ago I had built a traditional tool chest based largely on Tony Konovaolff’s chest published in the October 1990 issue of Fine Woodworking Magazine. Konovaloff’s chest was a work of art and a showcase for his woodworking skills (not necessarily a bad thing), but my desires (and budget!) ran more in the direction of utility and efficient access, which meant “pine and paint” rather than expensive hardwoods.  My workshop at that time was upstairs in a barn-like structure with fairly low knee-walls which meant that wall cabinets were really not an option, so this floor chest made a lot of sense.  An older notebook page shown below still has the drawings that I used to create this chest.

Tool chest sketch from March 1998

Like Knonvaloff’s chest, I placed my chisels where they could always be reached (a feature I have always liked), with hand planes on the bottom, and the rest of the chest filled with a single sliding till open like a tray on the top and completed with four drawers below.  A separate saw till “box” sat in front of the sliding till, but had to be removed each day for access to the planes.  (And – no surprise here – after awhile, the saw till simply sat on the floor and was almost never returned to the chest.)

I liked this chest and used it for several years; but it had some real limitations:  it was too low to the ground for good access (about 17″ high x 20″ deep x 36″ long – interior measurements), and the drawers in the till were at best hard to access and not very flexible as needs changed.  I dealt with the height issue by eventually placing the chest on a 8” high base.  I dealt with the lack of internal space by building a second tool chest to hold my small collection of molding planes and other antique woodworking tools.  Even though I liked both of these chests, I eventually set them aside in favor of wall cabinets when I moved to a shop with less floor space and better wall space.  (I must also confess that in the intervening years I had also “collected” many, many more power tools  – tools that really, really didn’t fit in a traditional tool chest.)

Over the next several years, I built a series of wall cabinets, none of which were particularly outstanding either visually or functionally.  At times I wanted to return to the older tool chests, but by that time the shop had accumulated enough stuff that there really wasn’t enough floor space for any traditional tool chests.  I sort of dismissed the idea of bringing out the traditional tool chests again – that is, until I finished reading The Anarchists Tool Chest  and came to appreciate the overall “Rules” that most traditional chests had followed (for good reasons!)  The “rules” seemed to fall into three general categories: First that the chest had to be sufficiently full-sized to fit the required tools and to allow good access without having to kneel on the floor ( i.e. just high enough to be able to lean over it with support from one hand).  Second, that it had to be well-built including a good frame and panel lid, and third, that it needed sliding trays (not tills with drawers) for quick, flexible access.

As I was rethinking the workshop, the desire to build a chest like this was as strong, if not stronger, than my desire to return to the older Shaker style bench that I had previously used.

In the end, the workbench took priority, partly because I needed additional time to think about the details of a traditional tool chest that would work best for me.  I didn’t want to just reproduce the chest in The Anarchist’s Tool Chest.  Not all traditional tool chests were identical (for good reasons) and although I knew my chest would need to follow the “rules” if it was to be truly successful,  I also wanted my chest to reflect my needs and ways of working.

While rebuilding the Shaker bench, I brought out the old tool chest (long since stripped of its internal parts) and quickly filled it with some roughly built sliding trays and a chisel rack.  (I knew there was a reason for saving all those scraps of lumber!)

Old Chest Fitted with "Test" Interior

Although I had to limit the actual tools to a sub-set of those I wanted to eventually include, this rough re-working (with some further refinements) proved that the “rules” for a good chest really did result in an amazingly functional and flexible means of storing and accessing tools.

Test Layout for New Chest

After finishing the Shaker bench last Fall, I turned my attention to finalizing plans for a full-sized traditional tool chest.  After some test layouts on the workbench (using real tools), I drafted a rough set of plans showing both the “floor plan” and front and side elevations. I kept these plans nearby for a couple weeks, making some minor changes until I was satisfied that I had a good working plan.  I think this “gestation” time (however long it needs to be) is time well spent for any woodworking project.  Some of my best pieces of furniture have required several months of on-and-off thinking before arriving at a place where everything really seemed to come together. (And more often than not, input from the client or another woodworker was just as important in shaping the final piece as was my own thinking.)

I”ll include a few photos of the construction process, but more than anything I want to note the things that I did differently since they might be of benefit to anyone who is considering building a traditional tool chest customized to meet their needs.

Tail boards for the new chest

As I worked with the tools that I wanted to include in the chest, I found that I needed a chest that was (internally) about 4” longer and 2” deeper, but the same height as the one in the Anarchist’s Tool Chest.  (These dimensions were still within the nominal dimensions for most traditional tool chests.)  Since I had always liked quick access to chisels, I decided to include a chisel “rack” along the front of the chest – one of the reasons the case needed to be 2” deeper.  Behind this rack, almost out of sight, I included two slots for tucking in a full-sized framing square and a smaller one (see photo below.)

Carcase joinery completed

For the most part, I used the same construction techniques as in The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, but with some minor differences. I used screws (with square drive heads, no less! – what could be less historical) in slightly elongated holes to attach the bottom.  Cut nails are practical and fun to use (and I used some on the lid and bottoms of the trays), but I felt that the screws were the better, though non-traditional, way to go for the bottom boards.  I also used brass screws rather than cut nails to attach the runners for the trays (they almost disappear into the background since I stained the interior with a light oak-colored gel stain followed by a coat of amber shellac.) The stain plus shellac produces a pumpkin pine almost like that described in the Autumn 2007  issue of Woodworking Magazine,  but with fewer steps and therefore a bit less work.  (A word of caution: this tool chest has a lot of internal parts and if I had thought about how many of these parts would need to be stained and finished, I might have opted for the natural look.

Using a Stanley 45 plane to make the bottom of the chest

But on the other hand, I really like the stained interior – it has a sort of aged look and it only had to be done once, after all.)  My older chest had a partly stained and partly painted interior which I had always liked.

I allowed a bit more vertical space for the sliding trays and opted for different tray heights (about 5, 3 1/2, and 2 inches) because these best accommodated my tools in the locations where I most wanted them. The knobs are strictly non-traditional brass, but I had many of them on hand left over from another project.

Completed tongue and groove bottom boards

The most significant departure from the Anarchist’s Tool Chest is in the saw till.  In the original layout I left room for all the saws I wished to include, but couldn’t decide on exactly how to include them until late in the process.  In my older chest the saws sat in simple saw kerfs on the bottom of the removable saw box.  I always had some concerns about leaving the saws sitting in the shallow 3/4″kerfs (were they vulnerable to getting kinked or bending slowly over time?) so I added some additional support pieces which are screwed on from the bottom.

Sawtill "Box"

The saw till is actually a separate shallow box not attached to the chest, and while it could be removed, there is no particular reason to do so on a daily basis.  If it turns out that I don’t like this saw till option, I can always change it.

I had a very hard time finding good quality black hinges for the lid, and eventually opted for some very nice (read: expensive) heavy black iron hinges imported from England (available through White Chapel Ltd.  Catalog Number 238RHD2 ).  I enjoy their quality  and don’t regret the unexpected additional cost.  Good quality hardware is often more expensive than I think it should be, but almost always worth it in the long run.  I did, however, save some expense on the lock by moving it from my older chest to this one.  I had planned for an escutcheon, but found that the key for this lock was just barely long enough to reach through the dust seal.

Chest Lock

I might try to make a longer key some day, but it is unlikely to be used very often. (My two sons are now college age and finally understand that Dad’s good tools – now all in the chest –  are only to be used for cabinet and finish trim work – not for rough carpentry, for which there are always other tools available.)  I also located the chain for the lid on the right hand side since it is opposite the end from which I will normally access the chest.

Completed Tool Chest

I have used milk paint finishes in the past and I think they make an interesting and very traditional finish for a tool chest, but I opted for using “Savannah Red” from Old Century Colors for this tool chest since I have used it on some other items in the shop.  Olde Century paints seem to have very fine high-quality pigments and I like the deep, almost black, but still red color of their “Savannah Red.” (The photos do not really do it justice in spite of much color manipulation. The real color is very deep and rich, almost sensuous.)

Chest Interior with Chisel "Rack" and Framing Square Behind

Having used the chest now for several weeks, I must say that I am amazed at how nicely it fits in the (now mostly cleaned out) shop, but I am even more amazed at how well it actually works in practice.  For the first time in many years, I have almost immediate access to every tool that really matters, and I like the sense of closure that comes at the end of the day when all the tools are returned to their locations and the lid is closed awaiting the next day.  I’m also reminded as I look at the tool catalogs, or visit some of my favorite antique shops (one of which specializes in tools) that if I can’t readily fit it into this tool chest, perhaps I really don’t really need to buy it.  (But then, there is that collecting side of me…)

The Shaker workbench and traditional tool chest have brought a level of simplicity to my workshop that is satisfying in a very deep way, and will, no doubt, influence my work for many years to come.

Over the past year I have led a small group in our Church through an extended consideration of simplicity and margin in lifestyle.  I’ve led this kind of group several times in the past, but this time my wife and I as well as the other group members have perhaps gone deeper into subject than before.  This time, I’ve seen more clearly how the things we own all too often come to own us (and our time.)  The changes in the workshop (cleaning out unnecessary stuff, re-making the Shaker bench, and bringing more focus to hand tools through a traditional tool chest) have been a good proving ground for greater simplicity.  My shop feels less like something that “owns” me and my time, and more like something that will help me pursue woodworking in the future without getting in the way.

Our family has always tried to live more simply than our culture might move (push?) us toward, but the past months of change in the workshop have in principle provided an excellent “dry run” for changes that may need to be pursued in other areas of our lives.

A few days ago I was perusing the Lie-Nielsen Toolworks web site (always fun to do!), and almost by accident came upon a link to a woodworker (Kenneth Copp) who (unknown to me) lives and works in the town of Thorndike, Maine – the very town I grew up in and still visit from time to time.  Just a few years ago the Amish established a new and growing community in Thorndike and the adjacent town of Unity after purchasing hundreds of acres of unused farmland.  (For more information on their community see an excellent article published in the Bangor Daily News

Kenneth Copp’s workshop (http://locustgrovewoodworks.com/) is a part of that community.  The Amish know far more about simplicity than I know, and I’m looking forward to my next visit to Thorndike where I hope to connect with this woodworker and perhaps learn some more about simplicity in the workshop (and maybe even life.)

On that thought I close this post with a few of my favorite quotes on simplicity:

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”  – attributed to Albert Einstein, physicist (1879 – 1955)

“The older I grow the more clearly I perceive the dignity and winning beauty of simplicity in thought, conduct, and speech: a desire to simplify all that is complicated and to treat everything with the greatest naturalness and clarity.” – Pope John XXIII

“O God, I beg two favors from you;
let me have them before I die.
First, help me never to tell a lie.
Second, give me neither poverty nor riches!
Give me just enough to satisfy my needs.
For if I grow rich, I may deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?”
And if I am too poor, I may steal and thus insult God’s holy name.” – Agur, son of son of Jakeh from Massa in Proverbs 30:7-9

“May your shop and life be simple enough to be satisfying.”  (My quote for the day!)

About Stuart Blanchard

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4 Responses to Will the workshop please come to order!

  1. Al says:

    Stuart, It is nice to see the toolbox ‘rules’ adapted to produce the tool chest that meets your needs. I can picture it in your shop! Than you for sharing. – Al

  2. Al,
    Thanks! It was a fun project and nice to have the older tool chest you saw when you picked up the bench to experiment with. I hope your bench is seeing some fun work as well.

  3. A great chest and a great article. I couldn’t agree more with all your thoughts. It was amazing to me as I read the philosophy of the ATC how Chris had put into words things I had been struggling to realize and say myself. I work hard to remember the concept of simplify every day in my shop.

    I also built a tool chest, it was something I had planed to do for a while before the book came out, but “The Rules” helped me get it right, up to a point. I’ve been struggling with the finishing options, Of course I want to paint it, but I don’t want the black like Chris’s. I had been leaning red myself and after seeing the great color you achieved on yours, I’m pretty well sold.

    Thanks for the ideas and the inspiration.

  4. Pingback: The Best Laid Plans… | Stuart C. Blanchard

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