A Gentleman’s Tool Chest

You may find this chest design very practical for your needs; it is manageable in size and can be (relatively) easily reconfigured for various tasks.

A Traditional Tool Chest Design that I had built earlier had served me well on numerous occasions, but I often found that I did not need the capacity (and therefore the weight) that it offered. There had to be a better design for my situation considering the thousands and thousands of woodworkers who had gone before me…and there was! At that time, Tools: Working Wood in the Eighteenth Century, was an exhibit happening at Colonial Williamsburg. On page 20 of the catalog that accompanied the exhibit, were illustrated two chests sold by London ironmonger William Hewlett and referred to as “Gentleman’s Tool Chests”. One of those chests was purchased in 1773; the three pictured here below were from an 1816 catalog illustration, and at the top of this page is a version from an 1852 catalog, so you can see that over time, this practical design proved itself an enduring one.

An engraving from a tool catalog illustrating three tool chests of varying capacity.
As this plate shows the design was quite elastic, and upgrades were available to your chest capacity. My own chest is a close match for number 7 in this illustration, but number 5 is an appealing alternative. Published in 1816 by Joseph Smith, “Explanation or Key, to the various manufactories of Sheffield : with engravings of each article designed for the utility of merchants…”

Not shown here is that these chests could be purchased fully loaded with tools; in fact the 1852 example at the top of this post was listed as containing the following:

A catalog description of the contents of a tool chest
…Note that the chest was large enough to accommodate all of the tools and it was made from oak, so not lightweight.

Its relatively shallow depth made this chest especially appealing to someone with shorter arms, like myself. Its a great design to experiment with, you can purchase a couple of nice, clear, pine 1 x 12’s and make a test version to suit your particular measurements before you commit to that quartersawn oak, curly maple or quilted cherry. I made mine of a solid mahogany; early catalog examples were usually made of oak, or could be purchased fancy veneered with mahogany crotch.

A great learning tool as a one-on-one project experience

In the late 90’s I offered this chest as a class project and nine dedicated souls spent one night per week over several weeks building their own chests. Of course there was a lot of homework involved. Each student brought the tools that they wanted to fit inside their new chests, and we designed around those items for a custom case. The example below is a chest that was built during that seminar.  I’m still considering offering this tool chest as a one-on-one project, as it involves so many useful techniques. If you’re interested in building one, Contact me and we can discuss the possibility.

Open Mahogany tool chest
This is the chest that I built along with students during our hands-on seminar 20 years later, in very good shape. It lives apart from me with its owner, but I managed some visitation rights..
Tool Chest Project
A student can cover a lot of ground building this chest; apart from the joinery of the lid and case, there is drawer making and fitting, designing for optimal use of space, the hardware selection and installation. Really, as in all projects hardware should be in hand at the beginning of the work; it is easier to accommodate installation with measurements that you have in front of you than retrofit hardware to an already assembled case.
Gents Tool Project detail
The mahogany has taken on a lovely color over the years and the hardware has patinated nicely.

My version 2.0 is still in daily use…

I do not travel out as much as I once did, but my Gent’s Chest still sees frequent use. I removed the lid and placed the chest on a shelf behind my bench, giving me easy access to useful tools. If I would need to travel, it is relatively easy to reattach the lid for use on the road. I was lucky to have this chest on hand for my back-bench; I would have had to build something very similar to its form make my workspace more practical.

WP top Drw 2
Here is the chest as it sits on the shelf behind my bench. What you see here is a shallow tray that covers the tool well and the infrequently used items stored there.
WP Till
With the tray removed, the contents of the Well are revealed; gouges used for coping, paring chisels, dowel centers, ratchets and frame saw parts find a convenient home here. All of these dividers are pressure fit scrap material; nothing is permanent so re-configuring is relatively easy.
a mahogany tool chest with top drawer pulled open displaying contents
The top drawer has been divided into two levels; the bottom level has a slotted rack for screwdrivers over which three separate trays glide from right to left allowing access. I am often reaching into this drawer for scalpels or dental tools during the restoration process. the remaining tray holds needle files and rasps.
A mahogany tool chest with bottom drawer pulled open displaying contents
The removable tray sitting atop the chest has slats with dados that the dividers just slide into; again all pressure fit and easily changed. The chest was built to accommodate the length of my Stanley No. 6 plane, and the bottom drawer is where that plane would be stowed on its side. The plane is only about 3 inches wide, so the drawer did not have to be as deep as I made it at 4 inches, but it must have seemed like a good idea at the time, and I’m sure that I had a reason…Were I to build a new version I would likely alter some dimensions. The bottom drawer has been divided into compartments with two trays, the smaller one holds chair making bits.  I believe that the large top tray originally held screwdrivers and marking tools and that may be what drove the decision to make a deeper drawer in the first place. It is handy now to hold some surplus chisels.
mahogany tool chest with lid open and tools displayed
And here it is with the lid reattached with the Well emptied. The fittings inside the lid were meant to be temporary, while the interior layout was being arranged. Everywhere that you see and empty spot between the tools on the lid, a corresponding tool rose up from the Tool Well beneath to fill that space. This was built in the 1990’s and though those interior well fittings have been long removed and replaced, the temporary lid fittings have remained in place. Since I use this chest these days on my back bench, the lid needs to be removed since it could not be used while opened in the space I have available beneath my tool wall.
mahogany tool chest veiwed from back corner
The dovetail spacing on the back corner may seem a little odd, but it is laid out to accommodate grooves for the till bottom and the drawer divider along the interior surface. Just as on my traditional cabinet-makers tool chest. I have added a batten strip on the back of this gent’s chest to support the open lid and take some of the abuse should the chest slide during transport.

© 2019 All Content: Joseph Hoover. Sticks and Glue. All Rights Reserved.

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