The TOOL BOX January 25, 2024 12:14


I did on-site woodwork frequently for decades. Often high-end work, I would have to take a variety of hand tools to the job site.  I had a basic set, but often I would also have to bring one or several specialty tools to complete the job.  I built many tools boxes over the years to carry these tools.

The first, I think, was the one my grandfather made for all his grandsons. Often called  a “suitcase” tool box because it usually had a single handle on top to carry it, though my grandfather knew that this was not only uncomfortable and bad for your back, but also would eventually stress the case to breaking.  This one had bail handles at each end, a single drawer and a fall front.  I couldn't get my framing square into it, but it was big enough to attach it to the back side.  I put 2 half dowels on the top near either end to span the height of the latch so I could put boards on it and use it as a saw bench. Still, tools piled on tools inside making it cumbersome.

I made an open handled tool tote, sides dovetailed, to bring my tools to an interview; it got me the job.  But really, it was totally inefficient for serious work, being capable of holding in any efficient manor only a minimum number of tools, about enough to do minor repair work around the house.  I have seen beautifully crafted handled tots with positions for a good selection of tools, but my major problem with the open tote is its vulnerability; if you get caught in the rain, which has happened to me, you’re in for a lot of work: every single tool has to be pulled out , inspected and dried. The box has to be dried.  Any planes must be disassembled completely, dried and reassembled.  It’s really disheartening to pull out your plane a few days later only to find a single drop of rain has rusted the blade, chipbreaker and bed of the plane together.  And this is not to mention the easy access it gives to the “casual” tool borrower who doesn’t bother to put the tool back.

Then I made a Japanese-style tool box— actually I made several —at least six over the years.  The first one I dadoed the bottom into the sides to make a neat job: it broke out in less than 6 months.  The handles on it protruded, they were not recessed like the classic Japanese boxes are; these got badly beat up and splintered in moving them around and on and off the truck. Then I made some out of plywood, nailed together.  These held up well, though I tried to protect the bottom corners with metal brackets: these tore off in weeks.  Besides, they scratched everything you set them on. This experience taught me  that anything that protrudes from the case will be broken off— or will damage something else.  Besides, it also adds weight, which became an increasing problem as the wide variety of jobs I undertook kept adding new tools to the list of those required to complete the jobs.

But the main problem I have with the Japanese-style toolboxes is that if you have a variety of tools, you have to layer them one atop another and build multiple trays for small tools.  These all have to be removed and set outside the box to access the ones on the lower level, leaving tools scattered around, unprotected: not good for the tools and I find this inefficient. And— this surprises me— you cannot fit a Japanese framing square into it, not alone a Western framing square.

I do, however, like the grips on the Japanese toolbox and its general volume is about right, tending to put a limit on the amount weight you can put into it.

This topic of  weight is important. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with the foreman of one of the jobs I worked on. He had decided to build a large tool box, big enough to hold all the tools he thought he might need.  He open the trunk of his car and there sat his open tote tool box, filling the entire trunk.  It was so big and heavy he never took it out of the trunk: when he needed a tool, he had to go back to his car to get it.

Nature abhors a vacuum.  Woodworkers abhor empty space in a toolbox, and will soon fill it. You need to make the toolbox just big enough to take your tool set and your largest tools, and no bigger.  

The British-style toolbox, the large one that holds all your tools, albeit pretty efficiently, is not really a mobil tool box: while it can be moved and lifted — by two people (though just barely)— this certainly cannot be done on a frequent basis.  It’s ideal for moving to a job for several months or maybe a couple of years, especially where there are a lot of other similar workers, but if I were to stay longer I would strongly consider making wall cabinets or a tall chest.  The British toolbox occupies floor area and vertical space: you cannot set anything on top of it, or you won’t be able to get your tools out.  I calculated that in my shop, this inaccessible floor area would cost me about $300 a year.  

The Dutch toolbox is also not really meant to be moved a lot, it’s still too big and awkward for one person to easily move it in and out of the car, especially if it is loaded to its full volume.

Moving and storing your tools

Access should be immediate: you should not have to remove one tool to access    another.
Structural stresses, understand these
Stuff that sticks out will get broken off, or damage other surfaces
Stuff that sticks out adds weight
No bigger than your largest tool (within reason!)
Enclosed for protection of the tools
Minimum weight: exclude, pare, remove, open, rather than add.