it was the rust that got me…

Yup. I am one of the many who have followed along with Chris Schwarz’ book The Anarchist’s Tool Chest  & made a tool chest.

It was the rust that got me…

My shop at the museum has an ocean view. Good for the soul. Good for birding at lunchtime. But tough for iron & steel. When I read Chris’ note that one benefit of keeping tools in a chest was rust prevention, I was sold. I changed a bunch of things, some intentional, some otherwise. The lid I made has two panels that are flush with the framing. This way I can use strap hinges on the inside…those are on order now.  The dust seal on my lid is fixed to its bottom surface, not the edges. It gets the same effect, I think.

I’m not much of a dovetail-er…but now I have had some practice.

dovetails on box for gouges


My carcass is white pine, but the trays inside are walnut. I ran out of pine, and had a fair amount of the walnut leftover. So I ripped a bunch of it down to ½” thick and made the three trays from that. “Trays” doesn’t quite seem the right term for them, but I guess they aren’t quite drawers either.

I have never studied antique tool chests, so all I had to go on was the book; the way these trays ride is pretty nice. The lowest tray rides on slats fixed to the inside walls of the chest; but the trays are different widths. The narrowest is the bottom, the next one a bit wider and the top one is the full width of the chest’s interior. So to keep them from flopping laterally, you need to fix spacers beside the trays. In the case of the bottom tray, the spacers also serve as the runners for the next tray, and this repeats once more for the top tray. Chris used quartersawn white oak for his. Nice tough wood for sliding those heavy trays across.

re-used carvings

I decided to use some odd bits of carving demos for mine. (in this view, the top tray doesn’t have its bottom yet.) Couldn’t bear to use up new blank pieces of oak. This way we’ll know this chest is mine. Some of these were done during the shooting of the DVDs on carving. Some I make boxes from, but I don’t need three versions of each box around here. Others were carvings I did for demonstrations, but never finished them…

The trays’ bottoms are also oak, in this case riven clapboards I conned the carpenters into letting go. I planed them down to ¼” thick. Using a period-style bench makes planing this very thin stuff quite challenging. I used a simple lap joint between the boards; ship-lapped it’s sometimes called. In this case, I used machine-made nails; no sense using hand-made nails for this tiny work.

1/4" thick oak bottoms, ship-lapped

So far, I have put dividers in two of the trays; the clapboard bottoms flopped around a bit in the wide open middle of these long trays. So I inserted a divider, and nailed the bottom boards up to that.

top tray's divider, with another box inside

Today I made a tray-within-a-tray; to keep carving gouges in. This way I can just lift the small tray out of the box, and bring it to the bench. We’ll see how it goes. At this point, I’m at the stage where I am fitting various tools into the trays, etc.  It’s been a fun project, but I am continually reminded that I am a joiner, not a cabinetmaker. And that’s a good thing…joinery I can handle, this I’m barely getting by…

box for carving tools

But as I finish this part, I am planning the paint. And it’s not going to be any solid-color plain job. Wait til you see it. Remember the MFA cupboard?

28 thoughts on “it was the rust that got me…

  1. Lovely job, Peter. I’ve seen a few shipwrights’ tool chests, mostly very simple and functional. Yours with carved spacers/ runners is a beauty. To my mind the flush panel lid makes sense – why lose a potentially useful flat work surface?
    One thing I’d change about the ATC design is the chain that supports the open lid, which looks way to twee in my opinion.

  2. Welcome to the club. The rust is what got me as well, bein in a Georgia swamp and all. I really enjoyed The ATC, and really cannot wait for your book to be out as well.

  3. Peter, typically, if oak was used as a tray bottom or side, felt or tin was overlayed to prevent contact. Tool chest or not, moisture will enter and react with the oak and the iron or steel. Just a thought.

  4. Love the chest, Peter. The rust issue made me go with a chest also — especially for my saws. In the winter I heat the shop with a vent-free gas heater. Works very well, but a biproduct of the vent-free deal is water vapor. Not much of an issue except with surface rust buildup on saw plates, etc.

    I found a large old carpenters chest, fixed it up, and brought it back into service. It works great. Just to be sure, I purchased a couple silica gel canisters from Lee Valley. They are about the size and shape of a sardine can. When they have absorbed their maximum of moisture, they can be reactivated again and again by heating them in an oven. The flat top has also been a useful surface to have around. I put the chest on lockable casters so I can move it around the shop where I need it.

    • Hi Richard – yes, there’s peril in using those shiny tools. Once you try them, you gotta have some. I went for saws & a couple of chisels. Then Alexander gave me some hand-me-downs too…but I can stop anytime.

  5. Imagine the head-scratching that is going to go on if that chest ends up in an antique shop or a museum some day. :-)

  6. I love the chest. One question about the lid, I noticed the dust rim was attached to the bottom versus the sides. Was there a reason for this? Either way, you get to see the through tenons which I love.

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  8. Peter, this is beautiful work. Can you explain how the flush top frame and panel construction works and goes together? I’m in the process of building a similar chest, and would like the flat lid vs. the raised one that Chris writes about.


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