Storing Hand Tools, Part 1
I’ve been woodworking now for over 30 years. In that time, I’ve tried just about every solution you can imagine for storing hand tools. There have been numerous portable toolboxes. I’ve had mechanic’s style rolling tool chests. I’ve used those plastic drawer thingies that you find in the container section of the big box store. I tried [every baby boomer’s favorite] pegboard for a while. None of these solutions were ideal for me, but they sufficed for my situation at the time.
When I moved into the Logan Cabinet Shoppe in 2005, floor space was at a premium. The room was only 7-feet by 13-feet, and my workbench took up about 20-percent of the available real estate. However, other than the door, there was only one small window, so there was plenty of wall space. So, I did what was done in many pre-industrial shops and hung my tools on the wall.
In 2011 I built my first woodworking specific tool chest. It was based on the one Roy Underhill made in two 2010 episodes of The Woodwright’s Shop. You can watch those episodes on the Woodwright’s Shop website (part 1 & part 2). That project introduced me to the traditional English chest, and I used it for travel and specialty tools for years.
Based upon all these experiences, I’ve concluded that the perfect solution for storing hand tools simply doesn’t exist. Each of the previously mentioned storage options has its merits and its disadvantages. So, let’s look at what each system has to offer, in hopes that it might help someone avoid endless experimentation.
Most people don’t normally associate plastic household containers with hand tool woodworking. For many of us, the whole reason we build things from wood, other than the pure enjoyment we get from doing so, is to reduce the amount of plastic stuff in our lives. So why would anyone choose to store hand tools that they use for working wood in plastic containers?
In my case, the primary reasons were cost and convenience. When I set up my first workshop, I had no tools, and little money, just like many other new woodworkers. At the time, I was about 2 year out of college, and a new homeowner. My fiancé and I were not just restoring our dilapidated new abode, we were also saving up for a wedding.
I needed a workshop, not just for woodworking, but also for home improvement. I needed tools, not just for woodworking, but also for home improvement. There was little money available for anything but food and home improvement projects. I did manage to scrape together enough for a few woodworking hand tools and a simple workbench. But I did not have a place to store my tools when I wasn’t using them. So, rather than storing my tools on the floor of the garage, I bought a set of plastic drawers.
While most people would not consider these containers the ideal solution for storing woodworking hand tools, they were functional. The tools are stored off the ground. The container was kind of a closed system, so the unit kept most of the airborne dust off the tools. Larger tools, like my jointer plane, that did not fit inside a drawer could be set on top. Plus, it was super inexpensive.
Of course, there were plenty of disadvantages as well. The drawers certainly did not open and close smoothly. This problem got worse as the weight of the tools inside of the drawer increased. Tools would roll around and bang into each other. There was little real organization. Plus, it was plastic!
Eventually the plastic drawers cracked. The plastic frame broke. The entire unit basically became completely useless. It served its intended purpose for the short time that it needed to. But I certainly wouldn’t recommend this solution for long-term use.
Portable toolboxes have been around for hundreds of years. Wooden chests were used on medieval sailing ships. Pre-industrial joiners and cabinet makers built boxes to secure their tools and help move them when they changed shops. A portable toolbox can be found in just about every barn, shed, garage, and basement. They can be made of wood, metal, or plastic. They come in all shapes and sizes. In my lifetime, I’ve owned a lot of them.
The main draw of portable toolboxes is, well, they’re portable. They tend to be small enough that they can be picked up and carried from job to job. Some are stackable, or even rack-able, providing additional flexibility of organization and transportation. They’re also a closed container, so they do a good job keeping dust off the tools inside.
Portable toolboxes are one of my favorite storage solutions – for my home improvement tools. I have one for carpentry tools; one for electrical tools; one for hand-held power tools; and one for plumbing tools. This makes it easy for me to grab the box I need and take all the tools to the job.
When it comes to the tools that I use for fine woodworking, however, I find portable toolboxes poorly designed. Most are too small to hold anything longer than a jack plane or tenon saw. The trays, if they have them at all, allow the tools to roll around and bang into each other. This isn’t a good idea when you have lots of sharp edges.
I also find them very inconvenient to work out of at the bench. I like to be able to find the tool I need, then put it back when I’m done. However, these boxes require too much tool shuffling to keep them organized. Not to mention I’d need multiple boxes to store all my tools. For me, portable toolboxes like these are great for small kits of specialized home improvement tools. However, I don’t like them for my fine woodworking tools.
Mechanic’s Rolling Tool Chests
I’ve had a mechanic’s rolling tool chest for 20 years. The chest was a birthday gift from my wife shortly after we moved into our first house. For many years, I stored all my tools in this chest, including my woodworking tools. These days, the chest holds only the tools I need to maintain our vehicles, some metal working tools, and a few larger home improvement tools that don’t fit in portable toolboxes.
I still like these chests. They’re not the first thing that comes to mind when considering storage for woodworking tools, but they are quite serviceable. The drawers are easy to organize, easy to work out of, and make it easy to find what you need. They keep dust off the tools, and with the right drawer lining, sharp edges can also be well protected.
If I had no place to keep my woodworking hand tools and no desire to build a more elegant solution, I would seriously consider using a chest like this. Good ones are not inexpensive. However, these chests tick all the right boxes for my organizational preferences.
Pegboard Tool Walls
If you grew up in the United States between the 1950s and the 1980s, you know all about pegboard. Every suburban American handyman had a pegboard tool wall, complete with tool outlines, in their garage or basement. Pegboard is the reason for every hang hole you see drilled into the sole of an old hand plane. I have a love-hate relationship with the stuff.
On the one hand, pegboard tool walls trigger a deep sense of nostalgia for me. When I was a kid in the early 1980’s, my best friend’s father had the quintessential basement workbench. It’s the workspace I dreamed of having when I was a kid. My friend’s dad was a woodshop teacher at the vocational school, but his basement wasn’t a woodshop at all. At home he was a tinkerer, and his basement workshop was a tinkerer’s space.
The ceilings couldn’t have been more than 7’ tall, and they felt even shorter than that. Past the old refrigerator, behind shelves stacked with cardboard boxes of Christmas decorations and old clothes, was a dim blue light. Tucked in the corner was an old counter atop a set of white metal kitchen cabinets from the 1950s. A single four-foot fluorescent light fixture with a rusty pull chain hung from the open joists above. Two matching metal cabinets were attached to the wall above the countertop. Between those two cabinets, a third, shorter cabinet filled in the space at the top. On the wall between the counter and upper cabinets – white pegboard.
Myriad hand tools were hung on that pegboard. There were Crescent wrenches, Vise Grips, Snap-on ratchets and sockets, screwdrivers, pliers, and anything else a tinkerer would need. Inside the cabinets were jars of random screws, old boxes of nails, and various cans of paints, stains, and solvents. I can remember spending many evenings in that basement with my friend and his dad just messing around with whatever the day’s interest was. I’ll always remember his pegboard tool wall. I wish I had a photo of the space so I could post it here. But alas, that was long before cell phones and the internet.
My own experience with a pegboard tool wall isn’t quite the nostalgic memory. A previous owner put pegboard on the wall of the garage in one of the houses that we owned. That garage wasn’t a woodshop either, but a place to fix mowers, change oil, and do other dirty jobs. The tools I hung on that wall also were not woodworking tools, but tinkerer’s tools.
What I remember most from that wall, however, is how often the tool holders simply came off the wall. It seems like every time I reached for a tool, the tool holder would come with it. The plastic “keepers” that were supposed to keep the tool holders in place worked the first few times. But they failed in short order too. I’d hate to reach for a chisel only to watch the entire rack drop to the concrete floor as the holder comes free from the wall.
Also, being an open storage system, tools tend to get a layer of dust on them. If the shop is climate controlled this may not be an issue. However, in a humid climate, with no climate control, open storage invites rust. So, more tool maintenance is needed to keep rust under control.
In addition to the rust issues and pitiful tool holders, I just don’t care for the look of pegboard anymore. If you don’t mind the appearance, and you come up with some better tool holders, it’s a viable solution. But these days, pegboard just isn’t for me.
This post ended up much longer than I had originally intended, so I’ve decided to split it up into two parts. Click here to be taken directly to part 2.
Just moved house – so very useful topic. Thank you.
Not sure if the link to the Part 2 is broken as part 2 not yet posted or its just a broken link. THanks Bob
Coming tomorrow. Probably shouldn’t have built the like yet.
Your description of my experience is dead on. I still have not settled on one system. I think the best alternative is to make your own custom storage. Hopefully it will work out.
Great article so far. You had me laughing while talking about each system used. Great memories.
I tried to open part 2, but the link is not working. Hopefully you can get that working, but I’m not good at computers, so I can’t help (sorry).
Born in 1950 ,I have been through all the iterations you mention. And I hate pegboard for the reasons you mention and more. As a handyman that will tackle most any house job over the years, I have all the tools you mention and store them in a system much like yours. But many more mechanics tools and chests as a professional heavy equip. mechanic ( now retired). Had a jack and low angle block plane, chisels and some hand tools, before trying my hand at primarily hand tool wood working. After building English workbench it became apparent that tool storage would be next thing to address. What solution I found was an old entertainment center, 60 inches wide and 70 inches tall. This monster took four guys to move and it was 80 bucks, the inner and outer walls ( four total) are 18 mil ply. and put the same behind back.back. One of the great benefits of using directly behind me at the work bench is the shelf is work bench height, so it is easy to sharpen and store tools that would over flow the workbench. Most used tools are on shelves and holders inside and in drawers.
Sounds like a good solution!
The other main gripe with plastic toolboxes is they always end up breaking. Some way faster than others. Fixing boxes are a nightmare if they come apart at a job, or in the vehicle, or basically anywhere. I now use only metal bodied with plastic trays. I did like the functionality of some of the toolboxes. Found out the hard way how off the balance was on others with wheels- or how poor the actual wheel quality was. I made a small Dutch tool chest for the woodworking handtools and I can’t see a better option for myself in that regard. The longest lasting one I have is a small pine tote I made at school when I was about 15 or so. Still handy to use for a small random selection of gear required for a job site without taking everything inside for internal work. General tools are in a cantilevered steel box I bought as an aside because of the spanner and socket set which it carried from a salvage shop at the waste station. Just starting to need some repairs to the lid but as it cost me $20 along with the tools I was pretty happy with that. A lot of the readily available new ones are pretty poor with the construction quality. You do get what you pay for. Getting the ideal however is another ballgame entirely.
I was born in 1968. Pegboard is near and dear to my heart. When designing my garage workshop, I covered the walls in pegboard. I’m luck in that most but not all of the hangers stay in place for the woodworking tools though I have developed a more delicate way to remove tools for the reasons you mentioned. If I were to do it over again, I would try something new. Probably plywood on the walls with dowels or French cleats or a traditional wall hung tool chest. Looking forward to reading part 2. Thanks for sharing.