I started writing about this topic yesterday, and it ended up entirely too long for a single post. So today is the second half of my novella on storing hand tools. Click here to go back to Part 1.
English Joiner’s Tool Chests
As mentioned in yesterday’s post, wooden tool chests have been around for hundreds of years. A popular form of wooden tool chest is the dovetailed joiner’s, cabinet maker’s or English tool chest. This form starts to become common around the turn of the 18th century.
My first experience with this form came when I built a version featured in two episodes of The Woodwright’s Shop. I loved this chest for bringing tools to classes or demos and storing specialty tools and overflow. The chest was perfectly sized, and I could lift it into the back of my car myself, even fully loaded.
Then, in 2015, my family and I sold our house and moved to our current home. My old shop, while small, had been climate controlled. On our new property, I had to move my shop into a drafty old shed. At first, I attempted to re-use the wall hanging tool boards from my old shop (more on those below). However, I quickly found out that a drafty, old building means condensation and rust for ferrous metals.
I needed a better storage solution for my precious hand tools. The smaller joiner’s tool chest just wasn’t big enough to store all my tools. So, I decided to build a full-sized tool chest.
I have been working exclusively out of this chest for the last 6 years. In general, it’s an OK storage solution. The tools are protected from airborne dust and rust. It’s somewhat organized, though the tills can become a bit jumbled (more on that below). I can certainly see how a lockable chest like this would be a great solution in a shared period workshop.
However, these chests have their share of disadvantages as well. First, full sized English tool chests are anything but portable. When my chest is fully loaded with tools, it would be complete immovable if it were not on casters. With casters I can roll it around. However, it takes two strong adults to lift this chest off the ground when it is full.
My second dislike about the chest is the constant disorganization of the three sliding tills. Just about everyone has a junk drawer in their kitchen. This tool chest has three of them. The tills in my chest are basically narrow, open drawers. No matter how carefully I organize, after a week or two, the tills are a jumbled mess again. The tools roll around whenever the tills are moved. Tools get thrown on top of other tools. It’s a horribly disorganized way of working.
My third dislike is having my most used planes and saws at the bottom of the chest. The way I’m supposed to work is to take out the tools I need and keep them on the bench. I can’t work like this. I don’t like having a bunch of tools all over the workbench. They get in my way and I knock them on the floor and damage them. I like to put my tools away safely when I’m not using them. The bottom of a chest is a terrible place for tools to be stored the way that I work.
When I’m breaking down lumber, I mark a board, then saw that board. Then I mark the second board and saw that board. Each time I’m done sawing a board, I like to put the saw away while I mark the second board. Then I put the square and pencil away while I’m sawing. This is a terrible way to work when your tools are stored in the bottom of a chest.
Similarly, when I’m planing the rough sawn face of a board, I start with the jack plane, then switch to the try plane. I also check the board frequently with winding sticks. If my boards are small, I can leave both planes and the winding sticks on the benchtop. If the boards are larger, however, the tools I’m not using get in the way. I know I should put the unused tools on the shelf below the bench between uses. However, that shelf has enough crap on it already, so there’s no room for the plane and winding sticks. So, they go back into the chest until I’m ready for them. This is, once again, very inefficient.
I loved my small tool chest for overflow and specialty tools. In those days, my primary tools were hung on pegs and sat on shelves on the wall. I wasn’t working out of the tool chest every day. However, after 6 years working out of the full-sized chest on a regular basis, it’s not my favorite arrangement. Some people love working out of these chests. I’m just not one of them.
Dutch Style Tool Chests
The Dutch tool chest has become a popular solution in recent years, thanks to Christopher Schwarz and Megan Fitzpatrick. The form is probably just as old, if not older, than the traditional English tool chest. I have no personal experience with this form. However, in theory, it should have similar advantages and disadvantages to the English chest.
First, it’s a closed system, so it will help keep dust from settling on the tools, minimizing rust. Second It should stay pretty well organized. In fact, most examples that I’ve seen are quite a bit better organized than an English tool chest. I think part of the reason for that is that they lack the sliding tills of an English chest. These chests also appear to me to be much more portable than a full-sized English chest.
On the minus end of things, they are quite limited in size. While I’m sure they can hold a lot of tools, there is still only so much space within their walls. If the kit expands beyond what they can contain, other storage solutions are required. Also, while I’ve never personally worked out of one, I’m guessing it’s not much more convenient than an English chest. I could be wrong about this, and I hope I am.
I do think these chests are an interesting and promising option for a smaller kit that needs to be portable. Based on their popularity alone, I think a lot of woodworkers would agree with me. I plan to experiment with the design myself in the not-too-distant future.
Wall Hung Hand Tool Cabinets
Fancy wall hung hand tool cabinets are a fairly contemporary concept. The most famous example of a wall hung hand tool cabinet is the one built by H. O. Studley in the late 1800s. Today, many woodworkers aspire to one day build themselves their dream hand tool cabinet.
Wall hung cabinets have the advantage over floor chests when it comes to organization. Most wall hung tool cabinets have custom tool hangers and holders that keep the tools secure and protected. Being hung on the wall, the tools are also at a more convenient height to reach vs. a floor chest. To protect the tools from settling dust, the door can be closed when the tools are not in use.
However, for me, that’s where the tool cabinet’s usefulness ends. In my opinion, the disadvantages of a tool cabinet outweigh its advantages. First, the wall hung tool cabinet is not portable. Even if it’s hung on a French cleat and easily removed from the wall, it’s not very convenient for travel.
Second, it’s not easily reconfigured or expanded. If you’re satisfied with your current kit and want an incentive not to change it, this might be a benefit. However, if you want to add tools to the cabinet later, you need to plan for them when you build it. This isn’t always an easy thing to do. A lot of woodworkers tend to explore many different aspects of the craft. For example, you might not be interested in chairmaking when you build the cabinet. If you decide to dabble in chairs in the future, your cabinet may not accommodate the additional tools.
The third thing I dislike about tool cabinets are the doors. If you hang your cabinet away from your benchtop, the doors may be less of a concern. However, if the cabinet is right above your workbench, cabinet doors are hugely inconvenient. If you’re assembling on the workbench and need to open the cabinet, you have to move the glue-up to open the doors. When the doors are already open and you are done for the day, you have to move the glue-up to close them. If you don’t close the doors, then the cabinet isn’t keeping the dust from settling on the tools.
Some woodworkers love their tool cabinets and consider them more than just a place to store their tools. They use them to showcase not only their tool collection, but their skills with those tools as well (see the tool cabinet built by my friend Shannon Rogers for an example). They use expensive, exotic woods, and spend countless hours planning and building their shrine. I cannot fault these works of art for what they are – they can be absolutely beautiful. However, functionally, a tool cabinet just doesn’t appeal to me.
Storing Hand Tools on the Wall
Storing tools on the walls is an older method of storing hand tools than any of the aforementioned solutions. However, it wasn’t until we moved into our third house that I fully embraced wall storage. As mentioned earlier, 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.
The walls were gypsum board, so hanging tool holders directly on the wall wasn’t really a wise idea. So, I borrowed an idea from Fine Woodworking #160 (2002 Tools & Shops issue). By securing some French cleats to the wall above my workbench, I could hang some simple pine panels. I could then fasten custom tool holders or pegs anywhere on these boards. The system also made it super easy to rearrange individual tool holders or entire panels.
I worked with this system for over 10 years and I absolutely loved the convenience. Shallow racks, like those for chisels and gouges, were hung low for easy access. Saws were hung conveniently on pegs so they could be removed and replaced quickly and easily. A shelf for deeper storage was hung high where it wouldn’t interfere with the work on the benchtop. It was the perfect solution for me at the time.
However, like all solutions, wall storage isn’t necessarily the end-all-be-all for everyone. Storing tools on the wall has its disadvantages as well. First, dust will settle on the tools. If you use machines and power tools in the space, especially sanders and a table saw, dust is much worse. But even in a hand tool only shop, the hand tools will still get dusty. Using the tools regularly alleviates most of the problems this can cause. An occasional wipe down with an oily rag takes care of the tools that aren’t regular users.
The other knock against wall storage is the space it takes up over the bench. This can be problematic if your bench is against the same wall as the tools. As mentioned earlier, I don’t like wall cabinets with doors for this reason. To address the space requirement, keep the lower storage as shallow as possible. The tools really shouldn’t need to stick out from the wall more than about 6 inches.
The third gripe about wall storage is having to walk away from the bench to retrieve and replace tools. I don’t really get this one. Unless your workshop is HUGE, and your workbench is really far from the wall, it’s not an inconvenience. In my current setup, all I have to do is turn around and the tools are right there. If it’s that far for you to get to your hand tools, maybe you should move your workbench closer to the tools.
The main problem that I find with wall storage is that it’s not at all portable. I teach classes and travel to do demonstrations from time to time. I, obviously, cannot take a wall of tools with me. So, I have to have another solution for traveling with my tools. The small English tool chest is a great solution for this.
My Current Solution for Storing Hand Tools
After years of trying different methods, I think I have finally settled on my chosen solutions for storing hand tools. The general conclusion I have arrived at is that there is no one perfect solution for every tool or shop. With that in mind, I’ve started reconfiguring my hand tool storage to best suit my current workshop and tool kit.
The first tools that I decided to tackle were the hand saws and planes. In my old shop, I loved having the saws and planes on the wall within easy reach of my workbench. They were easy to access and easy to return between uses. Wall storage for these tools, for my work habits at least, is as much about staging as it is storing. So, I built a new till for my hand saws and a set of shelves for my planes.
I’ve yet to address my smaller tools – squares, marking gauges, chisels, boring tools. I do have a rough plan for those types of tools, however, that will require some workbench reconfiguration. That will be a topic for another day.
As for the portability problem, I still need to address that as well. I’ll be teaching some classes this spring and will need to bring a small kit of hand tools with me to the school. My small English tool chest was great for these kinds of trips, but I’ve long since sold that chest. However, I think I’ll use the opportunity to build myself a small Dutch style tool chest to experiment with. While the English chest was OK, I think the Dutch style might provide a bit more opportunity for better organization.
I like organization.