Questioning the Cross-grain Rim On Toolboxes

DSC_0099 There are concerns about the type of lid fixing to the toolboxes we made where the lid is skirted crosswise to the main long axis of the grain of the lid with a lip covering the end grain at each end of the lid in the traditional manner. I understand the comments and the concerns, but then again, it’s not so much perhaps an exam piece but a near replication of something that has been common practice for centuries and so there I almost rest my case, well, initially at least, and with no pun intended.

This lid shows evidence of some cracking from restriction from shrinking. Would I mind? Not at all! It’s a toolbox not prissy.


Slight evidence of end shrinkage but all is still stout and strong and the cracks are very small and short too. N problem on a ship bound the Americas!!

On all of my toolboxes and tool chests I use frame-and-panel, a method also very traditional, but of course it would be pointless to do a replication if you change everything because a better way was devised. The reality here is that no modern woodworker came up with a better way beyond reconstituting the materials common to the craft like a Pringle chip so that it stacks up in the box as sheet goods do and use MDF to get around the issues of expansion and contraction. Of course the life span of most MDF goods are not what we were promised when magazines in the late 70’s in the US were saying MDF was the new miracle material that could be a great substitute for wood and one that could be routed, sanded and stained and would change our need and use of wood. DSC_0006 - Version 2 MDF was never a real alternative in furniture making for real woodworking but machine-only woodworking mostly; that is except for those building in ways to limit life expectancy and create fashionable and mostly but not always disposable product. DSC_0002

Putting ourselves in the place of men building boxes like these shown above, from the centuries before, helps us to place ourselves in true realms of realness when working people knew no such thing as the luxury of leisure time, disposability and short shelf-life furniture pieces. They didn’t buy wood as we would from Home Depot or B&Q in S4S sections pre planed and such. Boxes like these had no counterpart in the form of plastic alternatives and people traveled the globe, boxes in tow, stowing their chattels in cases just like these to contain some of their most valued possessions, not the least of which were indeed the tools of a man’s trade. For some, this traveling container was purely a transitional step to one of the colonies and a new life. When I moved to migrate to the USA I made twenty 3/4” plywood boxes glued and screwed together and skinned each side with 1/2” plywood. Strong and watertight, half of them were filled with my tools and the other half treasured family stuff. These boxes became cupboards and shelves in my shop and as far as I know are still wherever they were screwed to the walls in different workshops I left behind me as I moved on.

For others intent on protecting their tools in previous centuries it was more important to make something that was lightweight and strong and built to last. These boxes fulfilled their existence as being fit for purpose and, though perhaps in an era of unknown and uncertain futures, unable to predict what would happen, they have proven themselves worthy of total respect in the fact that we are using them now a hundred or hundreds of years later on. DSC_0010 The boxes traveled continents and supported craftsmen through two world wars. They transported tools to and from work places and kept them safe in workshops too. No small thing and especially so when I think that I own several of them and still use them today for keeping and protecting my personal tool collections.

It’s interesting to see the responses people have had and the discussions issuing forth and yet no one actually acknowledged that hundreds of thousands of chests were built and used just like those shown here over at least four centuries. Was it that no one knew what we knew today? Not at all. Woodworkers did what was necessary. It took much more work to create the more sophisticated  framed panels that also date back through at least half a millennia. This system was developed to make doors that would not shrink too much and panels that remained solid and constrained in a massive range of situations. Security was the key issue in eras when people really valued even the smallest of possessions in a none disposable or fashionable age. That meant that chests had to be durable, strong and fit for purpose at the very least.

This box made about three months ago now shows no signs of degrade at all.
Spring clamping like this works brilliantly well.
This 2 1/2″ dog will draw both parts immovably together in two hammer blows.
Make a few dogs in half an hour and you replace the need for too many clamps.
After more than a century the top and the rim are still in solid condition.

I have noticed how much more people do obsess about things like expansion and contraction. I noticed this when I wrote on spring clamping wood where some people said I had it the wrong way around and I should really not have clamped the ends with a clamp at each end but with the one clamp in the middle and a slight concave rather than a convex along the edges of the conjoined boards. In actual fact you can do it whichever way you want, slight convex or concave. DSC_0064 Back in history people used the nail dogs I showed extensively, which defies everything the naysayers said. Now then, that said, there are considerations in that people today live in an era of total air-conditioned immersion, where everything is conditioned to a certain dryness and temperature. The ends of boards supposedly dry out faster than say the mid section of a tabletop or, as in this case, a chest top. That’s not so interactively concerning when you nail on the end piece though over longterm exchanges of moisture can become an issue and might in some cases become problematic. But the problems can be adverse either way. I think too that gluing and nailing can occasionally be a problem because it is very rigid and immoveable but rarely is it actually so, and especially in Britain where we have pretty regular levels of humidity. The glue does seal the end grain pretty well and prevents the ingress of moisture except in long terms of exposure or immersion. In the US there are other considerations such as the differences I found between east and west Texas, Arizona and Arkansas. It’s simple enough as I said at the time. Keep the wood in the same conditions it will be living in if possible, let them acclimate, and then get on with the build. Your box will most likely be fine. Here and in other situations, people who believe this will usually never risk making a toolbox like this, even though it’s more likely to work out than not. It’s a shame really because the toolbox may never do what they’re fearful of at all.


  1. An excellent history lesson Paul. What I couldn’t understand was why you made the bottom of the box so perfectly tight fitting when you could have left it slightly loose. Going back to your toolchest project you left the drawer bottom slightly loose even though it was made of plywood, saying ‘plywood doesn’t move much’. I have just made a drawer bottom made of solid wood and fixed it by screws in slots to allow for shrinkage/ expansion. Was this totally unnecessary?

    1. My experience is that they always shrink long term and because they are so well contained in that they cannot expand because the dovetailed rim will not give way, it may as well be tight and not loose. Think of wood like a sponge. If the sponge is dry but expandable, water will normally absorb and expand it provided it’s not confined within a walled frame. Remember this is not just nailed and screwed but skirted every inch around. Very different than just being nailed alone you see. As the wood cannot expand, therefore the restriction also restricts it from taking on board moisture as it might in the normal circumstances. Had I only nailed the rim or skirting it would be quite different in that the nails would only have had a fraction of the strength of what we actually have.

      1. Paul that was my thinking with the skirting board being dovetailed the way it was. Thank you so much for your insight, this is greatly appreciated. I love the sponge and constrained with dovetails. The logic is great and I am confident the bottom of your new chest will outlast me. As for the lid, I saw everyone grumbling and knew you were replicating the existing. However the glue on the end grain combined with the proper finish and the box being left indoors i wouldn’t be too worried. It will be interesting to see the results

        1. I just checked the time since first made and it was actually five months since that one was completed. There is no sign of any movement and the lid opens and closes freely and so the the lock fits perfectly and locks and unlocks too.
          Also, I thought it was interesting to see the underside of the box in episode 11 when I was checking it over before posting this coming week. I noticed as I flipped the box over that the bottom boards had shrunk leaving a small gap even though I took it down to less than 7%. It is a funny thing this shrinkage issue.

  2. Paul,
    I appreciate your frankness, and the authority with which you speak. I too have read from less experienced sources that you put the hollow in the spring joint so that there’s extra pressure holding the ends together. Had the chest not been edged with a nailed and glued frame, would this be the case?


    1. It’s interesting that the chest with the arched top shows only the most minor checking on the end grain, isn’t it and yet the curve adds extra inches all the more in relation to the depth of the chest. In other words the arch adds 3″ to the depth of 18″ of the chest making the contrasting distances 21″ to 18″ yet no serious checking exists. Also note how the top still lies flush to the front edge corner of the box too. I mean dead flush and held tight too.
      It’s the driven nails that caused whatever splits there are and not shrinkage as such. I am sure the nails when first driven showed no signs of splits but as years passed the splits occurred as a result of the wedging action nails have in relation to wood when undrilled to receive the body of the nail. This chest was stripped of its painted finish and it’s worth noting the continuous grain from a single board of about 9″ or more that’s been arched to the top edge so the top was not coopered either.
      My thought is that the wood in this chest, being dried AND seasoned, something that doesn’t happen today, means that the woods used a hundred plus years ago were more resilient.

  3. Hi Paul
    For how long do you acclimatise the wood?
    Would to recommend bringing board inside if the piece is going to be the house after?
    Is there a size below which it’s not necessary? My workshop is in the unheated garage which is very damp – particularly in the winter (I often find puddles of water on the bench).

    I’m about to build the sofa table but scale it down as a pair of bedside tables 16″x16″. Is that too small to bother bringing in the wood to the bedroom for a while?

    1. It’s a hard one. Puddles on the floor??? Yup, in the house with the wood I think and then in and out as you progress the project. It’s not just a question of sticking it under the bed and hoping for the best. It needs to be off the floor and stickered for free-flowing air if possible. Two weeks should be good. You can take a section of wood say 6″ long and wide and weigh it on digital scales. Keep it near the wood being conditioned and weigh it after say a week to see which ay the weight goes. Higher weight is higher moisture intake.
      Also, any joints formed can remain together until glue up. I will use shrink (pallet) wrap once wood is acclimated if needed and also stuffing the work and stock into plastic bags helps greatly too. This stops immediate alteration and slows down the moisture from moving around.

  4. Hi Paul,

    Just as an addendum to “old” tool boxes: The Mästermyr Find, a viking tool chest from around 900 AD and a reconstruction .
    It is different from the “modern” version you produced, but very interesting none the less.

  5. Hi Paul,

    I’m wondering if this “combo kit” is a useful combination of saws?,42884,68511&ap=1

    It includes a 14tpi rip dovetail saw, a 14tpi crosscut carcass saw, and a 9tpi rip tenon saw. Would these three be sufficient for most tasks, or would it be better to have rip AND crosscut versions of carcass AND tenon saws?

    Or could each of these “joinery” saws be filed like you recommend, and perform equally well for crosscutting AND ripping? If so, these would seem to be all a woodworker needs, besides rip and crosscut panel saws, and coping/fret saws.

    1. I’m sure they would be fine, Jason. I really don’t know as I have no working knowledge of these particular saws.

  6. I wonder if you have had a chance to visit the Mary Rose in Portsmouth yet Mr Sellers? No doubt you know of the large number of 16th century woodwork and woodworking tools brought up with the ship itself and preserved in the museum, living fairly close I’ve been several times and it’s a fascinating visit.

    I’m bringing it up because the collection includes several chests and other bits of woodwork that I would look at with modern eyes and immediately see “bad practice”. The chests generally are simple six board construction, either dovetailed at the corners or simply nailed, and show surprisingly little deterioration despite their ordeal – surely it gets no more humid than 500 years at the bottom of the solent. It seems that in times past people were much less concerned about wood movement despite it likely being more of an issue.

    1. I am planning a visit there but as yet haven’t found the time. We just got back from Oxford and will be back there in a few weeks so perhaps I can extend my trip on down to Portsmouth then.
      I take your point on the high humidity. It’s an amazing substance wood. Just amazing.

  7. Thank you for that clear explanation, Paul. However I followed the link above that you (or Joseph?) provided to a commentary you made on an article in Fine Woodworking. In that article you note that design of box there did not seem to allow enough scope for expansion or contraction and in particular that the lock might bind. You recommended a clasp lock to overcome this. I wait with interest to see how you fit the lock in Episode 11!

    1. The subtle difference is in the thickness and length of the wood and the wood type too. Imagine how much the front of my box will flex because of its length and thickness and the fact that it’s pine which readily flexes. I can press the front of the box against the box lid or pull on the key with the key slightly turned in the lock to pull the box front out in the case of lid expansion and such.

  8. what do you suppose you could get for a well-worn “P Sellers” crate on eBay? Bet you’d be surprised.

  9. I have started to move into woodworking as a hobby rather recently. I have always had an interest but never to the point to read forums or engage in deep discussions on technique for this or that. I have another hobby (for about 35 plus years now) where about a decade ago I started to go onto forums to read and buy magazines. Prior to that for 25 years, I just did the hobby and occasionally would read a magazine or book. It amazed me the minutia of detail that was debated on the forums. Some of the debates were literally the same from 30 plus years ago. There were no clear resolutions there and there aren’t now. Pick a way to do something and get on with it. If you want to try the other way or tool, you can do so the next time (or not).

    In woodworking that I am now reading blogs, there is the same minutia of debate over this or that. They are different topics but the same delving deep. To the point where I think people don’t actually get on and enjoy their hobby or in this case woodwork. Even if they make a decision on a tool, technique, or cut of wood, they are still thinking maybe I should have gone the other way. I found this insightful and having seen it in another hobby, I won’t get sucked into it for woodworking. There are a few individuals in the field of woodworking who I admire. I mostly listen to them if I am in search of some guidance when I have to make a choice. Once past that, I want to get in the garage and have fun woodworking.

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