It’s a Small Thing

The toolbox in the workshop and in use.

I often find that the small and ordinary can take on the large to become more than extraordinary. My toolbox here is one I designed and developed and perfected to displace the plywood-skinned versions that cropped up around the Second World War up until say the 1980s where and when the general demise in the use of hand tools and the need of them in joinery and woodworking declined at the most rapid rate ever in history. Their exponential abandonment had a devastating impact on my world of working wood and the way I perceived its value to me and others. This was the equivalent of what I see today with the loss of animal species, plant life and wild environs where they once thrived. Wrought by the embracement of so-called power equipment and what people professed to be the ‘progressive way forward for all’, I found myself lamenting the loss almost before my woodworking life had even got a foothold. Especially was this so in the realms of DIY and home or amateur/hobby woodworking. I found myself almost panicking for breath at the thought. Subsequent to this I found myself striving all the more to use mainly hand tools. When others said why this or that old way related to my life I saw that I had a great and worthwhile quest ahead of me; I discovered an untapped resource and an audience that not only listened but truly understood. Believe it or not, I found that most woodworkers loved the concept of learning old skills new to them and that they were the more than willing to develop the skilled handwork I speak of. Rather than solely relying on machining wood from beginning to end, they wanted the deeper satisfaction of making everything from the dovetails to the mortise and tenons and then too the planing and the sawing and beyond that the skills of sharpening planes, saws and chisels.

Me raising the front panel for the toolbox at the show.

They actually had not believed that they could do it. I was now discovering that my real audience was not the so-called professional woodworker but the amateur searching for greater levels of fulfillment. I knew then, as a result of this, that I could and would influence change. My background earning my living as a working artisan for over half a century enabled me to write and develop new and as yet unwritten curriculum according to my experience. It was this then that paved the way for change. Subsequent teaching to those seeking this way of working, I was able to write also according to feedback I would receive from thousands of students going through my hands-on classes. This is why I am excited about how we progress this alongside making the new pieces for the houseful of furniture we have paced ourselves for over the next five years.

The finished toolbox is both lightweight and very strong.

I am about to start the small Joiner’s toolbox which is readily scaleable for the full-size version that I used for decades too. The methods of construction are identical.

The inside of the toolbox replete with two till drawers.

Many of you asked about this possibility after my recent blog describing my trip with Joseph and making one as we worked a three-day woodworking show in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We felt it would be of great value for anyone learning case construction because it includes dovetailing carcasses, door and panel making, drawer construction and fitting and then recessed hinging. This piece is also a compact project which lowers costs, work time and space for making. I actually wrote this piece for a US woodworking magazine around 12 years or so ago for which I was paid but it was never published. This is now to be published as one of the early manuals I spoke of working on between 1995 and 2009.

All glued up and clamped.

The significance of my publishing these books is the progression of my early work and the then hope I had that I might in some small but significant way change the way people thought about hand tool work. Here, on the other side of this curriculum, I live in the reality that I did indeed reach a massive audience. Realistically and conservatively, my audience comes from many platforms including my own websites. Over a given 28-day period, my YouTube channel receives around a million views with 388.800 unique views, which means each viewer watches about 3 videos a month. My blog has 101,000 active users per 28 days also. Instagram, Facebook and TikTok create audiences in the tens of thousands and I never advertise with nor do I take direct sponsorship from suppliers. For greater transparency, you can see my disclaimer here.

Joseph at 13 years at the Tulsa woodworking show with me.

I will make two of the toolboxes, all being well. I have picked out my wood for both. One of the boxes will be made from vintage mahogany and here are my pieces of wood in the rough so to speak.

Vintage mahogany upcycled from an old dining table. A great source for some inexpensive wood here in Britain.

This toolbox will be for a giveaway but I have yet to work this through. For the second one, I am thinking possibly quarter-sawn oak with another wood as a contrast. Confirmation will come to me with more clarity as I work the wood. I had thought about making the two with each being a sort of reverse of the other, mahogany frames and the oak panels and then oak frames and mahogany panels. I am unsettled but will soon decide.

Joseph raising the face of the back panel.

39 thoughts on “It’s a Small Thing”

  1. Indeed geat project to be where almost all skills will be required. Will treat it as an exam after I finish |begginer| level| 🙂

  2. I saw that small tool box when you wrote about it several days ago and hoped that it might show up as a project! Thank you for fulfilling my wishes! I look forward to watching the videos, and I might have to make a trip to a local lumber yard that specializes in much more wood than the local Home Depot.
    Thank you again, Paul.

  3. As a young, green carpenter, one of my first projects was copying the hinged plywood toolbox that my father and grandfather both carried. As a child, my dad built me one out of some leftover mahogany ply from a wainscoting project. He has since built them for my two young sons. It is a subject by which I have always been fascinated, and I have read all of the books by Schwartz and Underhill on historic boxes. I don’t know how many iterations and experiments I have built myself. That being said, I have never found a design using solid lumber which is not too heavy to be practical, especially when filled with steel saws and iron planes. It’s my understanding that the pre war, solid boxes were meant to be carried by two men. What are your thoughts on techniques to save weight?

    1. I am too biased, Aaron. I have four such toolboxes and I feel that different-sized toolboxes cater to different needs. For local stuff around the house and garden, I have the tote we build in here. If I travel to a local job needing work that I have seen and know which tools to take I will take the one shown in the image. Then I have a full-sized joiner’s tool carrier that will actually take all the tools I need and indeed `i can carry it from car to where the work is. Carrying one around all day with two skins of plywood, one front and one back, makes little difference in the overall scheme of things because we might be talking only a pound or so in weight and actually, a panel within a frame can be lightened to a similar weight as that of plywood.

  4. Enjoyed the perspective on the various internet platforms. In addition to woodworking, you have invented a remarkable business school curriculum if anyone is paying attention. I’ve taken a lot of online education and yours is the best on any subject, the most professionally run and as with everything you do the least careless.

    1. I think it’s because I find my work so natural as a woodworker and now a writer and teacher, apprentice in the zone at the bench for 5.5 decades. What I do now is natural whereas I have always hated having to sell my work as I did when I first started furniture making on my own. All of the woodworking schools and teachers I know or heard of never made it as makers so they just started teaching and that was easy because there was such shortfall from universities and colleges who dumbed everything about the art of craftwork down, down, down. Presenting for many relies on personality, looks and quick-speak. I am one of the fortunate ones where I had none of these attribute but was taught to work diligently by my dad and the men I worked with through the years. That type of relational learning seems to be all but gone with tick-the-box training and such. I hear from teachers and trainers all the time telling me how difficult it is to do their job today but no one listens to them, not the students nor those above them on ther bigger money. A safety standards inspector came her the other day and was amazed at what he saw and learned in hos one-hour visit. He lamented what was happening throughout industry and he was only in his mid-30s!!!

      1. The success of your training may be how natural woodworking feels to you, but I suspect it has more to do with your overall approach to life.

        First and foremost you respect your students. This respect is show in how you think through a lesson, can we see the important bits, where does a joint fit in the overall context of learning. You empathize with the student and ask “what would I need to know next” if I was just learning, How can the project be designed to enhance old skills and develop new ones? Can a student complete the project with enough success to get the wonderful feeling of “I made that”.

        Second, you set aspirational goals the most critical being striving for accuracy. As you say we are always learning and so the goal of accuracy is a life long quest.

        Third you have a passion for the material that you pass on to the student. That passion is infectious.

        Finally, while I’m not certain if it’s important for training, you embed wood working within an overall lifestyle. You provide principles, and boy does the world need everyone to lead a principled life. My personal take home on this front is to listen in the most general sense. I’m slowly learning to listen to my saw, not only the sound, but through all your senses. Hold the saw gently so the saw has an opportunity to “speak” don’t force your will on the wood. Listen to others, listen to nature.

        I truly believe that the only way we as a species will survive is via applying these principles, respect both people and nature, don’t try to dominate, listen to others on all levels. Slow down to favor quality over quantity.

        So keep on “complaining”, the complaints make me think.

      2. William French III

        Thank you for “giving back” and helping us in our craft. I have stopped and started woodworking for a variety of reasons over the years – it is my hobby not my profession. However, I find it much more rewarding and enjoyable than my day job as a “knowledge worker”. Appreciate all you do and I am enjoying hand tools once again and less focus on speed and machines.
        You mentioned you might be publishing a new series of books or articles? Please keep us updates. I really enjoyed “Essential Woodworking Hand Tools”.

  5. You complain a lot! After all if it wasn’t for the failure of other schools or the demise, as you put it, of the apprenticeship system, you would not be where you are at in regards to the success of your own teaching program.

    While I do appreciate the information you provide, I could do without the constant whining about change in teaching and woodworking practice.

    1. whining, sir, is stating a complaint without a solution. Paul is starting what he sees as a problem and putting immense effort and years of his life into helping. He is trying to be the solution. I am very grateful for what he is doing.

      I am gaining skills and have about set up my workshop just by Paul’s YouTube work. I have a keen interest in hand tool work. Always have. Started with calligraphy as a child, my saddler neighbor taught me leather work, then I started engraving glass, then metal, now wood carving and for want of anything worth carving on, making the pieces too. I love listening to Paul talk about the values behind it. How his work is based around doing things with care. The world has changed so much and I feel like a lot of progress is just the destruction of what those who went before us valued. It feels unhealthy. Being locked inside a 5km radius right now and only let outside my door for emergencies in addition to lifes dramas, … there is something about woodworking Paul’s way that is soothing. I think the world needs more care. More things restored. More things made to be valued not discarded. I agree with the philosophy and am very glad to be inspired and lifted up on Paul’s shoulders to see further.

      Hope you enjoyed the philosophy.

    2. I have no problem with that. I have always spoken my mind and especially so in the face of intimidation. I am listening to your complaining now. Often people complaining cannot see their own issues so I need your feedback. I listened and I will continue doing what I am doing because I disagree with you. Perhaps one day I will agree with you and change my ways. It’s simple enough. If I do complain too much, it’ll pass and you will keep following because the majority of what I give is free and you are always learning from me. And you’re doing the same thing as I am doing now. I just don’t know if you complain a lot! I’m fine with that. Oh, and to attribute one gram of my success to the failed systems out there is a massive, massive stretch of your imagination. My success is because I wanted people to understand my craft.

    3. Alain- If you took what Paul was expounding on to be “complaining” and “whining” then I believe you misinterpreted his thoughts.

      I’ve been relying on my woodworking as a living for 40+ years and can wholeheartedly concur with what Paul is saying. What use to be taught in the school systems is long gone for a couple of reasons- 1) Lack of interest. 2) Liability reasons. And the modern consumer wants everything NOW. Many not wanting to wait the 1-2 months it may take for a piece to be finished…they’d rather hop on the internet and have something dropped at their door in a day or so. Only to complain about the quality in a year or so as it’s sent to the landfill. As for having apprenticeships…I use to bring them into the shop throughout the years but unless I want to get required (by insurance company) equipment the cost of insurance simply puts my price point even higher.

      Keep doing what and how you’re doing Paul. I for one appreciate your view point and down to earth style of woodworking.

    4. Statements of facts are often mistaken for “complaints.” The reason is simply that change can make it difficult to achieve goals that have become unfashionable or “redundant.” The fact is that big box furniture is inferior in both materials and quality. Even if the materials are decent, the use of joinery techniques that rely on point fastening with screws and bolts means that stresses of use, weather and plain old gravity will overload the material at the points of fastening and gradually the material will fail. For big box store furniture this happens in as little as a few years. But the historical fact remains that large numbers of furniture pieces from tables to various types of chests are still around that are over a century old, some several times that old. Your typical contemporary plywood or MDF construction is unlikely to last even 30 years. Disposable furniture, which is what most modern stuff is, doesn’t require skill to manufacture or assemble. The triumph of the flat pack is evidence of that. So, this is another fact. If you want high quality, or even simply rugged, durable furniture, it needs to built properly. Yet the schools and apprenticeship programs that used to train such skills are mostly gone or very costly. So, programs like Paul’s, the point you make, are the solution.

  6. Rodrigo Fuenzalida

    An off-topic question, if I may.

    I am myopic(-3.23 left eye and -2.25 right eye) and have been using glasses since 7th grade up to University latter days. Then I started using contact lenses and have been using them until now, that my eyes have got too dry and might exert some damage to my eyes on the long term.

    I started learning woodworking using contacts and optical aberrations have never been a problem until now, that with the glasses I own I experience optical aberrations like barrel distortion and even chromatic aberrations like purple fringing. This makes me see warped wood everywhere. Do you experience this? Might it be a case of low quality optics? I Live in a small city in Chile and because of covid-related travel restrictions I could not travel to a better place to get better glasses.

    When I was a kid I got glasses made with Rodenstock or Carl Zeiss optics, and the ones I own are supposed to be Rodenstock but still experience all these issues. Are you familiar with optics brands?

    Best regards.

    1. My eyes are not as poor as yours but I have suffered from the same problems that you describe. I normally wear bi-focals. My old glasses gave distortion as you describe. My new ones are very much better – they are the top grade available at one of our national opticians. I had reverted to single focal lenses and I believe that they will give you the best optics.
      Not a great message and it depends on your situation, but I suggest that you get the simplest and best quality lenses that you can afford.

      1. Rodrigo Fuenzalida

        Thanks for your advice, but I in fact was supposed to be getting the best they got. The crystals are supposed to be Rodenstock, but I’m afraid I got scammed. My optometrist told me to better go to a near city to get them, but then the travel restrictions came.

        1. I wear progressive glasses (Essilor).
          I also have some astigmatism.
          When I look through the middle of the glasses, straight lines are straight.
          They curve upwards when looking through the top and downward when looking through the bottom.

          As most of wood working is looking in a short field (0.4 m – 1m), the best compromise would be to have fixed focus lenses optimized for this.
          I see well enough for looking at long pieces without glasses. Otherwise, check with a straight edge.

    2. Speaking as a fellow poor eyesight person, I would be interested in hearing what you do to reduce the impact of your vision on wood working. Perhaps we should start a thread in the discussion group?

      Here is one thing I do simply because my eyes don’t tell me the truth, I noticed that Paul could stand up his parts on the bench with no support because they are accurate. So now I stand pieces on their ends to make sure the end pieces are straight and square (if the pieces stand up but at an angle they aren’t square. For the width I stand pieces up on their edge and push them together, if the edges aren’t square the pieces won’t meet.

    3. Rodrigo, I have about the same sight as you. I have been using cheap “readers” for a few years but had to change to real glasses. I have “progressive” glasses and they are different focal lengths in each lense, which when I first started wearing them everything was warped at the edges. A straight 8 ft. board would look like a barrel stave. I asked my eye doctor (also my friend) about it and he said that it takes a while for the brain to “adjust” to it. It has been six months now and I can say it is much better, but not yet back to when I was in my thirties, and I doubt I will ever be there again.

    4. I can’t help but wonder as I look around and see almost everyone, including little children wearing glasses. Did the same God who designed everything from one cell organisms to elephants to humans, grass to the trees, a solar system, somehow become a failure when he designed eyes?? Or maybe it is our fault??
      I began wearing glasses in the 6th grade. Many years later, I picked up a book called Better Eyesight Without Glasses by William H. Bates, MD. Then another called Help Yourself to Better Sight by Margaret Darst Corbett. These books bebunk a lot of myths we are taught about the eye, and give methods to improve vision.
      Today, there are even youtube videos that demonstrate some of these methods.
      You can improve your vision.
      I have improved mine and no longer wear glasses. My vision is still not as good as it should be, but then I get a bit slack in practicing the methods.
      Best wishes

  7. Thanks Paul. Looking forward to the toolbox projects and new writing.

    I never really tire of the context you provide and don’t consider them “complaints”. Not everyone follows you assiduously so new readers will need context as to why you do what you do the way you do it.

    I find myself using your techniques all the time and when stumped find myself asking “how might Paul do this” . It generally gets me out of a pickle even making a piece of cornice to replace a missing part on a 200 year old house.

    At the moment I’m making rough shelving out of 2X4. Low precision stuff with 1/2″ and 3/4″ half lap joints that make them stiff and “knock down” with relatively few screws. Some of the lap joints I cut with a saw and refine with chisel, some I cut with power which is noisy dirty and scary and some I chop out with a saw cut and a chisel. The hand work is so calming compared to the burden of the machine.

  8. I vote oak frame and mahogany panels. I love the redder woods for the more surface area. But also there’s something about the oak making up the frame and structure of a thing.

    Looking forward to the written works. Very much so.

  9. Phillip Webber

    Hello Paul
    Not a question really related to this blog. I am wanting to make a strop like the one in your YouTube video. Does it matter if the leather is tanned or how it is tanned ?.

    1. Hello, Phillip. I’m not Paul, but I can tell you that it doesn’t matter. Just get some kind of buffing compound into the surface.

  10. James Monette, a true green carpenter

    I read the comment by Aaron G and I thought: “ what is a green carpenter “. The other night I was watching one of Paul’s comments and he mentioned a “ green carpenter “. My thought was there was a type of person who specialized in working with green wood. This made me think that I needed specialized skills and tools to work at being a green carpenter. I remember now; it was last night and I was watching Paul showing how to build a poor man’s spoke shave. At some point he said something about the spoke shave being used by green woodworkers. I admit I was a little discouraged because now It seemed that the spokeshave was best suited to such “ green woodworking “. I only use dried wood so evidently the spoke shave would not really be suited to my efforts at woodworking, sad.

    Now; suddenly; Aaron mentions a “ green carpenter “ and it hits me! I am a green carpenter! Should I sign my name to this letter? I guess I must.

  11. Bear in mind that you are not only teaching valuable skills for many tools that are still available and likely will be for some time yet, but you also give us confidence to either improve our skills or pick up new ones. In effect you are mentoring us all and that is something you can not get from a book. A lot of us learn better from seeing than just reading or hearing how its done. Thank you Paul.

  12. Ernesto Hurtado

    What a lucky man, find some old mahogany, I would find some here, in Bolivia, great disign for a tool box.

  13. Really looking forward to this. Looks like a lot of great skill building to be had in this project. And I often find myself needing to bring a few tools to friends and family houses to do stuff. Often just a jack plane, a couple chisels and screwdrivers and a few other smaller tools depending on what it is. Currently using one of those zippered tool bags for construction work from the big box store. This project has about 100 times the style points as my bag!

  14. Whilst this may not be directly related to what Paul is saying in this blog some (even Paul) may find this of interest.

    Flicking through our TV magazine I saw something which I never thought I’d see on any TV station let alone a British one again… A programme on woodworking.

    It’s called ‘The Chop’ and claims to feature the countrie’s finest carpenters. The 9 part series will follow 10 joiners as they make items such as an American frontier style dining table to a mid-20th century sideboard. The winner will get a chance to stage their own exhibition at London’s Willia Morris Gallery.

    The presenter is Lee Mack (a comedian who claims to have loved woodwork at school) and Rick Edwards and master craftsman William Hardie.

    This will be interesting to see how much is done using hand tools.

    Talking of master craftsmen…Why wasn’t Paul approached… or was he?

    If anyone is interested it is on Sky History starting Thursday 15th at 9pm.

    1. Personally I wouldn’t get my hopes up too high. The TV programmes (including those of the BBC) that I’ve seen have a mostly, what I call ’emotion-TV’ quality about it, with a strongly diluted craftsman-sauce poured over it. It’s more as if the craft is nothing but a pleasant scenery to have a talk. The last time I specifically wanted to see a TV show was about restoring antiques (also BBC). It was a disappointment to me as it mostly dealt with what the piece meant to the owner, how they got it, life of the previous owner, what society was like in those days, etc. Basically, it was about everything except teaching how to restore pieces. After two or three episodes, didn’t bother to turn on the TV anymore for it (that half-hour show was the only ‘airtime’ the TV-set saw in an entire week).

      When you also mention it’s presented by a comedian, I suspect it’s far more entertainment than educational. When I see you mention ‘winner’ I get those baking/cooking/gardening/singing/dancing-contest vibes about it, with plenty of artificial drama. Hopefully I’m wrong, but I doubt it. I think I’d prefer to spend that half hour watching a Paul-Sellers’ video, I’m likely to learn more and have higher-quality entertainment.

      PS: you might enjoy the ‘Handwerkskunst’-series that used to be aired on German television and are available on YouTube. Relatively much substance and only moderate entertainment. In German though, which might be a barrier for some.

  15. Stephen Eastwood

    Well, I have 5 hard wood doors heading my way, looks like I have my second project after some place mats for the gift of doors. Thank you for you timely intervention of subject matter to build, as another tool box too assist storage of my tools is always welcome.

  16. TV shows that show processes are harder to film than post production dramatisation,,,so reality TV has less reality than Reality itself..
    Hand tool woodworking is an investment in people not machines and since we are people…we like it.

  17. There is an old saying here in the US “If one cannot do they teach, if they cannot teach they then teach gym (or PE, physical education)”. That was always said as tongue in cheek but there was usually sarcasm in the voice also. Is a slippery slope when our teachers had no other experience than being in the classroom, they were trained to teach in the classroom with no other experiences. We all know that having had experience in a given field helps with a perspective not gained elsewhere. I gave up on machine woodworking as it was too dangerous, noisy and expensive – but always knew the older hand tool methods were still vaild. I just needed to find the right person that had those skills – Mr. Paul Sellers. Thanks for all you and your people do for all of the rest of us.

  18. i too am looking forward to the small toolbox build. my grand son was at the computer with me an asked can we make one please grandad yes i said. (a question) i have noted sometime you have used yellow glue was there a reason for that?

    1. No, not really. I ran out of the white that’s all. This one is waterproof/resistant so I save it for areas where it might be needed. I should clarify something here too: In the USA, white PVA is generally for fabrics which are flexible whereas the yellow glue is for wood. We don’t have the benefit of this here in the UK. I don’t know about the other European countries.

  19. (question) i have noted sometime you have used yellow glue.was there a reason for that?

  20. Blind closed copy from John Besharian

    Mr. Sellers,
    I noticed in this comment section that both you and one of your “defenders” have paid close attention to this sterling gentleman: “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.” -Winston Churchill

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