I’m currently in the middle of making two toolboxes, to replicate the building of one completed by Joseph and I in 2003. It’s not a small amount of work to make two in tandem, but necessary in the preparation of the video work we need. I rip-cut my components on the bandsaw and by hand and then I hand planed the surfaces to true and square them; a quick count says 50 pieces in all. Daunting? No, not really! In fact, it all makes sense to me, especially to my daily exercise regimen.

Most tool chests and toolboxes were painted with protective coats of black paint and even pitch to seal them from the damage of water. Especially was this so with ship’s carpenters but also with those in the cities traveling from place to place pushing wheeled carts.

The toolboxes here are my original designs, not copied you see, yet they look traditional. The ones I saw as a boy were all skinned on the two outer faces with 1/4″ plywood pinned and glued to the main box and then the front was cut from the back with a handsaw for the formulation of a fall-front lid or door. Once cut to about two-thirds down on each side the cut took a curve to connect the cut to the outer front face and then a long cut was made along the front to connect up to the opposite side. The exposed plywood edges were then beefed up with a one-by that made two hinge rails and the drop-down front was hinged to the main box. It was a clever post-war design advantaged by plywood and necessary for the new mobility of a postwar culture emerging for joiners and carpenters.

Black paint was easily repaired.

These men now owned cars and vans where they hadn’t before. Construction was booming in the rebuilding of bombed Britain and men moved according to work. You could carry such a box filled with tools on buses and trams, take them to new work and to and from work and home. Lightweightness yet strong, the boxes kept tools safe and portable. The mass of tools once needed by crafting artisans at the bench, bits and braces, massive plough planes and filletsters, dozens of moulding planes, all big and bulky items, were not needed in the emerging of the newer mass-production world of woodworking.

Within two decades most such ordinary tools like planes and handsaws would be a thing of the past. Skillsaws and jigsaws, routers and pneumatic nailers owned by the company you worked for would replace the traditions of handwork. And eventually, individuals like myself would be able to buy into the so-called power-woodworking world as the costs of this equipment came down and wages increased. Look in the back of a big white van or a US Ford crew-cab Ranger with a truck bed cover on and all you will see is a mass of black plastic boxes and a tool belt. There was no need for hand tools anymore. Just a hammer and some nail punches, wrenches, screwdrivers for adjustment and beverage, a torpedo level, a tape and a chalk line, maybe a couple of chisels.

Half a dozen vintage planes like tis will soon fill a toolbox and chest.

I redesigned the toolboxes of the day to create something with added longevity and a hidden quality that equalled the value of the tools inside. Reach back into the history and most toolboxes and chests were painted and repainted throughout a century and two of use. Beneath the workbenches stood two or three massive boxes filled with hand tools. These were taken to site, office and house, but traveling toolboxes for repair work would carry the tools to site with greater ease. As I said, this box below and at top was my original, uncopied design. This one is the smallest one that I have made and the one above is the more traditional size. Remember that joiners working in houses and offices transported their tools on two-wheeled pushcarts, alongside other equipment, wood and such.

I timed cutting two of the mortises in oak by hand. They took me 20 minutes the pair. In the mahogany, it took me 11 minutes. Either one, I felt totally immersed in the work and that gave me the contented feeling I always get when I have done things like this. Happy as I always am, really happy and contented, I relax by talking to myself as if talking to a friend. No, it’s far from tedious or burdensome to me. Not in any way tiresome at all.

The front face of my toolbox build this week.

Talking to a friend, I said that the workout I get from hand planing causes my heart to beat harder than any of the daily exercises I do in a given day but that I can sustain longer sessions my workout resulted in something of true substance being made. In other words, when I am making I don’t notice the extra exercise at all. I just stop for a breath and then carry on. Exercise alone is, for me, boring beyond measure.

The plough plane takes a narrow passage, but it can still be a workout.

My timing my cuts is not to compare in a competitive way but more to help others understand that taking 8 minutes to chop a mortise means that the hour spent making them is not a lot in the grand scheme of building the table. Tenons take ten minutes to make and fit.

29 Comments

  1. Matt Sims on 25 October 2020 at 8:09 am

    Your explanation of why these came into being, tradesmen becoming mobile, has got me thinking… What did such tradesfolk use as a bench? Presumably whatever suitable surface or table was available at the job… But what about a vice? Surely those portable ones with a small screw clamp weren’t beefy enough… and I don’t recall ever seeing a picture of one in such a toolcase, or space for one?

    Matt

    • Paul Sellers on 25 October 2020 at 9:54 am

      Much of the installation work would have been concluded at the workbench if say there was a flight of stairs to go in. Draw-bore methods pulled flighjts to landings and then on up. Tools were needed for scribing stringers and newels to floor unevenness and then walls too. Sliding sash windows too would be installed from the cart.The carts were any size and most joinery workshops handled most of the making so the traveling joiner was simply installing even though he was most likely the man that made what was to be installed. Still, even benches were delivered by horse and cart on large jobs.

      • Matt Sims on 25 October 2020 at 11:47 am

        “Still, even benches were delivered by horse and cart on large jobs.”
        Blimey!
        Still… if that’s what was needed I guess that’s what what done!

        Regards,
        Matt

      • Rodrigo Fuenzalida on 28 October 2020 at 4:13 pm

        Wow! What an image it would be now to see a workbench being transported that way!

    • John on 26 October 2020 at 5:20 am

      Many, many carpenters, especially “finish carpenters” built a bench on site, that could be knocked down and either have the lumber repurposed or assembled at another site. Audel’s Carpenter’s and Builder’s Guide describes a quickly built bench of this type. They were particularly useful where built-in cabinetry required fitting cabinets into slightly idiosyncratic architecture. My house, built in 1929, has clearly out-of-square elements that required the cabinets to be taylored explicitly for the specific location, and inspection of the construction shows the assembly details that mean they were built in place. Even the fireplace mantel and surround is that way. The only pieces that were more likely shop built are the leaded-glass windows in the cabinet doors. Even those are unique to each house locally and could have been built on site by a skilled journeyman.

    • JohnM on 26 October 2020 at 12:01 pm

      A long while ago I was told by a traditional hand carpenter that the first thing that you did when you arrived on site was to make a pair of matching saw horses. Nothing special just a center piece of 4 x 3″ and 4 splayed angled legs – there were joints for the legs but they were often nailed rather than screwed. Not only were they used for sawing and other handwork they were also used with a board for a working platform hence the construction of a matching pair. The second was also used to support the free end of a work piece when working on it. Since they were built quickly and were quite heavy they were left behind when the job was complete.

      • Evan on 26 October 2020 at 6:23 pm

        Check out Paul’s sawhorse build for just these beast. They are amazing to work with. I have 2 sets now that I use all the time and the are stronger than any other horses I have ever used. I have even used them as low scaffolding will installing beveled siding.

        • Ermir on 27 October 2020 at 11:09 am

          Yes, they are amazing! Fun to make, stable, strong, sturdy, versatile! If you work with big panels or very long boards, make three saw horses from the very beginning.

      • John Besharian on 5 November 2020 at 12:54 am

        John M., A carpenter named Larry Haun noted in his books that on most job sites, the making of a pair of saw horses was actually your audition for the job.

  2. Donald L Kreher on 25 October 2020 at 10:49 am

    Paul you write “Remember that joiners working in houses and offices transported their tools on two-wheeled pushcarts, alongside other equipment, wood and such”. I am not completely sure I understand what these “two-wheeled pushcarts” are. There seem to be several possibilities. Could you provide some pictures, or explane their construction.

    • JIM on 26 October 2020 at 9:52 am

      The cart I remember was a simple 2’W x 4’L x 20″H box centered on the axle of two buggy wheels, with a draw bar to be used to pull or push the cart along.
      Thus the name ” push cart ”
      There would be a short leg to keep the draw bar off the ground and the load had to be carefully balanced for best handling.
      The large wheels made it very easy to transport quite a large load, by one man, over cobblestone, paving brick or muddy uneven streets.
      I remember my grand father doing this and I still have the wheels and axle from his cart.
      JIM

      • Donald L Kreher on 26 October 2020 at 11:49 am

        JM, thanks. I did look at enough pictures online to get a sense of what these were although I did not find any pictures of carts that ported tools. Apparently during my youth where I lived in the U.S. country these were not used. At least I never saw one, except possibly in the movies.

  3. Warren Ott on 25 October 2020 at 5:43 pm

    Please tell about the dropleaf table in the first picture. Do you have a video about it?

  4. John Cunneen on 25 October 2020 at 11:19 pm

    Paul, thank you for this.
    I have an apprentices one that has Masonite sides. It is 1960’s.
    The other is a tradesman one with dovetail drawers inside. It is painted grey. It was described as being of the dimensions to fit underneath the seat of a tram.
    Both need the handles repaired which are leather and metal. A job for me.
    The drop leaf table really looks interesting and I would love to make one of those.

  5. Richard King on 26 October 2020 at 11:31 am

    On the subject of the handcarts I recall seeing one being used by a small local building company on the Shaftsbery Estate in Battersea as recently as 35 years ago. The victorian estate lacks major through roads so is fairly quiet and ideal for a handcart.

  6. Bob Wallace on 26 October 2020 at 11:57 am

    Great blog Paul. I still have the two I built in 1964 when I started working in a cabinet shop. One for hand tools and one for hand held power tools used in installation. Neither were jointed as well as yours. My boss would tell me you are going to be embarrassed when you walk into a clients house and they fall apart. The glue never failed.

  7. Raymond Bensen on 26 October 2020 at 2:43 pm

    Living in California, most all Construction is new by English standards. It’s hard to imagine the difficulties an English carpenter must overcome with centuries old architecture, construction and settling. Just finding a place to set up on a busy London Street….

  8. Bryan on 26 October 2020 at 7:15 pm

    Woodworking has become my primary source of exercise since I picked it up in June this year. In particular, I lost at least five pounds over the first couple months, especially while building my bench. I found myself spending 12 hours per day working on that bench, and at least half of that was planing. Rip-sawing 4x6s for the legs was brutal too :).

  9. tayler whitehead on 26 October 2020 at 7:50 pm

    over 40 years ago i spent a summer working with a carpenter who was painting bridges of all things. he set me the task of making myself a simple wooden tool box. which had a lift up lid and a removable tray in the top. i hate to say it, but it was as rough as guts; just butt joints and nails. i still remember him saying “it doesn’t need to be pretty, just protect the tools”. i also remember watching a carpenter build an extension to a house in 1966. he worked on his own with no power tools. he could cut a piece of 4×2 with about 5 strokes of his saw. square ends too! to be honest, with just a few tools he was a dam sight quicker than the modern builders with all the special gear. it was a pleasure watching him.

  10. James Maeding on 26 October 2020 at 8:19 pm

    Funny, someday everything will be CNC, and we will all look up youtubes on how to run power tools. Then it will be mind control, and we will look up how to run CNC’s with all that goopy G-Code. At that point, all trees will be extinct and we will have no wood to work. Hmm, glad we are alive now, with real trees to cut and carve!

  11. Brian the golfer on 26 October 2020 at 8:35 pm

    Living in Ireland we have just gone back into lockdown for the second time. The first time was when I started watching Paul’s videos and have since developed a passion for wood working and the tools that go with it. I finished my work desk last week and spent the long weekend setting up my new band saw and working on the book shelf that will go beside it. If someone had told me this time last year that 2020 would mostly be spent being restricted and that I would enjoy a bank holiday ( 10 hours in total ) working on knife walls and the like I would not have believed them. Who knows what path life will take you down but I am certainly glad I was guided down this one with Paul’s encouragement. I will hopefully come out of the lockdown with a book shelf. Thanks Paul.

  12. Kenneth L. Speed on 26 October 2020 at 9:20 pm

    I’m looking forward to seeing the construction videos of your toolboxes. I have a close relative of them that I built sometime in the 1970s. It is constructed of plywood and has four drawers and a saw till with a compartment behind the till to hold larger tools. The lid/door hinges up and is purposely constructed large enough to hold a framing square held in place with toggles. For years I’d take it with me on installations jobs and use it in the shop. Not only did it carry my tools, but it also provided a seat for lunch breaks and a work surface for sawing or other tasks.

    Today, nearly fifty years later it sits in my shop near the end of my bench after innumerable moves and serves me almost every day.

  13. Mike Baker on 26 October 2020 at 9:53 pm

    I would love to see a series on your Youtube channel for building a tool chest to house the basic tools for hand woodworking. I live in a trailer, and there is little room. I have a bench I built that is inspired but altered from the early bench build you did with 2x4s that I build on in my back yard. It would be awesome to be able to carry one box with the basic tools for work to and from that bench, instead of making 3 or 4 trips.
    I love your channel, and you inspired me three years ago to start my own very small Youtube channel dedicated to charting my growth as a hand tool woodworker, with the goal to try to show others that someone who had never used a plane or chisel could learn this craft, and they did not need a big shop to do it. I’m still learning and growing, but I never would have even started without your videos. Thank you for many hours of joy spent at a workbench with a plane or chisel in my hand.

    • Paul Sellers on 27 October 2020 at 7:40 am

      We have a tool chest build on woodworkingmasterclasses.com. Sign up for a month and watch it, get the pdf and then cancel. It’s the cheapest resource for solid nuts-and-bolts training there is online and without a long-term commitment although we would rather you stayed with us.

  14. Notty Bumbo on 26 October 2020 at 11:17 pm

    Paul,
    Slightly off-topic, but I tried to find your Essential book via Highland Woodworking and they don’t even list it. Any other US sources? Would appreciate it if you can help me on this.

    • Paul Sellers on 27 October 2020 at 7:37 am

      I think the best thing is to order directly from us. I believe the new stock arrives in about two weeks. I see how confusing it is when so many unscrupulous businesses list having my book and using my good name that never actually stocked it, don’t stock and can’t stock it. This is not us but them. From Oxfam to the book giant chain Waterstones and then online tool distributors of course, some of which are unscrupulously unchallenged by any moral or ethical code when it comes to selling for the almighty dollar. I recall one UK catalog company owner telling me this doesn’t matter and that doesn’t matter, “All that matters at the end of the day is making money! That’s all I want!” I never dealt with him again!

  15. Brent Ingvardsen on 27 October 2020 at 12:16 am

    Still enjoy the jointers box I built years ago for my son. It was the first panel I raised with a hand plane.

  16. Robert Brunston on 27 October 2020 at 8:31 pm

    Very cool box Paul.
    I wish you could show more of the inside.
    Thank you for sharing.

  17. Peter Werner on 10 November 2020 at 12:10 pm

    Paul,
    I regularly read and enjoy your blog. Thank you. The knowledge you share is priceless and valuable.
    This is my first time leaving a comment.
    I recall a pushcart from my youth and I speculate that it is of the kind which Paul writes. It was the middle 1960’s, small town northern Wisconsin, USA. Father bought the cart from a neighbor while telling us kids that although it was currently an antique, he remembered them as being common when he was a boy. At the time the cart was perhaps 50 years old and in reasonably good shape. I recall there being very little paint left on it’s wooden surfaces–an indication that it had seen plenty of time outdoors. Yet it was sturdy while being light weight. It had fully intact beautifully crafted tall wooden wheels similar to what is seen on horse drawn wagons from the 19th and early 20th century. A low sided but spacious box was built atop the axel and I could visualize mounds of straw or harvested vegetables or tools placed there for transit. A wooden crossbar served as handle with which to maneuver it. The cart was well balanced with a slight amount of its mass weighted astern so that it rested on a small stand or foot just below the crossbar handle. This nicely balanced cart, even for me a scrawny ten year old boy, with those large diameter wheels, was easily moved and almost effortlessly traversed bumpy and uneven ground–a valuable asset, I now recognize on the farm or trails or unpaved roads! I was used to our little small-tired Radio Flyer wagon and how difficult that was to pull on tough terrain!
    What became of the cart? We had no garage or shed and so unfortunately the elements served to quickly deteriorate it and Dad discarded it.

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