The influential author and publisher of woodworking books, Chris Schwarz (Lost Art Press), has in recent years directed his attention towards improving tool storage and tool access-efficiency in the modern workshop. Schwarz maintains that everyday hand tools are best kept near the bench in a large, traditional tool chest with a hinged top that rolls around the floor on casters (37" x 24" x 24").
I've built several traditional tool chests, roughly following Schwarz's plans, and tested them out in my own shop. I built and sold a couple of chests at a local shop. I even built one of his slant-top Dutch tool chests, just because I liked the way the royal blue paint looked in the photo.
No question, traditional wooden tool chests are fun to build. You can use just about any kind of material as long as the grain is straight. I used a combination of red cedar and doug fir framing lumber that I resized and planed into strips and parts. Since no part is wider than about 5", nor longer than about 40", scraps can often be used, especially if the chest will be painted. Construction moves along quickly. Its left to you to decide whether the sides will be joined with handcut dovetails, practical finger joints, or finicky cut nails. There is no wrong way to finish a chest - you're free to mix up the milk paint or slather on the polyurethane. It'll look good no matter what. A tool chest is an easy, satisfying, and well-scaled project for the weekend woodworker.
As with most of Schwarz's writing, his goal is to convince you that modern woodworkers should incorporate traditional, proven tools and techniques (c.1750-1930) into their shops wherever possible.
Having used several of traditional chests for a few years now (along with my 11-drawer Craftsman mechanics chest), I have come to 3 conclusions:
a.) Schwarz's traditional chest looks cool and is fun to build, but takes up a lot of floor space.
b.) Upright, rolling, mechanics-style tool chests are more functional and maximize space by going vertical.
c.) I should build a Snap-On style rolling mechanics tool chest out of wood.
The wide, flat, graduated drawers keep the wooden box looking like a mechanics tool chest. Glossy paint and a logo sticker will help, too.
Eleven sets of 14" full-extension drawer slides on 1/2" spacers fit perfectly inside the oak face frame. The deepest drawer is 6", the narrowest 2-1/8".
The case is 48" x 32" x 16" and made of 3/4" birch plywood. Floor is recycled piece of melamine. Glue, brads, and 1-5/8" drywall screws. It rolls on 3" swivel casters.
One option for the drawer pulls is offset holes. This example is a drawer from my wall cabinet in which I keep sanding disks. Its cheap and looks best on cabinetry with a hand-built aesthetic. May not be the best look for a mechanics style chest. The holes let a little dust in, though probably not a huge amount.
BUILD vs. BUY COST COMPARISON
The price for a new, middle-of-the-road quality, 11-drawer mechanics tool chest will range from $500 to 800. Craigslist will yield better deals on a used one. A new Snap-On or Matco chest would be at least twice the price of other brands.
I searched Craigslist for a used chest for several months, but Anchorage is a price-inflated/low-supply market and I didn't find what I wanted. I even toyed around with the idea of buying a used dresser from a furniture recycler and reconfiguing the case to hold new tool drawers. I would have saved a few bucks if I had found a well-built case, but I didn't.
I paid about $325.00 for the materials in my chest (Alaska prices). The drawer slides are very high quality and the thing will hold up fine for many years. It will keep most of my everyday tools well organized and in one place. It is quite heavy to lift, but rolls around just fine. All in all, building it myself was worth doing. I may have more to add in the second post in this series.
Drawer Boxes (28-1/2" x 14" x various heights)
Most of one sheet of 1/2" Sandply from Home Depot. Rabets, glue, and finish nails. Rear corners are reinforced with 1/2" blocks (oriented vertically), glued and pinned. Number and heights below.
Drawer Bottoms (13" x 27-1/2")
Most of one sheet of 1/2" A/C plywood and half a sheet of 1/2" MDF (top 2 drawers only). Cut bottoms to fit snug inside drawer frame, glued and nailed (16g 1-1/4" finish nails).
I purchased a thin, durable outdoor carpet remnant from Lowes a while back. Its gray, rubber-backed, and has a lined weave pattern. I cut it into pieces on the band saw and lined the drawers of my Craftsman tool chest with it. I think there's enough left for the drawers in this chest. Outdoor carpet is better quality and more economical than the rolled stuff sold as "drawer liner".
Drawer Fronts (29-7/16" wide x various heights, 3/32" gaps)
Clear hemlock w/ semi-gloss poly finish.
The drawer fronts are clear hemlock finished with several coats of semi-gloss polyurethane. I cut them to rough length, put 3 coats of finish on them while getting other parts of the build completed. The final step will be to trim them to length and mount them on the drawer boxes with brads and pan head screws from the inside.
Drawer Pulls Not sure yet...The options are a.) bent lamination style (see familywoodworking.org, free) or b.) extra long European bar pulls (20", Liberty, $7.00/each) or c.) offset holes (see Chris Gochnour's wall cabinet, free) or d.) full width wooden undercling-style pulls (make myself, mostly free). Maybe Nick Ferry's shop-made drawer pulls (EMT and PVC conduit).
11 sets of Accuride 14" full extension (yellow box from Home Depot). Each slide screwed to 1/2" ply spacers glued and brad nailed to inside of box (slides flush with face frame opening).
Case (48"h x 16-7/8"d x 32"w)
3/4" birch plywood on sides, top, and back. Recycled 3/4" melamine chipboard sheet for bottom. Glue, brad nails, and screws; same build as a kitchen cabinet.
3/4" solid red oak. Top = 2-7/8", Sides = 1-1/4", Bottom = 1-1/4". Frame overlaps box by 1/2". Outside edges set flush to outside of plywood box.
Gloss black, oil-based Rustoleum for the case and clear poly for the drawer fronts. 320g between coats.
3" rubber swivels, mounted to 3/4" oversized plywood plates. Screwed to case.