Tool Chests

When I was an apprentice (see the previous post), one of the requirements was that each of us was to provide some sort of toolbox or chest to carry his or her own tools. Some apprentices bought a toolbox. More often, an empty five-gallon pail that had once held joint compound was commandeered. In my case, I built a shallow pine box, more like a drawer really, that I could lash to my bike rack. It also had a long shoulder strap, making it possible to carry it as well as something else. It was nailed together out of scraps, and it looked like it. Lucky gave me a hard time about it, and I ignored him.
           Perhaps as a reaction to my toolbox, Lucky singled me out early on in my apprenticeship to show me how to make hand made, traditional dovetail joints. The tutorial took about an hour. I remember thinking that it looked like a lot of work, especially when screws and nails were so readily available, I may have even said as much. In any event, it speaks to Lucky’s wisdom that he taught me the basics and did not try to persuade me of the merits of the joinery. Rather, he took the approach he most often did, one of; here is a skill you need to master, learn it.
           I learned to make dovetails, but it was several years before I really appreciated the elegant simplicity of them. I had completed both university degree, as well as my time as journeyman, and had taken a teaching job at a secondary school. I had no money to spend on power tools of any kind. What little money I did have I used to snap up antique hand tools at junk shops for next to nothing. I would then recondition these tools and put them to work. The more I worked with these handsaws, augers, and planes of multiple types and descriptions, the more I appreciated how beautifully adapted they were to the jobs that they were designed to do and how efficient they are. This came as a surprise to me because, I suspect like many people, I had equated hand tools with laborious, slow physical effort. I found instead, that I could produce beautiful woodwork with these tools, without a lot of effort, and that, unlike most power tools; I really looked forward to using them. I in no way missed the high pitched, nerve jarring, teeth on edge scream of power tools, the wrestling matches with power cords, batteries and chargers. My shop became a contemplative place, where I could create and work things out. A place that I left feeling relaxed, a place I looked forward to returning. As my collection of tools grew, I was looking for better ways to store and protect them and it was at this point that I rediscovered the dovetail.

Tool Chest Drawing

           As I started to make dovetailed chests for my tools, I found the process to be fun. I also got faster at making them, my joinery got better, and my sense of satisfaction grew. Unsatisfied with the handles I could find and afford, I began to play with rope handles. I started to make dovetailed sea chests as wedding gifts, I made toy-boxes, and blanket chests, and I got a lot of pleasure out of these projects.

Rope handles

           I do have power tools. I use them, and appreciate that they have many merits, but given a choice, I am still more likely to pull a beautifully tuned bench plane out of the chest it lives in, and leave the planer silent.
           I don’t have any idea if Lucky knew that his one hour tutorial would set off such a chain of creative events, but a visitor to my shop today will see that it is dominated by dovetailed tool chests. It is also clear that I came to appreciate the merits of this elegant joinery, witness the name of this web log. Sometimes there is a lot more being taught by the teacher than the student is aware of, that one-hour session was one of those times.

Dovetailed Tool Chests


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