Lately, it seems there has been an endless buzz around building tool chests. Recently I joined the fray and built a small Dutch tool chest myself and found it to be an extremely rewarding project. However, in practice I am not sure a tool chest is always the right choice as a way to organize and store your tools. In fact, I think the real question becomes, “How, or possibly more important where, do I work?”. Am I working in a dedicated shop space, or am I working in a shared space? Do I need to travel with my tools? These questions are the most important to me when deciding what kind of tool storage to build.
Twenty-five years ago I built a toolbox in the “french fit” style. The whole thing had no wasted space. Everything went together like a jigsaw puzzle. At the time I was moving across the country and did not want to leave all my tools behind. I had visions of opening up this sweet toolbox and working wherever and whenever I could find the time and space, since I was leaving my basement workshop behind. The problem is, it turns out that that kind of toolbox is really not very handy when it comes time to actually use it. You end up taking everything out when you want to do some actual work and then take a bunch of time to fit it all back in again when you are done. I think of that toolbox often when I look at works of art like the Studley toolchest. It’s fun to look at, but does it really work as anything but a beautiful piece of storage art? I can’t even imagine working on an actual project and needing a tool buried in that massive tangle of tools.
Some years later I once again had a dedicated workshop space. It took me no time at all to abandon that toolbox and put all my tools on nice accessible shelves. In the 40+ years I have been involved with woodworking I think I have to say that tool chests of all kinds should only be used if you have to travel a lot with your tools. If you have a consistent workspace, by far the most efficient way to store tools is on simple (or relatively simple) shelves. In my experience, the best tool storage is to put your tools on shelves that are easily visible and take the specific tools you want for the operation at hand and move them to your workbench tray. Or a shelf under your workbench. Shelf – not a drawer and not a cabinet, it is all about visibility and easy access as far as I am concerned. Any storage system that does not offer those two features in abundance is an inferior system in my opinion. The other huge advantage of using this system is it takes up no floor space. And unless you have an enormous shop, floor space is your most valuable commodity.
These days the only things I keep in drawers are things I need to keep absolutely clean, like paper. Or small things I don’t use very often like various drill and router bits or my files and rasps. But I know exactly where each of those items is so it still works. For the rest of my things, it is shelves.
You may notice that they are not pretty. You are right, but they work and they are easy to change and rearrange as my tool set and needs change. Building a work of art with a place for everything you own is great until you get a couple of new tools. Then what? Build a new work of art? Not if you like to build something other than tool chests and cabinets.
So for my money (and time), a combination of shelves and the trays on my bench are the most flexible and efficient setup.
One final comment, Christopher Schwarz makes a pretty big deal about dirt and its relationship to rust. I would make two comments on that. If your tools are gathering dust you should probably sell them because you are not using them enough. I’m kidding (sort of), but I will say with all seriousness that one of the huge advantages in moving to using primarily hand tools is that my shop stays remarkably clean now. And my second comment is if you live in a damp area you need to do whatever is necessary to protect your tools. I have lived in a humid area with a basement shop and now I live in a dry area with a heated shop. The need for protection from the elements varies widely depending on where you live and work. Do what you have to but don’t obsess on this unless you are having real problems. The sweat from my (or my grandchildren’s) hands is the biggest worry where I live, and that is easy enough to manage.
To sum up
- If you work in a consistent dedicated space, use shelves and move whatever tools you need immediately to your bench. Make sure your shelving is not so fancy that you can not easily change and update it.
- If you work in a shared space, then build a tool chest similar to the anarchist’s tool chest. Make sure it has good wheels on it and leave it as open as you can.
- If you can not store your tools in the space where you work then look at something like a dutch chest. And I would suggest that you build a modular unit with a separate upper and lower chest. Making sure that neither of the chests is bigger or heavier than you can move around by yourself.