Build a Woodworker's Toolbox




Introduction: Build a Woodworker's Toolbox

About: The official instructable for Popular Mechanics magazine, reporting on the DIY world since 1902.

If you're a mechanic, finding a toolbox is no problem - there are dozens on the market, from huge roll-around shop cases to small metal boxes. Framers, plumbers and electricians are well served, too, with everything from pickup-truck storage to toolbags and belts. However, if you're a shop-bound woodworker, the picture changes. There's simply little out there that suits the range and variety of hand tools most woodworkers like to have nearby. For those who refuse to make do with second best, there's only one solution - build a wooden toolbox designed expressly for a woodworking shop.

Of course, building a case for your fine hand tools is more than a practical solution to a storage problem. It's an opportunity to fine-tune and show off your woodworking skills. Our design is based on an early 20th century Arts & Crafts theme and features traditional frame-and-panel construction and hand-dovetailed drawers.

This project was originally published in the January 2001 issue of Popular Mechanics.  You can find more great projects at Popular Mechanics DIY Central.

Step 1: Build the Case, Part 1

Joint and rip the leg blanks from 11⁄2-in.-thick cherry stock, and crosscut each piece several inches longer than the finished dimension. Then, cut the rail and mullion blanks in the same way. Cut 1⁄2-in.-thick cherry stock to size for thee and mullion blanks in the same way. Cut 1⁄2-in.-thick cherry stock to size for the toolbox panels.

Lay out the mortises in the leg blanks so there’s extra waste stock beyond them at the ends. To ensure uniform positioning, clamp the pieces together and use a square to mark across them. Then, lay out the mullion mortises in the rails.

Set up a plunge router with a 1⁄2-in.-dia. spiral up-cutting bit and edge guide, and rout most of the waste from each mortise (Photo 1). Note that the extra length at the ends of each blank supports the router base for these cuts. Then, rout the mortises in the top and bottom rails. After routing, the mortises will have round ends. Square all mortise ends with a sharp chisel (Photo 2).
Readjust the router bit depth and cut the panel grooves in the legs, rails and mullions (Photo 3). Then, lay out and rout the stopped rabbets for the plywood inner sides, and square the rabbet ends.

Step 2: Build the Case, Part 2

Using a dado blade in the table saw, cut the tenons on the rail and mullion ends. First set the blade height to cut both sides of the centered mullion tenons and the outside faces of the off-center rail tenons. Reset the blade height to cut the inside of the rail tenons (Photo 1). Finally, adjust the blade height to cut the shoulders as shown in the exploded diagram.

Lay out the arched profile on each bottom rail and use a band saw or sabre saw to make the curved cuts. Keep the saw kerf on the waste side of the layout line. When the rails are cut to shape, smooth the rough-sawn surfaces with a spokeshave, scraper and sandpaper. Bore holes through the top rails for securing the toolbox top. Note that each hole is elongated to allow the top to expand and contract with the change in seasons. Bore two holes side by side for each screw. Then use a 1⁄8-in. chisel to connect the holes. Counterbore the holes in the front and back rails so the screwheads won’t interfere with the operation of the top drawer.
Sand the panels before assembling the sides and back. Apply glue to the mortise-and-tenon joints of the back assembly, taking care not to get glue in the panel grooves. Install the panels and mullions in the lower rail (Photo 2), and then position the top rail and use clamps to pull the joints tight. After assembling the sides in  the same way, join the legs to the side-rail ends. When the glue has set, join the side assemblies to the front and back rails.

Cut the plywood inner sides to size, bore and countersink screwholes, and screw the inner sides to the legs. Lay out the location of the drawer guide strips, and cut the strips to size. The easiest way to make these strips is to first rout a bull-nose profile along the end of a wide board. Then, rip the strips from the board, cut them to length and screw them in place (Photo 3).

Step 3: Drawer Construction, Part 1

Cut the 1⁄2-in.-thick maple drawer sides and backs to finished size and use 13⁄16-in. cherry for the faces. Note that blind dovetails join the sides to the face and through dovetails join the sides to the back. The tail patterns, though, are the same at the front and the back. Lay out the dovetails on the drawer sides with an adjustable bevel and marking gauge. Use a sharp knife to scribe the lines.

To cut the tails, first make the crossgrain cuts at the top and bottom edges of the side. Keep the saw kerf about 1⁄32 in. on the waste side of the line. Then, hold the piece upright in your vise and saw the sides of each dovetail (Photo 1).

With the tails defined by saw cuts, remove the waste between them by alternating vertical and horizontal cuts with a chisel (Photo 2). Stay about 1⁄32 in. from the bottom dovetail line until the waste is  removed. Finally, cut precisely along the layout lines, taking care to keep the cuts square to the face of the board.

To lay out the pins, first mark the mating pieces so they won’t get mixed up during assembly. Use a marking gauge to scribe guide lines across the ends and inside faces of the drawer fronts (Photo 3) and along both inside and outside faces of the drawer backs. With a drawer front held vertically, position the mating side over it and use a sharp knife to scribe the outline of the tails (Photo 4).  Follow the same technique for each joint.

Step 4: Drawer Construction, Part 2

To cut the pins on the drawer backs, use the same cutting techniques used for the tails. For the drawer fronts, however begin by making sharply angled cuts to define the blind pins (Photo 1). Next, alternate vertical and horizontal chisel cuts to op out the waste (Photo 2). Once again, keep about 1⁄32 in. from the lines. Finish by carefully paring while checking the fit of the joint as you go.

Use a dado blade to cut the 1⁄4-in. groove in the drawer parts that houses each drawer bottom (Photo 3). Cut the bottom panels to size and sand the inside surfaces of the drawer parts. Avoid sanding the dovetail joint surfaces.

Use a small brush to spread glue on each dovetail joint for one drawer. Join the back and front to one side, then slide the bottom panel into its groove. Position the opposite side, clamp, and check that the drawer is square.

When the glue has set on all drawers, plane or sand smooth the outer surfaces. Use a 3⁄4-in.-dia. straight bit in the router table to cut grooves in the drawer sides for the guide strips (Photo 4).

Test each drawer in the case. If a drawer is snug, sand the guides until it slides smoothly. If the drawer is too loose, shim the guide strips with paper or veneer to tighten the fit.

Glue up stock to form the toolbox top panel, and cut it to size. Use a 5⁄8-in.-rad. rounding-over bit for the profile along the bottom edge. To attach the top, first invert it on a padded surface. Then, temporarily remove the inner case sides and position the case on the top. Bore pilot holes into the top and install the screws.

Step 5: Finishing

After sanding, we applied three coats of Waterlox Transparent Finish. To promote easy sliding, apply paste wax to the drawer guide strips and the grooves in the drawer sides.

We also lined the drawers with heavy pool-table felt. Use a utility knife to cut the felt to size and simply lay each piece in a drawer bottom. To make a chisel rack, bore a series of 1-in. holes in a 1⁄2-in-thick strip of maple. Rip the strip through the center of the holes (see photo) and cut it to fit inside a drawer.

You've now created a beautiful and well-deserved home for your woodworking tools.

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    1 year ago

    I found the cut list for this project today. I hope this helps someone.


    Key No. Size and description (use)


    A 4 1 1/2 x 1 1/2 x 18 15/16" cherry (leg)
    B1 2 1 1/2 x 1 1/2 x 16 3/8" cherry (top side rail)
    B2 2 1 1/2 x 2 x 16 3/8" cherry (bottom side rail)
    C1 2 1 1/2 x 1 1/2 x 27 3/8" cherry (top rear rail)
    C2 2 1 1/2 x 2 x 27 3/8" cherry (bottom rear rail)
    D 8 1 x 1 1/2 x 16 5/16" cherry (mullion)
    E 11 1/2 x 4 5/8 x 15 11/16" cherry (panel)
    F 2 1/2 x 14 11/16 x 16" plywood (inner side)
    G 12 5/16 x 3/4 x 16" cherry (runner)
    H1 6 1/2 x 2 x 16 9/16" maple (drawer side)
    H2 4 1/2 x 2 1/2 x 16 9/16 maple (drawer side)
    H3 2 1/2 x 3 1/2 x 16 9/16"' maple (drawer side)
    I1 3 1/2 x 2 x 25 7/8" maple (drawer back)
    I2 2 1/2 x 2 1/2 x 25 7/8" maple (drawer back)
    I3 1 1/2 x 3 1/2 X 25 7/8" maple (drawer back)
    J1 3 13/16 x 2 x 25 7/8" cherry (drawer front)
    J2 2 13/16 x 2 1/2 x 25 7/8" cherry (drawer front)
    J3 1 13/16 x 3 1/2 x 25 7/8" cherry (drawer front)
    K 6 1/4 x 16 1/16 x 25 3/8" plywood (drawer bottom)
    L 6 15 9/16 x 24 7/8" felt (liner)
    M 1 1/2 x 7/8 x 24 7/8" maple (rack)
    N 1 13/16 x 19 1/2 x 30 1/2" cherry (top)
    O 39 3/4" No. 6 fh woodscrew
    P 16 1" No. 6 fh woodscrew
    Q 6 2" No. 8 rh woodscrew and washer
    R 6 1 3/4" No. 8 rh woodscrew and washer
    S 12 drawer pull(*)

    Misc.: Sandpaper; glue; Waterlox Transparent

    (*) Pull (No. 74RE2) available from Whitechapel
    Ltd., P.O. Box 136, Wilson, WY 83014; 800-468-5534.


    5 years ago

    Beautiful design and superb woodworking. Thanks for sharing!


    Reply 6 years ago

    Thanks Mike J for the Sketchup Design.


    The Butt joints are hard enough but at least they're concealed. The Dove tails ?????

    Really how many wood workers today can make quality dove tails. It's an art or a craft that very few would have.

    The fact that you have chosen imperial units of measurement and the results you get clearly indicate that you sir are a seasoned craftsman.

    I think this project is well beyond the abilities of the average hobbyist.

    Personally, with all the modern bonding agents I would choose anything over dove tails. Some time setting some templates and a power tool would so much easier.

    All in all, an excellent build. The best I have seen for a long while.


    Reply 6 years ago

    why exactly would the units of measurement indicate that someone is a seasoned craftsmen?

    there's lots of craftsmen out there, and not every last one of them lives in the USA.

    asia, europe, africa and australia all have their sets of seasoned craftsmen that are just as talented as (or more talented than) this guy.

    I don't mean to disrespect his work, he's far better at carpentry then I am, but I know quite some people who have made equally good if not better results, while none of them was using the imperial units, simply because those aren't the ones they grew up with, and because those aren't the ones in which they were taught their craft.

    So I'll repeat: what influence on the quality of workmanship do the units of measurement have?


    Reply 6 years ago

    Chris Schwartz advocates spending 20-30 minutes at lunchtime making a dovetail a day. In 30 days you'll be making dovetails like a pro.

    Like anything it's a matter of practice.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Dovetails are a sign of a craftsman but they are not that difficult to make if you are careful. Of course they are even easier with one of the many jointing jigs available these days. Don't be put off, give it a go. Lovely box and well made.


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    I used to feel dovetails much as you do - that dovetails were beyond the ken of mortal men. Now that I've learned to cut them I'd say they were on par with learning to weld or solder. If the first time you try it you're working on something very important to you, you're making a terrible, terrible mistake.

    There's lots of advice on how to cut dovetails out there. Here's advice on how to learn to cut dovetails.

    0) Read and watch a bunch of videos. There's a ton of them out there. Be prepared for people to disagree on how things are done as there are like five ways to do everything in woodworking. When people get all religious about pins first or tails first, feel free to roll your eyes.
    1) Get a decent saw for cutting dovetails with. Most straight back saws are too big and have too few teeth per inch. The Craftsman folk will sell you one for less than $10 that is good enough to get started, but you get what you pay for. Ideal a 14-20 tpi saw filed for rip cutting is what you want. A decent chisel or so is also necessary. A coping saw can be handy too.
    2) Keep your tools sharp. Learn to make a chisel to where you can shave your arm with it. Rip saws sharpen different from cross-cut saws. That matters.
    3) Practice. As I said, just like with welding or soldering don't start with a project, start with scrap until you get good enough that you can produce reasonable results. I got a cheap pine 1x4 (pallet wood would have been fine) cut it into 4" pieces and every night cut a set of three tails and four pins.
    4) Don't worry too much about layout while you're practicing. The only line that is critical is depth of cut. Uniform angles and spacing are nice, and when you are doing a real project it makes sense to lay them out just so, but for practice? Meh. Anywhere between 10-25° is good enough as you're mostly learning control. If you want to build or buy a little jig or use a bevel gauge, it won't hurt, but it's not necessary  to learn to cut.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Nice project, thank you for showing us a nice box!
    Austringer, I like your reply. It's gentle and encourages learning a skill that might not take very long to do. You've inspired me to start trying dovetails by hand. I used to think a dovetail jig and a router were the only way I could do dovetails. Kudos to you, I'm convinced I should practice some patience and discipline and learn handmade dovetails. Thank you very much!


    6 years ago

    Great job. You clearly know your way around woodworking!


    7 years ago

    Many decades ago, making his/her own tool box was the "final exam" for a woodworking apprentice. If it satisfied the master craftsmen, the apprentice became a journyman.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    That is nice, would I have the patience to build it though!


    9 years ago

    could u make this into a tackle box too that would be pretty cool!


    9 years ago

    Beautiful job. I always love beautifully crafted wood crafts. Thanks for posting.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    I have the plan for this someplace. A plan to make something like it someday too. Years ago I slapped together a wooden toolbox out of scrap lumber I had kicking around my garage. I still use it. I have wanted to go all out so to speak one day though. That is if I don't run across a Gerstner tool chest for cheap first.