Introduction: Repair a Used Kennedy Machinist Chest

Kennedy tool chests have been around for well over a century and have a reputation for ruggedness, long life, repair-ability, and quality. There are other manufacturers of quality tool storage, and there are continuing arguments in person and in on-line forums about how good Kennedy chests actually are, but they have served for years and many machinists swear by them and treat them, in particular the top chests (signature series), as a status symbol. The price reflects this. They are not as pricey as a top line wood chest, like a Gerstner, but still run high compared to many other options. The chest we will be looking at (model 526) lists for a bit over $US600.

This chest cost $US20 at a boot sale and I bought it to use as repair parts. Obviously, not in prime condition at the time, but the primary issue turned out to be rust and grime. These chests are pretty heavy gauge steel, so a little rust is no big deal, and there was no rust-through. Just clean it off and, if desired, prime and paint the areas or the whole chest. It is time consuming to do a good job, but not difficult and no different than dealing with any rusty tool. If there is significant rust through (not uncommon both on the bottom where the chest might sit in water and there sided are folded over the bottom, and in the top compartment)

Here, we'll look at a few of the more common mechanical issues and how I dealt with them.


A used Kennedy (or similar) machinist chest

Step 1: Damaged Rails

The drawers are supported by friction-type rails. Each side of the drawer has a C-channel, with a matching channel on the chest body, with a slide rail that joins them allowing for full extension, and springs in the rail to prevent the drawer from coming off of the rail when it is opened.

There are a number of issues that can happen, and a couple of the most common are that the two halves of the rail come apart, and that the drawer retaining spring not working. These slides are pretty sloppy. They are not high precision pieces. The drawer may flop side-to-side when operated, and that is the root of both problems.

Step 2: When the Rail Splits

The slide rails are made of two stampings that are near identical, the difference being the four rivet points. One piece has a larger hole, the other smaller, and at manufacture, the excess material from the smaller is riveted and welded though the corresponding larger hole in the other piece.After assembly, they are symmetric: the ends are interchangeable.

We have a photo of what an undamaged join looks like, and a separated one. When the drawers get shoved sideways while open, the joint may fail. There are a number of fixes, other than buying new slides ($US30 for a pair), and they are often repairable. There are times where repair is the only practical option, at least for the short term. The key to repair is that the damage isn't too bad. This should be obvious, but defining too bad is situational. If I were in Van Wert, OH, down the road from the factory store, late Tuesday morning, I would probably get replacements in most cases. Working out of a 40ft container in an oil field on the North Slope, replacement may not be reasonable for any but the worst damage.

If it isn't fixed somehow, it will get worse and other things may be damaged, like the other side slide rail, or the contents of the drawer when the drawer lands on the floor.

This part has one broken join, and there is enough of the material left that when squeezed back together, they key like Lego. The sides don't stay together, as both sides are bent, but they key.

One option I have used are clamp together and weld, which is unpleasant due to the galvanizing and inevitable oil. It is permanent, but take time and prep, as well as having the welding gear handy.

My preferred solution is to make a clip.

Step 3: Clip That Rail

After massaging the sides to the best fit I can by hand, a
piece of music wire (spring wire- I always keep a few lengths in different diameters around. It is dead handy) 0.9mm diameter (0.035", a little more than 1/32") is perfect for this.

The clip is bent using needle nose pliers so that it will squeeze the ends of the slide rail together. Round-jaw wire bending pliers are even better. The distance from the crossover to the return bend should be a bit less than the distance from the end of the rail to the tang of the retaining spring. It slips on with the wire ends straddling the long part of the retaining spring. It should be bend tight enough to be snug at the end. If it isn't a good fit, you can keep it from slipping off using a drop of epoxy, superglue, or any suitable adhesive. You can also raise a burr on the slide rail just to the side of the crossover with a center punch, but be careful to back the part up solidly so it doesn't get bent.

Step 4: But Why Does the Drawer Fall Out on One Side?

Usually, because the tang of the retaining spring isn't engaging the tab in the C-channel. It can be either the end at the drawer or the end in the case. Most often it is the drawer end. Once in a while, the tab is worn or has been hit and needs to be pulled out a little, but that is rare. If needed, it can be done using the end of a small drift punch or similar. Not too much or the slide rail will jam on it.

When it is the drawer end that comes free, rather than the case end, it is easiest to deal with. Most often, either the C-channel or the slide rail has been spread slightly by pushing the open drawer sideways, or there is sufficient wear in the slides, and there is enough side-play that the tang misses the tab. This can be diagnosed but GENTLY pushing the drawer sideways to the side that comes free as it is pulled out. If excess side play is the problem, the play can be reduced by bringing in the edges of the slide rail slightly as shown. The plier is tilted so one jaw face is on one rail edge, and the other jaw face is on the bend of the other side. Parallel jaw pliers are the best for this, but with care other types can be used. I have even used an adjustable wrench. Work BOTH sides in a little and try it. You can always do a little more. Bending the sides back out is harder.

If it is the case end coming free, this may still help, obviously working the correct end of the slide rail, but, in my experience, wear is more likely an issue there and replacement is going to be needed sooner, not later.

Step 5: The Drawers Work, But I Am Missing Drawer Pulls

This chest had a lot of user-inflicted damage. One case was missing drawer pulls. Replacements can be bought for way too much money, and they can be 3-D printed if you care to model them. There are models available on line for this, as well. I had a few spares (I rarely turn one of these chests down for the right price to add to the spare parts collection), but the wide bottom drawer was swiss cheese from the prior owner breaking off the original center pull and installing an Ikea drawer handle to replace it (not shown as I took it off when I was planning this chest for the parts pile).

I thought to myself: "Self? You there? What about a stock-style pull that is wide enough to cover all of the holes?" So, model, 3-D print in PLA (a good match here since the service temp is low, high toughness isn't needed, and there is likely to be oil and solvent exposure), bondo, tap, test fit, paint, and install.

The holes were not aligned horizontally, nor were they perfectly matched on center, so it took a bit of measurement to make it right. The new pull was tapped for #6-32 screws (plug then bottoming- there are only five complete threads) to mount it. The color-coat paint is actually Kennedy brown, which, unfortunately, isn't a great match here, though it is elsewhere.

There is really no detailed instruction here. Every case will be different. But there is usually a way to make it nice.

Step 6: The Lid Flops Because the Stays Aren't Attached

This chest came with the rivets for the lid stays- the folding things that tie the lid to the sides to hold it when open- had been drilled out. There was nothing to keep the lid from flopping over the back and breaking the hinge. The stays are available to buy (and I didn't need to this time), but they still need to be installed. This is pretty common, for some reason.

On some chests (520, for example), the rivets that attach the stay links are exposed on the chest sides, as well as the sides of the top. On this chest, the side handles cover them up. So, rather than remove and reattach the side handles, which is the official way, I drilled all of the way through. It can take a little doing, since the trapped rivet head will spin and jam. Careful measuring to match location and drilling from the outside makes it easier.

The original are flare-end rivets. Pop rivets and washers are sufficient to reattach the stays since it is a pretty low stress point. If they need to be purchased, the supplied rivets will not be long enough for this. To use the supplied rivets, you gotta pull the handles.

Step 7: Feet

These chests do not have nice bottoms. They will rock on the slightest uneven spot, moisture will rust them. They scratch whatever surface they are on.

I put feet on them when the chest will be moved around or sit on a surface that can get marred or might be wet. Other methods I have used include cementing urethane drawer liner over the entire bottom and felt covering the bottom. It depends on where and how the chest will be used.

Key is that the load path is primarily the ends of the chest. Feet need to be at the corners to transfer the load. Any feet or high spot on the bottom more than about 20mm from the ends does nothing useful, and may damage the bottom.

At this point, the chest is usable.

Step 8: Lock Control

One feature of these chests, and many others, is that there is a front cover. The cover keeps the drawers in, and is locked in place by rods that engage it when the top is closed.

This is great when you want the chest locked down. But if, like me, there are times where you want the drawers accessible with the top closed, there is a small problem. The lock rods block the top drawers when the cover is closed. You might ask why I can't just leave the cover unlatched to prevent this. There are two reasons: 1) I may have things in the top compartment that need to be locked down while otherwise having free access to the drawer contents, and 2) when the chests are stored in rack shelves, spaced to just clear a closed and latched chest, it allows me to access most things without pulling it from the to open the top.

Most of my chests have some way to disable the rods. The Kennedy style are easiest.

All it takes is a couple holes and a couple binder clips.

The only hard part: like drilling a safe, WHERE you drill is critical.

The rods are pushed down against springs by feet inside the lid. The feet are not precisely located, nor are the rods. These are all spot welded in place at the factory with fairly loose tolerance. The design works well and is very forgiving, but means this modifiacation takes a little care. First, It is necessary to locate where the rod touched the feet. A slip of painter tape and some dye make it easy

Apply the dye to the tip of the rod, let the lid close gently, supporting it at the center so there is no twist, and the dye will transfer to the tape. The middle of the mark is the center of the rod contact.

Step 9: Locking Rods Disabled

Center punch the middle of the mark. BACK UP THE FOOT with a heavy block to avoid bending the foot when you do this. A bodywork dolly. A chunk of railroad rail. A random hunk of steel. It isn't critical what.

When both feet are marked, pilot drill then open the hole to size. I like a Unibit (step bit) for this. It is sheet metal. If using standard twist bits, go easy to avoid grabbing and twisting the foot out of shape. The hole size for most of my cases is 3/16" (4.5mm), just larger than the rod. If the location will be too close to the edge of the foot, carefully adjust the foot to put it near the middle.

Now, when the lid is closed, the end of the rods go through the holes and the rods aren't extended.

Step 10: But How Do I Make It Lock Again?

To re-enable the locking, cover the holes. I use binder clips. Once the cover is closed, they will not slip.

I could make special clips that stick out less and hold better, but have never needed to. These do fine.

Step 11: So What Else?

There are a lot of other things that may need to be done with these chests.

If the key is missing, there are a number of companies that will provide them by code.

If the lock is damaged, It is easy to change on all but the oldest models. The old models with a locking drawlatch in the center, rather than the cam lock type here, are a bit more difficult, but the parts can be obtained.

Relining the drawers is easy, but time consuming. Cleaning the old felt out can be tough, and depends how it was installed. I use a good quality billiard table felt rather then the official stuff, since it costs less and comes in better colors. I use Scotch 467MP, golf-grip tape, drafting board cover tape, thin carpet tape, or any other handy two-side adhesive. I avoid wet cements. Clean the inside of the drawer well, prime and paint if needed, before refelting. It can be done as a single piece, or several. On deep drawers, I usually do the bottom, left side, and right side as one piece, then individual pieces for the front and the back. A body-filler smoothing tool is real handy to smooth the felt and tuck the corners.

After removing the old drawer linings, which can take half an hour to several hours, depending on condition and how they are adhered, it takes me about 2 hours to cut, fit, and install the linings for one of these chests.

I have never done a "full restoration" to like new. It isn't worth it to me, time wise or money wise. These are users. If I want a showpiece, I'll buy one.

All of the work on the chest took about 6 hours, more than half of it cleaning as I got a few minutes here and there. The whole job was maybe three weeks, keeping in mind that until I was done with the cleaning, I was figuring it for parts, not a user, hence no pictures.The next most time consuming was the handle, which was maybe an hour of actual work, not counting a lot of waiting for the 3-D printer, and waiting paint and body filler to dry. I only relined one drawer- the one with the new handle- as the rest are usable, if not beautiful.

Worth the time? At lawyers rates, the time was a loss. At trades worker scale, it is a fair saving against purchasing a new chest. For a hobbyist the time has whatever value they assign. To me, the time used wasn't billable and was mostly small chunks that would otherwise be wasted, so I got a good condition chest for nearly no money. I think it is worth it.