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.
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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.