Toolbox toiling


Several years ago I found myself with a neat little collection of Japanese woodworking hand tools. I went about building a Japanese style toolbox to store them in some time later. After adding a non-traditional feature of some sliding trays, I've been very happy with the result.

Now I'm facing a similar problem with...pretty much all the rest of my tools in my basement shop.


I really enjoy working with traditional Japanese hand tools. There's just something about the simplicity and elegance that I find attractive after a work week of the tech industry. With a comparatively small toolkit, you can build a lot of things! Yet, I still ended up with a growing collection of western tools from sales, project specific needs, as well as "it just needs to get done, not look pretty."

I now have a small collection of modern chisels, a few saws, several Bailey-pattern steel planes, and Stanley combination planes. This is to say nothing about the collection of power tools I have: a circular saw, a jigsaw, drill, angle grinder, Sawzall, and a Dremel. It's a lot of stuff. If they're not littering a table or workbench, they're on the floor in several inconsistently sized bags which either came with the tool, or I repurposed for the use. There's no organization for it, and it's more than an eyesore; it's a safety hazard.

So, I decided, it was time to get a second toolbox.

The natural first thing to do would be to go shopping for existing toolboxes. Since COVID-19, my favorite consignment shop for tools closed, meaning I would have to try something like Craigslist (and hoping car rentals lined up) or just by new. And wow, are toolboxes bloody expensive. A combo set that would likely house all my western hand tools and power tools would set me back somewhere around $700USD at a minimum. Smaller toolboxes were no more attractive or useful for the price.

Naturally, of course, I started to think about DIYing this project. I bought materials and started work. I was hoping to build a frame and panel tool chest which I could store everything in. This would be a floor model which one reaches into much like a chest freezer. The lid would be at the top, and like the Japanese style toolbox, would have a till of sliding trays to hold smaller tools and accessories.

As I worked on it, however, the more frustrated I got. It started to feel too big, so much so I couldn't imagine ever getting it out of that basement again. It also didn't seem to really meet my needs.

The thing with the power tools I have, is that I don't tend to use them in the shop. Most often, I bring them outside or to a particular location to do work. I'm not always working in a dedicated spot in my garage or in my house. Moreover, I don't always need all the tools I have at my disposal. I may just need a drill, or just need a saw, or sometimes both. This is why it's been useful to have many of the power tools in bags: they're naturally grouped together by use and can be grabbed at a moment's notice with little thought or planning. Yet, the bags aren't perfect. The tools bang and rub against each other in them, accessories have no set place, resulting in some minor frustrations in finding some small needed tool or part. Hauling them around is also frustrating due to the inconsistent sizes.

Now, there is an existing toolbox pattern which solves these issues: The modular rolling toolbox.

Like its name implies, the module rolling toolbox isn't one single big box. It's a series of smaller boxes, often set up to stack neatly with a rolling bottom unit so it can be easily carted around. Many of these things are constructions of plastic, although some have metal re-enforcement.

Despite being mostly fancy plastic bins, these things remain surprisingly expensive. While you can buy each module separately, each is by no means cheap. A basic set would cost me me over $300USD, and I'd suspect I'd need more like $700 to store most of the tools I want to:

  • A base unit to store the heaviest tools such as the circular saw and jig saw, possibly a router
  • A unit dedicated to the drill and it's many accessories
  • A similar unit for the Dremel
  • A unit for the angle grinder and several metalworking tools
  • A storage unit for small parts and consumables
  • A storage unit for chisels, hammers, and measuring tools (may be combined with the above)

Worse, some of the tools I have are...weird. It's almost like only weird hand tool enthusiasts really want to put a Bailey pattern plane in their standard toolkit. As a result, the size was simply too small for a lot of my needs. I wanted somewhat larger boxes, with many capable of hanging on a wall easily. True, I could still get one of the commercial systems and just live with it.

And if speed of solving my tool storage crisis was the only thing I had in mind, that may be the way to go. Yet, I can't seem to rid myself of the notion that I'd be paying a lot for a bunch of overpriced plastic.

I haven't gotten down to building or buying anything yet for this project. If I were to build it, that opens up the critical question of out of what. If I were more comfortable with metalworking, I could try my hand at that and build it out of angle iron and steel. Without that, the other option is to build it out of wood.

Even if wood, what kind? I could build it out of solid core pine like I did for several other of my projects. It would take some time to build up the panels, but it's a process I'm familiar with. It may also cost more, since I would be buying fancier clear wood to cut down on prep time. The alternative is plywood. While you can work plywood with hand tools, it can be an exhausting and unsatisfying experience. I do have the power tools to work it though if I wanted. That would come with its own frustrations (such as working outside and the noise).

It's once again a question of how quickly do I want to solve this problem, vs. how much do I want to enjoy the process of solving it. If I just want to get some of it done, plywood is the right way. I have a circular saw and a router table necessary to do all of the cutting and joinery. Making panels out of solid core wood and then using hand tools would take way, way longer, but it would be much more enjoyable and give me a long running project to look forward to for weeks to come.

The thing is, fun is highly valued. Having a project I can look forward to and enjoy for weekend after weekend is what I like. It doesn't seem all that fun to build this quickly just to solve the problem. Just the thought of the set up required to cut the pieces to size feels tiring. Perhaps that, then, makes my decision right there.