Back during the prime of the pandemic (early 2021), I took the plunge and bought a benchtop hollow chisel mortiser (an “HCM”). At the time, the Powermatic Benchtop Mortiser was on backorder from Southern Tool (who are really great to work with [not a sponsor]). I’ve always hated boring and chopping mortises by hand. I’m totally totally fine with cutting tenons with hand tools. It’s just the donkey work of mortises that I would love to avoid. And my HCM allows me to do so.
So when it came time to cut some large bridle joints for my new forever workbench (I mean it this time!), I couldn’t help but wonder if I could do it on the HCM. I consider myself to be pretty good at following a line with a panel saw and have cut plenty of large bridle joints that way. But bridle joints are just “open” mortise and tenon joints, after all. So cutting bridles on the HCM should be easy enough with just a little planning. It’s not really intended for this purpose, but it works just fine.
First of all, it really helps if all of your leg blanks are S4S and the same dimensions, within a few shavings at least. That way, you can flip the blank in all directions and use the same fence setting for centering the mortise. It’s not fatal if things aren’t exact, as long as you use a consistent reference edge for the matching legs. But it will slow things down if you need to reset the fence after every flip end over end.
Second, leave your leg blank overlong, so there is some meat to support the temporarily enclosed mortise without blowing out. For wood species that split easily, such as Red Oak, you should probably leave a full inch. These legs are poplar, so 1/2″ was fine.
Thirdly, size your mortise to be no more than 4x (or just under 4x, ideally) the size of the bit you plan to use.
I start by defining the walls of the mortise. Assuming the mortise is centered on the leg, cut about halfway through on a full pass, flip end over end, and cut the rest of the way from the other side. Then, you can spin the leg 180 degrees and repeat the two passes. After four total passes, you have the mortise defined as shown above. Repeat for the other 3 legs until the walls of the mortise are all defined.
Now, reset the fence so you are removing half of the material remaining in the middle part of the mortise. If you’ve sized the bridle joint correctly (i.e., no more than 4x the size of your HCM bit), you only need to reset the fence this once. Remove the material only at the base of the mortise with four plunge cuts, flipping the work as before. The base of the mortise will now be fully established. No need to worry about removing the rest of the waste on the HCM, as you’re about to see.
Finally, saw off the extra length on the leg (I use my miter chop saw for big cuts like this, but hand saws are fine too). BAM! You’ve got an open mortise. You may have a small strip of waste holding the inner chunk on. Just snap it off and you’re good.
If needed, a wide chisel or a medium cut file makes quick work of smoothing any unevenness on the inside of the open mortise. But if your HCM is well set up, this may not be an issue.
Is this the most efficient way to cut bridle joints? No, not at all. Either a table saw or a band saw works faster and probably better. But I’m still learning to set up my little band saw and I wasn’t confident the cheek cuts wouldn’t wander horribly. Plus I already had the HCM set up for mortising in the lower stretchers so it was quick to move over to this operation.
While it may be a single purpose tool, I believe the HCM is the second most time saving stationary tool for the hand tool woodworker (right after the thickness planer). It’s far quieter than a router or simply chopping the mortise with chisel and mallet, and produces more predictable results. It’s faster than boring and paring out a mortise (whether with a drill press, a hand drill or a brace) and makes only the same amount of mess. All of which makes it ideal for small space woodworking.
To be clear, you don’t need a hollow chisel mortiser as a hand tool woodworker. But if I have a batch of mortises to knock out, odds are that’s where you’ll find me.
Before the new year, I essentially finished the carcass on a new, streamlined traveling tool chest. I had made a low profile Dutch Tool Chest fairly recently that, unfortunately, didn’t quite work out for its intended purpose. Long story short, I miscalculated the size of the lower compartment and nothing quite fits without effort. Another inch or so and it would be fine. It’s also a bit wider than it needs to be.
So that means it’s time to make another one!
This isn’t a post about the new chest itself, but here are some quick details: 9/16″ Eastern White Pine carcass; 3/4″ EWP tongue and groove back boards; Southern Yellow Pine lock, battens and catches; Tremont Nail cut nails throughout. Overall size 24″ x 23″ x 12″. Lower compartment is 9″ high.
As I was making the lid (always the worst part of any tool chest build), I decided to start painting the case. Then, after three coats of paint, I dry fit the lid and discovered the top of the well is rather twisted. The front right corner was about 3/32″ higher than it should have been, so the lid rocked pretty badly. If you’ve never had to level the top of a Dutch Tool Chest after assembly, know that you can’t just continuously plane the top edge like you would with a traditional square box where it’s all edge grain. If you’re not careful, you’ll ram into the end grain of the side board and risk spelching the case side. And it’s awkward.
Instead, whenever I need to level a cross grain corner joint, I start with a chisel. Mark the depth with a gauge and chop, bevel down, until you scallop out enough of the end grain where the two boards meet to give clearance to your plane bed. You can now plane down the the long grain of the front board to depth without slamming into the end grain of the side board. Then, just take down the hump in the end grain of side board until it’s straight and flush with the new corner height. Once everything is about there, one long continuous pass starting from the far front corner and ending at the near back corner finishes it off.
Moral of the story: check for twist before you apply three coats of paint. Or, better yet, before you attach the front board at all.
Another year on the Gregorian calendar has passed and I’m back in the workshop. As I always say, “ABCD – Always be Carpen them Diems!” And today, like every other New Year’s Day, is no different.
My first project of the year is making a panel saw from “scratch”. Those quotes are doing some pretty heavy lifting, as the plate is taken from a 26″ vintage Simonds 10 TPI crosscut hand saw. I’m not in the mood to cut new teeth today. The plate is in very good shape but the handle was a mess. Clearly an aftermarket job, the slot for the saw plate was at like 10 degrees to the handle and it made for terrible hang.
So first I made a new tote. There are a ton of good tutorials on the yutubs about this, so I’m not going to offer any real pointers here. However, a small oscillating spindle sander (I have the handheld one from Wen, which seems to be a knockoff of the Triton model) makes the job a lot quicker. I don’t have a band saw, so bringing the outline of the tote into flat on the OSS (instead of by hand with rasps and files) is a godsend. Especially on quartersawn hard maple.
Once the outside was shaped, I took my cues from the BTC Hardware Store Saw and busted out the trim router with a chamfer bit. Once the hard arrises are sanded down, it’s just as comfortable as full rounds. Plus, the intersection of the chamfers made a cool lamb’s tongue-like feature at the bottom of the tote, without having to do an actual lamb’s tongue.
When I make the next hand saw tote, if I use this pattern again, I will lighten the chamfer along the front (seen left, where it meets the saw plate). That heavy chamfer, as cool as it looks, nearly overlapped with the top saw nut and left a fragile edge that will probably break off soon.
Next I had to modify the plate to fit the tote. That vertical dotted line on the pattern to the right of the saw nuts shows where the plate seats into the tote. Problem is, the sourced plate did not have a straight line at the heel. That means it’s angle grinder time. I just use a scrap of plywood as a fence (learned that one from Pask Makes) and go to town. I also nibbed off the corner at the heel.
The angle grinder leaves the plate rather work hardened at this point. Files still work, but you really have to draw file to get down to fresh steel. I pop it in the saw vise and use the same jig for jointing the teeth. It’s important this be straight and true so it seats nicely in the tote.
I didn’t get pictures of it, but I next cut the slot in the tote for the plate. You can freehand this (like the guy who last owned the saw did), but three is a better way. Just clamp to a flat surface (like a benchtop) another panel saw with a thinner plate and a fine set to the bench with a spacer underneath that centers the cut. Then draw the tote, flat against the bench and cut the slot as deep as you can. You can then finish the cut by hand in the vise, as the portion of the slot you already cut will guide the saw the rest of the way. Lee Valley has an excellent guide on this. If the slot is slightly off center (mine was by about 1/32″), just plane down the thicker side.
Now came the part I was dreading. When re-handling panel saws in the past, I used the existing handle as a pattern and located the saw nuts exact where they had been on the previous tote. For this, I was starting fresh and that meant drilling new holes in the plate. The spring steel plate. With a cheap benchtop drill press.
I had previously drilled 1/16″ pilot holes through the tote and bored the initial recesses for the saw nuts. So I started by clamping assembled saw onto the drill press table and locating the 1/16″ holes, which I then drilled through the plate. I then set the handle aside, recentered the drill press on each pilot hole in the plate, and clamped down the plate to the drill press table. You do not want a spinning hand saw plane. Then I just worked my way up from 1/16″ to 7/32″ incrementally until there were three 7/32″ holes in the plate. In truth, I cooked about four 7/32″ drill bits. It’s just too much for my little drill press to handle. But they were cheap drill bits (scavenged from various box store sets).
All that was left to finish the tote was drilling out the saw nut holes (9/32″ for the slotted nuts and 1/4″ for the medallion and bolts) and tweaking the depth of the recesses. I think I set the recesses in a little deep, but it works. Some boiled linseed oil really makes the quartersawn holographics of the hard maple pop.
I still need to hack off some of the toe to get the plate itself down to about 19″ of tooth line. That, in my experience, makes the plate stiff enough to not need a half back or magnetic guide for basic joinery. Plus it gets rid of that kink that always develops about 5-6″ from the toe of every 26″ hand saw. And, of course, that will allow it to fit in the toolbox.
The hang of the saw is a bit toe heavy, which makes me think it should be a medium rip (8-10 TPI). I find that useful for crosscutting wider, thicker stock on the saw bench and still able to rip efficiently at the vise. A saw like that is a workhorse for my travel toolbox. Once the BLO dries, it’s time to carpe some more diems and reshape the teeth.
But, for now, Happy New Year and I hope you find some time in the shop soon. Thanks for being a reader and stay tuned for some new and exciting things this year.
I recently celebrated my 10th woodworking anniversary. About this time in 2012, I got sick of paying for furniture that didn’t quite match my sensibilities and took matters into my own hands. I’ve probably covered this before, but growing up, we were a New Yankee Workshop household (not a Woodwright’s Shop) household. So when I decided to get back into woodworking as an adult, I went first for some power tools. A home center run with my father resulted in 12″ chop saw, a plunge router kit, a cordless handheld tool bundle, and a boatload of wood screws (plus one hard point saw and one chisel). Those tools alone got me through a bed (that was reclaimed into the base frame for my bar), a desk (that was reclaimed into the base frame for my regular outdoor workbench), and a console table (reclaimed into god knows what).
But I quickly gravitated toward working primarily without power. Not just because it’s loud and dusty using a plunge router in your foyer, no matter how great your shop vac. But also because it’s meditative to me. Now I am sure there are some folks who Zen out with the random orbit sander. But not I. My happy place is a No. 6 or No. 7 hand plane and a stack of rough sawn lumber to S4S.
Sure, I still have that same chop saw and cordless circular saw. And I regularly use them, along with a hollow chisel mortiser and a thickness planer. I even bought an impact driver a couple months back and can’t believe how I’ve lived without one for all these years. But the fact is, nowadays my power tools support my hand work; not the other way around.
Although I joke that I am an artist, I will never make anything that ends up in a museum. I’m not a savant at anything woodworking related (although I consider myself well above average at hand cut dovetails). I have a day job, that keeps me very busy. And in these 10 years, I’ve devoted enough time to the craft to have picked up a thing or two. And I’d like to share that collected wisdom with the world.
This will be a multi-part series. I’m not sure how many installments there will be, and I certainly expect I won’t make it straight through without deviating to regular posts. I have literally no sponsors.
Getting Started in Woodworking
If you’re here, it may be because you’ve searched “Woodworking in an Apartment” or “Small Space Woodworking” and took a flyer. If so, welcome. I’m James and I have very strong opinions on literally everything.
If you think you might want to get into hand tool woodworking with a limited tool kit and limited space, there are better resources than me. You should go to YouTube and check out Paul Sellers and Richard Maguire. Paul and Richard are giants to me. Paul’s 10 part workbench video came out a few months before I started woodworking (although I didn’t discover Paul until 2014, after 2 years of fapping about with power tools). Paul is like a combination of Mr. Rogers and Bob Ross.
Richard started posting a year into my woodworking career. Paul’s website, Common Woodworking, didn’t exist when I needed it most. Richard’s site, The English Woodworker, has long form content (both paid an unpaid) that cannot be beat. Richard is at the same time exceedingly practical and esoteric. Trust me; you’ll see.
So check their stuff out and maybe come back here if you want more of those very strong opinions of mine. If you’re open to using more substantial power tools, the Woodworkers’ Guild of America and the Wood Whisperers Guild are both good resources.
Beginner Woodworker Hand Tools
People have written entire books on this question. I have my own thoughts, sure. My only piece of real input is to buy a few tools of good quality, rather than a bunch of tools of crappy quality. But if you want my 10 year retrospective take on the absolute core tool kit, here it is.
Hardpoint panel saw from the home center (Home Depot has DeWalt; Lowes has Craftsman; I have used both)
1/2″ (and maybe 1″ too) Lee Valley bevel edge chisel (the ones with the clear handle; they work both for fine work and mortising)
No. 5 Stanley Bailey pattern Hand Plane (Patrick Leach at http://www.supertool.com/ can get you a good worker that won’t take much to restore; sign up for his monthly tool list so you can build your kit with good vintage stuff if you want to go forward)
Stanley 10-049 folding utility knife (Paul Sellers swears by this knife and so do I; get it from Amazon)
Thorex double face mallet (both Paul Sellers and Richard Maguire use one and so do I; get it from Amazon)
12′ tape measure (the Starrett “exact” one is pretty great, and cheap, from Amazon)
12″ combination square (I use a Starrett, but Lee Valley sells a 12″ in a set with a 6″; they are pretty accurate for the price)
Taytools double sided diamond plate sharpening stone (these are pretty good for the price, Amazon available, but also get a sharpening stone holder from powertec or peachtree and some 3 in 1 oil)
But for my money, I would check out either The Naked Woodworker workbench, which can be built with just dimensional framing lumber from the home center and the tool kit described above. Or check out Rex Krueger on YouTube and his “Joiners Workbench“, which is similar but arguably easier to build with the same kit.
I am by no means an innovator. Folks have had small shops in the past and they will have them in the future. I invent nothing, as the saying goes. But because I am a hobbyist woodworker who strives for a manageable tool kit within a finite shop space, I don’t always have the exact tool I need at hand.
Take, for instance, the timber framed saw horses I’m making as a gift for a new homeowner (and close friend who will inevitably ask me for help on home improvement projects). I’m using the Richard Maguire design (he calls them saw donkeys, lol). Which means beefy tenons with drawbore pegs to keep everything cinched under the extra strain of having no lower stretcher.
The most important part of a drawbore is ensuring the peg can pass cleanly through the joint, flexing but not plowing or crushing as it’s pounded through the offset holes. That’s why it’s important to observe the three finer points of successful drawboring: (i) don’t use too extreme of an offset on the tenon hole, (ii) use a longer taper on the front of the peg, and (iii) ease the entrance to the hole on the tenon. The fourth point (in my experience) is to wax your pegs, but some folks like to glue their drawbored pegs in. I don’t.
When doing smaller drawbores for furniture, I have a couple of machinist alignment pins that work great as drawbore pins where 5/16″ and 3/8″ pegs are used. You assemble the joint, insert the drawbore pin, and the taper of the drawbore pin draws the joint to full closer and also reams (really compresses, but still) the entrance of the hole on the tenon (thus fulfilling finer point (iii) above and illustrating the purpose of finer point (ii) above).
For these sawhorses, though, the pegs are 5/8″, and I’m not even sure they make a machinist alignment pin for that size. So, instead, I use a countersink bit to ease the start of the holes in the tenon. This is functionally the same as properly using a drawbore pin.
I almost always use a hollow chisel mortiser for these big mortises, but the tenons are cut by hand.
In fairness, I do use 5/8″ pegs for a lot of workbench and workbench-adjacent building. So maybe I would be justified owning an appropriately sized drawbore pin. But drawbore pins are single purpose tools. My countersink bit, however, has many uses across the full gamut of my woodworking. And I’m not sure a drawbore pin of the right size would have much effect on the oak, ash and maple that I use in my workbench building activities. So I will continue to use my countersink bit. And I could probably take the drawbore pins out of my toolkit entirely.
I learned all of the above finer points of drawboring through trial and [lots of] error. I’ve had pegs fail to flex through the offset hole, split down the middle and blow out the back of the board with the mortise (and in doing so fail to cinch the joint together). I’ve had pegs fail to flex through the offset hole and snap (making the usual solution, to drive a new peg all the way through the joint, unavailable because the peg didn’t clear the offset hole cleanly). And I’ve had pegs that made it through the offset hole and still do both of the same.
But if there was one of the rules that each situation could have been fixed by, it’s probably finer point (iii): easing the entrance to the holes in the tenon. And when all it takes is a countersink bit, that’s a pretty efficient solution.
I’ve been making low benches (both workbenches and general furniture) for a while now and I’d like to talk about the various ways to join the legs to the top. In my experience, some are better or worse than others, depending on several factors, including: (i) the purpose of the finished piece, (ii) the thickness of the benchtop, (iii) the materials used, and (iv) the tools available.
Let’s discuss several choices to join the legs to the top (I swear this is not a clip show):
First, we have cylindrical through tenons. The tenon can be hand carved, turned on a lathe or made with a round tenon cutter (like for rustic joinery). The mortise is bored with a large auger bit or some other boring bit.
Next, we have conical through tenons. The tenon is hand carved with a drawknife or plane and then typically refined with a special tapered tenon cutter. The mortise is bored with a smaller bit and enlarged with a tapered reamer.
In addition, we have rectilinear through tenons, which can be cut with regular edge tools. The tenon is sawed to shape with an angled shoulder. The mortise is chopped out with a chisel. No boring tools needed.
Finally, legs can be joined with notched lap joints. The tenon is sawed at an angle with a birds mouth shoulder. The mortise is just a dado in the side of the top. Also no boring tools needed.
Let’s take these in order. This is just my opinion based on experience; others may have their own takes.
Relatively easy to cut: You just need an augur/boring bit of appropriate diameter (and a bit of skill to follow an angle) to cut the tenon. For the tenon, either use a lathe or log joinery tenon cutter or employ a few common hand tools (saws, chisels, spokeshave, rasps, sand paper) to round off the tenon and taper the shoulder.
Strong: Full thickness tenons, glued and secured with wedges, form a secure and durable joint.
Hard to correct: If you mess up the angle or wallow out the mortise too much, you’re stuck with it. There is no correcting after the fact.
Limited sizes available: If you want a 2″ round tenon, you need to find a 2″ boring bit to cut the mortise. And a drill or brace that can use the damn thing without releasing the blue smoke (or tearing a UCL).
Certain materials work better: Leg stock needs to be bone dry, otherwise the tenon may shrink and need to be re-wedged in the future. Also, ideally, the wedges are made of something even harder than the legs. Finally, 2x dimensional lumber may not be thick enough for a sturdy leg.
Cosmetics: To me, full size round tenons just look off. If the angles are done right (so the exit holes are proper circles and not wallowed out ovals) and you use a contrasting wood for the wedges, they can be beautiful. But there are too many variables for me.
Relatively easy to cut: Same as above, except you need a tapered reamer to make the tapered mortise and typically want a matching tapered tenon cutter to refine the tenon (both are generally available from the usual woodworking suppliers).
Self-tightening: As you put weight on the legs, the tapered tenon will seat even further into the joint. The leg stock should still be bone dry, but as long as your legs are made of something equal to or harder than the top, the joint can sort itself out over time.
Easy to correct: Unlike the cylindrical tenon, where you are stuck with the hole you bored (including any wonky angles), you can correct the angles using the tapered reamer. Just take it slow and check often.
Less strong: The tapered tenon has less material making contact with the top and the wedge is not full width, so for a low workbench or a sitting bench for more than one person, you may need to add a cross rail to each pair of legs stabilize things.
Requires specialized equipment: As noted above, you need at least one piece of special equipment (a tapered reamer) to make the mortise. Refining the tapered tenon without the tapered tenon cutter is doable but takes some practice.
Rectilinear Through Tenons
Easy to cut: No specialized tools needed. A chisel, a mallet, a bevel gauge (or a block of wood cut to the right angle), and some patience will give you a clean and precise hole (that you can further refine with a file or rasp). I like to bore out most of the waste with an augur bit and pare down to lines, but this is ultimately just a square or rectangular mortise.
Strong: Of all the joints described, this one has the most material forming the tenon.
Cosmetics: Rectangular tenons wedged at 90 degrees or square tenons wedged at 45 degrees are very pleasing to my eye. I think they look the best of all of the through tenons.
Complex layout: Unlike cylindrical or conical tenons, you have to actually lay out both sides of the mortise. This requires carrying compound angles around to the other face. You’ll need to not only S4S the top but also square the ends.
Harder to correct: If you overshoot your lines, the only option is to make the tenon larger (which is easy if you overshoot side to side, but much harder front to back).
Notched Lap Joints
Simple to cut: This joint can be cut with one saw and one chisel. Even the compound angled version is not particular difficult to work out. There is a reason why saw benches are the quintessential intro woodworking course.
Any material works: 2x dimensional softwood lumber from the home center is perfectly acceptable for the legs. Using thinner material for the top (such as 2x dimensional softwood lumber) does not materially weaken the joint, either.
Versatile: When using a narrower than ideal top, this joint can be used on the back legs to extend the footprint to a stable depth.
Weak without reinforcement: As an external joint, glue alone is unlikely to be enough for a lasting joint. Metal fasteners and gussets are required to keep this joint together long term.
Legs protrude beyond the top: Another drawback to the external joint, the legs will likely be in the way for some sawing and other operations. You can fix this by laminating on boards after the legs are attached, making a de facto rectilinear through tenon.
Cosmetics: This is generally not a furniture grade joint. There are certain instances where it can be attractive. But most often, you’ll be using this joint for workshop stuff.
So what do you think? Did I miss anything in the pros and cons lists? Have I ruined everything forever?
I mean, yeah. Of course I have. But maybe not because of this article.
*Editors note: This is James’ first attempt at a long-form woodworking article. He is aware it is a departure from his usual format and tone.
There is an idiom, often attributed to either Benjamin Franklin or the anonymous Shaker craftsman, that goes, “A place for everything, [and] everything in its place”. I doubt Old Richard Scary actually came up with the phrase. I also doubt the Shakers would disagree with the notion. After all, if you can be one thing, you should be efficient. And for those of us who have small shops, this is more than just an aesthetic; it’s a way of life.
There are, as far as I can tell, there are two main approaches to tool storage in woodworking (although I would imagine these concepts apply to all crafts and shops). The first, just keep it open and pile everything in, works fine for things like full size, stationary English floor chests with banks of sliding tills and ample room for everything. The other, divide it up and create slots for individual tools (sometimes called “French Fitting” [double capitalization intended], which is the term I will use for the rest of this article), excels in chests that will travel or where space (read: organization) is at a premium. I prefer a hybrid of those approaches, but skewed heavily toward the latter.
When there is a place for everything, and everything is in its place, the tool you need is more likely to be easily findable and at hand. In addition, the tool is likely to remain set, tuned and sharp, having been protected from jostling against its neighbors. This is especially true for chests that get moved around, loading in and out of the car or dumped on the lawn for some sunshine woodworking. But even for stationary chests that live inside the shop, there is a level of French Fitting that I believe benefits everyone. It goes without saying that this is a handtool-focused approach. I only use a few machines, and each of them directly complements my handtool-first approach. If you are a machines-only woodworker, please feel free to keep reading. But this article might not have as much utility for you.
In my workshop (which is a 12×13 bedroom), I work out of a large Dutch tool chest (a “DTC”) in the Schwarz design from 2013. The chest lives to the left of the leg vise, pretty centered on the left wall of the room. In the main compartment of the chest (the “Well”), each of the primary tools (e.g., bench planes, back saws, hand saws, chisels, and other frequent-use tools) lives in a rack or a divided till and no other tool fits on that slot. A tool comes out, does its job, and goes back to its home. Directly below the Well is a drawer that holds longer, more fragile tools (e.g., rasps, paring chisels), as well as other small tools that wouldn’t fit nicely into the main well. This drawer is not French Fitted. And, honestly, it gets pretty cluttered.
The rest of the chest is two open compartments where tools are just piled in. The middle compartment holds tool rolls with augur bits, plane and joinery floats and gouges, plus the boring tools (braces and eggbeater drill). The bottom compartment holds a quarter set of hollows and rounds and my joinery planes, plus some drill and driver bits and sharpening slips (and a hammer that doesn’t fit anywhere else). A few odds and ends are strategically stashed throughout the chest.
But, like I said, that chest doesn’t ever move. When I woodwork outside or get called to a buddy’s house to fix something, I ask so much more of the tool chest I bring with me into the wild. That chest must not only hold (and organize) everything I need to do the job, but it must also keep everything secure and safe through the bumps and bruises of lugging it around. So let’s talk about French Fitting a DTC-style traveling tool chest.
Chisels and Other Handled Tools
When I begin planning tool storage in any tool chest, it starts first with a rack for chisels and other handled tools that attaches to an inner wall of the chest (the back wall, for a DTC). Christopher Schwarz has covered this topic in depth previously, but in my experience, starting with 1/2″ holes at 1 3/8″ centers does the trick. I like a 1 3/8″ x 1 3/8″ pine board for the rack. Although many tools will fit into the 1/2″ holes, a good portion of the holes must be elongated to fit, among other things, wider chisels. So a drill press is your friend here. Map out your strategy for this and pay attention to the width of the tool above the rack. For example, two marking gauges side by side will probably crowd each other even with 1 3/8″ spacing. So maybe find something with a narrower handle to put in between them to space things out. I like my chisels on the right side of the rack; others prefer the left side. Just don’t put them in the middle, though (for reasons that will be come clear in a bit).
Before I hang the rack to the inside wall of the DTC, I need two measurements. The first is how much below the top of the rack the largest chisel (in this case, 1″) will hang. Add 1″ to that and you get a rough height for the gap from the floor of the well to the underside of the rack. That extra inch should ensure both that your largest chisel will never hit the floor of the Well and also there is clearance for other, longer tools (e.g., a sliding bevel or brad awl). The second measurement is how much space that leaves to the top of the chest. If there is not enough clearance for the tallest tool in the rack, lower the rack until it the largest chisel doesn’t dig into the floor of the well but there is still clearance for the chest lid to close. Now affix this rack to the back wall of the chest with countersunk screws. I like to drive two from outside of the chest about 1″ from the ends of the rack, and one from the inside of the chest centered between the narrow chisel and the next tool to its left. This rack carries a lot of weight so attaching from both sides helps distribute the pressure.
Saws and Combination Square
After the tool rack is attached, it’s time to make the saw till. When traveling, I carry three saws: a 12 TPI rip cut back saw (the Veritas ones are pretty nice and very durable), an 11 TPI rip cut panel saw (it also crosscuts) and a 6 TPI rip cut panel saw. The saw till I prefer is U-shaped and joined at the corners with either dovetails, finger joints or rabbets and nails. Pine is just fine here (and for eveything else), although any wood will work.
The saw till has slots cut with the saws that it will hold (3/4″ on center spacing works great for most saws) and its height is just whatever will friction fit below the tool rack (it adds even more support to prevent the tool rack from sagging). Remember to leave at least 2″ beneath the lowest slot and (at least for the backsaws) don’t make the slots so deep that the saw teeth don’t bite into the till itself. If there is room, I also add a 1/8″ slot for a combination square.
For this saw till, you can can just make ends and screw them in place from the outside of the chest and from the underneath. But I find a bridge in the middle makes the saw till easier to affix (and remove, if needed). Regardless, space the ends based on the saw plate of your shortest saw; an overall width of 2 inches less than the length of the saw plate should work for most saws. When you screw it in place, it should be roughly centered and tuck under the back till just 1/8″ or so. If done right, this saw till has the added benefit of also supporting the middle of the tool rack, which can sag over time.
General Small Tools
The tool rack and the saw till have now created 3 zones of tool storage. The front of the well is for planes and other large items (more on that in a moment). And on each side of the saw till (remember, you left at least 2″ beneath the saws) there is now a great place for general storage. I fill these zones with H-shaped semi boxes that are flush to the front of the saw till. The top of the H is a dead zone that protects the edges of the chisels and other edge tools as they hang down below the tool rack. We’ll call these the “general tills”.
These general tills are just friction fit into the spaces on each side of the saw till and will get closed off later. These general tills are a great place for things like nail punches, drill driver bits and other small items that don’t have edges to protect and can be piled in. You can also use the now-closed-in area below the rack and between the ends of the saw till for specialty storage. I keep my small router plane and dovetail guide there (both are tools I rarely use while outside or on site) that won’t damage anything if they rattle around a little bit.
We’ve now come to the most important part of the operation: the plane till. This is entirely based on the bench planes (and other items) you’ll have in the chest. In the case of my traveling tool set, I use a No. 5 1/2 and a No. 3, which (conveniently) fit in a single row of plane storage, so the second row in the plane till can be for other things. In a full size tool chest, you’ll probably need both rows for planes (I use a No. 7, No. 5 and No. 4 in my main DTC, for example). In fact, the length of these two planes, plus dividers, dictates the overall length of the tool chest itself.
Rabbets and nails are the order of the day when making the saw till. I used to dovetail these, but it’s too easy to undercut a baseline and get a bad fit lengthwise. If I used a table saw, I’d probably make these out of 1/4″ stock all around and just brad nail everything together after cutting VERY shallow rabbets. But with hand tools, 1/2″ stock feels better all around (except for the thin middle dividers).
When locating the divide between compartments that will hold planes, I find an extra 1/8″ of length all around works well for getting Bailey-pattern planes in and out of the plane till. For instance, a No. 5 1/2 is 15″ long and 2 3/4″ wide, so the compartment ends up being 15 1/8″ long and 2 7/8″ (or a hair under) wide. Don’t make them too tight, though; the difference between “secure” and “difficult to remove” is basically 1/16″ in each direction. Just FYI, the knob on smaller planes (like the No.3) extends past the toe. I learned that the hard way.
Aside from ensuring your planes sit snugly, the only other critical measurement here is ensuring the ends of the plane till take up whatever space is left between the front wall and the general tills, thereby locking everything in place. If you do have to build up part of the till to fit a smaller plane, glue that spacer to the plane till. That makes a pretty meaty strip for boring some more 1/2″ holes for extra general tool storage (when I get around to it, my nail punches and marking knife will live there). Just make sure the spacer is the same height as the rest of the plane till.
The last part of the plane till is (to use a Rex Krueger term) the “key”. It fits into the space between the general tills and the plane till and closes off the second row of the plane till. But don’t glue it to either the plane till or the general tills. As long as the fit is reasonably tight, it will lock everything in place but still allow you to pull the tills out if needed. I like like to add a couple of spacers to the back of the key, which complete the general till box and keep the general tills from pinching in on each other.
All things being equal, the Well should now be perfectly organized for the tools to be kept in there. There is space on the walls for pouches and magnets and whatnot to hold additional tools; just be sure not to obstruct anything coming in or out. You’ll probably need to remove a saw or two to reach the less commonly-used tools (like that block plane on the left side), but that’s just how traveling tool chests work. Success means striking a balance of security and accessibility.
With a little bit of thought, though, it’s possible to easily store everything you need for meaningful woodworking while also keeping your tools safe from the bumps and bruises of moving the chest around. All the same principles apply to shop storage, if you are so inclined (and I would posit that the edge tool rack and saw till are important for ANY type of tool chest, even with banks of sliding tills for everything).
This is all just a suggestion, of course. Use whatever organization method fits your style of work and tool set. I just want your tools to be safe, secure and ready when you need them.
And that’s it for now. Next week, we’ll examine in more detail the “just keep it open and pile it in” method. Natch.
If you’ve been here more than once, you know I’m a hand tool guy. To be clear, I do have power tools that complement primarily hand tool work. My lunchbox thickness planer does the donkey work once there is a tried and true reference face and a squared reference edge off the jointer plane. A double bevel compound miter saw quickly cuts stock to rough length. And you can pry my benchtop hollow chisel mortiser from my cold, dead hands. I also have a small drill press (that at this point is used exclusively for accurate drawboring), a collection of battery-powered DIY tools (a drill driver, a circular saw and a random orbital sander), and a trim router kit for when I’ve truly given up on things.
But doing hand work efficiently is more than just leveraging power when, as and if it makes sense. When there are multiple parts to cut (there always are), it helps to think like a one-person assembly line. Each step in the assembly line is a repeated task. Sure, variety is a the spice of life. But just like a blade and fence setup at the table saw, you want to set it once, do all the cuts, then move on. It’s the same thing for body mechanics at the workbench.
So let’s talk about tapered octagon legs by hand.
The first two tapers on each piece (on opposite sides) go pretty quickly in the face vise. If you work to opposite sides, the other profile is still square and therefore easily held in the vise (in my case, a leg vise). Do that eight times.
If you have a twin screw vise that can hold tapers securely, great. Stay at the face vise. But I don’t, so I move to the tail vise. Pinched between the dogs, the legs sit flush to the bench on the tapers I had just planed to make a square taper on all faces. Do that eight times.
Now lay out the octagon(s). If you have a lathe and will taper across the entire length, you’re nearly done at the workbench. But I don’t have a lathe and I like to start the taper where the round tenon ends, so in addition to the octagon at the foot, I also lay out an octagon on the top where the tenon will go. A cradle jig that goes in the tail vise holds the work and I taper from square down to octagon at the foot and also from square down to an octagon at the top. Do that thirty-two times (16 long tapers and 16 short tapers).
That short taper makes it easier to center the round tenon cutter I have for my drill driver, btw. I use a 1 1/2″ tenon cutter, but that’s just a rough cut. With chisel, spokeshave and rasp I take that round tenon down to 1 3/8″ to ensure it’s centered on the blank (it rarely is straight off the tenon cutter). It also helps to bore a 1 3/8″ hole in some hardwood (or at least wood that is harder than your blank) with the bit you’ll use for the mortise to test the fit now and again. Do this four times.
Finally, I go back to the corners (where they were tapered from square to octagon) and plane in the full tapered octagon from the tenon to the foot. I find taking the facets down evenly first (so the facet is parallel from the tenon to the foot), and then incrementally increasing the facet width at the top near the tenon by counting strokes, works best. Again, if you taper the full length, this step is unnecessary.
It goes without saying, but I did one leg first to work out the process and then batched out the other three with the process described above. Are they perfect? Of course not. But we are not machines (and should not strive to be machines). And I enjoy the hand made aesthetic far more than machine-wrought perfection.
There is a great rhythm one can get into when batching out parts at the bench. Hehe, batching.
Working with unprepared stock is usually no fun. I prefer to work from rough lumber purchased from the yard (because it’s both more economical than pre-surfaced stock and there is more variety available). But for things where 3/4″ white pine will suffice, it’s hard to beat the home center common boards. Spend an hour digging through the pile and you’re bound to find clear, straight grain stock. And if you don’t, come back in a week and try again.
But even the clearest, straightest grain stock tends to cup and twist once it’s been in the shop for a week. Re-flattening can take it down to 5/8″ thickness or even less (depending how severe the cupping is), and it adds time and aggravation to the process.
But what if cupping and twist didn’t matter? If you’re just gluing and nailing something together, couldn’t you instead flatten the boards with some clamping cauls and go to town? The answer is, of course, “yes”. And that’s the approach I took when knocking together a quick Japanese-style toolbox for a recent trip out of town (don’t worry; I quarantined both before and after).
We modern woodworkers get hung up on perfection, sometimes. To us, everything needs to be piston fit and machinist flat, even when it really doesn’t matter. But, in reality, only some surfaces need to be perfect. Our forebears knew this (just look at the hidden surfaces in any period masterwork). If the wood is going to restrained, it doesn’t really need to be perfect in the first place.
And so, once glued and nailed, and then reinforced with floorboards and gussets, also nailed on (and maybe even glued), any wayboard boards on this toolbox will be restrained from future movement. Might it blow apart in the future from some unforeseen stress? Maybe. But probably not.
And, in any event, if it does, it’s just some home center common grade white pine 1×12’s joined with glue and nails. I can always knock it apart and add some dados to keep things more in alignment.
Fair warning: this post is actually a “how to” on a method for reinforcing a joint where you’re joining two boards at a right angle by screwing through the face grain of one board into the end-grain of the mating board. If that interests you, please proceed.
I recently built a “The Naked Woodworker” workbench, partly for the intellectual exercise of it and partly because my brother needed a workbench for his recently-expanded garage. I have mostly good things to say about the design and the ease of construction. I was able to put the entire bench together in less than 12 hours time of shop time stretched over two days (one long, one short). Had I let the wood acclimate a bit more before construction, I bet could have done the whole thing in a single day.
This was about 6 total shop hours in.
The bench is mostly glued and screwed together, but there are two joints where boards are joined at right angles with just screws through the face grain of one board into the end grain of the mating board. One such place is the top rails of the leg assemblies (seen above). The other is the number of bearers stretched between the aprons to which the top is eventually screwed down.
Screws into end grain, especially late growth softwood, is not the strongest joint. In an abundance of caution, I sized all the end grain and glued it as best I could. But it was still a bit shaky in places. So when using up the last bits of construction lumber to make a shop fixture, there were a couple of places where screws into end-grain just wouldn’t cut it. Instead, I utilized a 3/4″ oak dowel like a bench bolt to give something for the screw to bite into.
I’ve been using my 18 gauge brad nailer more, these days.
Please note, I cannot take credit for this technique. I learned it from a Popular Woodworking video on making a quick and dirty first workbench. It shows up in the first half of the linked video.
First, bore a hole to match the dowel (3/4″ in this case) and glue it in place with the rings perpendicular to the direction the screw will penetrate. While not critical, this will reduce the likelihood of the dowel splitting and weakening the joint. Anything over 1″ is probably enough. I went the full 1.5″ that my drill guide could handle.
This hole is 1 5/8″ on center, meaning there is a full 1 1/4″ of material for the dowel to lock against.
The boards cupped a bit after planing. More stable stock would not have needed this screw.
Next, drill a pilot hole for the screw, all the way through the dowel. For cleanliness, I first countersank the hole, then finished it off with a long drill bit. Red oak is tough, even for self-drilling deck screws. Better not to risk it. An extra long bit lets you sight to ensure the pilot hole passes through the dowel.
Luckily, this extra long bit (the only one I own) was perfect for the screws in use.
Finally, drive the screw and flush up the dowel. I use a flush trim saw and either a chisel or a plane, depending on how much material remains after sawing.
Never to be seen again once the top is attached.
If done right, this joint is tremendously strong (at least compared to screwing into end grain alone). Bench bolts are not terribly expensive, but oak dowel and screws are undoubtedly cheaper. And, to be fair, this method requires less prep and fuss.
And less prep and fuss is what shop fixtures are all about.