19th Century Tool Cabinet – White Oak and Walnut – 2013

With the help of countless friends, especially, David Rae and Aaron Dibner-Dunlap

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I bought the rough-cut boards which would eventually become this cabinet in New York City; after several moves they finally found their calling. The design is based on wood shop organizer extraordinaire, Chris Schwarz‘s tool cabinet. I would have been better served if I had taken a moment and thought about the tools I owned and where they would go rather than remaining in awe of Chris’s design and studiously copying him. I dropped one set of drawers and replaced them with a small shelf for a note book and some saw blades – a convenient place to jam all the stuff I should probably throw out.

I took this project on mostly as a chance to learn about hand tools on a project which would eventually live in a dusty basement rather than displayed for the world to see in my living room. With all the boards polished smooth this piece like so many others, looks great, but is made up of dozens of little places where I could have done better. Not a single power tool touched this piece, so rough cut boards were cut dimensional with hand planes and a hell of a lot of sweat. Woodworkers of yesteryear were hardcore. As always David provided the inspiration to stay true to the purist path and aim to preserve some of our collective dwindling knowledge of working wood the way it was always done.

Partially because working by hand is slow, and partially because I spend a lot of time meandering around the shop trying to remember what I was doing – this project took me a long time. From start to finish I spent almost a year – which had the downside of slowing up production but the up side of letting lots of people get a chance to have their first pass of a plane on this cabinets sturdy doors – I think that is how I will always remember this piece.


The boards were cut to width with a scrub plane – a special plane designed to remove lots of wood (relatively fast). In a 19th century wood-shop – the apprentices would be stuck scrub planing boards, building muscle and back aches before they were allowed to graduate to joinery work. I guess I followed their lead. I cut grooves (actually dadoes) for the boards to fall into, with a chisel. I cleaned out the grooves with a rabbet plane. Already at this step I was bemoaning not sufficiently squaring the faces of the wood. The carcass of the piece is held with two large dovetails on both the top and bottom of the piece. It was below zero in my shop, and I lost some feeling in my hands but god it was awesome to fit those dovetails snugly together. Marcie helped me glue the carcass together, and I gained respect for her cat-like reflexes in dodging an incoming clamp.


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First drawer fit – I think I’ll have a beer. I did lots of hand cut dovetails. I elected to go with through dovetails, mostly to take advantage of the contrast.  Plus it is a shop project after all!

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I didn’t quite get the spacing right on the pins coming through the doors – but alas. I did dovetails in the back of the drawers as well. As always I used poplar for the drawers – cause that is what I always do.  I really like the drawer pulls (lee valley), it took me a while to commit by securing them to the drawer and accept that I wasn’t going to take another crack at smoothing the drawer faces.


After I finished the carcass and the drawers I moved on to the doors.  The door frames are all joined with mortise and tenon. I celebrated a year at my job by buying my plow plane to fit the panel into the door.

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Check out this amazing walnut burl – I love the batmat symbol in the middle of the panel. After I decided to select the walnut burl , I add on a walnut trim on the side of the door. Special thanks to Peter and Donna for accompanying me on a very long wood-shop excursion to select the burl. My dad and I managed to glue the veneer to a thin strip of wood, using an army of clamps to get sufficient pressure around the board.  You can also tell how the walnut jumps when I applied a natural oil.

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Approaching finished – believe it or not, I had more trouble with that last hinge. The hinges are from Lee Valley.  I used a mini-wax stain, “early american” for the white oak, the walnut piece has a simple danish oil on them.

Tool Holders;

Lastly, I started working on cubbies for my tools. here I am using a router plane to slice grooves in a board. This will provided a convenient slot for my squares and alike.  The router plane has a flat surface with a retractable blade allow you to cut grooves, mortises, holes for hinges accurately and pleasurably. Funny how I can make the disarray of my shop look more organized. Also, note the second drawer with my specialty planes carefully laid to rest.

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I hung saws from both sides of the cabinet.  One set hang, the other are sitting inside a track.  A small plane sits in a holster on the side cabinet for easy and frequent access.  It seems like I am always reaching for that plane and hoping to have something fit into place.

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On both doors, I built custom tool hangs.  Planes sit on the shelves.  As long as I don’t acquire any more screw drivers they have found a convenient home.


I put specialty plans in the second drawer – hopefully they are safely stored.  Notice the custom blade holders which I placed next to both my plow and router planes.

Final thought


The cabinet is in use and now full of dust. Funny – I still keep my tools locked down so far it has held mostly coffee cups and screw drivers. Also, this thing is super heavy – so I am going to have to hit a stud when I finally hang it.  God it feels god to see this cabinet holding the tools that put it together!


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