Project - Mini Tool Chest

A view of the inside of my mini tool chest

The more particular among woodworkers and DIY enthusiasts tend to be fastidious about their tools. A great many of them spend an inordinate amount of time and effort to construct objects to store them. A particularly favourite pastime appears to be the construction of tool chests, cabinets and so on exclusively for the purpose of housing tools and accessories.

Of the numerous designs and options available, one which any DIY woodworker could make is a mini tool chest, which goes by a variety of names such as "grandfather's tool chest", "carrying tool box" and so on.

Put briefly, this is nothing more than a smallish (18 by 12 by 10 inch or so) box with a lid, handle and a few embellishments on the exterior and trays inside. This chest can be built in a variety of ways and the most inexperienced could put it together almost entirely with nails and glue.

The more adventurous, as well as slightly more skilled, could take the approach favoured by the punctilious Mr Christopher Schwarz, who advocates the use of dovetails wherever possible and other measures to ensure the chest's survival through the millennia ahead.

I too embarked on the journey inspired by the many jottings, videos and blogs by Mr Schwarz. In the end I did deviate somewhat from the straight and narrow laid down by him but managed to get the thing done.

The carcass

I used Pine everywhere except the lid which was made with Yellow Cedar. The basic framework was achieved using dovetail joints as recommended by the pundit, though I believe that screws and glue could also achieve a very strong carcass.

The carcass: Pine and dovetails

The bottom went on with glue and screws, though cut nails (which cannot be found in India) are recommended.

Bottom in place: rock solid box

With the bottom in place, the box felt very strong; I tested it by resting my considerable weight on it. The thing didn't murmur in protest.

Pine strips for the skirting

The skirting at the base came next. I was tempted to butt joint it together but as advised used dovetails again but this time the dovetails were opposed to that of the carcass.

Skirting with glazing moulding attached to btoom
Dovetails in carcass and skirting are opposed to each other

The top skirting was put together using butt joints. I was a little careless in selecting the strips for the top skirting and later had problems fitting the lid. I added half inch glazing moulding to improve the look of the skirting. It began to look like a tool chest at this point.

Top skirting attached: beginning to look like a tool chest


I made two shallow tills, one with dovetails and the other with box joints as I have described in an earlier blog post.

A Till made with dovetails and rebated bottom for plywood base
Runners inside the chest on which the tills will slide

These need to slide on runners attached to the inside of the box. The upper till is wider than the lower one and the runners have to be sized accordingly.

The Lid

My stock of Pine, which I had been using for the past two years, ran out and I had to mill some Yellow Cedar for the lid. I was very pleased to find that Yellow Cedar is a delight to plane and takes on a very pleasing texture which does not require any further sanding.

Yellow Cedar for the lid frame

Here I used the traditional frame and panel method to make the lid using regular mortise and tenon joints.

Traditional mortise and tenon joints for the frame
Frame and panel lid in clamps

For the panel I glued together two pieces of Yellow Cedar and routed a groove along its side, leaving one quarter of an inch below the groove. The bit used was also a quarter of an inch thick and was used to cut a groove along the inside of the frame exactly a quarter of an inch below the surface. This meant the panel would fit exactly in the groove and protrude above it. Before glue up, I rounded over the edges of the panel for a softer look. I cut off the horns on one side of the frame after the glue dried and sanded down everything with 180 and 240 grit paper.

The lid complete


Perhaps the most complicated part was the finishing. At first I thought I would stain and Shellac it but then decided to use black enamel paint that had been lying around in a cupboard.

A dark finish appears to be the choice of most Western woodworkers and the reason I suspect is the assumption that the chest will darken with time, abuse and mould as have most chests which have survived the centuries and decades. Rather than allow time to do the job, modern day woodworkers perhaps seek to hasten the process with coats of dark dismal paint. This gives the chest a "traditional" or aged appearance.

The attempt to stain the chest proved a complete disaster and then when I sloshed on three coats of black paint, I was left with a rude, shiny object that reflected light from each imperfection.

It took me several hours and considerable elbow grease to painstakingly rub the chest's plastic like surface with 400 and 600 grit sandpaper, then work on a rubbing compound and finally buff each surface down to a dull pleasing sheen.

The Tool chest at last: blemished but beautiful!

The result was not unpleasant even though the paint had rubbed away at parts exposing wood underneath. It looked mature, sedate and mellow, like a well-tended whisky. Not a classic, blemished definitely but one that will serve me well through the years ahead.

Indranil Banerjie
26 August 2015


  1. Beautiful piece! Thats a lot of work! With the wood showing up here and there beneath the paint, I guess you have achieved a "distressed" look which seems to be a fad these days! With such a finish, do you think any accidental knock to any of the corners would cause the paint to chip off? I have seen that in some types of furniture that have a thick coat of enamel paint on them.

    1. Thanks! Yes, the paint could chip off, I suppose. Ideally I should attach brass corners to prevent this. But I could always re-paint it.

  2. Nice to see a wood project like this. The chest looks like an antique with solid joinery. Black is always beautiful bu how did you achieve a matt finish ? Best of Luck.
    - Kishore

    1. Thanks Kishore. As I said, the finish was achieved by sanding the surface with 400 and 600 grit paper which took off the plastic gloss. Then rubbed down with rubbing compound and finally buffed it patiently. The difficult part was to take off the gloss from the low points and edges of the mouldings.

  3. awesome project again sir - can you please elaborate on the staining failure part - what was the issue while staining pine/cedar?

    1. Staining problem was with Pine not Cedar which took stain pretty evenly. I can't pin it down right now but the overall look was not uniform, probably because I had used a light stain. By the way, I had first applied a wash coat of Shellac before staining.

  4. Brilliant work Indranil Da! The finished tool chest has so much character to it. I was wondering how the bottom skirting is actually attached to the box. Does it have a cleat attached to it's inside, on which the main box rests and is attached to? Or is it directly attached to the box itself?

    1. Thanks Avinash! It is attached to the box itself. While looking at various chest designs I asked the same question myself. Initially I thought the chest carcass rests on the skirting as is the case in many boxes but found that it is not so. The bottom of the carcass and the skirting are all on one plane.

  5. Nice work!

    I find myself coming to your blog every day now. I am a beginner, and all the information in your website is very useful.

    Do you have any pictures of the staining failures ? That would have made the article even better, from a learner's perspective.

    -- Shree

    1. Shree Kumar: I didn't take pictures of staining failures but judging from the comments received, I think I will do a separate blog post on staining and the problems that arise.

    2. I feel you are successfully motivating many people to take up this interesting hobby - so such questions are bound to increase...

      I recently visited a lumber yard first time in my life. I had gone to my mother's place near Mangalore. I purchased small pieces of local teak(4400), acacia(1200), kalbhaji (a local hardwood with pleasing grains at 2000), and jackfruit(3300). Prices in brackets for reference.

      I now feel the need to understand how failures look like from an experienced hand. So thanks in advance for that next blog post!

  6. Great work Indranil, I love the joinery and I think the finish is quite good despite what you say. It has a nice patina for a tool chest.

    1. Thanks, Joel. The tool chest is a great help; have so used to it already that I don't know how I did without it all these days.

  7. Hello !! Beautiful piece. Love the way you present each stage. Great work. Is this your workshop? Would you be knowing of a space/workshop where anyone can go and make stuff.I am an aspiring Product Designer based in Delhi. Any info would be awesome .Thanks .

    1. Thanks Joseph. Unfortunately nothing that I know of. I wish somebody would set up something like that with all the useful powertools such as planers and thicknessers.

  8. Indranil, the final outcome looks extra-ordinary.

    I am trying to understand woodworking. Your posts are highly educational.
    Thanks for these.


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