Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Anarchist's Tool Chest

This is the story of my Anarchist's Tool Chest.  I owe an obvious debt to Christopher Schwarz for his excellent book by that name and for a practical philosophy about making things that seems to have been sleeping since the publication of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance".

Rejoining our story already in progress

Two years ago now my mother passed away and quite unexpectedly left her children what was to us anyway a sizable legacy.  That gift is what made much of what follows possible.  Specifically it made it possible to consider moving back to Japan.  The chain of events that brought me to Japan in the first place is detailed in another blog post.  This is the story of my toolbox.

I won't go through all the details here but at the end of February Kiyoko and I bought her uncle's house in Japan.  This house was built in the late 1960's in a traditional style.  It is fairly large for a Japanese house and is traditionally built with tatami mat rooms and post and beam construction.  One thing that it does not have however is a garage or basement or any other place that would be conducive to establishing a home workshop.   Right after that I was laid off from yet another failed startup - my last!  So our move to Japan, which we were thinking might take place in a couple of years when the kids were graduated from college was moved up. 

Life in a new country requires sacrifices

One thing that was obvious was that I was going to have to give up my home workshop.  No more drillpress or bandsaw or planer.  No more power tools at all unless they were bought in Japan because the power in Japan is different (50Hz 100V).  So I knew it was time to consolidate and reduce my tools to the bare necessities.  At that time I found Chris Schwarz's book, "The Anarchist's Tool Chest" which is a long dissertation on hand tools and hand tool woodworking.  Since I needed to prepare to move to Japan I decided that I needed to build the tool chest.  Henceforth I would be a handtool woodworker at least until I found a place and the money to go electric again. 

Disobey Me!

In the book Chris Schwarz admonishes us to disobey him so that's what I did.  The general dimensions of the box that I built follow pretty closely those described in the book but the differences are perhaps significant.  Here are the main points on which my box differs:

I built it from Douglass Fir rather than Pine.  In California large clear pine boards are not easy to come by; what we have in abundance is Douglass Fir.  As construction timber Doug Fir is great.  When green it is easy to work with but when it dries out it is very hard and dense.  Old dry D.F. is so dense that its very hard to nail.  Also when chopping dovetails the bottoms of the pins and tails tend to crush rather than cut so its hard to get nice smooth joining faces.  We'll see how that works over time.  Probably not a problem since most of the glue strength in a dovetail joint is in the interesecting planes between the pins and tails.  The baseline plane is endgrain and therefore does not have much glue strength anyway.  The boards that I used were very old rough 1x10s from Economy Lumber in Oakland.  Economy Lumber is a great place with really high quality products which you might not assume from their name but their 2x10 and 2x12 DF planks are as clear and tight grained as you could ever hope for and for a very fair price.  Head and shoulders above the crap they sell at Home Depot.  So I found these boards hiding back in a dusty corner of the rack of kiln dried finish lumber.  They were rough and very dry and rather not the standard stuff sold at that store.  They had a hard time deciding what they were and what they were worth.  In the end he sold them as scrap since they didn't really fit into any category and they were happy to see them go.  I was pleased because they were dry and stable.  I thought at first that they were clear but they turned out to have quite a few knots.  From this I learn that defects might go unnoticed in rough cut lumber. The knots significantly reduced the amount of useable material.  The fact that they are DF and not pine had other implications later in the process.

Second, I didn't nail the bottom boards, I used brass screws.  The reason for this is not that I didn't try nails but cut nails in that old dry DF just split the wood.  Even with pilot holes I could not drive a nail without cracking the boards.  Luckily I had a box of 1.5" #12 brass flathead wood screws from an Estate Sale a few years ago and they proved to be just the thing for the bottom boards.  Drilled and driven they are probably stronger than nails and easier to remove should the need arise.

Third I didn't use milk paint.  I don't quite understand the love that many woodworkers express for milk paint.  If milk painted tool boxes have a tendency to rot as Mr. Schwarz claims one might think that perhaps the problem might be the paint.  I used what I had and what I had was Interlux marine enamel left over from painting my boat.  The color doesn't seem to please many people and its too glossy but for a bullet proof, tough  water tight finish that will stand up to the elements I don't think it can be beat.  This paint is hard to love, it's very difficult to get a nice smooth even coat but with three coats you have one of the toughest finishes I have ever seen.  The paint is designed to hold up under seawater immersion and it resists abrasion like tungsten.  When you try sanding it you will discover that it just laughs at sandpaper.

Four: I tried Chris Schwarz's design for a saw till but hated the fact that it blocks the lowest till drawer's motion and wastes space underneath.  So I cut down the saw till wall to the height of the first drawer till's runners and extended those runners across the box.  Then I re-cut the slotted saw holder boards shorter so that all the saw handles are below the height of the bottom drawer.  This allows the bottom drawer to move all the way across the chest without bumping into any saw handles.  [Upon re-reading I realize that this paragraph will make absolutely no sense to anyone who has not read the book.  I'll try to add some pictures of the insides of the tool chest to clarify.]

Finally I was planning on shipping this thing across an ocean in a container so I didn't want the tills sliding around as it was moved and I didn't want to waste that interior space so I built a small chest of drawers precisely sized to fill the void inside the tool chest.  Now this presents a problem.   How do you get a box to fit down into another box with essentially zero clearance all around.  And even more problematical, once you get the box into the box how do you get it out?  The inner chest is such a close fit that I needed to remove the drawer handles to get it to fit into the tool chest.  Also this is going to be a tool box too which means that it is going to be full of heavy stuff.  Iron and stone mostly so it's going to be heavy.

The solution was again found in my stash of Estate Sale booty.  I had some heavy duty flat nylon straps that are ideal for a sling.  Strong but flat so they won't be in the way and they can stay on the whole trip.  Second I found two triple sheve blocks at the local chandlery in the clearance bin for $15 each.  These things are boat hardware and really high quality stainless steel and ball bearings, strong and smooth action.  The ball bearing action is so smooth that if you reve them together and hang one from the ceiling the other will slide to the floor under just its own weight pulling about 20 yards of cord along without a hitch.  The clerk at the chandlery was surprised by the price, they usually sell for about $90.  I think someone may have made a mistake but I was happy to get them at that price.

So now I have the inner box the outer box and a rig that allows me to lower one into the other.  That works great in my Garage in the US with its open rafters to hang the block from but in Japan all I have is a rather flimsy aluminum carport roof.  The solution was an improvised derrick from 2x4 sheer legs  and some plywood sheets to stabilize the structure.  The neighbors didn't know what to think of this strange foreigner building strange structures in his car port.  In the end it all worked like a charm though.

We even made a movie of the process.

When it arrived my apparatus was waiting to take it apart. 

Here is the inside box sitting on another utility box I made.  Once you get going on those dovetailed boxes you just can't stop until all the material is used up.

Unfortunately later that same day I misplaced my cellphone camera with the movie on it.  It was missing for about six weeks.  I looked everywhere including in the entire toolbox, or so I thought.  My wife always insisted that the phone was in the toolbox but I was in and out of there countless times and never found it.  Today I was showing off my toolbox to the carpenter who has been working on our house and lo and behold what should I find at the bottom of the saw till down between two backsaws but my cellphone!  I had to go right in and tell my wife that she had been right all along.  She was naturally pleased but unsurprised to hear it.

And on the cellphone there was the movie so today I can blog about the event.

Here are some more pictures of the tool chest in its new home.

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