Port Townsend School of Woodworking
Preserving the Tradition


Stand Back for a Moment


Occasionally, my mother reminds me, it’s a good idea to sit down and realize where you have been standing.   Not an easy thing to accomplish in our hasty, social-media world, but a very wise suggestion.  Nothing better for rethinking a construction project than perspective. Even if it is only from three feet above your newly sawn plank.

Thus I find myself sitting in the garage, atop work bench, staring down at my latest struggle—another tool box.  Well, that’s not quite honest.  What I am hoping to build is a container that will hold tools for a job, be sturdy enough to haul about 60 pounds, and not mar a finished floor or deck when set on polished surface.  

Seems simple enough given my time practicing dovetails.  Think about it.  After cutting somewhere in the vicinity of 200 practice dovetails, a tool box should be a no-brainer.  Sigh, only if reality was so cooperative. (The great debate here in a writer’s world, should that be “if reality were so cooperative or the option I employed above?  A philosophical question that only wastes your time—let’s go with the option in print and let the New York Times editorial staff worry proper grammar—as noted below, I make no claims to being a professional writer or woodworker, just a perpetual student.)

So here’s the dilemma. I want a tool kit suitable to impress, but also take abuse.  In other words, we are not making fine furniture.  We are making functional art.  Now there’s an oxymoron—“art” and “functional.”  Or so we are taught to think in the day of 3-D printing and immediate gratification.

Long ago it was impressed into my mind that “art” requires time and offers little in the means of practicality.  “Functional,” on the other hand, came from minds like Henry Ford or Frederick Taylor, who emphasized efficiency before whimsy.  The artist is all whimsy in their worlds, the engineer is austere and economical.  Neither Ford nor Taylor were woodworkers.  Their loss, not our problem.

None of which has brought me back to the tool box problem.  What I need is Henry Ford’s black Model-T married to a bit of Picasso’s eye for the “out of a box.”  Ford is easy, Picasso is damn hard—particularly when it comes to a rectangle and square corners.  (That, by the way, is what constitutes the standard tool box.)  A lot of head scratching and time on the computer.  

The head scratching is my short-hand for thinking.  Computer time is a means of perusing other people’s artistry without having to drive 40 miles to Seattle.  

All of which brings me back to reading the wood.  Want a tool box that is appealing and functional?  Start by matching grain all the way around the rectangle.  This means you must select planks with a tight pattern and few knots.  Next step?  Dado out an inset line about a quarter of an inch above the bottom to allow for an inset panel that does not sit on the floor or deck and thereby absorb water.  Add to this a rail on the long sides of your rectangle  sitting about six inches below what will be the lid and there is a potential for sliding small containers that will hold fasteners or boat hardware.  (This is also known as a chance to cut more dovetails.  Never done with the dovetails.)

Does anyone else see the method to this madness?

What about a lid?  Some people like a lid that sits atop the box with sides to nest the closure.  I am a fan of hinges.  A nesting lid is pretty, but will inevitably be laid aside to be stepped upon or forgotten.  And so, in sitting back, I am designing an inset pattern that will go into a framed lid.  A bit of Henry Ford combined with Pablo Picasso.  

Mom was right.  Always good to step back and think about where you were standing.

Eric Anderson is a retired Air Force officer who can be found puttering in his shop when not scribbling on the keyboard.  A new resident of Port Townsend, he is an avid sailor, struggling carpenter, and would-be writer.