A few weeks ago I started a small project to build myself a new toolbox to hold some of my tools that just didn’t fit anywhere else. Specifically my Makita plunge router and the myriad of bits it takes to make it effective were sitting wanly on my workbench, calling out to me to give them a home away from the sawdust and moist air and most assuredly away from the hands of little children who could easily lose 500 dollars worth of bits simply by turning the small container over and scattering them across the floor, after which the dog would naturally assume this a test of his digestive system and most likely gorge himself heartily on my dovetail and rabbet bits. Since most all these tools were left to me by my father and since I’ve spent much of the last six months restoring tools from damage due to open-air moisture, I finally conceded to my tools’ demands and set about building them a home before I was forced to make the difficult decision between my dog and the mortise bits that I can’t replace. I’m really not sure who would win in that scenario.
After completing the toolbox (shown above) I packed it away in my truck, full of its new resident tools and prepared to go on my merry way back to Greenville from the house here in Albemarle, where I am currently sitting as I write this. My wonderful and charming future-wife asks me over conversation that final evening before I left if I would consider making another of these boxes for one of our friends for a Christmas present. You might not know me, but flattery gets you EVERYWHERE with me. There is nothing that could make me happier than having someone see something I built by hand and then ask if I could make one for someone else as a gift. It’s the ultimate form of flattery to my ever-starved-yet-daily-overfed ego. (My ego has a tape worm. It just keeps eating and never getting full.)
While the one shown above is my first tool box I’ve ever made from scratch, I really found it wanting when I considered it as a gift. Made for me and for functionality, it has screw holes that are visible, imperfections in the finish, and is only made of white-pine – not the hardest wood around; though three coats of polyurethane add significant strength to the wood.
After agreeing to make a new one for them as a gift I did some quick country-boy math in my head; adding the days remaining until Christmas, subtracting the work days I’d be gone; further subtracting other days I would be tied up or not able to spend time in my woodshop and quickly calculated that I while I could certainly do it, I’d be unable to get it done by Christmas, though I’d be ok giving it to them slightly afterwards if she thought that would be ok?
With only the shame a shameless woman can muster and with considered grace, she simply said to me “Well, I was thinking they could have yours and you could build another?” I’m unable to articulate the appropriate eye-batting and tee-heeing that accompanied this request. Suffice it to say I’m also unable to tell this woman no to just about anything. So, I went home; sans toolbox.
Now I’m back and have the house and shop to myself for a day or two and thought I’d start fresh on the toolbox idea for myself, and now she wants one, and now someone else wants one… you see the dilemma, huh?
It occurred to me tonight as I lay the first piece of soft white pine on the work table that there are so many things I don’t remember from my father and grandfather that I have to look up on the net. Likewise, maybe there’s another person out there looking for ideas and maybe mine could help them as others’ have helped me, which is to say considerably.
So, if you’re a novice woodworker wanting to “piddle”,as Amy refers to all my hard work and sweat, in your work shop and build yourself something nice, this is a pretty cost-effective toolbox that should last you thirty or more years. The one I had, belonging to my father before me, is still under the work bench where it serves a purpose to this day and it’s at least as old as I am. This one however is built with an eye towards beauty as well as function.
So, if you’ve got about $40.00 to spend on parts and materials, this blog post will hopefully get you through the construction of your first storage box.
Step 1: Assembling your materials:
I chose white pine shelving board from Lowe’s because it’s a cost-effective lumber to use and white pine takes on a beautiful finish if you know how to apply it. It has very little natural color itself so takes very nicely to stains of most any richness or darkness you prefer to use. This is half of a piece of 1x12x12’, cut in half. Total price for the piece of wood: $20.48 and you can get two boxes the size I’m making from one piece of wood.
Take care when choosing white pine board as it’s not usually a cabinet-grade board because it traditionally has a significant number of knots. Personally I like the look of knotty wood when its properly finished, so I always try to be sure it has some, but you have to be careful where they are and how many there are. Too many knots in your wood and you wont’ have enough usable material to make your box. You definitely don't want to be cutting through a white pine knot for the edge of something. It’s almost guaranteed to chip, break off, or fall out altogether.
Step 2: Making the cuts:
If you’re a veteran woodworker, you aren’t going to learn anything here and might even find this information insultingly mundane, however if you aren’t, maybe I can share some tricks my father and grandfather taught me to help make some of the things that SOUND so simple, actually BE simple.
The hardest thing about working with wood is cutting; specifically cutting straight lines. The most effective way to make quick work of wide wood like we have here is a circular saw, but if you’re not well versed with the way a blade can turn on you, or how the grain of the wood can throw off your cut, you can quickly become frustrated and lose all the enjoyment you had when you started your project. So let me share something with you that might help keep the frustration to a minimum.
When I’m cutting something like this that will eventually have all its edges either showing on the outside, or meeting as joints, I first and foremost take my time. I’d suggest a good cup of coffee, a good dog, lots of free time, and not much else to distract you from your project.
HOW TO: CUTTING WITH A RIP GUIDE
Know your own tools!
In the picture above, I can see that my saw ( a Makita 7 1/4” circular saw) has exactly 1.5 inches between the near side of the blade and the outside of the ripping guide (that’s the edge of the saw in most cases… the long aluminum housing shown above). I know this in my head so now I know, no matter what I’m cutting, that if I’m using a guide I want to be 1.5 inches off on the near side of my cut. That’s the one piece of information I need to always know about my saw. How far from the blade is the guide and how deep will my saw cut.
The picture above shows how I’m going to mark this board. I want a 12” piece of pine, but I know I have a 1.5” ripping guide on my saw, so if I subtract the 1.5” from my 12” cut then I know to make my mark at 10.5 inches. Why? See below.
COUNTRY BOY RIP GUIDE
There are all kinds of fancy rip guides for saws you can pay high dollar for, but you can accomplish the same thing with materials you already have lying around your workshop. In my case a piece of scrap 3/8 inch pine project board and two bar clamps will work fine. The tiny pencil marks at the edge of the guide board show you my 10.5” marks mentioned previously. My pencil is 1.5” further in, which according to my previous measurement on the saw, is exactly where the blade will rip when I make my cut.
Aligning a rip guide like this takes longer, but it insures a straight cut every time, assuming of course you can at least place clamps and a board on two pencil markings without making any significant mistakes. If you can’t do that, put down the Budweiser and get coffee instead, like I told you before. ( I just discovered that Budweiser is a recognized word in my computer’s dictionary… I think I’m a little concerned about that.)
DO NOT: The one thing you will learn quickly in wood working, especially when small measurements count; is not to mark all your wood and then just run the saw through it 5 times. Your saw blade isn’t razor thin. It has a measurable thickness, usually about 1/8” on most saws. If you meant to cut 12” but got in a hurry and cut 11 7/8” because you didn’t measure every cut individually, you’re quickly going to wonder why the hinge on your box makes the lid crooked and wonder why the edges don’t seem squared with each other. Measure once, Cut Once, repeat. Take your time and don’t try to shortcut your way through something you plan to enjoy later.
THE OTHER WAY: By Hand.
Assuming you feel like a rip guide between each cut just takes too long, or you feel your hands are steady enough, you can always mark your cuts dead-on and cut them freehand with your saw.
HINT: Develop your own personal habit but stick with it. This is important. Are you a leave the mark kind of guy or a lose the mark kind of guy? Just like I mentioned before about blade widths, your pencil has a width too. It’s going to be between 1/16th to 1/8th inch at any given time. My personal rule is to always leave my mark on the cut wood. I’ll always sand it off later. This means my pencil mark is always exactly a pencil lead’s width to the right of my mark and my cuts leave the barest edge of marking visible after the cut. It’s all a head game, but pick your own style and don’t deviate from it. I mark to the right of my cut and leave the mark. My father marked to the left of the cut and took out the mark with his saw blade. Others try to mark dead on and split the mark with the blade. Your preference is your own and any of those ways works fine as long as you remain consistent all the time.
Hint: Anytime you’re working with markings on wood, remember that almost every tool you have at your disposal is either thick or heavy; most woodworking tools are. Rather than placing your tool first and then trying to draw your line “close” to where it needs to be, do it the other way around. Place your pencil where you want your line to run, then carefully slide the square, guide, or whatever you’re tracing against, to your pencil. This assures your line is where you want it to be. The thickness of the framing square, coupled with possible bends in your board, further compounded by the width of your pencil lead and finally your saw blade can mean the difference between being right and being WAY off on your finished product.
Cut using a rip guide
The two previous pictures are examples of two of the cuts I just made, the first using a rip guide and the second using freehand on the circular saw. As you can see in the first example, even with no stain, no sanding, and no treating whatsoever it’s very hard to make out where the edges of the two pieces of wood meet. There actually is a line down the middle where two distinct pieces meet.
The second photos shows a freehand cut, and only ONE of them at that. The left board was a guide-cut, so we assume it’s straight. The right board was cut a few minutes ago by me using just a pencil line and my eyes for guides. You can see already we’re going to have to do some sanding and puttying to make this joint come out right on the finished product.
What Cuts Do We Need:
Well, I’m making my box 12” wide on the inside and 9.5 inches deep. The front and back will be full width so there will be no screw holes showing on the front when it’s finished. To do that we need:
- (1) Front: 12” Long
- (1) Back: 12” Long
- (2) Sides: 11” Deep
- (1) Top: 12” Wide by 9.5” Deep
- (1) Bottom: 12” Wide x 9.5” Deep
All our boards are cut, at least for length. Now it’s time to make the top and bottom pieces that will open and close.
The easiest way to ensure you get perfect cuts on this part is to skip the circular saw altogether and move over to a table saw. I want my lid to be 3 inches tall, so I’m setting my saw for that width and running all the boards through at once (except of course the top and bottom pieces. I’ll set the saw to 9.5” for that because that’s the interior width front to back inside the box).
HINT: Once all my boards are ripped, I am careful to lay them back on the work table so the top lip is matched with the appropriate bottom. This way the wood grains on my finished faces will look as close as possible to perfect. The grains will line up exactly as before making the sides look more continuous than if I’d just matched any top to any bottom.
Step 4: Test Fitting
Before calling it a night, I decided to test-fit one of the bottoms together. Notice the upper right corner doesn't seem to fit as it should? That’s due to a natural roll in the board. Since we’re working with white pine, that will be no problem to take out if we counter-sink our holes and clamp them tomorrow when they get glued and screwed. If this were a harder wood like oak, it would still be ok, but super hard woods would need to be wet and heated to make them flexible enough to bend back the way I need them to be to make our box straight. want them.