Sunday, August 11, 2013

Tool cabinet, modularity, and 10 years

Come September I'm going to start moving into a new shared space. In the meantime, one of the things that's on my mind is maintaining as much functionality as possible while I move, and minimizing down time while I get set up again.

On top of that, I realized recently that it's been 10 years since I took my first fine woodworking workshop at North Bennet. Ten years of woodworking feels like a long time. I'll spare you the trip down memory lane, though.

To deal with the first, and celebrate the second, I decided to build a larger tool cabinet. After 10 years, there are some tools that I use every day. There are others that I use more than I thought I would. And, there are tools that I still own, and love, don't use as much as I used to... and can't bring myself to sell. (Yet) Altogether, it's a pretty substantial collection. I definitely appreciate the modesty and practicality of maintaining a pared down set of tools, in despite of my penchant for plane hoarding. But I also have a lot of frequently used jigs and specialized tools (store bought, and shop-made) that need a designated but accessible space, so that they don't get buried in a pile on a shelf somewhere, or become damaged for lack of a suitable home.

For the past year and a half I've been using the shorter of these shop carts to support my North Bennet chest. It's a stout little mule, and has supported my North Bennet chest very well. But other tools had become refugees, sitting around on shelves and in odd places, and so I'd been scratching my head over the design for a new cabinet. Then I found  this wall cabinet that was divided vertically in twain, with a plane ramp on one side, and a set of adjustable shelves on the other. And that was the last bit of inspiration I needed. The shop has been idle while I waited on the deposit for the next project, so I took advantage of the free time and put this together.

I resawed the rails and stiles out of a long piece of 12/4 ash that I've had leaning in a corner for a while, and put it together with draw-bored tenons. But I'm not going to go too heavily into construction details beyond that, because this project has taught me something interesting: Tool chests can (and maybe should) be as much a product of your evolution as a woodworker, as they are a fun project to scratch your head over. And it made me re-visit some of the other tool cabinets that I loved and pored over so much when I was getting started.

-This cabinet came together very quickly in part because of the simplicity of the modular design. I already had the base, and I already had the tool chest that I built 8 years ago in school. But the project went even faster, thanks to the parts and pieces that I already had on hand: The ash has been kicking around for a while, the plywood pieces came from the scrap bin. The molding that I used on the shelves and the bottom of the plane ramp were scraps that I'd saved from the bookcase project last winter. The center panel of edged cherry plywood came from another project.

H. O. Studley's tool cabinet is a paragon of meticulous planning and workmanship... but there are so many little bitty pieces of ebony, ivory, and mother of pearl, I can't help (after this project) but wonder if maybe a lot of his cabinet was made up in stages of smaller pieces and scraps that he'd made or squirreled away over the years, that he couldn't quite bring himself to throw away. It's entirely possible that it's not, and that the entire design was planned to perfection and executed all at once, from raw stock. to externalize the ravings of his genius mind. But a lot of those little bits and details now look more to my eye like the collection from a scraps and 'could come in handy' drawer. It's pure speculation on my part, but I have an easier time believing the latter theory.

-The top of this cabinet was built to match a base that I'd already made, and had been using for a while.

I studied pictures of Andy Rae's famous cabinet, and realized that the top is separate from the base. I don't know if it was a similar evolutionary process or not, making one section and then the other. But it makes me wonder why he didn't just build one big unit, or if he at least planned initially to build it in stages as time allowed.

-I made the frame to be bullet-proof and permanent... but the side panels and the cabinet in the upper bay are just plywood that's pocket-screwed into place. That way, if I decide later on to rip out the ramp and shelves and install something different, they will leave no lasting trace on the frame but a few screw-holes. The body of the cabinet will still look good, but I can reconfigure it pretty easily.

When I was planning this cabinet, I took a look at pictures of Chris Becksvoort's tool cabinet. And I took a good look at his plane ramp and saw some screw holes and lighter spots on the wood of his plane ramp... which tells me that he's re-configured it at least once. That's not a criticism, it's an affirmation. Methods evolve, theories evolve. Even for master craftsmen. Leaving room for that evolution makes more sense to me, in the long run, than committing early on to a heavily detailed chest or cabinet that may or may not prove its worth over time.

When I built my tool chest at North Bennet, I sized the bottom drawer so that I could replace it with a plane gallery. A plane gallery wasn't within the scope of the project as laid out by the Cabinet and Furniture program, but I figured I could add one later, if I designed in the space for it at the outset.

Next steps for this particular project include doors, and possibly putting cubbies or drawers in the bottom section.  I may decide someday to make inlaid or carved panels to replace the plywood, too. Or, I may decide to do something else. But, one thing at a time. 


The lesson I want to pass on to new and aspiring, or experienced novice woodworkers is... don't try to build your 'dream cabinet' as a beginner. Build something appropriate to your needs... and leave room for expansion. Like your methods and your work, your dreams will evolve.

1 comment:

Elina Maria said...

Its beautiful...and it has a great place to store my tools...