The Anarchist’s Tool Chest vs the Tool Wall

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Project by Greg In Maryland posted 03-30-2012 11:30 PM 25162 views 45 times favorited 35 comments Add to Favorites Watch

233 days ago, Mafe wrote this thought provoking review of the The Anarchist’s Tool Chest by Christopher Schwartz: The review and the ensuing “discussion” prompted me to go buy the book and actually read it. While overall I agree with Mafe’s review, I did enjoy the book and the concept Christopher Schwartz was trying to convey. This is not a review of Christopher Schwartz’s book, it is a comparison of the two concepts for tool storage: tool chests and tool walls.

Prior to the reading the book, I kept all my hand tools in their original box on a shelf somewhere in my shop or in one of several catchall plastic containers. Obviously, not a good solution.

When I purchased my home, I was given some woodworking tools (saws, vise, etc) and as luck would have it, this chest:

The chest is about 36 inches long, 18 inches wide and 12 inches deep on the inside. There are three tool trays that slide front to back on rails. I think it is made of pine and from what I can tell is painted black then battleship grey. There is some sort of finish in the inside, varnish, shellac, etc. Based on the age of the gentleman who sold it to me and the description, I believe it to be early 1900s. It is really in good shape all things considered, though the construction is completely counter to what Mr. Schwartz promotes: simple butt joints (with nails?), 45 degree miter joints.

so, I crack the chest open and in go the tools. The trays are just the right size for the smaller planes and miscellaneous tools and all the planes fit in the bottom just fine. Well sorta. The saws didn’t fit so well. I didn’t want to modify the chest at all, mostly out of laziness, so they just went in on top of the planes. Not ideal, but ok.

Everything fits in and the chest can be locked up to keep grubby little hands away from my tools. I am cruising along and all is well. Ok, well not quite. A few things popped up right away, which I believe unique to this particular tool chest:

• The handplanes had to be fit into the bottom laying on their sides, or the trays could not slide back and forth. Because of this, in order for me to get out say, the Stanley number 7, I first had to remove the number 4, 5, and 6. Not good.
• I have a menagerie of planes: Lee Valley/Veritas, Stanley and Lie-Nielsen planes. Obviously the condition and fit and finish of the Lee Valley/Veritas, and Lie-Nielsen planes is much better than the Stanleys. And I would like to keep it that way. As a result of all the gyrations I had to go though to get planes in and out, I was always very aware that inevitably there would be scratches, gouges and dings on the plane handles and the planes themselves.
• Even though I could fit everything in there, the Lee Valley Plough Plane and Router Plane continued to present a problem. they were just too big to fit into the chest and permit the trays to fully slide back and forth or the lid to safely close. I wasn’t about to risk a 25-30 pound lid to close on the Plough Plane.

The final issues I have with a tool chest is these, and ones I think that cannot be avoided:

• It is too easy to pile junk on top of it. No place to put the taper jig while you use the cross cut sled? Hey, put it on top of the chest. No place to put the circular saw, put it on top of the chest. you get the idea. I was constantly taking something of the top of the chest in order to get into it.
• I do not have the largest workshop and because of this, floor space is at a premium. the tool chest had to fit under something else in order for me to have it in the workshop. For me, it was the extension wing of the table saw. Pretty much perfect, except it needs to be constantly rolled out in order to even lift the lid (presuming that something isn’t on it in the first place).

So I quickly came to the conclusion that this tool chest wasn’t for me. ost of the problems that I encountered are probably unique to this chest and its design. If you look at the tool chest Christopher Schwartz promotes, it is much deeper and obviously one can tailor it to suit the tools you have and perhaps avoid the above issues. Or until you purchase or make a tool that does not fit, or put something on it or try and find a place to store it out of the way.

At the same time I ran across a “Hold-Everything Tool Rack” first published in the American Wooodworker in October/November 2008 (Issue 138) and thought it perfect. I especially like the clear visibility to all my tools and the flexibility it offers.

Here is my version:

The overall dimensions are 4×8 feet. The slats are 1×3, planed down to approximately 1/2 inch thick. The rails and stiles were cut and finished to 2×2. I first made the frame on the floor, connecting the rails and stiles via screws. Next, I added the individual slats, using a 3/4ths inch spacer to keep the space between the slats consistent. I started at the bottom and worked my way up to the top. I attached the entire frame to the concrete walls via a Ramset fastener. Fortunately, the rest of the family was out of the house when this occurred. I don’t think my wife would have appreciated the sound of gunshots and smell of powder, for some odd reason.

The next step was making the trays.

Using 1×6 pine ripped in half, I cut dados 1/2 inch wide by 7/16ths deep approximately by 7/16ths from the edge. Most of the trays have lipped edges that were created using 1/2×1 inch pine glued to three of the sides. It took me a week or so to make all the trays. There was a bit of adjusting using various hand planes to get the perfect fit.

Here is a close-up of one of the trays and how it is attached to the slats:

I really like being able to see all my tools and easily reach for them and put them away. Other than the Stanley Number 7 in the top left, I can reach everything without having to stand on anything greater than my toes.

My suggestion to anyone considering building a tool chest: plan, plan, plan. The tools you have and your method of working are going drive the design of the tool chest. Do it right, I think that a tool chest can be a good solution to tool storage. Do it wrong, you’ll have a lot of frustration.



Ps so sorry for the length. Brevity isn’t my strong suit :)

35 comments so far

View ShaneA's profile


7085 posts in 3931 days

#1 posted 03-30-2012 11:43 PM

Looks great and some beautiful tools too.

View SamuelP's profile


793 posts in 3979 days

#2 posted 03-31-2012 12:19 AM

Great idea and great execution.

-- -Sam - FL- "A man who carries a cat by the tail learns somthing he can in no other way" -Mark Twain

View Woodwrecker's profile


4240 posts in 4909 days

#3 posted 03-31-2012 12:43 AM

Great post Greg.
I really like your slat & tray system and made something similar to it (although much, much smaller) for the side of my tool cabinet.
It worked out great.
Your thoughtful point/counter point in regard to both systems had a lot of merit.
Thanks for sharing.

View vakman's profile


301 posts in 3736 days

#4 posted 03-31-2012 01:09 AM

Excellent review/discussion. I read The Anarchist’s Toolchest in one night, and found it extremely thought provoking. It’s difficult to reconcile between Schwarz’s very academic but intangible arguments for a toolchest, and the very tangible results of having one.

As far as your issues of using it as a work surface are concerned; I think you have to review the toolchest in its historical context, and use it in said context. The table saw sled and circular saw are somewhat awkward in the presence of the molding plane and sawbench. If you’re a woodworker that fully embraces electrical machinery and any/all tools needed to get the job done, then there probably isn’t much (literal and figurative) space in your shop for a regularly used toolchest like Schwarz’s.

What I do like a lot about the toolchest (when used with Schwarz’s bench setup) is that it prescribes a very well organized work flow. Use the following set of tools for four hours, put them away, then use the next set, put them away, etc.

I think the popularity of this book amongst woodworkers will lead to many people building this chest, and many people using it in different ways than it was intended. Given that the prologue is titled “disobey me”, I take no issue with such deviations in use.

-- - Power is not revealed by striking hard or often, but by striking true. -

View dpow's profile


504 posts in 4177 days

#5 posted 03-31-2012 02:29 AM

Nice looking project and a great selection of tools. Thanks for sharing.

-- Doug

View RandyM68's profile


693 posts in 3651 days

#6 posted 03-31-2012 03:33 AM

I hang as much on the wall as possible. I can reach my ceiling, so I hang stuff up there, too. Mine isn’t nearly as fancy as yours, though. I don’t have a system, I just try to put something in every available spot. I can usually take two steps and reach right for whatever I want. I have a lot of empty drawer space now. I got tired of digging through three drawers before I find the hammer I want. Now they’re all in a row, just pick the one I want and go. I try to arrange things in logical groups, so I don’t have to look in random places. It is also very easy to see when you forgot to put something back. With a tool box, you have to inventory everything to make sure it is still there. Now I have a glaring hole in the line up, “Where’s my 3/4” chisel?” I like it much better. Now, if I can just remember what I needed this screwdriver for…

-- I can explain it to you, but I can't understand it for you. I'm sorry,thanks.

View Greg In Maryland's profile

Greg In Maryland

556 posts in 4331 days

#7 posted 03-31-2012 03:40 AM

Hey Vakman,

Very good points. The items I mentioned that ended on top of the too chest were those that just came to mind, not necessarily what most frequently ended up there. Frankly, my 2 1/2 and 4 1/2 year old were more likely to be on top of the chest then anything else. It is great for them to climb up on and look at the junk on my other workbench (not shown).

Your comments regarding process are interesting, but I think for many woodworkers, the process that Christopher Schwartz espouses isn’t always the best. Especially for novices like me.

For example, I would guess that Christopher Schwartz and others of his caliber have great control and understanding over their materials and tools, where I as a beginner do not. I would be willing to bet quite a lot that a good craftsman knows exactly what tools he needs for a particular process or step, and in most instances, is able to control the tools and materials such that the outcome is as expected.

On the other hand, I am really just learning the processes, control and materials and make numerous mistakes, false starts and starts and stops. As a result, it is pretty unlikely that I could layout all the tools I think I need for a task without having to go back to the tool chest for yet another tool that I forgot I needed or perhaps will do the job better than the one I initially grabbed.

I may be there someday, but for not the tool wall works for me. On the other hand, in a year from now I may have torn the entire thing down for something else. Who knows?


View whitewulf's profile


456 posts in 4270 days

#8 posted 03-31-2012 04:28 AM

At first glance it looks really good, but the devil is in the details! If you must use screws, countersink ‘em and align the slots.

I believe tools will be protected better in the chest, and you can take them with you! Your tools are exposed dust which absorb moisture, and they will need cleaning & oiling more often.

I prefer to have my tools clean & oiled in the chest, arranged in order of need, saws.marking tools & planes etc. Then bring out the tools needed at the time. I did say anything about the pinner!

-- "ButI'mMuchBetterNow"

View pound's profile


25 posts in 3593 days

#9 posted 03-31-2012 04:31 AM

Looks way too organized for me. ; )

-- I got something on my mind grapes I need to talk to you about.

View Kindlingmaker's profile


2659 posts in 4859 days

#10 posted 03-31-2012 04:41 AM

Great information and story. Thank you. I am a wall person myself but have run out of walls…

-- Never board, always knotty, lots of growth rings

View Brett's profile


960 posts in 4092 days

#11 posted 03-31-2012 04:58 AM

Tool chests are great for storing or transporting tools, not using them. Walls are great, easy to locate and reach.

-- Hand Crafted by Brett Peterson John 3:16

View David Grimes's profile

David Grimes

2080 posts in 3973 days

#12 posted 03-31-2012 05:12 AM

I’ll bet you never tear it down unless you need a bigger one !

Truly, there is need for both chest storage (putting things in a box) and wall storage (hanging things in plain view). I would further declare that other forms of storage are handy as well: drawer storage, shelf storage, organizer storage, mobile storage, etc.

One might argue that the drawer storage, organizer storage and mobile storage are akin to the chest… and that shelf storage is also wall storage, etc. Some truth to that. Unless I were somehow “moved” to go green/ natural / minimalist / purist (aka got my brains knocked out), then devolve backwards to meet some self-imposed quota based on anything other than taking what I have (and know that I need (for the most part, but I am culling the knee jerk items)), then determining the most logical location and method of storage to make them available to me (based on their size, available space, frequency of use, ergonomics (and our tendency to place like things in proximity to one another), then only one way or the other seems (sorry) stupid.

No two shops are exactly the same… each as individual as the person that works the shop. Their contents, layout and workflow should be nothing other than exactly what the master of the shop has determined that they should be.

I remain one who has considered building a free-standing wall just to get both sides for additional storage. Wally World and the BORG both have aisles of wall and shelf storage for one reason: Can you imagine digging through hugundous boxes (chests) to find the wood epoxy, the 12” long 7/32” bit and the tack cloths ?

Time is not our friend. Inefficient methods of storage and retrieval are HUGE wasters of time (and money if it is your livelihood).

-- If you're going to stir the pot, think BIG spoon or SMALL boat paddle. David Grimes, Georgia

View a1Jim's profile


118309 posts in 4910 days

#13 posted 03-31-2012 05:23 AM

View Richard's profile


11310 posts in 4366 days

#14 posted 03-31-2012 08:22 AM

Very Nice Project! Thanks For posting!

-- Richard (Ontario, CANADA)

View jim C's profile

jim C

1472 posts in 4431 days

#15 posted 03-31-2012 11:46 AM

Love the wood look.
Sure takes care of the bland concrete!
Great job.

showing 1 through 15 of 35 comments

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