Sometimes its Just a Box

My next project will be a “Japanese” toolbox.  I know, I know Chris Schwarz is building one too.  I feel like a Johnny-come-lately or a bandwagon jumper with this, but I assure you that I am not.  I have been kicking this one around a while and I’m now getting to the point where I’m just about ready to start it.

odate-toolboxIf you are hoping for intricate joinery, expensive wood and custom hardware, you might as well stop reading now.  There won’t be any of that.  I’ll be closely adhering to the design that Toshio Odate outlined in his book and a subsequent magazine article.  These style toolboxes were never intended to be works of art that advertised the ability of the workman that built them.  They were made with readily available material and nailed together.  Essentially a crate with a sliding lid meant to store, protect and transport tools.

In his book “Japanese Woodworking Tools:Their Tradition, Spirit and Use”, Odate describes the toolbox that was typical of the craftsman that he knew.  It’s a simple thing, nailed together.  It does however have an elegance to it.  Odate goes on to explain that

“…I believe that the sight of a shokunin carrying on his shoulder a beautifully painted and carefully joined toolbox would provoke me to an overwhelming sense of awkwardness.”

I find that statement to be quite poignant.  The Japanese craftsman is more than capable of extremely complex joinery, but they see no reason to employ any of it when building their toolboxes.  It would be out of place if they did so.

In the current woodworking world it seems the three most popular topics are tools, workbenches and tool storage.  Vast quantities of ink and electrons have been and continue to be devoted to this “holy” trinity.  I believe that the latter two are a direct result of the rise in popularity of hand tools.  If you are going to work with hand tools a workbench suddenly becomes important.  As you acquire hand tools you need a place to store and protect them.

Personally I think we have become a little too romantic in the way that we look at hand tools and how we store them.  I fully appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into a traditional joiners chest with inlay and fitted compartments, I just don’t feel the need or desire to build one.  I don’t read any power tool blogs, but I doubt that you will find many, if any, posts on mahogany, raised panel boxes for storing circular saws.  Why then do we go to such extremes for storing our hand tools?  I’m not saying one way is right and the other is wrong.  I’m just trying to take a practical approach.  All I need is a sturdy, functional box for storing, protecting and transporting a few tools.  The last thing I want is to build a box that is so precious that I am afraid to use it for its intended purpose.

In the coming weeks I’ll post a general design drawing that covers the basic construction of the tool box.  I say general because this box is designed to be sized as required.  I’ll then cover how I go about arriving at the size for this particular toolbox.  Once the size is established, I’ll make a trip to the local big box store and buy the cheapest wood that will fit the bill and a couple of boxes of screws.  Yep, I said screws.  I’ll not be picky about what type of drive they are either, phillips, square or slotted.  I’m sure these boxes were originally put together with cut nails.  Cut nails used to be the standard.  They can still be had, but are expensive.  The standard today is wire nails and they are worthless for holding  wood together.  Their smooth shanks have no gripping power.  They may be fine for the construction trades but not for this type of application.  So I’ll be using screws.  They are readily available, hold well and are reasonably inexpensive.

So the wood is cheap and it will be screwed together.  However, each piece, as well as the whole, will be built with all the skill that I can muster.  There is never an excuse for shoddy work.  Surfaces will be planed, ends squared on a shooting board and hard edges chamfered.  Pieces will be fit together to the best of my ability.  I fully intend for this toolbox to last a very long time and I will take pride in its construction…..

even if it is just a box.

Greg Merritt

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18 Responses to Sometimes its Just a Box

  1. billlattpa says:

    I love the Japanese tool boxes, but I have to build something that hangs for my next storage project. I’m looking forward to seeing your version.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      My version will be simple and practical. Hopefully keeping to the spirit of what it is.

      I saw you started building some tool racks. Although it didn’t sound like you were enjoying it, I think tool racks are the way to go. Modular and flexible. Giving you options for changing things around as your needs evolve.


  2. billlattpa says:

    BTW, that one is a good bandwagon to jump on.

  3. TIWilson says:

    That was one of the first things I built when I got started, and chose the Japanese design for a lot of the reasons you mentioned.

  4. Mihai says:

    Well said. Bravo.

  5. ant11sam says:

    Kon’nichiwa Greg!

    In my “plane quest”, while studying the subject I came across with lots of “makers”.
    Most of them very proud of their work (and they have lots of reasons for that) and just a few really conserns about the function and praticallity of the tool it self.
    Until I saw one YT video where Mr James Krenov talks exacly about that. I can’t locate the exact quote but it goes something like that…A plane is just a way to achive something with the wood, and it should be confortable in your hand and efective in use.
    He was famouse for the band saw marks in the edge of the plane to improve the grip 😉
    And today we can see Krenov style hand planes that looks more a work of art then a tool.
    DISCLAMER: By all means that´s nothing wrong about that, I admire those planes and thar kind of work like “Virtuoso tool box”

    Today the “kannas” and other wooden tweens from the East are still function over looks 😉

    Greg: let’s bring it on!
    P.S shuld we start to learn Japanese to read Your blog? 😉 😛

    • Greg Merritt says:

      LOL, Antonio. I admit that there seems to be a Japanese theme running throughout my work. It’s where I get most of my inspiration, but no need to study up on the language. Hopefully what I’m doing will transcend any language barriers.

      I’ve seen the video that you are talking about. Mr. Krenov talks of shaping the plane for comfort and performance. Little regard is given to how it ultimately looks. Ironically, I think that is what gives a certain beauty to the planes that he made.


  6. Paul says:

    Greg, I think you will find this to be a fun project. The best thing about a Japanese toolbox is that the design makes for an exceptionally strong box without a lot of weight or complex joinery. The only joints we use other than butt joints are a couple of shallow rabbets in the bottom to set the ends into. Then we nail on the sides (thin stock, since they don’t carry any weight), fit the handles and battens, and finally fit the top. We use minimal glue only in areas that will expand and contract together, and rely on big cut nails for fasteners. We have made several of these. The first, of bald cypress, I use as a larder box to carry groceries and store them on my boat. Another smaller one, of cedar, went to my young nephew who keeps his current Lego project in it. A third, even smaller and of walnut, is destined for a friend’s grand-daughter who I am sure has some precious things to hide away in it. Others of varying sizes are in the shop awaiting good homes. Lots of things you can do with these boxes and we look forward to building more.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      I’m actually excited about this simple little project. It’s essentially just a crate with an elegant lid. Easy to scale and can be made as fancy or as humble as you like. Had a look at your boxes and they look great!


  7. joemcglynn says:

    No nailed finger joints in yours? I do like that detail, although I’d probably be inclined to use wooden pegs instead of fancy nails. I’m thinking of going to a class this summer that I’ll need to bring my own tools for, so I’m looking at tool chest options. I could see myself building several different ones as they are fun, manageable projects.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Ha, I knew that you would like that detail. Fits very well with the Greene & Greene projects that you do. This style of box is handy to know how to build. Quick to execute, sturdy and easily sized to the need at hand. What’s not to like?


  8. Mathieu says:

    “…I believe that the sight of a shokunin carrying on his shoulder a beautifully painted and carefully joined toolbox would provoke me to an overwhelming sense of awkwardness.”

    I find that statement to be quite poignant. The Japanese craftsman is more than capable of extremely complex joinery, but they see no reason to employ any of it when building their toolboxes. It would be out of place if they did so.

    I was delighted to read this post. Remembering the story about that nail which got hit right on the head.

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