Sunday, July 8, 2018

Japanese Tool Box

I finished something!
I have had a very inspiring few weeks since my last post. I traveled to Germany and crashed Christopher Schwarz' French workbench class at Dictum, met several woodworkers, carved my first spoon, and started a staked side table project while there.

I'll not write about any of that today. Instead, you get to see the Japanese tool box that I built a couple of days ago.

One of my Instagram friends that I was finally able to meet while in Germany suggested that I build a Japanese tool box. It sounded like a great idea since my Dutch tool chest was starting to get cluttered with too many tools.

The DTC is fantastic, but it works best when everything is neat and orderly. Something I typically am not good at. The Japanese box will hold some of the tools that I don't frequently use.

Because most of my tools will stay in my DTC, this box doesn't need to be particularly big. My longest tools, my Ryoba saw and my jointer plane will not live here. I might put my oversize, giant Dick saw in this box, but it does break down, so that shouldn't be a problem.
Available suitable lumber for my new box.
I have some plastic wrapped, laminated wood lying around that I had intended for another project lying around. This will work perfectly. They are 1200 mm long. The wide one is 300 mm wide, and the narrow one 200 mm. These will be perfect for a box that will be around 600 mm long.

The very first thing I did was some internet research. I happily discovered that Greg Merritt built one of these a year or two ago, and posted his usual impeccable drawings on his website. I relied heavily on his drawings, but I used nails and skipped the housing dadoes. Nails, no glue and no fine joinery sounds like a fun way to build a cool box.

I probably should have read his blog a bit more carefully, and I would have prevented a few problems. Instead of joining the carcass together, then nailing the bottom on, I started by nailing the sides to the bottom (after sawing to length and smooth planing).
I wouldn't recommend starting this way.
I thought it would be simpler considering that I have no bench and my workholding is limited. It made things a bit more complicated as I had to be extremely precise in sawing the end pieces to length. In fact, I had to scrap the first pair of end boards and make a new pair. Thankfully, I had enough wood.
I toenailed most of the nails to add mechanical strength.
To make it look nice, I stepped off the spacing for the nails with dividers and drilled pilot holes for the Roman nails with a tapered drill bit. I used regular 8d cut nails on the bottom, so the heads could sit flush or a little below the surface allowing the box to sit on the floor without messing up the floor.
Cut nails are incredibly strong compared to wire nails.
Assembling the box was relatively straightforward. All of the visible nails were stepped out with dividers and have a big, decorative head.
The box is nailed together, awaiting all the sharp edges to be chamferred.
One note about the handles: if you build a box like this, take Greg's advice and use nice thick stock for them. I used some spruce or fir or something for mine, and they are 1 5/8" thick. This leaves an extremely comfortable handle that really lets you grip the box. Even though it is small for a box of this type, loaded up it could be very heavy, and balancing a heavy box on the tips of your fingers is not fun.

The endcaps are nailed on with an eye toward overkill. The nails go in the box's sides, ends, and handles to keep the endcap firmly in place securing the lid. I imagine this part of the box doesn't take so much stress, but nails aren't that expensive.
Lots of nails - because I can.
The last thing I did was construct the lid. The lid drops in, then slides under the endcap to lock it. I followed Greg's instructions and it works perfectly. For joining the battens to the lid, I clinched the nails. I love clinched nails, they are very strong.
Clinched nails on the lid.
I didn't really mention it, but before nailing any part on, it was smoothed with my #4 and burnished with my pollissoir. If it was an edge that would stay, I chamferred it with a plane, then burnished. After everything was assembled, I spent some time chamfering the edges that needed it, and burnished the remaining spots.

I had originally planned to paint this chest gray. However, I have changed my mind, in no small part to the good people who left comments on my Instagram post. The traditional finish for one of these chests is to leave it as is after burnishing.

Paint would not work because of the sliding lid. The paint would either come off on the parts that rub, or cause the lid to bind and not open at all.

This is a tool box, after all, and will get it's share of abuse over time. Hopefully it will prevent the tools inside from taking that abuse. Over time it will darken up and get more beautiful.
The top of this cabinet I built last year is the same material as the new box. Wood darkens over time.
I call this box finished. I might decide to deepen the chamfers on the corners and the bottom to help protect against bumps and dings, then again I might not. I also might make a sliding till, or some boxes that live on a rail inside, but the box is small enough that I think they could get in the way. How the tools in this box fare over time will determine what I do inside of it.

If you build a box like this, I highly recommend Roman and/or cut nails, and Greg's fantastic drawings. I also recommend this project for woodworkers of any skill level: it's a great first project.


  1. Hi Brian.
    Great looking tool box.
    Glad to see that you are back in the shop.


  2. This turned out great, the nails are a good look. There's something very appealing about this form. Every one I've ever seen has drawn my eye.

    1. I've always wanted to build one. They look great.

      Thanks, Jeff!

  3. It is always nice to see someon find some use for my scribbles Brian. These boxes are quite handy and simple to build.
    Yours turned out nice. I especially like the look of the nails. To my eye these boxes look better and better as they accumulate some battle scars and grime.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Greg! Also, thanks for the drawings. I followed your proportions as best I could, and I think it made a difference. Especially the handles.

      I expect this one to collect battle scars for a very long time.


  4. Nice job Brian! It has a very nice shape to it. I am looking forward to seeing a picture with some tools in it!

    1. Thanks, Rudy! I haven't settled on how to set it up yet, but I'll post a pic as soon as I do!

  5. Hi Brian, just got reminded that some Japanese toolbox designs include a wedge to hold the top closed. Have you found that there's any need for the wedge? Seems like a bother to have a loose piece if it doesn't add much.

    1. Hey, Jeff! I haven't found it is necessary. However, there might be times it's a good idea, such as it you wanted a handle on the lid.

      This particular box is small enough that it could be used as checked luggage on an airplane. If I did that, I would block the lid closed with a loose batten, and drive a drywall screw to keep it in place.