Craftsman's Tool Tote

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This article is from Issue 52 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Hone your hand skills building a box you’ll be proud to cart around.

Overall dimensions: 251⁄4"w × 71⁄2"d × 12"h

Many of us remember Dad’s toolbox and how it always seemed to have everything needed to repair a broken chair or hang a screen door. Wanting to build my own all-purpose tool tote, I decided to take Dad’s nailed-together box up a notch to ensure that it will be around for the grandkids.
Aside from its obvious utility, this box offers several low-risk opportunities to practice traditional joinery, including through dovetails and wedged tenons. If you make a mistake when cutting the dovetails, don’t fret. Just use the metal template to retrace your tails on a new piece and try again. If you mess up the pins on the bottom board, cut them off and give it another shot. You can shorten the sides and handle to compensate.
I chose mahogany for the body of the box because it’s a friendly and forgiving wood–perfect for hand-cut joinery. As an added bonus, it takes on a beautifully rich, deep color as it ages. For the handle, I chose red oak, not only for strength, but also because if offers a nice contrast.

Start with the ends

1 From 3⁄4"-thick stock, cut the ends (A) and bottom (B) to the sizes listed in the Cut List. Also cut 3⁄4"-thick material for the sides (C) and handle (D), but leave these parts oversized in length for now. (You’ll trim them to final length after cutting the dovetails.)
2 Using the pattern on page 28, make a half-pattern of the end (A) from 1⁄2"-thick plywood. Use it to lay out the first half of the end profile, as shown in Photo A, then flip the pattern and trace the opposite half. Now lay out the location of the through-mortise for the handle (D).
Lay out the ends of the tote using a half-pattern, which guarantees perfect symmetry.
Score the baseline with a utility knife, and then cut the tail cheeks using heavy-duty scissors. The waste should snap off with a little bending.

Trace the tail pattern onto the bottom of both end boards. A marking knife produces a crisp line.

Cut the dovetails

1 Make a master template of a single pin socket from aluminum flashing to suit your desired angle and pin width. (You may also use the pattern provided on page 28.) Using this master template, make a full-width dovetail template on a 71⁄2"-wide
strip of aluminum flashing (available at home supply stores). Then carefully cut the template, as shown in Photo B.
(Note: Tracing is faster and easier than individually laying out the tails on both ends. The template also allows testing the look of the dovetails without wasting wood.)
2 Set a marking gauge about 1⁄64" wider than the thickness of your stock, and then scribe baselines on both faces of the end (A) and bottom (B) boards. Next, align the dovetail template with the scribed line on the outside face of an end and trace the tails, as shown in Photo C. Use a square to extend the tail lines across the end grain. Now repeat the process with the other end board. (For better visibility, you can run a fine-tipped pencil over the knife lines.)
3 Clamp the board at a comfortable height in a face vise and cut the tails, as shown in Photo D. Focus on executing clean cuts that are perpendicular to the face of the board. (Because you will use this piece to lay out the mating pins, it’s OK if your vertical angle is a little off.)
4 To remove the waste between the tails, change saws and start by sawing most of it away, as shown in Photo E. Next, clean out the remaining material with a freshly-honed chisel (Photo F).
(You may also want to use a knife to clean out the corners.)
As you saw to the layout lines, let your dovetail saw
do the work. Stop just a hair shy of the baseline.
Use a jeweler’s saw to remove the bulk of the waste between the tails. Stay just above the scribed baseline.
5 Clamp the bottom (B) vertically into a vise, position the end board (A) on top, and then lay out the pins, as shown in Photo G. Make sure that the edges of both pieces are flush and that the baseline on the end aligns with the inside face of the bottom. (For reaching between the tails, I prefer using a thin-bladed carving knife.) Remove the end board, and then use a small square to extend the pin marks down to the baseline on both faces.
6 Clamp the bottom (B) in your bench vise and saw the pins. As before, use a dovetail saw to cut down to your baseline, remove the bulk of the waste with a jeweler’s saw, and then pare away the remaining wood to the baseline. (I prefer sawing my pins a bit fat, and then paring them for a perfect fit.) Test the fit, make any needed adjustments, and then repeat the operation on the opposite end.
(Note: Don’t assemble/disassemble more often than absolutely necessary. Too many test-fits can create gaps or cause damage to a pin or tail.)

Wedged To Perfection

If you discover a gap or two in your dovetail joints, don’t fret–there’s an easy fix. First, glue up the joint. After the glue dries, saw along the offending gap. Next, cut a strip of wood from a matching piece of scrap to fit the kerf. Glue in the strip, allow time to dry, and then trim it flush. (For a super-tight patch, cut the filler piece slightly oversize in thickness, and compress it in a vise. It will swell up in the gap when you add the glue.)
Finish the tails with a chisel. When paring down to the baseline, rest the back of the chisel against your non-dominant hand, as shown.
Use the tails to lay out the pins on the bottom. Make sure that the edges of both pieces are flush.

Lay out and cut the mortises

1 Using a marking gauge, lay out the side mortises on the inside faces of the end boards (A). Chuck a 3⁄8" brad-point or Forstner bit in your drill press, and remove the bulk of the waste for the sides (C) and handle (D), where shown on Figure 1 and as seen in Photo H.
When drilling the 1⁄4"-deep holes for the sides, use a fence to ensure perfect alignment. Position a backer board under the end to prevent blow-out when drilling the through mortise for the handle.
2 Using freshly-honed chisels, clean up the drilled mortises in the ends (A). To pare the sides of the shallow blind mortises, I used a 1"-wide chisel, as shown in Photo I, and a 3⁄8"-wide chisel to pare the mortise ends. To clean up the though mortise for the handle, clamp a guide block against your layout line, as shown in Photo J.
3 Cut the curves on each end board (A) separately on the bandsaw, staying slightly outside your lines. Next, stack the two end pieces together using double-faced tape to keep them aligned, and then sand the pair on an oscillating spindle sander.
Drill overlapping holes to establish the mortise for the sides. Use a fence to keep the holes aligned.
Rest the chisel’s corner on the scribe line, and pivot the tool to create a clean-walled mortise.

Use a block to guide your chisel and to prevent it from cutting past your layout lines.

Custom-fit the handle and sides

1 Crosscut the sides (C) and handle (D) to fit your tote. Adjust the length of the handle so that the shoulder-to-shoulder distance is equal to the tote’s inside dimension, and the tenons protrude past the ends by 1⁄8".
2 Using a table-mounted
router and beading bit, rout
the bottom edge of the side panels (C), where shown in Figure 1. (Even though this is a light cut, I routed the profile in two passes to prevent tear-out.)
3 Using the pattern provided on page 28, create a half-pattern for the handle, and then trace the curve on your stock. Double-check the shoulder-to-shoulder length for a tight fit.
4 Outfit your tablesaw with a dado head, and cut the tenon shoulders on the handle (D).
(I prefer cutting my tenons a bit fat, and then trimming the cheeks to fit with a shoulder plane.) At the bandsaw, cut the curved profile and the kerfs for the wedges.
5 Use a spokeshave to remove saw marks on the handle, refine the curve, and round over the sharp edges. You can choose to leave tool marks, or if you wish, you can continue smoothing the handle with a scraper and sanding blocks.
6 You’re now ready to dry-fit your tote. The trick here is to take your time. Starting with one corner, attach one end (A) to the bottom (B) and carefully drive the dovetails just short of home (Photo K). (Work slowly while watching and listening closely for any splitting.) Next, insert the sides (C) and handle (D) and then test-fit the opposite end (Photo L).
7 Carefully disassemble your tote. If you’re so inclined, now’s the time to sand the inside surfaces. Just remember to go easy around the joinery to avoid introducing any gaps.
Use light taps when attaching the end to the bottom. If the parts require too much persuasion, remove the end and pare the offending pins.

Set the sides and handle in place before attaching the opposite end.

Assembly and finish

1 Make a few 5° wedges from scrapwood. Now, apply glue to the tails, pins, and tenons, and reassemble your tote. Pull the assembly together with clamps, and leave them in place until the glue cures. Brush glue in the handle kerfs and tap the wedges into the handle (B). Finally, secure the sides to the bottom with countersunk 11⁄2"-long screws where shown in Figure 1.
2 Trim the wedges with a flush-cut saw, and then smooth the dovetail joints and handle ends with a block plane. Work carefully, taking light cuts until the surfaces are perfectly flush. Finally, finish-sand the outside of the tote through 220 grit.
3 Finish isn’t necessary,
but it shows off your work and offers a little extra protection.
I applied three coats of Waterlox, allowing the finish a few days to cure before rubbing it out with 0000 steel wool. Finally, I applied a coat of wax.
4 Pack your tote with tools, and tackle the next chore on your list.  
About Our Author

A custom furnituremaker for over 35 years, Mario Rodriguez now spends much of his time teaching aspiring woodworkers at the Philadelphia Furniture Workshop. He is the author of Traditional Woodwork and Building Fireplace Mantels (Taunton Press).


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