Hand Tool Cabinet

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This article is from Issue 40 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Build a customized home for your go-to hand tools.

Designer/Builder: Bill Sands

As you expand your collection of quality tools that you depend on for precision work every day, consider housing them in a cabinet that’s part customized storage, part showcase. This clamshell design meets these needs head-on with a variety of mix-and-match tool holding options, drawers in two sizes, cubbies, and a hand plane gallery. To make the cabinet with the joinery shown, dust off your dovetail jig, one that can make through and half-blind joints. (I used the Porter-Cable model 4212.) Don’t own one? Then check out our Convenience-Plus Buying Guide.

In addition to the dovetails, you’ll make a pair of simple jigs to rout stopped dadoes. You’ll also machine raised-panel door fronts and learn tricks for attaching the clamshell doors and hanging a heavy cabinet.

Cut the cabinet parts

1 Starting with 4/4 stock (I used walnut) mill enough stock for the cabinet sides (A), top and bottom (B), lower shelf (C), middle shelf (D), upper shelf (E), lower divider (F), and upper divider (G). You may need to edge-glue two or more boards to make up each wide part. Also consider milling the door sides (J) and the door top and bottom (K) at this time and extra stock for jig setup. Now finish jointing and planing the stock to 3⁄4" thick. Rip and crosscut the sides, top, and bottom to the dimensions in the Cut List. Rip the remaining parts to the finished widths but cut them long for now. Label “inside” and “outside” on the cabinet sides, top, and bottom. Also, label the mating dovetail ends.

2 Referring to the instruction manual, set up your through dovetail jig to rout the tails in the 12"-wide sides (A). (Because of the long length of the sides, I constructed a box-like plywood platform to elevate my jig to the needed height and secured it to my workbench.) Next, install the required dovetail bit and bushing in a handheld router, adjusting the cut depth. Using scrap the same width and thickness as the sides clamped vertically in place, rout “test” tails. 

Reverse the template and clamp a mating scrap piece vertically in place. Switch to a straight bit and recommended bushing and rout the pins. Check the fit. Ideally, you want a snug, flush fit and one where the tails and pins are flush or protrude no more than 1⁄32". Note that your jig may offer a slightly different approach.

Rout the tails in the sides, guiding off the template. Use masking tape to reduce splintering.

3 Now, rout the tails in sides (A) where shown in Figure 1 and as shown in Photo A. Adjust the setup and similarly rout the mating pins in the cabinet top and bottom (B). Consider routing the tails and pins in the door sides (J) and door top and bottom (K) at this time, Or leave the setup intact and rout the door parts later.

4 If it exists, measure any pin protrusion at each end for the top and bottom (B) and subtract that amount from the Cut List length dimension for the shelves (C, D, and E). With flush dovetails, simply measure the interior width of the cabinet plus the dado depths. Trim the shelves to final length.

5 Place the sides (A) back edge to back edge on a flat surface with their inside faces up and their ends flush. Now, starting from the mated back edges, lay out the 3⁄4" stopped dadoes on the mirroring faces for the shelves (C, D, and E), where shown in Figures 1 and 2. Next, lay out the stopped dado on the top face of bottom (B). Lay out the 3⁄4" stopped dadoes on the bottom and top faces of the lower shelf (C), and the bottom face of middle shelf (D), noting the distance to the front edges.

6 Make the stopped dado jigs to the dimensions shown in Figure 3.

7 Align the sides and shelves jig with the bottommost stopped dado layout lines, and clamp the jig in place along the back edge of one side (A). Adjust the stop to terminate the dado where shown in Figure 1 (the shelf dado lengths differ from the sides and bottom), and clamp it in place. Chuck a 5⁄8"-diameter pattern bit in a handheld router. Using the jig, adjust the depth of cut to rout 1⁄4"-deep dadoes. Now, rout the first stopped dado. Relocate the jig to cut the remaining stopped dadoes in this side, as shown in Photo B.

Use the same jig to rout the dadoes in the bottom (B), the lower shelf (C), and the middle shelf (D).

With the guide strip against the back edge, run the pattern bit’s bearing along the jig to complete a clean stopped dado.

8 Mill at least 60" of stock slightly wider than 10" for the cubby dividers (H). Plane the material to 1⁄4" thick. Now rough-cut the material into 7" lengths. These eight pieces will be cut to their finished length later.

9 To determine the spacing between the cubby dividers (H), subtract their total thickness from the cabinet’s interior width, then divide by nine. (On this cabinet the spacing measured 311⁄64".) Keep in mind, however, that you might want to adjust the number of cubbies to suit your tool collection or to fit wider items.

10 Place the shelves (D, E) back edge to back edge and flush at the ends. Apply masking tape over the seam to hold the parts together and to create better visibility for seeing layout marks. Now, working from the same end, lay out the spacing of the 1⁄4" dadoes on the mirroring faces of the middle and upper shelves. From these marks, extend strips of masking tape perpendicular from the back edges at the cubby divider marks to reduce tear-out when routing the 1⁄4" dadoes. Separate the shelves by knifing lengthwise through the seam tape.

11 Using the cubby dividers jig in Figure 3 and a 1⁄4"-diameter router bit with a 3⁄8" O.D. bushing, rout the stopped dadoes 1⁄4" deep for the cubby dividers (H) in the middle shelf (D) and the upper shelf (E).

12 Install a rabbeting bit in a table-mounted router, and adjust the fence and bit to cut a 1⁄2"-wide rabbet, 1⁄4" deep. Draw start and stop marks on the fence 3⁄4" to either side of the bit’s cutting edges. Now rout the stopped rabbets on the inside back edges of the sides (A) and top and bottom (B), as shown in Photo C and where shown in Figures 1 and 2.

Align the leading end of the workpiece with the start mark, make the cut, and stop when the trailing end of the board aligns with the (right-hand) stop mark.

Notch the front corners of the shelves, using a tall miter gauge fence and stopblock to maintain workpiece control.

13 Make a tall extension fence for your tablesaw miter gauge and screw it in place. (Mine measured 12" high.) Now, install a 1⁄4" dado set, raising it to 1⁄2". Clamp a stopblock to one end of the extension fence that is flush to the outside teeth of the dado set. Then, cut the notches in the front edges of the shelves (C, D, and E), as shown in Photo D.

14 Now dry-fit the sides (A) to the shelves and measure the distance between the opposing stopped cubby dadoes. (This should be 61⁄2". If it varies, adjust as needed when cutting the cubby dividers to final length.) For the length (height) of the upper divider (G), measure the distance between the middle shelf (D) and lower shelf (C) dadoes and add 1⁄2". To figure the length for the lower divider (F), measure from the lower edge of the lower shelf dado to the base of the tail opening at the bottom end of side (A) and add 1⁄2".

15 Cut the lower divider (F), upper divider (G), and cubby dividers (H) to their final dimensions, and notch their front edges as described in Step 13.

16 Lay out, cut, and sand the centered arc in one cubby divider (H), where shown in Figure 2. Using this piece as a template, lay out and stack-cut the arcs in the remaining dividers, staying just outside the line. Now, stack-sand the arcs to the line.

Assemble the cabinet in stages

1 Working on a flat assembly table, glue and clamp the cubby dividers (H) in the dadoes of the middle shelf (D) and upper shelf (E), back edges down. Square the subassembly, and ensure all front edges are flush. Let dry overnight.

Note: For the more complex cabinet glue-up, gather the parts (including the cubby subassembly), clamps, glue, damp rag, tape, and brushes and consider inviting a helper to apply glue and clamps. I used Titebond II Extend Wood Glue for a longer working time and made four 5"-long corner clamping cauls (Figure 4) to work with a strap clamp and apply even pressure around the center of the wide cabinet corner joints. The 1⁄4 × 3⁄8" edge strips raise the cauls off the joint, preventing interference and adhesion. Finally, I cut a 1⁄2" piece of MDF to serve as a spacer below the cubby subassembly and lower shelf (C) to create the needed clearance for back (I).

2 Working quickly, apply glue to all joints—the tails and pins, the 3⁄4" stopped dadoes, and shelf ends. With the back edges down and the spacer in place, fit the through dovetail joints together and the notched shelves into the stopped dadoes. Slip the strap clamp and corner cauls in place, tighten, and add the bar clamps at key joint locations (Photo E).

Use a damp rag to remove any glue squeeze-out. Measure diagonally across the cabinet to check for square. Tap or apply clamping pressure across the cabinet, and pull it into square if needed. Let dry, and then remove the clamps and glue the lower and upper drawer dividers (F, G) in place. Flush up the corners and edges with planing or sanding.

3 Using a chisel, square the corners where the rabbets along the back edges of the cabinet come together. Measure the rabbeted opening, and cut the 1⁄2"-thick birch plywood back to fit. Set it aside.

After pulling the cabinet assembly together with the strap clamp and corner cauls, add bar clamps to pull the joints tight.

Make the clamshell doors and plane ramp

1 If not done earlier, cut the clamshell door sides (J) and tops and bottoms (K) to the dimensions in the Cut List now. Adjust the tops and bottoms as needed so the assembled frames are within 1⁄64". Rout the tails and pins for the through dovetail joints (Figure 5).

2 Rest the cabinet on its back edges on an assembly table. Now, glue and assemble one clamshell door frame, door sides (J) and door top and bottom (K) in place on the cabinet, flush with the cabinet’s walls. Mark the door as left or right, and glue up the remaining door frame the same way. This technique helps align the clamshell doors, even if the case is slightly out of square.

To avoid stripping the heads or snapping the brass screws, drive them by hand instead of using a power drill.

Elevating the panel-raising bit in 1⁄16" increments, rout the panel ends first, then the edges.

3 Cut two 11⁄2 × 48"-long piano hinges to 40" at a leaf seam to prevent damage to the metal. Place and align one leaf on the outside door edge, and use a self-centering hinge-drilling bit to drill the pilot holes. Carefully drive the hinge screws. Then, using clamped-on scrap for alignment on the cabinet’s interior walls, rest the door frame and hinge on the outside cabinet edge and repeat the process for attaching the other hinge leaf, as shown in Photo F. Similarly, attach the remaining door frame. Close the door frames to check the clearance. Ideally, you want around 1⁄16" (or less). Plane or sand the inside mating face of each frame to achieve the needed gap; if greater, you can make the adjustment when adding and flush-trimming the door fronts in Step 10.

4 Check the door frames (J, K) for square. If so, then cut the door front stiles (L), top rails (M), and bottom rails (N) to the sizes in the Cut List. If not, take outside measurements of the frames and adjust the part lengths as needed. Using a dado set, cut the 1⁄4" grooves 3⁄8" deep along the inside edges where shown in the Raised-Panel Detail in Figure 5. 

5 Add a sacrificial fence to the saw fence alongside the dado set, and use the miter gauge to cut stub tenons on the rails (M, N), as shown in the Stub-Tenon Detail in Figure 5. Back the workpieces to avoid tear-out.

6 For the panels, use wide boards or edge-join two boards of a contrasting wood to make up a blank for the door front raised panels (O). (I book-matched two pieces of figured maple cut from thicker stock, but you could book-match wide board panels as well.) Plane the blank to 3⁄4" thick and cut the panels to 12 × 35", trimming equally off both edges to maintain a centered joint line.

7 Dry-fit the front frame (parts L, M, and N), and measure the distances between opposing groove bottoms. Subtract 3⁄8" from these measurements for your final panel width. This size works if building the panels during a moist season. If you make the panels during a dry season or if you live in a dry desert-like climate, add 1⁄4" to the final panel size width. Now trim the panels (O).

8 Chuck a panel-raising bit in a table-mounted router and raise the panels (O), (Photo G). Check the fit of the panel in the grooves in the stiles and rails (L, M, N). Sand and finish.

9 Glue and clamp the frame-and-panel door fronts together (parts L, M, N, and O), allowing the raised panels to float within the frame. Flush all joints and check for square. Let dry.

10 Drive small brads into the outside edges of the installed door frames (J, K), one near each corner. Clip the heads of the brads 1⁄8" above the edges. Apply glue to one frame and rest a door front assembly (L, M, N, O) on the clipped brads. Place the front on the frame, achieving a slight (if any) equal overhang all around. Then, using clamps, press the front onto the frame, sinking the brads into the wood. Ensure a firm bond along all edges, and wipe up any squeeze-out. Let dry and repeat for the other door. If overhang exists, plane or flush-trim the excess with a bottom bearing flush-trim bit.

11 Measure the distance between the hinges at the cabinet top and bottom, and cut two top and bottom edging pieces (P) to this length from 3⁄16 × 7⁄8" strips. Glue and clamp the pieces in place and flush-trim or sand the proud edges.

12 Install the back (I) with glue and 11⁄2" nails.

13 Cut the plane ramp (Q), ramp edging (R), and ramp dividers (S) to the sizes in the Cut List. Use a tall fence and zero-clearance insert to cut the ramp’s angles. Glue and/or pin-nail the ramp where shown in Figure 1. Test-fit the ramp edging against it and glue and/or pin-nail it in place. Add the dividers and cut and install the stop (T). See Figure 2.

14 Sand the cabinet and door unfinished parts through 220 grit. Wipe clean and finish.

Make and fit the drawers

Design Note: To add style, I extended the overall drawer lengths 1⁄4" beyond the 10" drawer opening depth, creating a total drawer length of 101⁄4".

1 Mill your drawer stock to the thicknesses in the Cut List, and add 1⁄4" to the lengths and widths for the small drawer sides (U), small drawer backs (V), small drawer fronts (W), large drawer sides (X), large drawer backs (Y), and large drawer fronts (Z). Mill extra pieces for setting up your jig.

2 To establish finished drawer part sizes, first measure the heights of the openings to determine the widths of the drawer sides (U, X), backs (V, Y), and fronts (W, Z). Measure the widths of the openings to give you the lengths of the drawer backs and fronts.

3 To establish the length of the sides (U, X), first set up your dovetail jig to make half-blind tails and pins and cut a test joint. Make the needed adjustments, according to the jig’s manual, to achieve a snug, flush joint. Once there, measure the tail length (which is the depth of cut) of the vertical (side) test piece. Now, figure the inside dimension of the drawers from front to back by measuring the depth of the drawer opening and adding 1⁄4" for the overall drawer length from front to back. Subtract the combined thicknesses of a drawer back (V, Y) and front (W, Z) from this length (here, 11⁄4"), and add in the test tail length twice, accounting for the half-blind joint at the front and back. The result yields the needed lengths of the drawer sides. (I subtracted 11⁄4" from the overall drawer length and added a 3⁄8" tail length to each end for a final side length of 93⁄4".)

4 Cut the drawer parts to finished widths and lengths. Now, label the outside faces and the corner pairs 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, and 4-4. Rout the half-blind dovetails in the mating parts.

5 Locate and rout the stopped grooves 1⁄4" from the bottom edges of the drawer parts (U, V, W, X, Y, and Z) for the 1⁄4"-thick birch plywood drawer bottoms, (AA) where shown in Figure 6.

Hand-plane the drawers to fit their openings, working from back to front.

6 Dry-fit each drawer together to measure for the bottoms (AA). Cut the bottoms to size and test the fit. Now, glue up and clamp the drawers, checking them for square. Let dry.

7 To fit the drawers, first flush the dovetails and drawer edges with a hand plane or sanding block. Then use a plane to form 1⁄16" chamfers on the back corners of the drawers. Plane a shallow arc on the bottom edges of the drawer backs (V, Y). Now test-fit one back corner at a time into the drawer’s opening for a functional final height. Next, insert the drawer in its opening to check the width. If too wide, plane the sides 2" to 3" in from the back and try again. As shown in Photo H, work toward fitting the drawer by removing material from the sides and edges as needed, test-fitting frequently. Finally, break the front edges of the drawers with a slight chamfer.

8 Locate the centers of the drawer fronts (W, Z) and drill the holes for the pull screws. Apply finish to the drawers, let dry, and add the pulls. Line the bottoms of the drawers with felt or cork.

Customize and hang the cabinet

1 Cut foam core or cardboard to the interior dimensions of your cabinet back and doors. Lay the material on your bench or an elevated sheet of plywood and use it to arrange your tool collection and size your customized holders.

2 Using ideas from our Online Extra, along with several of your own, make customized tool holders for your collection. Fasten them in place.

3 With a 5⁄8" Forstner bit and a handheld drill, carefully bore two shallow centered holes where shown in Figure 1 on the bottom edge of the cabinet for the rare-earth magnet catch system. Measure the steel cups to determine hole depths in the cabinet, and use the washer thickness for the bottom door edges. Screw in the hardware and add the magnets. 

Special thanks to Starrett for providing selected measuring and marking tools. Go to starrett.com for more.

Hanging Heavy Cabinets

When loaded with planes and other metal items, the weight of the tool cabinet can be significant. Consequently, you need to provide a stout hanging system mounted to studs or masonry. This French cleat system fills the bill. First, determine the location for the cabinet and height off the floor (the top of this cabinet measures a standard 84" from the floor). Next, cut four wall cleats (BB) to the size in the Cut List, beveling one edge of each piece at 45°. Glue and screw the top cleat to the cabinet back where shown in Figure 2, paying attention the bevel’s orientation. Make a mark at 84" above the floor on the wall. Measure down 61⁄4" and strike a level line. Strike a second level line 32" down from this line. Now, using the appropriate fasteners, attach the wall cleats, aligning their bottom edges with the level lines. Apply double-faced tape to the cabinet side of the bottom cabinet cleat. Rest this cabinet cleat on the bottom wall cleat in its proper orientation. (The tape helps locate the bottom cabinet cleat on the cabinet back.) Now, with a helper, temporarily hang the cabinet on the wall, pressing it against the taped bottom cleat. Lift off the cabinet and fasten the lower cleat. Rehang the cabinet.

4 From 3⁄4" stock, cut four bevel-edged hanging cleats (BB) to the dimensions in the Cut List. Referring to Figure 2, see the sidebar, “Hanging Heavy Cabinets” (below, left) for hanging instructions. Finally, add your hand tools.  

About Our Designer/Builder

An accomplished woodworker from Lubeck, West Virginia, Bill Sands is a regular contributor to Woodcraft Magazine, having built several shop projects. In addition, he teaches woodworking classes at the Parkersburg Woodcraft store.


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