Cape Yellow Wood Tool Chest Journey


Thanking Gerhard once again for opening up his website to woodworking friends and Toolgaloots. What follows is my Cape Yellow wood tool chests’ journey –  and some more!

Not surprisingly, not very long after I developed the fatal fascination/affinity for old tools, I realized that these restored things of beauty can’t forever reside wrapped in pieces of cloth, all around the shop. No, they needed a nice little tool chest/enclosure, a wooden one, not plastic, not that I had that many old woodworking hand tools at that stage! Included amongst the antique restored tools was a Lie Nielsen dovetail (just missed the Independence era when I bought it) and a set of octagonal Boxwood handled Robert Sorby chisels. Otherwise, the majority of the tools were antique (another “less vintage” set of tools was kept elsewhere).

So, off I went and built a little chest out of the available wood I had, 12mm plywood….. By the way, the chest is sitting on a Kiaat wood (Pterocarpus Angolensis also called Bloodwood, Mukwa, Dolfhout) 8 chair dining set made about 40 years ago by Kavango residents in the Northern Namibia bushveldt. Having no electricity, the logs used to be cut in a saw pit (one guy on top and the other at the bottom of the pit) and the resulting planks then left upright against trees to dry. The finer “kilning” details I know not! Do they frequently turn it, how come it doesn’t warp and twist??!! I’ve heard that it tends to shrink very little from its green state, that perhaps being the reason. Never seen them stacked and stickered, but must have been! These bush artists used to make beautiful furniture, this set an example using just saws, jack planes and for the carved bits, little self made axes (with astounding accuracy and dexterity) and homemade knives, finishing by sanding it (with sanding paper!!). Just furniture polish was then applied. Working on loose sand as reference, these furniture were often a bit wonky and therefore often needed to be trimmed at home, once bought. This set is 40 years old and going, still using it!


Back to my effort.


Somehow, the dovetails ended up on the side of the little chest….


As the infatuation with old tools grew, the requirement for proper storage increased. At some stage I started to do away with doubles and triples (also read a very sensible Chris Schwarz article on reducing your tools and rather getting to know the one’s you have better), I still continuously strived to upgrade some of the tools that I already had, to more valuable ones. The old Disston D8 and #7 was not good enough, no-no, it had to be a set of #12’s. Since the ordinary wedged-stem plough was hurting my office hands, a Mathieson 9B would be more practical…… Often now, in hindsight (also looking at the costs incurred), I’m in two minds whether to kick myself or not!! Must have been the “collector” part in me (but does it mean I’m an official ToolGaloot???). But….. must admit, these tools are “rather nice” to have in your hands, albeit they come at a price (and which took endless times of bidding on eBay because these type of tools demand mostly ridiculous prices). You have to search for “old plough” (with bad pics) instead of “Mathieson 9B”. Also “old rusty wood saw” (with bad pics) instead of “Disston #12”. And then ask questions and hope for honest answers. And so we have all burnt our fingers once (or twice…). But also in hindsight, one should also strive to still keep a balance in your live and your daily responsibilities, because these old tools research, collection, restoration etc etc could become a obsessive beast, consuming all your free time and energy and may just pull you away from your family! Should always be viewed as just a hobby!

So, me being friends with “planning and scheming” started to make drawings en noting down ideas of what I require and would like to have eventually to store the majority of my old tools in. Again, as with my Roubo, not too large, not too small. Collected endless photos of other tool chests and played it off against what I wanted (and space I had). Because of my specific requirements, I didn’t really favour the idea of a large traditional floor standing tool chest. Have a bad back, so I wanted  it sitting on a wheeled chest of drawers (with my lathe tools and accessories in the drawers). Furthermore I wanted a drawer to keep my measuring tools and other small items apart from the large tools. Didn’t like the idea of diving into a toolbox in order to access something at the bottom! But all this is purely personal and what works for me! The downside is that it takes more planning in order to cater for the tools hanging down from the top part in order to optimize space available. And because you run the risk of losing real estate for tools just because you want your tools to be a little more accessible and visible, you have to have quite tight tolerances, measuring each tool and plan your drawer and drawer compartment accordingly. I have built-in dividers keeping the chisels in the sides away from the side of the drawer.

Also liked the Seaton idea  of some of my saws sitting in the lid (without overstuffing the lid). While the lid arrangement was a practical decision because of my smaller sized tool chest, it also serves a display purpose to me (remember I’m not just a user, I’m a collector-user)! I’m not working in the shop because I have to, no, I’m “playing” in the shop because I want to! “Playing” because I’m still not overly confident in many of the daily woodworking skills required in my cave, but love every step I take to up my knowledge, every new skill I acquire along the way. I suppose I’ll be a student until the day these old hands can’t hold these old tools anymore, just like the old hands that held them before me.

Lets continue now with the chest at last!!? Starting the project in parallel with my Roubo, you’ll notice some of the work was done on the old, metal framed bench (not wonder I struggled to get my panels flat!) Here I was also evaluating my newly acquired Mathieson jack and smoother.


Great timber to work with (also refer to my first post on the Stanley 246 regarding the Cape Yellow wood or Real Yellow wood (Podocarpus Latifolius)


Doing panel tails


Cleaning up


Trying my best with a mitre joint of the skirt…


Doing a very, very delicate balancing act. With a very, very expensive 607 on the oak bottom…..! What we’ll do for a work in progress pic…


Starting to work on the lid.


Panel insert


Decided to use brass detailing because I also have an affinity for Campaign furniture (not that I own any). Also practical to protect the corners, because Cape Yellow wood, although beautifully grained, is a lighter type of wood (just 510kg/m3 and a Janka of 830). Such a nice wood to work with, workability very similar to pine but ten times more beautiful (especially when aged). Bought the brass new and then “antiqued” it (files-sandpaper-ammonia fumes-rub/polish). Examples of the tree stages; new, fumed, final (the fumed one had not been man handled before the process, was just experimenting)


I treated it with a few coats of BLO, polish and finally a polissoir.

Toolkis24 (1)

Inside the lid:


Top half:


And then the drawer, which is still not finished. Want to make one or two trays that will drop into the drawer to really keep my measuring tools out of harms’ way. Cork or felt bottoms perhaps. And, trying to be extremely clever in an effort to use one piece of plank for the front, bottom of the chest (inclusive of the drawer front), I now have to make a cock bead (or something) for the drawer (in a 17mm thick front), because I’m not satisfied with the 1mm (saw width……) gap on the sides. The top on the drawer engages air tight (i.e. no saw width sized gap!!). Lets not go into the drawer planning detail… Perhaps I’ll just make another drawer when I REALLY have nothing else to do. I’m not as fast and experienced in drawer making as most of you guys! But as they say practice…..


Reviewing my chest now after using it for a while:

I’ll have to re-fit the inside chisel rack because I recently replaced the octagonal Sorby’s with Witherbys (re-handled with Kamassi ie Cape Boxwood).

Also, while its nice to have the Mathieson jack and smoother, and though I’m using them sometimes (the smoother much more often) which is a real kick, it means that my other (very nice and very old) planes (Stanley 4½, 5, 6 and 7) are sitting in a wall mounted cupboard – and gets used more often. As previously mentioned, I’m still trying to reduce my tools but it is very difficult for me to say “bye” to my Mathiesons! Bit of a dilemma.

Furthermore, I have replaced the very nice tough looking cast iron “Campaign like” handles that I bought via eBay (which snapped first time I tried it out) with brass Campaign handles from Whitechapel. Still don’t trust these handles, even though they’re brass…..

The lid holding chains, even though they may be appealing, are not very practical. Might be looking at a simpler lid stay ala Chris Schwarz, just not as ugly (sorry Chris)!!  Also have to take into consideration that I have to remove my saws from the lid without interference. Speaking about the lid, I’ll have to revisit the saw till as well, because while removing a saw is quick, but to put it away takes double the time and more care, not a simple out and back in, especially the Disston #12. I have to guide the saw a bit. Tried to design and built too tightly with too close tolerances. But, currently it works, so why change something that works!!

Although I achieved what I wanted with this chest in that it is unique as well as suit my personal requirements (also trying to built heirlooms), perhaps I should have given more attention to ratios, like in Golden ratios… Even if I increased the width by an inch or two, it would have looked less “upright”. But then it would have taken space away from the chest of drawer top, in front of the tool chest, which was a design requirement of mine. But given me more space inside the chest. Should have sacrificed that outside space….. Eish.


Frank Bartlett

Cape Town