Building a Travel Tool Box

Every time I visit my family over the holidays, I end up doing a lot of woodwork around various people’s houses, so I always bring a few hand tools with me when I visit.  Up to this point, I’ve been cramming as many hand tools as I could into an old two-drawer metal tool box, whose only virtue is that it fits neatly into the back of my minivan.

This winter, I have decided to build myself a traveling tool box that will hold a large hand saw as well as the other essential hand tools I will need while on “vacation.” My only requirements are that it
1. hold the tools I typically take with me, including a hand saw or two,
2. be durable enough to withstand repeated trips over the years, and
3. be reasonably quick to build, as I aim to take it with me on an upcoming trip.

The first step was to establish the inside dimensions. I pulled out the tools I usually take with me, found some battens, and played around with different layouts.  I began with the dimensions of a normal hand saw, which requires about 30″ of storage space.  I decided on a long, narrow box that would fit behind or between the bench seats in a minivan.

A Travel Tool Box 12-2012 - 2

A travel tool box needs to maximize space, so early in the design process I decided that it would have a bottom cavity and a lift-out tool tray.

A Travel Tool Box 12-2012 - 1

The bottom cavity will be about 3″ deep and the removable tray about 2″ deep. The saw will be attached to the inside of the lid, allowing for an inside depth of just 7″. So the inside dimensions will be 9″X7″X30″.

The Carcase

I drove down to the lumberyard and found a pine 1X12 with enough space between the knots to make a reasonably clean-looking box.

The fastest way I know to construct a sturdy box is with rabbets nailed with cut nails. Taking a cue from the old “six-board chest” design, I oriented the grain on the sides vertically so as to be nailing into the long-grain.

Time was of the essence, so I just used my two backsaws to saw out the rabbets.

A Travel Tool Box 12-2012 - 5

They came out really clean, especially for being in very soft wood. Cut nails typically want pilot holes in the top boards, especially this close to the end. Four nails in each corner should hold everything securely.

The bottom of the box is just nailed on, again with cut nails, and as as is typical for this kind of boarded construction, the grain on the bottom runs front-to-back for maximum strength. Yes, that’s 30″ of cross-grain construction. The bottom is three pieces shiplapped with wide rabbets, so the joints shouldn’t open up.

Enter the first problem: as I was nailing the carcase together, one of the ends split apart. And I don’t mean a hairline crack opened up. It fell into two pieces with one blow of the hammer. Not wanting to cut another piece, I glued the break back together, clamped it up, and kept nailing around the clamp.

There are a LOT of nails in this thing.

Then I made a simple mitered skirt of southern yellow pine to hide the bottom and protect the box from dings and dents. The ends protrude down past the skirt about 1/4″, making for “legs” that barely show but that make the box a little more stable on uneven surfaces.  I think those miters took me almost as long as the rest of the box combined.

Nevertheless, the carcase was complete in only a couple of hours. I figured that another hour for the lid and maybe an hour for the lift-out tray and I’d be done.

Travel Tool Box 12-2012 - - 2


The Lid

The lid was a disaster from start to finish. I’m not sure I can even remembr everything that went wrong.

The idea was to just use a solid panel with a dust seal that I hoped would keep the lid relatively flat. Yeah, I know, seasonal movement problems and all that… I figured leaving the lid a bit over-sized would help.

First, as I was nailing on the dust seal, a long split opened up in the middle of the panel. This board must be cursed or something. So I decided to close the split by clamping the board and adding some thin battens to the underside.

Travel Tool Box 12-2012 - - 3

Do you see the problem with the placement of the battens?

Once I got them all nailed down, I realized that they were preventing the lid from closing all the way. So I shortened the battens and then installed the hinges. In the process, I noticed a gap between the lid and the dust seal. The nails seemed not to be holding very tightly.

Travel Tool Box 12-2012 - - 5

Sure enough, I could push the dust seal off with my thumb.

I took it as a sign that I should call it quits for the night.

Now to redesign this lid. Clearly the solid-panel idea isn’t going to work, especially as soft as this wood is.  I may bite the bullet and do a simple frame-and-panel lid after all. I could at least salvage most of the wood from the first lid in order to make it.

This entry was posted in Build-Alongs, Wood and Woodwork and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Building a Travel Tool Box

  1. Eric Bushèe says:

    Hi Steve,
    Realizing that 6-board chests have survived for centuries with cross-grain construction, and realizing that pine is rather stable, and also realizing that wood doesn’t move as much as the charts say they do in books, I wonder how much nail-holding strength is lost if you aligned the grain on the side pieces, and dovetailed the nails into the end grain? (sorry about the run-on sentence) Japanese toolboxes are made this way, and they seem to hold up.

    With the lid, you could make do with a simple solid-panel lid as you have, and just forgo the dust seal. Would a dust seal be that important with a traveling chest? My thinking here is that the tools would be in that chest for a finite period of time. Yes, wherever you are using the chest might be dusty and such, but when you return them home, the first thing you are going to do is unload them, brush/clean them off, and return them to their permanent home anyway. That’s my thinking, anyway.


    • Good points all around, Eric. Yes, it would have been just as easy to run the grain the other direction on the ends and nail into the end grain. I dare say the cut nails would have held okay. (17th century boxes were often made this way, and many have held up for 300 years or more.) The idea was to allow for the “feet” to protrude below the skirt, end-grain being more durable there than long-grain.

      The name “dust seal’ may be something of a misnomer. While it does prevent dust slipping into the box, it also reduces general airflow in and out of the chest, and that means limiting changes in humidity inside. Dust+humidity=rust.

      The other reason for the dust seal is simple durability. It protects the edges of the lid from damage. Plus, it looks nice.

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