Canadian Woodworking

Hand tool cabinet

Author: Michael Kampen
Illustration: Mike Del Rizzo
Published: February March 2007

This tool cabinet is a practical, attractive way to store and protect a collection of hand tools.


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Those who are new to woodworking may not yet own many hand tools. Often, when woodworkers first set up their shop, and start purchasing the requisite tools, the emphasis tends to be solely on power tools. The perception is that power tools are faster, give better results, and are easier to use.

Those same woodworkers, when they have been at it long enough, come to realize how integral hand tools are for a complete shop. As each woodworker progresses in their craft, they see that there are things that hand tools can do that power tools just can’t do. Consider, too, that hand tools offer a more quiet, peaceful way to work with wood, and you begin to understand why most seasoned woodworkers have a variety of hand tools at their disposal.

Whether you are one of those seasoned woodworkers that needs a place for your hand tools, or you are new to woodworking and looking to build up your hand tool collection, this hand tool cabinet is sure to serve your purpose.

The Design

This tool cabinet introduces a new series in which we will not only build the cabinet but also a selection of hand tools to put in it. You may choose to build some, or all, of the tools in the series, but you will certainly have tools of your own you will want to store in this cabinet. In order to leave you room to incorporate your own collection, we will concentrate on the construction of the cabinet itself, leaving the fitting of the interior to you.

This cabinet should be hung close to your workbench and is a great way to show off some figured wood and your skill as a craftsman. I made this cabinet of figured cherry with walnut accents. The doors each have one glass panel at the top above a panel veneered with fiddleback makore. The doors are hung using brass offset knife hinges. The five lower drawers are red oak, the faces veneered with bee’s wing eucalyptus. If you think this cabinet is too challenging and difficult, you’d only be half right. It is challenging, but it’s not difficult. With some simple tricks along the way, any woodworker could build this piece.

Cherry is one of the most pleasant woods to work with. It smells wonderful when cut and machines beautifully. It can also be one of the most frustrating woods to use as well. Pitch pockets can appear in the middle of an otherwise perfect board; dull and poorly aligned bits and blades can easily leave black burn marks that are almost impossible to sand out; and trying to match boards for colour and grain when laying out your parts can be difficult. However, the results are worth it. Regardless of the wood you decide to use, select it carefully at the lumberyard and buy enough extra to allow some flexibility in your parts layout.

I built this cabinet to hold my personal collection of hand tools. Feel free to change the design to suit the tools you have. After all, it will be hanging on the wall of your shop, not mine.

The Cabinet

• The cabinet is made of six glued up cherry panels. If you can find material wide enough and have the tools to work it, they could be made from one solid piece. The most visible parts of the cabinet are the sides (A), so choose your wood carefully and try to hide the glue line. Remember, both sides (A) will be seen from both sides. The next most visible surfaces will be the underside of the top (B) and the upper side of the top shelf (C) so these should also be laid out with an eye to colour and grain matching. All other faces, including the bottom (D) will be hidden so appearance is not an issue. In addition to matching the faces of the panel, the front edges on these parts will also be very prominent. In order to achieve a match with the sides, I had to edge band the front of each of the horizontal members with a ¼” strip of cherry cut from another board.

• Cut the glued up boards for the cabinet to their final dimensions. I used a dovetail jig to cut half blind dovetails to hold the top, bottom and sides together. This makes assembly easier later. In order to do this, the top and bottom had to be ⅛” longer than the shelves. Adjust the length of the top and bottom based on your method. Dowels would work equally well while still providing alignment during assembly.

• The two shelves are held in stopped dados. Cut these using a router guided by two fences and an end stop. Use this same method to rout the stopped dados for horizontal dividers (E).

• To fit the shelves, cut a ⅜” deep, ¾” long notch into each leading corner of each shelf to allow it to slide past the stopped dado and sit flush with the front edge of the sides. Cut the plywood pieces for the three dividers.

• Assemble the pieces to be sure everything fits perfectly before proceeding. If everything comes together properly, clamp the pieces together and lay it face down on your workbench. Use a marking gauge to scribe a line 1 ⅛” in from the back around the perimeter. Mark this area with chalk so it is readily identifiable as the rabbet for the back after the pieces are taken apart.

• Lay out the mortises for the two hinges on the underside of the top, and the top side of the upper shelf. Lay out the mortise precisely using a ruler and a marking gauge, or lay everything out using pieces of wood, a drill bit and a depth gauge. (See sidebar: Laying Out Hinges)

• Install a ⅜” spiral cutter in your router table for a cut equal to the thickness of the hinge leaf.

• Set up a fence and use the spacer to set the distance between the cutter and the fence. Keeping the face edge against the fence at all times will ensure the proper setback on both the cabinet and door mortises.

• Set a stop to limit the length of the mortises and rout all four now; this is the only chance. You will need to move the stop to the other side of the bit to do two of the mortises.

• Using the same ⅜” spiral bit in a router table, use a fence and end stops and rout a 1 ⅛” inch wide by ⅜” deep stopped rabbet on top bottom and sides to receive the back.

• Assemble the cabinet again and fit the two shelves so they are flush at the front. Mark the depth of the rabbet on each shelf and remove the waste with a table saw. With the pieces assembled, measure for the back (F) and cut it to fit snugly in the rabbet.

• At this stage, if everything fits, take the pieces apart in preparation for finishing. Because there are many areas of this project that would be difficult, if not impossible, to finish properly later, it is best to do the finishing before various sections are assembled.

• Sand the back to 150-grit in preparation for the finish.

• Milk paint is an ideal finish for the back; it’s a traditional finish that’s been made the same way for hundreds of years and imparts a subtle depth and shading that modern paints can’t match. It is so easy to use and you get perfect results every time. I used a ‘mustard’ colour.

• Mix the paint powder with water and brush it on. It will dry very quickly, in about 15 minutes. It will need a second coat for even colour coverage and when this is dry, rub it down with 000 steel wool. At this point I like to put on a couple of more quick coats. That seems to help make the colours a little more rich and increases the depth of the finish.

• After the final coat of milk paint, use steel wool to burnish the entire surface and then seal it with a coat of Watco Natural.

• Sand the six cherry panels through to 220-grit for finishing. Don’t sand the upper side of the top, the underside of the bottom and the outsides of the sides. Also, don’t sand the front and rear edges. If you like, use a cabinet scraper to remove the traces left behind by the sander. This final step will enhance the depth and clarity of the cherry. Apply a coat of Watco Natural finish to all inside surfaces, being careful not to get any on the areas to receive glue during assembly.

• When you’ve rubbed off and buffed the finish, assemble the clamps you will need to glue up the cabinet. Set the two shelves aside, and apply glue to the ends of the top, bottom and sides. Assemble the cabinet and loosely apply some clamps. Before tightening the clamps, apply glue to the dado and slide the two shelves in. Gradually tighten the clamps; keep an eye on the front edges to be sure they are all flush. Measure the diagonals to be sure everything is square.

The Doors

• When selecting stock for the doors bear in mind that using highly figured grain for the rails (G) and stiles (H) could be very distracting.

• Mill the material for the doors. Be sure that the pieces are straight and square; there is no adjustment available with knife hinges.

• Lay out the mortises and tenons on the door members and cut them using the tools you have available.

• Using a ¼” bit in a router table, rout the grooves for the lower door panel.

• Cut a piece of plywood for panels (I).

• If you have solid wood to use for the doors, remember to leave enough space for seasonal expansion. In this case the panels are veneered with fiddleback makore. Use a Thin Air Press Kit (see sidebar: Veneering with a Thin Air Press, page 5). Optionally you can veneer the panels by clamping them between layers of plywood.

• This cabinet is finished with an oil to highlight the grain, followed by several coats of beeswax for a warm glow. If the door panel were finished with the rest of the cabinet, it would be impossible to get an even finish in the corners. Prepare the panel with sandpaper and a scraper; finish it with oil and then several coats of beeswax.

• Sand the doorframe pieces, being careful not to round any joint areas. Apply a coat of oil to the inside edges of the door panel opening. The solvents in the finish will remove the beeswax if it gets on there during application later. Assemble the door with the panel and check the diagonals for square.

The Drawers

• Cut the drawers sides (J) and the drawer fronts (K,L,M). Ensure that you confirm precise measurements directly off your cabinet. I made the drawers using a small drawer lock bit available through Lee Valley Tools; if you use another method adjust the material sizes accordingly.

• Cut the corner joints on the router table.

• Use a box-slotting bit in the router table to cut the slot for the bottom.

• Cut the drawer bottoms (N,O,P).

• Sand and finish the inside faces and the bottom and apply a coat of oil. Assemble the boxes with glue and clamp. Do not over clamp; the sides of the drawer boxes are thin and excessive pressure will bow the sides making them difficult to fit later.

• When the glue has set, remove the clamps and sand the outer surfaces. The front of the drawer boxes are veneered with bee’s wing eucalyptus. To provide continuous grain across the width of the cabinet try to cut all of the pieces from one strip. Apply glue to the drawer face and place the veneer. Use a piece of melamine as a caul and clamp it to the face of the drawer to sandwich the veneer and apply pressure. Any glue that squeezes through the veneer won’t stick to the melamine.

• Sand and scrape the drawer fronts and sand the other outside surfaces.

Mortise the Doors

• Using the same set up and method used to mortise the shelf components cut the mortises in the doors for the hinges. Remember to use the spacer and keep the face against the fence for the proper setback. Square up the mortise with a sharp chisel.

• After routing the hinge mortises, use a bearing guided rabbeting bit in the router table to cut a ⅜” x ⅜” rabbet in the upper opening to receive the glass panel (Q).

Back of the Cabinet

• Mill the end caps for the horizontal dividers (R).

• Sand these and apply a finish to the front and sides.

• Use a five-minute epoxy to glue these pieces in place on the plywood dividers. Sand the front edges of the cabinet as well as the sides.

• Using more of the same shims that were used to set the door gap, trim the doors to fit into the opening. When both doors can sit in the opening with the shims, (don’t forget one in between the doors), remove the doors and drill one clearance hole in each hinge section and use one screw to fasten each hinge section. To hang the door, remove the screw from the upper hinge and place the hinge on the post and slide the door onto the hinge. If everything has gone well, the doors should be perfectly hung. If not, by only using one screw, the other could go into unused wood should you have to make a minor adjustment.

• Perform any final fitting necessary on the drawers and finish sanding all of the outside surfaces in preparation for finishing.

The Final Bits

The base and crown moulding on the cabinet is built up using two different pieces of wood using common bits and milled on a router table. Prepare the stock for the crown moulding (S,T,U,V)) and base moulding (W,X,Y,Z). Use a ¼” bead bit in the router table to profile the font edge of the walnut trim for both the base and the crown. Use a ¾” cove bit to mill the top cove pieces in cherry.

• Mill the stock for the cleat (AA) at this time. Set the blade on your table saw to 45º and rip the piece in half. One half is mounted to the cabinet, which in turn interlocks with the other half, that is mounted to the wall. Drill counter sunk holes for the screws on the piece that mounts to the cabinet.

• Mill a piece of cherry to a thickness of ⅜” for the keepers (BB & CC) that hold the glass in place. Use the table saw to rip strips off this board to accommodate the glass you are using. Drill holes in one inch from each end for the #4 screws that will hold them in. The screws should pass through the piece without catching.

The Finish

• Once the doors and drawers have been fitted remove the hardware and proceed with the final finishing of all the parts. Apply a coat of oil to the cabinet itself. Also, sand and oil the pieces for the moulding. When applying finish to the doors, be careful not to get any on the waxed panels, it will strip the wax. Apply at least two coats, more if required and after wiping off the excess, buff the wood and let the finish cure thoroughly.

• To bring out the rich warmth of the cherry and to highlight the colour and figure use a beeswax finish. The only downside is that it takes elbow grease to put on, but it is a finish anyone can master and it is easily repaired in the future. It will take several coats to bring up a nice even sheen but the effort is worth it. Wax the cabinet doors and drawers now as well as the individual trim pieces; doing so now avoids wax build-up in the moulding after it is built. Do not wax the milk painted back. Wax could put a glare on the surface that would be distracting.

• When everything has been waxed and buffed, install the back using pan head screws. Drill pilot holes in the cherry or the wood will split.

Bring It All Together

• Installation of the moulding is simple. Cut the beaded walnut section for the crown moulding to length with mitred corners as needed. Place this on top of the cabinet and fasten it in place with several screws. Drill proper countersunk clearance holes so the screws pass through the walnut and the heads sit below the surface. Cherry is a hard wood and to avoid snapping off any screws or splitting the wood, drill holes for the shaft of the screw. These screws do not need to be super tight; they’re only holding the moulding. Cut the cherry cove to size and layer this on top of the walnut bead. Again, drill and countersink the holes and fasten with screws as before. Note the location of the previous screws so you don’t accidentally drill into one.

• The base moulding is done the same way. Cut the maple sections to size and install them as the others. Follow this with the beaded walnut pieces. When installing the walnut bead, bear in mind that most people will look underneath out of curiosity. For that extra detail and touch of class, use brass screws here. When installing brass screws, follow the same procedure as above, and install steel screws first. When finished, back them out one at a time and replace them with brass screws. Doing this reduces the chance of snapping off the softer brass screws in the hard cherry.

• Cut a piece of glass for the door. Textured and coloured glass is readily available at any stained glass shop. Install the glass and use #4 screws to hold the keepers in place.

• Carefully locate the center of the holes for the ball catches. Use a ¼” Forstner bit to drill these holes and check the depth often. They must be exact for the catch to project the proper amount. Reference all of your measurements from the front edge of the cabinet. Install the catches in the cabinet. Cut a scrap of wood to set the proper setback for the doors over the catches. Use the ball catch setback to set the marking gauge and then open the doors one at a time, transfer this measurement to the edge of the door using the same front edge of the cabinet as a reference. This ensures proper alignment regardless of door setback and any variations in thickness that may have occurred during sanding. Transfer this mark around the corner and with the door closed visually mark the distance in from the side of the door to the center of the catch. Drill this with the Forstner bit as well. Glue the catches in place.

• Mount the cleat to the rear of the cabinet. To hang the cabinet, mount the other half on the wall using appropriate fasteners for the wall and the load, being sure to go into two studs.

Fitting the interior is largely dependant on your tools and the work you do, so we’ll leave that part up to you. If you are just starting out, then be sure to leave enough room for the handtools that you will surely be adding to your shop.

Veneering with the Thin Air Press

Prepare the plywood by sanding it to 150-grit. Fill any imperfections, as they will telegraph through the veneer. Using the Thin Air Press Kit, a product made by the Roarocket Skateboard Company in Toronto, and available through Lee Valley Tools, veneering these panels is a piece of cake. Collect the pieces of the Thin Air Press kit , the plywood and the veneer. When everything is ready, use a roller to spread an even layer of glue on the plywood. The open time of regular wood glue is insufficient; select glue like Titebond III instead. Lay the veneer over the plywood and press it down carefully. It will likely want to curl, so wrap a couple of elastic bands around the panel. Slip the panel inside the breather / netting bag and then place this bag in the vacuum bag. After sealing the bag, use the pump to suck the remaining air out. After the glue has cured, remove the panel from the bag and repeat on the other side.

Laying Out Hinges

The hinge mounts flush with the edge of the door, so the length of the mortise for the cabinet section will have to allow for the gap. The gap at the edge of the door will be the same as the thickness of the washer on the lower hinge member. Coincidentally, this happens to be the same thickness as some textured laminate samples I have that I use as shims for this purpose. Place a shim against the side to represent the width of the gap. Find the largest drill bit that will fit into the hole on the door half of the hinge. Hold the hinge in place pushing it up against the shim and back until the drill bit contacts the edge of the panel. Trace the outline of the hinge. Prepare a spacer the same width as the piece of wood that will be left at the front edge after the hinge mortise is routed. This should be at least 8″ long.

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