Canadian Woodworking

Heirloom tool cabinet

Author: Rob Brown
Photos: Rob Brown
Illustration: James Provost
Published: June July 2012

Sure, you can hang all your tools from sheets of pegboard, but that doesn’t do much for the atmosphere of your shop. A wall-hung hand tool cabinet will help organize your tools as well as show off your skills.


heirloom cabinet illustration

When I started woodwork­ing, the only hand tools I had were inherited from my grandfather. I made a cheap chip­board shelf for them, which worked great. That is, until my hand tool collection started to overflow onto my workbench and assembly areas. I wanted to do something nice, not only to protect my hand tools, but as a showcase for clients to see my work.

Since I have a small area to work in, and wall space is at a premium, I knew I had to be thoughtful regard­ing the design of the cabinet. Even though this cabinet takes up only 17-1/2″ x 36″ of wall area, there is more than enough storage space for my current collection of tools, with a little extra room for future purchases. I also built the interior tool racks with the potential for a large overhaul; more on that later. I think the main differ­ence between my cabinet and many others is the swinging panel. This 3/4″ thick hinged panel almost doubles the amount of surface area available, yet it doesn’t take up any extra wall space.

Flush Trim Jig
Once the trim was dry, Brown installed a 3/4" straight bit in a router and attached a trimming jig. The jig is a simple piece of plywood that is positioned entirely on one side of the bit. Once the bit height is set, the router bit cuts the trim to almost perfectly flush with the veneered surface. Make sure not to roll the router at all, or the bit will gouge the wood trim and veneer panel. Take your time and keep pressure on the far end of the plywood jig.

Add Some Grooves
With this sled, you can cut the grooves in each corner to accept the solid keys. The keys add strength and style to the mitred corners. You could also cut the grooves with a router.

Add Edging
Apply glue to the edging of the door then use cauls to clamp it in place. Masking tape works well on the case because there’s more depth to apply the tape to.

Rout a Groove
Brown uses a simple jig to rout a 1/4" wide x 1/8" deep stopped groove in the underside of the drawer shelf. One of the drawer dividers will fit into this groove.

Increased Holding Strength
A rabbet bit in a router cuts into the edge of the case and door, where the piano hinge will join the two together. A solid support is clamped to the door and case to keep the router perpendicular to the work piece. Once the solid strip is glued into the rabbet, the piano hinge screws will have more purchase and be stronger.

Measure Carefully
Determine the center-to-center distances on the tools as they sit comfortably close together, then use that dimension to lay out the holes on the tool holders. To determine what diameter of hole you should drill, use callipers to measure the tool.

Drill the Holes
When drilling the holes, position them so that the front portion of the hole is just off the front edge of the holder. Once it’s cut to finished size and installed, the holder will easily accept each tool.

Customize each cleat so it holds the tool securely. The bottom and top of this hand plane are held positively, until the plane is lifted upwards and the bottom is tilted out.

Cut Slots
Starting with a thick piece of wood, cut the angled slots in the blanks’ edge, then resaw it in half. This will ensure both sides are symmetrical.

Nails are Simple
The easiest option is to install small nails to hold miscellaneous items such as rulers and small squares.

Gather your tools

After coming up with the basic overall design concept – a single outer door that opens to reveal a swinging panel and two drawers – I needed to know how large to make the cabinet so it would accept my tool collection, with a bit of room for additions down the road. I grabbed all the tools I anticipated storing in the cabi­net and started to play around with how they would best fit inside.

I began with my large tools – mainly planes – as they would have the least amount of flexibil­ity, then put some thought into where the others could go. A warning here: you could spend an entire long weekend going through painstaking details of what fits best where, but unless you are making a museum quality chest that will never get used, you’re probably outthinking your­self. After a bit of playing, you should have a pretty good idea of what dimen­sions best suit your cabinet. I decided on 36″ high x 17-1/2″ wide x 10″ deep.

Start with a basic box

You can easily make the outer box structure from solid wood or pre-veneered plywood sheets, but I chose to apply face and back veneer to 3/4″ Baltic birch plywood. I like the flexibil­ity I have when choosing veneer species, and the strength of Baltic birch is very high. After veneering the sides, bottom and top, I cut the pieces to size, rab­beted for the back and front and mitred the corners.

After a quick sanding of the interior I used masking tape to assem­ble the box, making sure it dried square. Once the front and back panel were veneered, I cut them to size and installed them. When gluing the back panel in I took a bit of extra care to ensure the joint would be solid, as the back would carry all the weight of the cabinet and its contents when completed.

To dress the cabinet up a bit, and to protect the veneered edges, I routed 1/4″ x 1/4″ rabbets around the front four edges and installed a piece of contrasting solid wood. The four pieces I installed had a couple pieces of contrasting veneer glued to their two inside surfaces, but this was strictly aesthetic. After mitring their ends, I glued the trim in place with masking tape. Once dry, I trimmed them flush with the veneer surface.

A hand plane would work, but since I do a lot of this sort of work I have a simple jig that makes the process quick and accurate. I attached a 6″ x 6″ piece of 3/4″ plywood to the bottom of my router so the entire piece of plywood was entirely to one side of a 3/4″ straight bit. I then adjusted the bit to within about 1/64″ of the bottom surface of the plywood. I ran the plywood along the veneered surface, as the bit trimmed the solid trim to within 1/64″ of flush. A light sanding will even the strip with the veneered surface.

To add some strength to the mitred corners, I installed solid keys across all four of the joints. A router does a great job in solid wood, but when the spin­ning bit exits a veneered surface, it has a tendency to blow out the edge slightly. I used a sled, which runs in the mitre groove of my table saw, to hold the box as the kerfs were made. I adjusted the blade so it would create the deepest cut possible without cutting through to the inside of the box. This provided the most glue surface area, and therefore the most strength. Once I machined enough stock to fit the grooves, I cut it into pieces and glued them into the kerfs. A flush cut saw made quick work of the keys once the glue dried.

Divide and conquer

To split the box in two, I first determined how deep I needed the interior of the front door to be as I wanted to make sure my chisels and marking gauges would fit between the front panel and the swinging panel. I needed at least 1-3/4″ inside. After making sure to account for the front panel thickness, I set my table saw fence and proceeded to make four cuts, opening the box up.

Since I was using a piano hinge to attach the door to the cabi­net, I wanted to add a solid wood strip to keep the plywood from splitting once screws were drilled into its edge. With a rabbet bit in my router I machined a 1/2″ deep by 1/2″ wide rabbet. So the router wouldn’t rock during the cut, I clamped a long chuck of Douglas fir to the side of the cabinet and door and ran the router on its squared edge. I then rounded the ends of both solid pieces to match the router bit’s radius and glued them in place.

To cover the plywood edges left by splitting the box in two, I machined 1/8″ thick solid strips, mitred their ends and glued them in place with strips of masking tape. Because there isn’t much of a side to apply the tape to when working on the door, I used clamps and cauls to apply the trim. Once dry, I used my router to flush trim both sides of each strip, taking care not to roll the router, causing the bit to dig into the side of the box. I installed the strips on all four edges of the door, and three edges of the cabinet. The vertical edge, where the piano hinge would fasten to the cabinet, was left free of trim, as the hinge would take its place.

Look inside

With the main box essentially complete, I got to work on the interior. The first step was simple – to make the lower frame­work that the drawers would be fit to. Starting with 1/4″ thick material, I cut the bottom piece to fit snugly between the two gables. It was set back about 1/8″ from the 3/4″ wide solid strips I applied to the plywood edge. With the bottom friction fit (for now), I cut the left and right sides the same height as I wanted the drawer opening to be (2-3/4″) and 1/8″ shallower than the bottom. The 5/8″ thick shelf sits directly on top of the left and right sides, and I cut it to size next.

The 1/4″ thick drawer divider couldn’t be screwed in place, as it’s too delicate, so I cut a 1/4″ wide stopped dado in the top of the bottom panel and another one on the underside of the shelf. It was 1/8″ deep. I then fit the divider, notching the front to correspond with the stopped dados. Once everything fit nicely, I counter-bored a few holes in the sides and the bottom and used #6 screws to secure them in place. I installed the divider with a bit of glue, then topped everything off with the shelf. Because there would only be downward pressure on the shelf, I toenailed it to the sides of the cabinet to keep it from moving forward. With the drawer cavi­ties complete, I built the two drawers to fit the opening.

To easily add a lot of surface area for hanging tools, I decided to use a 3/4″ thick panel and hinge it to the right side of the cabi­net. It would fit like a regular inset door, between the gables, below the cabinet top and just above the shelf. After determining the overall size required, I subtracted 5/8″ for a hardwood screw strip and 1/8″ for a solid edge and cut the plywood panel to size. I glued the 5/8″ wide hardwood screw strip to the right edge, trimmed it flush then veneered both sides of the panel. I then glued the 1/8″ solid edge to the left edge of the panel, trimmed it flush and hung the panel on the cabinet’s gable. I needed to trim it slightly to appear square in the opening, which left me with slightly larger top and bottom gaps than I wanted. Oh well … nothing’s perfect!

Give your tools a home

At this point I thought I was almost done. I was wrong. I quickly realized the interior was going to take a fair bit of attention to get just right. I could have hammered in a bunch of nails and added a few small shelves, but I wanted to do something a bit more elegant. I took the time to customize each hanger for the exact tool it was going to hold. I focused on groups of tools, and bunched items together whenever it seemed to make sense. The most obvious group was my chis­els. With nine in total, I made one 13″ long holder for them all. Some other groupings included my hand planes, carving tools, layout and measuring tools, and my scraping and shav­ing tools.

There are no rules regarding how to best secure your tools, as there are many ways to go about it. I ended up using four different options, but magnets, shelves and metal fasten­ers could also be used. As I organized all these hand tools, I had to keep in mind that two objects cannot occupy the same space. More than once I had to move a tool holder slightly in order to close the cabinet. In one instance, I had to relieve a small area on the face of the swinging panel to accommodate my largest marking gauge.

I installed the tool holders with screws but didn’t use glue. I wanted the option of moving or changing any of these cleats as time passed and my tool collection morphed. Even though I plugged the screw holes with contrasting 3/8″ maple plugs I can drill them out and remove the screw if need be.

To apply a finish, I removed the main door as well as the swinging panel. I used three coats of polyurethane to provide a good wearing surface and enhance the grain and colour of the wood. Once dry I reassembled it and used three 1/4″ x 3″ lag bolts to fasten the cabinet to my shop wall. After loading it up, I couldn’t help but take many of the tools out one-by-one and admire my shop’s new addition.

Four options – holes, cleats, slots or nails


I found the quickest, sturdiest and best looking method for many of my tools was to drill holes that overlapped the front edge of the holder so tools could be inserted then lowered in place, where they would be held securely. A little planning is necessary to determine the best location of the hole and to get the gaps between the tools even, but it’s not rocket science.

Start by laying out all the tools in one group in the order they will be stored. They should also be arranged with a consistent gap between them. Measure where the tool centers are, in relation to one another. Next, measure what diameter hole the tool would best fit. Now transfer these measurements to the piece of wood you’re using and use your drill press to bore the holes. This seems con­fusing at first, but after a while everything becomes fairly simple. A few practice pieces will help iron out the details. Keep in mind that smaller holes will need to be drilled closer to the edge of the board in order for everything to work out nicely. Trim the cleat to widths so the larg­est tool sits about 1/8″ from the cabinet panel it will be attached to.


If the tools don’t fit into holes nicely (hand planes come to mind), cleats often work well. Because pretty much all the dimensions of all my planes were different each cleat had to be customized to an exact plane. I started off with a bottom cleat that would be shaped to accept the bot­tom of each plane. After cutting an appropriate notch or rebate for the planes so they would be about 1/4″ apart, I made small cleats to hold the front of the plane in place.

These cleats were made so the plane could be inserted under them first, raised up, then the back end of the plane could be swung into place on the longer cleat and lowered into its resting position. I also installed a block on the shelf that supported my wooden compass plane. I screwed it in the correct location so that when the time came I recessed a rare-earth magnet into its face to hold the swing­ing panel shut. Though making and positioning these cleats was a tedious task, when finished I was very happy with how well the planes fit and how easy it was to access them.


For some of my other tools, I found simple angled slots cut into vertical boards worked nicely. My scrapers, spokeshaves and hand saws fell into this category. Start with a board that is at least twice as thick as you want to finish with, so you can re-saw it after you make the required notches, ensuring the notches are symmetrical. With an angled table saw blade, your band saw or a hand saw cut angled slots that the tools can be inserted into. Don’t cut the slots too close together, or the short grain may cause the wood between the slots to snap off.


All of my flat, thin layout and measuring tools were easily hung from a series of small nails. I don’t love the look, but it was too easy to pass up and functions very well. I kept all these tools on one face of my swinging panel as their shallow depth wouldn’t interfere with any of the tools on the inside of the main door.

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches


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  2. Hi Robert. The cleats are held in place with a standard wood screw, then a plug (I used maple) was inserted into the counterbored hole and trimmed flush.

    If you build a tool chest inspired by this article please send me a few photos. I’d love to see it!


  3. Looks great! I do have one question though. Am I correct that the cleats for the planes are held in place with brass wood screws that have been sanded to achieve the final look. Thanks.

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