Canadian Woodworking

Versatile hand tool display

Author: Michael Kampen
Illustration: James Provost
Published: February March 2008

Some tools are best kept tucked away – they work, but they are hardly things of beauty. Other tools cry out to be displayed, as they are far too elegant or beautiful to be concealed in boxes and drawers.


I built this particular tool rack, not only to store, but to display those hand planes that I use on a regular basis in my shop. The design can be easily modified to display chisels, hand saws, or other hand tools that you wish to display. The rack is essentially a frame with five shelves, and a back. I dressed up the sides of the frame and the front of the shelves with some moulding. There are two boxes on the bottom shelf for assorted small parts and accessories. A shiplap back adds structural integrity to the frame and gives it a finished look. Two cleats on the back hold the rack securely to the wall. I finished the various pieces of the tool rack with a durable, easy-to-apply Paste Varnish from Circa 1850 before assembly. Following this up with a coat of wax gives the entire project a soft, hand rubbed sheen.

Placement of the shelves depends on the assortment of hand planes that you’ll store on the rack. You might not want the shelves exactly where I located them, so arrange your planes on a work table, measure the amount of space you’ll need between each shelf, and then transfer the measurements to the rack sides.

A number of the pieces in this project are joined with dowels. I strongly recommend that you use a dowelling jig to ensure accuracy in drilling the dowel holes. I used the Dowelmax jig, but you could just as easily use another model, such as the Veritas Dowelling Jig. There are a number of possible joinery options for the frame, drawers and back on this project; choose one based on the tools you have.

Tool cabinet

Routing dovetails

Leigh dovetail jig

Marking jig in use

Dado jig in use to rout dados on sides

Completed dado on side

Dado on shelf edge

Top and bottom cleats

Back shelf ready to receive bottom cleat

Back cleat installed

Routing profile on walnut moulding

Trimming jig in use

Back being installed

Start With the Shelves

Begin by milling the stock for the top and bottom (A), sides (B), and shelves (C), as they are of the same thickness and approximate width. Mill the boards to their final thickness and width, but leave a little extra length that you can trim to fit later.

• Clamp the five shelf pieces together so that all the front edges are exposed, secure them in your workbench vise, and hand plane or sand them flush with each other. If you don’t have a vise, clamp them to the fence on your table saw for stability. This helps keep the shelves level and square while you’re working on them.

• With the front edges flush, set up a ¼” slot cutter in the router table and cut a ⅜” deep centered groove along the front edge of all the five shelf pieces to receive the beaded trim (O).

• Using a dowelling jig, drill two holes in the end of each shelf. Later drill matching holes in the sides, and use dowels to attach the shelves to the sides.

To keep the planes from accidentally being knocked off the rack there is a small raised lip at the front of each shelf that is ⅛” high and 3⁄16″ wide. Simply attaching a small strip of wood to the front of each shelf would have left a visible joint. I decided to cut a wide rabbet on the top of each shelf, leaving a narrow lip at the front.

• Set your jointer fence to make a 3-5-16″ wide cut at 1/8″ depth. Because the lip is very narrow, you need to cut the rabbet in one pass at full depth. Use a piece of scrap wood to test the width and depth of the cut.

• Now run the top face of each shelf on the jointer, removing 1-8″ of material.

The jointer will likely leave behind some fine milling marks – gently sand the top of each shelf with 180 grit sandpaper to remove the marks. A 1/4 sheet sander works well here, as it can get flush up against the lip.

• At this time also drill a series of 1/4″ dowel holes spaced about 3″ apart, across the bottom of the top (A) and the back of the bottom shelf (one of the C pieces). Later you will attach the upper cleat (P) to the top piece, and lower cleat (Q) to the bottom shelf. Off set the holes on the bottom shelf so that there is room for the back to rest against the bottom shelf.

The day I started this project the new Leigh Super Jig arrived. I couldn’t resist using it to cut the dovetails that join the sides to the top and base. The Leigh jig allows variable spacing of the pins and tails so that they can be laid out on any width of stock. Keep in mind that some jigs with fixed spacing will require you to adjust the width of the stock for evenly spaced through dovetails. The Leigh Super Jig is surprisingly easy to use and quite affordable.

Leigh dovetail jig

The Marking Jig

To transfer the location of the groove in the front edge of the shelf to the sides accurately, make a simple jig out of a piece of ¼” Baltic birch plywood about 4″ x 5″. Cut a notch on one end and place it over the side of the rack until the edge slips into the groove on the shelf. Use a pencil to transfer the location of the groove to the outside face of the sides.

marking jig

Join the Sides to the Top and Bottom

I joined the top, bottom and side pieces that make up the frame with dovetails. If you don’t have a dovetail jig, or aren’t proficient cutting dovetails by hand, choose a different joinery method. An easy and simple way is to dowel the top, bottom and sides together. Miller Dowels are stepped dowels that offer considerable holding power and come in a variety of wood species. You could also use a dowel of a contrasting colour for a decorative effect on the rack sides. A milled corner joint can be cut on the table saw, while you can cut the mitre lock joint on a table mounted router with the mitre lock bit. Choose a method that suits your skill level and the tools you have available. If you choose a different method you will need to modify the length of the top and bottom pieces.

• Once you have decided on the type of joinery method, use the table or mitre saw to trim top and bottom pieces to final length, then mill the joints.

• Dry assemble the frame, applying clamps to bring joints tight together.

• Measure the inside opening and trim the five shelf pieces for a perfect fit.

• Mark out on the side pieces where you want the shelves to be located. Using a drill press or a dowelling jig drill the dowel holes in the sides.

• You need to rout a stopped ½” x ⅜” rabbet on the inside back of each side piece (B). Place pencil marks 2 ½” in from each end of the sides, and trace the marks across the outside faces. You’ll rout the space in between these two marks, and then square up the corners with a chisel. Clamp a stop block on the router table fence to limit the cut. Exercise care when you lower the side pieces onto the router bit, and when you reach the stop block, brace against it and raise the piece.

• Dry assemble the frame and check to see that everything lines up.

The Dado Jig

Routing a dado across a board requires complete control over the router. Because the bit will be cutting on all sides, it will tend to want to pull in one direction. The best way to control this cut is to use a guide bushing in a jig that confines the movement of the router to the area being cut. When you make the jig, it is critical that the fence be square to the guide-way so follow these instructions carefully. In order to be able to rout the dado square to the fence in the middle of this jig base I found it easier to cut the base into three pieces, mill the dado, and then re-assemble the base.

• Cut a piece of 1/2″ x 8″ x 14″ Baltic birch plywood into two 8″ x 5-1/2″ and one 8″ x 2-3/4″ pieces.

• Select a router bit with the same diameter as the guide bushing you will use and install it up in a router table. Set a fence with end stops and cut the guide path in the smaller center piece. If you have a large router table top you may find it easier to cut the top piece of the jig into three parts, mill the slot, and then join the three pieces back together. Biscuits or dowels will aid in rejoining the pieces.

• Use a dowelling jig to drill dowel holes to join the three pieces into one again. Drill dowel holes across the front edge of the two side pieces.

• Mill a piece of hardwood for the fence and cut it to the same length as the three assembled sections. Drill dowel holes and attach it to the base.

The Dado Jig

Rout Grooves for the Side Inlay

The beaded walnut pieces (U) on the sides give this project a unique look. They are not necessary, but if you have a bland piece of wood like the maple I chose, it dresses it up. These are not large pieces so working with them safely requires using several jigs, which are quick and easy to assemble, and make the job safer and more accurate.

• With the frame still assembled, use the marking jig to transfer the location of the groove that you cut on the front of each shelf to the outside face of both side pieces. Use a sharp pencil and transfer both sides of the groove.

• Disassemble the frame, clamp the side pieces to your workbench, and then place the dado jig over the side. Line it up visually so that the pencil lines are centered in the guide way.

• With a 7/16″ guide bushing installed on router base, put a 1/4″ spiral bit in plunge router, set the depth to allow for a 1/4″ deep groove, and rout the dado. Repeat this for the other nine grooves.

Shiplap Back

The back of this cabinet is made of individual boards re-sawn from 4/4 stock on the band saw and milled to a thickness of 3/8″. The shiplap configuration of these boards allows for seasonal expansion and contraction. This is similar to what you would achieve with a tongue and groove set for the router, but in this case the stock is too thin so a different approach is needed.

• Mill the narrow back boards (D) and wide back boards (E) to size.

• Place boards on your bench and arrange in order for the best appearance.

• Install a rabbeting bit in your router table and set the bit and fence to cut a 3/16″ by 3/16″ rabbet. Once you have set the depth of the cut, increase it by 1/64″; this will insure that there is a slight gap between the rabbets when assembled.

• Cut a rabbet on front of board on one side and then flip the board over and rout another rabbet on the back side.

• To dress up the edges to look like a tongue and groove joint, install a sign cutting V-groove bit in the router table. Set the projection of the bit from the table and fence to cut a slight chamfer on both sides of the front face. Normally this would be done with a chamfer bit and this would work on one edge, but this bit would not be able to chamfer the area next to the rabbet. If you don’t have a sign cutting bit you can use a hand plane to form the edges.

• Confirm the exact measurements of the top shelf rear panel (F), mill the stock to size, and cut it to length.

French Cleats

I wanted to attach this rack to the wall in a manner that would enable me to easily remove it in the future, and I didn’t want any screws to be visible from the inside of the rack. Recessed keyhole hangers are one option, but nothing can beat using a French cleat for simplicity. A recessed and housed cleat such as the one I used here will positively lock a heavy cabinet in place and make it impossible to accidentally knock it from the wall. French cleats can be made in any size to suit the dimensions of the project at hand and installation and levelling them during installation is a breeze.

• Mill a strip of wood to thickness, length and width. Cleats are typically between 3/8″ and 1/2″ thick.

• Tilt your saw blade to 45º and rip the piece in half lengthwise.

• Fasten one piece to the back of the cabinet with the bevel facing down and towards the cabinet back.

• Countersink a couple of screw holes to line up with the location of the studs where the cabinet will hang and fasten the other half of the cleat to the wall with the bevel up and facing the wall.

• To hang the cabinet, place it over the wall mounted cleat.

• Sand the pieces and finish them with Circa 1850 Paste Varnish.

French Cleats

The Ornamental Bits

The moulding is milled in sections and then applied in sequence to complete the final look. Building up complex moulding profiles from individual pieces allows greater creativity than dedicated bits. This method also allows you to use common bits that you already have instead of purchasing expensive ones you may only use infrequently. Because you’ll be working with small pieces it’s a good idea to use feather boards and a push block.

• Mill extra long blanks for the crown moulding (G, H), top bead moulding (I, J), waist moulding (K, L) and the bottom bead moulding (M, N) and then cut them into sections before installation.

• For the crown moulding, install a 3/4″ cove bit in the router table with a fence. Set the fence for a full width cut, but only raise the bit about one third of the way and make the first cut. Look at the finish of the cut and adjust your bit speed and feed rate to provide a perfect surface. Raise the bit a little more and make another pass with the new setting. Look at the results and adjust again if necessary. Leave just a small cut for the last pass and you will not have any sanding to do. Cherry and maple burn very easily and this is a simple way to produce a perfect cut and eliminate the tedious sanding.

• To cut both the top and bottom bead moulding, set up a canoe bit in the router table. Walnut machines beautifully and the piece can be cut in one pass, but if you expect any problems with the maple, make the first cut just shy of full depth. Follow up with a final light pass.

• I decided to embellish the waist moulding by dimpling the surface with a Beebe micro scorp. Clamping the moulding to the workbench and casting a raking light across the surface of the piece makes the carving process easier on the eyes. Optionally you can leave the waist moulding surface flat.

• Mill the stock for the shelf edge beading (O) to size leaving it a little long and rout a 1/4″ bead on one edge. Trim these pieces to the proper width, sand them, and apply varnish.

• Mill the blanks for the upper (P) and lower (Q) cleats. Using dowel centers or your dowelling jig, drill a row of dowel holes across the top edge of the upper cleat to correspond with the holes in the underside of the top. Drill a series of dowel holes in the front of the lower cleat, along the upper edge, to correspond with the holes in the bottom shelf. Use the table saw to cut a shallow rabbet on the upper edge of the lower cleat to hold the back boards.


The Routing Jig

Routing small pieces can be dangerous if done without proper precautions. This simple jig will make it easy to rout the side bead pieces (U). The pieces are held on the jig with two-sided tape. To provide sufficient surface for the tape to hold the pieces while shaping them on the router, we leave pieces a bit wider and then trim them to their final size later on the trimming jig.

• To ensure a perfect fit in the groove, use a digital caliper to measure the length of the grooves cut in the sides; use this measurement as the width of the top piece of the jig (in my case it was exactly 3-5/8″).

• Cut two pieces of Baltic birch; one 3/4″ x 3-9/16″ x 4-5/8″ and one 1/4″ x 3-3/4″ x 3-3/8″.

• Use a band saw or scroll saw to cut a 3/8″ deep arc across the top of the piece and smooth the curve on a disc sander.

• Use some #6 FHWS to attach the smaller piece to the bottom of the larger piece, centered on the width.

routing jig

The Trimming Jig

Once you’ve routed the side bead pieces, you need to trim them to their final width. To make this procedure safe, cut a 1/4″ deep, 3/8″ wide rabbet on the bottom edge of a 2″ x 2″ x 14″ sacrificial fence for the band saw. Clamp this to the band saw table and seat the blade into the edge of the fence so it is flush with the edge. Run the pieces through the jig using a push stick with the waste to be cut off in the rabbet.

trimming jig

The Boxes

The two boxes on the bottom shelf are simple to make using a router table, a small drawer lock bit, and a piloted drawer bottom bit.

• Mill the material for the front/back (R) and sides (S) to thickness, cut the pieces to length and then install a small drawer lock bit in the router table and cut the corner joints.

• When the joints for the corners have been cut, set up a piloted drawer bottom bit and clamp the drawer together. Run the piloted drawer bottom bit around the inside of the box to create the groove for the bottom.

• Cut the piece for the bottom (T) and round over the corners so it will fit easily into the groove. Fit the box together and if everything is ok, apply glue and clamp it up.

• When the glue has cured, remove the clamps and sand the outside of the boxes. Drill two holes in each box for the knobs and then apply a couple of coats of varnish to the exterior. When the varnish is dry, install the knobs.

Finish and Assemble the Frame

The paste varnish that I used on this project is easy to apply, but the trick is to apply the finish to various areas before you assemble the project. Begin by taping off any areas that will be glued. Paste varnish is easy to apply and dries fairly quickly. Once the first coat is dry apply a second coat. Set up the clamps you will need ahead of time and have everything you need prepared. Because there are many areas that are to be glued, choose a glue like Elmer’s ProBond with more open time to allow a less rushed assembly. You will need twenty 3/8″ x 1-1/2″ dowels for the shelves and twelve 1/4″ x 1-1/2″ dowels for the cleats.

• Apply glue to the dowel holes and insert the dowels in the shelf pieces. Use a clamp across the length of the shelf to force the dowels completely into the holes; if they lock in place before being completely seated, you will be unable to assemble the shelf.

• When all of the shelves have been prepared, apply glue to the dowel holes in one side. Insert the shelves into the holes and seat them properly.

• Glue the frame pieces together. If needed, use a scrap of wood and a dead blow mallet to drive the pieces home and then clamp them and check the diagonals for square.

Final Assembly

• Remove the clamps from the glued-up section and scrape off any excess glue. Sand the outside of the shelves and the front edges, and then apply a couple of coats of varnish.

• Cut the front section of the top bead to length using a 45º cross cut sled on the table saw. Leave the side pieces a little long for now.

• Use a brad nailer to fasten the front piece in place and then fit each side piece in turn. Use a marking knife to mark the back edge of the cabinet on the side pieces and cut them to length on the table saw. Fasten these in place with brad nails.

• Repeat these steps for the crown and the waist moulding.

• Use some painters tape to protect the surface of the shelf and apply glue to the dowel holes in the bottom shelf and the cleat. Insert the dowels and clamp the cleat to the back of the shelf.

• Turn the shelf upside down and apply glue to the dowel holes in the underside of the top as well as the holes in the upper cleat. Clamp this until the glue sets.

• Mark the center of the shelf on the lower cleat; also mark the center of the middle back board. Set the back board in place and line up the two marks; drill countersunk pilot holes though the board and into the second and fourth shelves and use two #6 flat head wood screws (FHWS) to attach each board.

• Add additional boards to either side until the entire back is covered. Trim the two outer boards to width on the table saw to fit the remaining space.

• Mill the 1/4″ bead on the front edge of the shelf bead pieces, cut them to length and install them on the shelves.

The Side Bead Pieces

• Prepare the blank stock for the side bead pieces (U) in one long strip and cut the strip into ten sections 1/8″ wider than the routing jig.

• Apply some double-sided tape to each strip and press a section onto the jig. Then use a band saw or a scroll saw to cut the section to the profile of the arc on the jig, staying about 1/8″ away from the jig.

• Install a piloted 1/4″ bead bit in the router table and rout the bead on the two ends and the front of the side bead pieces. The blank piece fits to the front of the jig and the piloted beading bit follows the curve on the front edge of the jig. The blank overhangs the jig on three sides and these are the sides that are routed.

• Place the trimming jig on the band saw and trim the pieces to 1/2″ wide, 1/4″ to be housed in the dado and the 3/8″ curved projection. Sand and finish these pieces before gluing them into the grooves. Repeat this for all ten sections.

Give the entire project a coat of wax and then hang it beside your bench. You’ll have your planes displayed in an elegant way right where you will need them and your workmanship will be on display for visitors to enjoy.


hand-tool cabinet

Material List

tool caabinet

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