Wednesday, July 24, 2013

My Take on Wilbur Pan's Take on Odate's Toolbox

Here's a quick, useful project that can be built in a variety of sizes to suit your needs. Build it from humble, simple wood like pine or poplar, don't worry about perfection, and you'll end up with something to be happy about. The design is based on the boxes used by Japanese carpenters to carry their tools from job to job. I just built one for myself, and want to build a bunch more.

I built it because I'm about to go to summer camp. Chair-making camp. Ever since the cover of Home Furniture magazine featured a ladderback chair by Brian Boggs, I've wanted to make one, and I'm finally going to try it out. Next week I'm taking the ladderback chair class at Country Workshops, in the western North Carolina mountains, led by Drew Langsner. If all goes as planned, I'll come home with a completed chair after 6 long days in the shop.

I began woodworking because I wanted to make things with wood from the forest where I grew up. The approach to making a chair covered in this class - - it looks a lot like the procedure in J. Alexander's classic Make a Chair from a Tree - - appeals to someone like me, who gets special satisfaction in taking a project from green log to finished piece.

Taking a class (instead of teaching one) is a big change of pace for me. Country Workshops is set in beautiful mountains and is famous for great meals. I'll be staying in a communal bunkroom. For various reasons, my day job has been very challenging this spring and summer. These factors, combined, have made me as excited as a kid heading to summer camp. When Drew e-mailed me the tool list for the class, that excitement got even stronger, and I decided to further treat myself to a good time by building a box to hold the tools. And the obvious choice? A Japanese-style toolbox like the one described by Toshio Odate in Japanese Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit, and Use.

Wilbur Pan, who writes Giant Cypress (one of my very favorite blogs) reminded me of this type of box when he posted about building his own version this spring:

Mine is different from tradition, and Wilbur's, in a couple of ways. First, I used plywood for the sliding lid and the bottom. Second, instead of nails, I used Miller dowels. Walnut ones, for contrast, on the case, and birch ones, for cheapness, on the bottom. I was pleased with how it turned out. Even with the delays caused by taking pictures of the process, I built this in just a couple of hours. Rather than give you a long narrative, I'll give you some photos. Other people have written about how to build these, and I recommend going straight to the source and reading Toshio's book. Wilbur Pan's blog post on it is also a big help.

Before the week is over and I have to pack up, I plan to soften the corners with sandpaper and give the whole works a couple of coats of wax for a minimal finish that can age with grace.

 The Miller Dowel is stepped and is inserted in a stepped hole drilled with this special bit. They come in three sizes; this is the smallest but I think the middle size would also do.

Put a small amount of glue on the dowel, drive it home, and you get a very strong connection without metal fasteners.

 The chamfer for the handle on each end can be as simple as a bevel made with a handplane.
 The handles go outside the recessed ends. The recessed ends look cool, and also provide a bit of room so the nails or dowels won't split out the ends of the sides.
 These top pieces tie the sides and ends together and retain the sliding lid.
 With the case assembled but the bottom not on yet, place the lid in position with one end just clear of the top . . .
 . . . then trace the other end with a pencil. That gives you the location of the outside edge of the opposite cleat.
 With the cleats in position on the lid, trace the ends of the z-brace. This is easier than trying to calculate the length and angle!
 Here's the sliding lid in the shut position. Slide it to the right, and:
 Now the lid clears the top, so you can simply . . . 
 . . . lift the lid out of the box.
 The cleats are wider than the lid, so they rest on the sides of the box and keep the lid from falling in. Note: it's not obvious in these pictures, but the bottom of the box is below the sides, rather than captured inside them. This is the traditional approach for this type of box. I think it has to do both with preventing water from wicking up inside (these are jobsite boxes, remember), and so that the bottom rather than the sides takes the wear when the box is pushed along the floor (or ground). 
Inside the box: a Japanese saw, a German drill, and a mixture of American and Japanese chisels rolled up in an Argentine leather case. We're so lucky to live when and where we do, and able to pick and choose from a world's worth of woodworking traditions!


  1. Great post Jim! If you know anyone who would like to build a ladderback rocker with Brian Boggs, he'll be teaching that as a week-long course in October, and you can see the details here:

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Brian: Thanks for your comment. And I can add, for the benefit of anyone reading this, that I've seen Brian in action as a teacher, years ago at Highland Woodworking, and can attest that a class with him in charge would be fantastic.