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The Tool Chest Part 1 (Or Making A Chair From A Tree Without Electricity Or Machine Tools, Part 7)


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"Maybe he was a pattern maker". Alexander, my oldest son, is an engineer and was looking at the collection of gouge chisels as I put their tray back in the chest. I was wondering why Mr Wake had so many gouge chisels and whether that was a clue to his job.

All the tools in this chest are marked “C Wake" but I know nothing else about him, except for what I can guess from the chest and its contents.

"You just want to show off your collection of tools, that's why you're doing these articles !" Well, I think there's more to it than that, in fact, there are many reasons; one of them is to get on Mr Wakes’ track and learn about him from his tools.

I think of the box as Mr Wakes's toolchest and only partly mine. He is still present in a way and maybe he was a pattern maker. I've thought of shop sign maker and fitter of spiral stairs - there are clues here that he did free hand curved work as will become evident. There's also a set of heavy number stamps, from 1 - 9: I can see him making up wooden cogs, wheels and bits of large wheels in some iron foundry and stamping them before they leave his bench to go to the row of sand boxes lined up for the molten metal to be poured.

"Come back with that before it gets lost. "

There's even a drawknife in here; it is well used and I can only assume that he was the only person to own it as, like all the tools in this chest, there's only his name on it. This is what makes this collection especially interesting to me. Most old wooden tools have names stamped on them and many have several names, as they were passed on, perhaps to another generation. To share Mr Wakes's toolchest is a rare privilege - it's not the same as getting a grandfather clock or a commode.

Another thing worth mentioning is that it is well filled - there's not much room for anything else - so apart from one or two odd gaps this is a complete set. There's no hammer, nor is there a ruler; maybe these have been borrowed more recently.

There's no plastic in the tool collection, which dates it, and there's no plywood in the construction of the box. Although plywood dates back to the Egyptians it became common in the 20th century.

The chest is made of yellow pine and mahogany. The yellow pine is knotty and not of high quality, but I think this is a reflection of how it was to be finished rather than the purpose of the box. It was covered in “scumble" a thick coating of shellac based materials on a Plaster of Paris base, which had enough stain in it to make the wood look like mahogany.

The lid is of yellow pine too and was shattered when I got the chest so the first thing to do was strip off all the varnish and reinforce the lid. These chests stayed in the workshop, were sat on and stood on, but maybe not in their first few years; there are hours of work in making this functional and beautiful item: “Get off that, sit on your own box, there's hours of work etc, etc. "

The lock is nice - it works on the second click, which is unusual and the wrought iron lifting handles are blacksmith made.

The eight drawers or trays are of mahogany and dovetailed, there are four pairs, which slide on rails and they are varying in height with the shallowest at the top, so they are not interchangeable, and only the top two have lids.

The lower part of the interior, under the trays, is divided into three sections for larger tools - saws and planes etc.

When fully loaded this chest is heavy, very heavy, not the kind of toolchest you would want to lug from job to job. Anyway motor cars were few and far between in 1900; I imagine that Mr Wake spent much of his time in a workshop. . . but I don't really know so will stick with the evidence in front of me. One thing I do know is that this chest was bought at a house auction in Worcestershire in the 1950s or 60s, probably near Evesham, which puts it in the West Midlands and you can almost hear the heavy industry. . . .

The narrow tray on the top row holds very fine dividers and callipers, is this more evidence of pattern making? This is that ubiquitous drawer for all the bits and pieces. Amongst these I found bowsaw blades, but there wasn't a bowsaw in the box so I sneaked one in. I also found bits for a “Yankee" (ratchet) screwdriver, so I sneaked one of these in too; I had an old one with the traditional wooden handle. These preceded battery drills and I found them very handy in my early days, they don't need regular charges and you can still buy them.

There is also a very elegant hammer and three spirit levels - the spirit levels say to me that Mr Wake spent some of his time out of the workshop.

The next level of drawers contain saw sharpening equipment (so he sharpened his own saws) and chisels. All the chisels in the left hand compartment are gouges (what a lot!), the right hand side contains an assortment of flat chisels. All were in good condition and didn't require much cleaning up and sharpening.

In level three on the back left hand side, I found a collection of mortice chisels with one or two others, some of them very big! On the right hand side there are lots of files, some for saw sharpening, some for the difficult bits of moulding plane blades - some for pattern making? What about the assortment of bullnose and rebate planes, at the front right hand side? These were obviously for fine detailed work - pattern making again? Does it matter? You just want to use them!

The last section contains fine chisels - I'm better acquainted with these; essential for dovetails etc.

In level four, the larger tray has an assortment of spokeshaves and home made scrapers, with the aforementioned draw-knife. There are all handy for shaped work or freehand details of a Chammer chair.

There are keyhole saws and gimlets - there's also a marking gauge, but there's a more interesting one coming up later.

The contents of the Toolchest were going to be one chapter, but that was ambitious, even without slavering endlessly over the tools. I still have the lower level to deal with and must close the lid for now.

Allan Fyfe is proprietor of Lethenty Mill Furniture. This article forms part of a series about his quest to build a chair from a tree on his own land without the use of electricity or machine tools. Allan is passionate about the designs and techniques associated with traditional furniture from the North East of Scotland. His website, , allows other woodworking enthusiasts to learn these techniques via a series of self study furniture making projects.

To view a short video clip of the Toolchest and its contents, go to:


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