Japanese-Style Tool Box


Japanese-Style Tool Box:
Vic Tesolin takes you through the building of a tool box design that is millennia old.

Vic Tesolin takes you through the building of a tool box design that is millennia old

I’m a believer in the axiom, ‘A place for everything and everything in its place’. This couldn’t be truer when it comes to my woodworking tools. Not only does this keep your space organised but it keeps your precious tools safe too. You also spend less time searching for tools when you are in the throes of a build. The Japanese certainly understood this and their tool boxes are a testament to that. With their simple designs and easy building techniques, these boxes make great storage solutions. You can make them big or small, fancy or spare, either way you will have a classy home for your tools. The one in this article is on the large size designed with Western tools in mind. The traditional material for this tool box is softwood, in this case I’m using eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). You can make these boxes out of any species you like, just keep in mind that the box will weigh much more if you make it from a hard wood. I started with 20mm stock and brought it down to 12mm to make the box lighter. Unless you plan on chucking your box down a flight of stairs, building it out of thicker material is overkill. Begin with the grunt work and break out your timber for the sides and ends according to the cut list. 

Cutting list in mm
Part name                          QTY    Length   Width   Thickness
Side                                       2         590          185        13
End                                        2         280          185        13
Bottom                                 2        580          140         13
Top                                        1         525          243          6
Fixed batten                       2         272            39        13
Lid batten                           1         272            27        13
Locking batten/wedge    1         272                         13

Flattening a board by hand
No worries if you don’t have apprentices (machines), you can easily create a flat surface with a hand plane. My ‘go to’ plane is a low-angle jack as it truly is the workhorse of all my bench planes. I begin by placing the board on the bench with the cup facing up. To support the board and prevent rocking while I work, I use small wedges to take up the space. To start, lay the plane across the board tilting it so that only the edge of the plane is touching. Next, sight down the board and note the high spots, you’re essentially using the plane as a straightedge. The first passes happen at roughly 45° starting at one end to the other, then flip the plane 90° and cover the entire board again. This flipping of the plane helps ensure that the board becomes flatter, not just thinner. Next, make passes with the grain to remove the cross-hatching pattern you just put there. Once you get full-length shavings, gauge the board with the edge of the plane again to see how you did. Once one side of the board is flat you can use that side as a reference surface on the bed of a thickness planer. No thickness planer? No problem! Grab a wheel marking gauge and set it for the thickness you’re after then referencing the flattened surface, gauge a line all around the board. Now you can grab your jack plane and remove material stopping when you reach those lines. Who needs a gym membership?!

Wedges will keep the boards from rocking as you work

Start by working across the grain to get boards flattened by hand

If you are thicknessing by hand, strike a line for your final depth and work towards that line

Orient the boards
Once you have all your side and end pieces, scrutinise the grain and mark a cabinetmaker’s triangle on the parts. One of the great advantages to being a woodworker is being able to orient the boards to make the best use of the wood’s natural beauty. I take my time with this step no matter what the project is. 

The cabinetmaker’s triangle makes orienting parts a breeze

Layout the fingers
The finger joints on this box are probably not what you think of when you hear finger joints. We’re used to imagining many, tiny fingers that require a power tool to cut and patience to assemble. Not here. Each corner will have a total of three fingers: two on the sides and one on the ends.
Start by setting a marking gauge to the thickness of the sides plus 4mm. If you’re scratching your head at this don’t worry, it will all make sense in future steps. Scribe the two surfaces of the side boards at each end and the surfaces and edges of the end boards.
You could reach for a ruler and divide the boards into threes using maths, but why frustrate yourself? Reach into your tool kit and pull out the tried and true dividers. Set the dividers to approximately one-third of the side width and start walking the dividers along the end-grain. Go lightly at first to ensure that you don’t end up with multiple holes as you sneak up on the perfect third. If you are hanging off the board at the count of three, you have gone too far. Two? Too little. Once you can go edge to edge with a count of three, press the tips in a bit deeper so that you can see your marks. Use a square to mark the end-grain then carry the lines on to the surfaces and mark the waste with an ‘x’.

Mark the depth of your fingers using a wheel marking gauge

The humble divider once again takes the maths out of woodworking

Saw away
Start with the two rip cuts being sure to stop at the line you struck. Then rotate the board to make the shoulder cut. Start this cross cut with a small notch (known as a knife wall) by placing a chisel into the knife line then coming in from the waste side, removing a small fillet of material creating a space for your saw to drop into. Saw the cross cuts on the waste side of the lines and try to make them as straight as possible. This half of the joint will become the pattern for the other half so it’s important that your cuts are square and plumb. If your cuts are less than perfect, you can tune them up by paring them with a chisel. It would be helpful to make some practice cuts in some timber that isn’t for this project just to get warmed up.

Saw as straight as you can because this half of the joint becomes the pattern for the other half

Making a knife wall is a great way to ensure you are sawing in the right spot

The shoulders need to be right on the line. If necessary, pare to the line after sawing

The transfer
This is where having your boards marked with a cabinetmaker’s triangle pays off. Orient your parts so that they create a triangle and start transferring the marks. Take one corner (one side and one end), place the end board in the vice, then lay the side board onto the end grain. Line up the sides to ensure that the boards will line up during assembly, then apply pressure with your hand and use a knife to trace the finger. Start with a light cut first then deepen it to ensure a mark that can be easily seen. Remove the side board but before you go too far with it, mark an ‘x’ on the waste. 

Use a sharp knife like this blacksmith-made kiridashi to transfer the first half of the joint to the mating board

Removing more waste
Once you have the location of the finger marked, you can then saw the waste out. Be certain that you saw on the waste side of the line (the wood with the ‘x’ on it). If you saw on the line or in the save side of the line, the joints will be loose and not fit together properly. Next, slide a coping saw into the kerf you made and turn the saw so that you are cutting parallel to (but above) the struck baseline. Using a chisel, chop the remaining waste away by halving the waste until you get to the line. Don’t take off too much at a time. Taking too big of a bite will cause the chisel to be forced past the baseline creating an unsightly gap in the joint. If the joint is too tight, pare material off the two sides of the socket until the joint goes together with moderate hand pressure. Repeat these steps with each corner.

Remove the waste slowly. Rushing this step could lead to blowing past your knife line

Chamfers all around
Mark the finger ends by setting your gauge to 3mm, then strike lines around the fingers and on the top. Use a block plane to remove the corners of the fingers stopping at the knife lines to get the chamfers all looking the same. The fingers protrude to protect the outside of the box and the chamfers prevent splitting if the finger does take a pounding – it looks pretty nice as well. 

Mark out the small chamfers that will adorn the protruding fingers

Keep it between the lines to create those delicate chamfers

Assemble the side and back
Once all your joints are fitting well it’s time for the glue-up. Orient your parts according to the triangle and get the clamps you will need ready prior to letting the glue flow. There is nothing worse than looking for clamps in a panicked frenzy. Start by gluing one end to a side. Put glue on all the surfaces then press the joint together. Then glue and assemble the second end onto the side. Flip the partial assembly and apply glue to the two ends, then slide the side into the two ends. Apply a clamp on each set of fingers to close the joint, check that the box is square, then let the glue dry.
The glue will do a fine job at holding this box together but why not add a bit of insurance that adds an aesthetic charm as well? Drill pilot holes into the centre of each finger and drive in a square nail. Choose a pilot bit that will allow the fattest part of the nail to bite into the wood. 

Apply glue to all the surfaces but don’t go overboard. Cleaning up excess glue around joints is a pain

The last board to go in will slide into the two end pieces

Put a clamp across each set of fingers for a solid glue-up

The nails may seem like a belt and braces kind of move but they look so good on there

A solid base
Prepare the two bottom boards according to the cut list. You can leave them a few millimetres oversized; you will trim them to final length just before you install them. Run a rebate on the two inside surfaces to create a shiplap joint. This will allow for movement of the bottom boards to happen without opening a gap in the box for small tools to fall through. Place the boards on the bottom and nail them into place with small brads. You won’t be gluing the bottom on so angle your brads so that they go in at an angle; a technique called toe-nailing. Gluing the top would cause a wood-movement nightmare and the absence of glue allows you to replace the bottom one day if required.

Rebate planes are the bee’s knees when working on one-off projects

Angle the nails in to give them more holding power

Nifty sliding top
Prepare the boards for the sliding top. If you have timber wide enough to get it out of one piece then lucky you! If not, joint two boards to prepare them for gluing them up. Leave them a tad over-sized for now and you can size them exactly after the glue dries. On thin boards like these, I often prefer to use binding tape like Scotch 233+ to clamp things up; clamps can easily twist and cup thin boards. Place the boards together and start placing tape across the joint every 25mm or so. Plant one side of the tape with your thumb, stretch the tape across the joint and then smooth the tape down. Next, run a long piece down the joint to hold it securely.
Flip the taped boards over and open up the joint. Lay a small bead of glue on one edge of the board then let the boards lay flat. Repeat the same process with the tape to complete the clamp up. No need to run the long piece of tape on the second side as it will be difficult to apply with the glue squeeze-out in the way. Let the glue set up so that it is rubbery then remove the squeeze-out with a chisel.

Binding tape is used extensively by guitar makers and there is lots of use for it when making furniture

A narrow bead of glue is all you need to create a seamless top joint

Prep the box top
Prepare the fixed battens and nail them to the top of the box as indicated using more of the decorative nails to fix them in place. These battens are what will trap the top when slid into place. Size the lid according to the drawings and prepare the lid batten as well. The lid should just fit into the box’s width without a lot of space to spare. The locking batten and wedge are created by one piece of wood. Simply mark the board as indicated, connect to the two lines, then saw down the line cleaning up your saw marks by clamping the two pieces together and planing them at the same time – this will ensure that they match.
Place the lid batten and the locking batten on the lid in the locations indicated and clamp them in place. Traditionally the battens would be clinch nailed into place but I opted for screws instead. Create a pilot hole with a bradawl so you don’t split the wood and drive small pan-head screws in securing the battens to the top.

These fixed battens are what keep the top captured, securing your tools

With careful layout, taking the wedge and the locking batten out of one board will almost guarantee a great fit

Go easy when you are driving in these small screws. One slip of the trigger finger and you’ll sink them in too deep

Using the lid
Slide the lid under one of the fixed battens leading with the end that has the locking batten, lower the other end down and then slide the lid to the other side of the box. Now you can slide in the wedge that will lock the lid in place. I typically don’t apply finish to these tool boxes because I like the way the raw pine develops a patina over the years. However, your favourite finish or even a bit of wax will make the box look fantastic. Your tools now have a home that hasn’t changed in design and function for millennia.

The simple wedge keeps it all together


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