Tools of the Trade: A Chest of Tools

Tools of the Trade: A Chest of Tools

Tools of the Trade: A Chest of Tools

As we build our tool collection, it needs a home. In the 18th century, that was likely in a chest of tools, but this is another elusive topic to research. There are only two surviving tool chests I know of from our period, and only a few newspaper advertisements. Though, lack of tangible evidence doesn’t necessarily indicate that they weren’t in use. It’s possible this is a piece of history that was so common as to never have been thoroughly documented, which is infuriating for researchers, but happens often in this period. But before I bemoan the difficulties of research, let’s look at what we do know about them.

Where can we find information about these chests?

There are three main sources: newspapers, literature, and extant originals. Newspapers form the basis for much of the research of tools for this blog; they’re an easily accessible format that can indicate whether something was in use in a particular time and place (i.e. advertisements for saws in Philadelphia in 1740 indicates that saws were available and most likely in use in the city at the time). Literature is another important source, whether it’s discussing technique or an idle mention hinting at an object’s ubiquitous nature. And finally, extant originals can not only inform us of style, construction, and use, but serve as solid proof that a specific type of object did in fact exist, even as a one-off.

Now, let’s take a look at the evidence.

Here is one newspaper clipping from North Carolina:

This advertisement is for a chest containing a full set of both carpenter’s and joiner’s tools. It indicates that these chests not only existed, but were large enough to contain a wide array of tools.[1]

Another clipping, from Derbyshire, England, shows a joiner’s chest for sale, with some carpenter’s tools included as well. Also of note: three workbenches with screws and a copy of Swan’s Architecture (a treatise from 1757). This not only adds evidence of tradespeople using chests at this time, but also shows that joiners and carpenters were educating themselves on modern architecture and design in order to stay with the times. [2]

And finally, there’s a brief mention of a carpenter’s chest in The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner by Daniel Defoe. “… [A]nd it was after long searching that I found out the Carpenter’s Chest, which was indeed a very useful Prize to me.”[3] While, again, this doesn’t teach us very much about carpenter’s chests, it indicates that they were common by this period. Though, admittedly, this likely refers to a ship-carpenter’s chest. But given the other evidence from newspapers, I think it can be extrapolated that any tradesperson who regularly had to move around would have built a container for their tools and equipment. Now, what did that look like?

There are two surviving chests from North America that I’m aware of.

This first chest, found in Tools: Working Wood in Eighteenth-century America by James M. Gaynor and Nancy L. Hagedorn, is dated to the late 18th-century and has a New England provenance.[4] It’s constructed fairly simply: 4 planks form the body with dovetailed corners and a single plank lid. Inside there is a short rack of molding planes on the far end, with a longer chisel rack along the back. The floor of the box is taken up by the longer bench planes. The lid has cleats for saws to keep them from damaging the other tools during transit. And finally, there are cleats for rope handles on each end of the chest.

The second, also found in Gaynor and Hagedorn, and dating to the end of the 18th-century, follows the same basic external construction as the first.[5] Four walls, dovetailed corners, and a simple lid. But inside, the design is noticeably different. There’s a small lidded tray on one end, which holds layout and sharpening tools (or anything you wouldn’t want floating around the chest). The molding plane rack has also been moved to the back wall, allowing it to hold more planes, at the expense of floor space in the bottom. This suggests the chest is designed more for molding/joinery work as opposed to mostly bench plane use.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much more information about chests in this period, but we at least have a starting point now. We’re in the process of building our own chest (check out Newlin Grist Mill’s Facebook Live videos) and we’ll be sharing some progress photos as we continue!

As always, I would normally invite everyone to come visit us in the Millwright Shop, but it’s currently closed due to COVID-19. We will be continuing to post here on the blog, and we’ll be doing more Facebook Live videos, so be sure to follow us on Facebook. Stay safe and check back here next week!

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[1] Henry Gray, “To Be Sold,” South Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, January 24, 1775, Accessed, June 19, 2020.

[2] Oliver Warner, “To Be SOLD, at MAPPLETON,” The Derbyshire Mercury, June 20, 1760, Accessed, June 19, 2020.

[3] Daniel Defoe, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, London, W. Taylor, 1719, Google E-book, Accessed June 19, 2020 Page 58

[4] Gaynor, James M., Hagedorn, Nancy I., “Thomas and Warren Nixon Tools,” in Tools: Working Wood in Eighteenth-century America, Williamsburg, Virginia, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1993, Page: 30

[5] “Chest of Carpenter and Joiner’s Tools,” in Ibid. Page: 32


Defoe, Daniel. The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, London, W. Taylor, 1719, Google E-book, Accessed June 19, 2020,

Gaynor, James M., Hagedorn, Nancy I. Tools: Working Wood in Eighteenth-century America, Williamsburg, Virginia, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1993, Google E-book, Accessed June 19, 2020,

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