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JOEL Joel's Blog

Duncan Phyfe's Toolbox.


Duncan Phyfe's Toolbox. 5With all the talk about toolboxes these days I was excited to get another look at Duncan Phyfe's toolbox which is currently on display at the Met as part of a large retrospective of Phyfe furniture. More on the exhibit another time.

Phyfe probably never read Chris Schwarz's book The Anarchist's Tool Chest and some of his tools are obvious luxuries that a successful, forward thinking craftsman might enjoy rather than the basic tools of a joiner. In general the tools that survived with the chest show either no significant use, or seem as just well maintained tools as you would expect from a fastidious master craftsman who specialized in high quality.

I don't think there is any definitive answer when the toolbox was actually built but my guess (and this isn't a big stretch) is that it dates from when Phyfe career took off (1800-1810) and he spent more time on fancy work and less time in basic joinery that could be left to his staff. Unlike a joiner or a journeyman that needed to keep all his tools in his toolbox, for almost his entire career Phyfe was either the master of his shop or a partner. There is a good chance that he owned other tool chests that have not survived and as a master of the shop he would have owned lots of specialist tools that would be shared by his staff as needed. After he build a workshop in his house and the inventory of that workshop lists lots of bigger tools that were not stored in this chest (and were dispersed after his death in 1854). The toolbox really only held his personal tools, the smaller tools, and the more expensive tools.

Like most tool boxes from the outside the toolbox looks like a simple, painted, plain, dovetailed pine box. Overall dimensions are 38" long, by 21 2/3" wide, and 26 1/2" deep. The inside is veneered in Santo Domingo mahogany.

The lid holds a saw rack and holds a series of backsaws. One short handsaw is also stored in the lid but we can assume that the larger saws were just not stored in the case.
In the case are several C.1830's iron rebate and a mitre planes. The planes are in wonderful condition, both in acknowledgement that by the time he bought the planes Phyfe was mostly running his businesses and not making furniture on a day to day basis. And of course even in twenty years one person would not have incurred much visible wear in an iron plane. As with all the exhibitions of the tool chest not all the tools are on display.
The coolest thing in the case that is on display at the Met show is a series of 24 carving tools, all except one by "Green & Young" of London, with octagonal tiger maple handles with fitted octagonal pewter handles. They are stupendous to look at. They would have been far, far more expensive than regular chisels and this is one indication of Phyfe's interest in high end tools (for masters who could afford them).
Another luxury tool in the case was a small (7") backsaw by "Hoe & Co" of New York which has a tropical wood handle. While pretty, it is a perfect example of why exotic woods aren't necessarily good for handles. The saw handle is cracked and a chunk of wood is missing around one of the saw nuts.

The most interesting feature of the toolbox and for me a feature which suggests it dates when he did more carving, inlay and other fussy work rather than regular casework, or at least that this chest was never for general tools, is the way the individual tool small storage is set up.

The traditional toolbox has sliding tills which allow access only to one row of tools at a time. To get access to the tools you slide the trays around. With carving you need access to all sorts of different tools all at once. Phyfe approached the design of the till differently and as far as I know uniquely. You can see this in the illustration above. Phyfe's toolbox contains a single chest with one lidded till at the top and 4 rows of little drawers underneath, all in one sliding unit. This means that with the sliding unit pushed back you have access to all your small tools at once. This is very handy if you are carving or doing fiddly work that needs this tool or that for one operation every other minute. You lose access to any larger tools (usually molding planes) stored in the back bottom of the tool chest, but with the saws mounted in the lid top and all the tools in the drawers you are pretty well set for instant access of just about all the tools used for carving, joinery, fitting hardware and inlay. The loaded chest must have been very heavy. To that end the entire chest of drawers slides back and forth in the toolbox on wheels that ride on brass rails in the side of the chest. I've never even heard of this arrangement elsewhere. I don't know how the rolling section was immobilized for movement but I don't think the chest was moved more than a few times during Phyfes lifetime. We happen to stock the plans for the chest here. and for those looking for a more genteel chest than a general toolbox for joinery you might want to take a look at the design.

Some of the details about the chest come from a 1976 article in "The Chronicle" (vol 29, No. 4) the magazine of the Early American Industries Association. The organization sells a DVD of all their back issues and the article contains a detailed inventory, pictures, including on of those great carving tools, and lots of interesting information.

I will write some more comments on Phyfe and the show in a few weeks but first, next week, we will have a thrilling announcement about a new blog. And Tim has started a Twitter account for us #TFWW_BROOKLYN which we urge you all to follow. Since I am incapable of saying anything in 140 letters or less, you can understand why the twitter account isn't my project.

In other news we still have a sizable back-order for Kings County Hammers from the end of 2011. I do apologize for the delay but we had a lot of hammer filing to do before we could send the heads to the hardener. Barring any more delays, we expect to be caught up on hammer orders by the end of the month.
Join the conversation
03/06/2012 Jack Ervin
The plans that you have listed by Carlyle Lynch have details about the latch at the back of the rolling till to immobilize it. I purchased that set of plans several years ago and have a long term goal to build it. I have liked the design of the chest till but have pondered over the design of the breadboard top. I have noticed from several photos that the lock has had issues. Due to wood movement,I'll probably change the top to a frame and panel. I am looking forward to additional information about the chest.
As Jack pointed out, the latching mechanism is in the Carlyle Lynch plans. I built the chest in 2005 - a very fun project. Only modification I made was to tack on a thin dust skirt - mitered 1/4 inch x 1 1/2 inch - around the lid. This gave me a much better seal especially considering the movement of the lid even with the breadboard ends. Picture of latch at website link above. Spring loaded hook-catch. Push down to release. Hook goes into simple brass plate with square opening with hollowed out wood behind it.

Best regards,
03/06/2012 Mark Schreiber
I had a chance to view this toolbox at the first Colonial Willliamsburg Tool Symposium in 1994. It was displayed in a plexiglass display with 360 degree viewing. I tool over 70 photos but I discovered after developing that my flash malfunctioned. Later I saw this toolbox at the Met but viewing was very limited. I contacted the Met and asked them to consider a Benjamin Seaton type of book on the toolbox and its contents. Have not heard anymore about it. Thanks for your article and I look forward to more reading. (I have the EAIA DVD and will look up the article you referenced.)
03/06/2012 Jeff
It is a shame that an illustrated inventory and study of the tools is not available in book form.
The chest is still owned by the Phyfe family and is on loan to the NY historical society. There are strict conditions of the loan. While several people have proposed doing a book on the contents of the chest (myself included) so far these proposals have not panned out. The EAIA article that I mention above has some nice pictures and a pretty good listing of what's in the chest.
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