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JOEL Joel's Blog

Why Schlep? - A Look at Tools Baskets and Bags


Charles Nurse 1893
Charles Nurse 1893

Probably the classiest thing we have in our entire catalog (Colen Clenton Tools excepted) this year is our new Gramercy Tool Bags. They're elegant solutions to the challenge of schlepping tools around - a challenge that crafts people have forever faced. I have a collection of tool sellers' catalogs from the late 19th century on, so I thought I'd check in and see how tool-carrying has evolved.
The Chas. A. Strelinger & Co. catalog* framed the issue well, way back in 1896:

When a "Yankee" carpenter has a little job to do a few squares or a few miles from the shop, he takes his toolbox with tools (about 30 lbs. of tools, 15, sometimes 25 lbs. of box ) shoulders it, and starts off to his work. Now, we do not mean to quarrel with him for doing this, but it would suggest that it was about time to do away with the box business and use a Tool Basket. The middle size weighs about 18 ounces, and while the difference in weight between box and basket (from ten to twelve pounds) is not much for single lift, it certainly makes a big difference in a walk of a mile or two.
This basket can be carried over the shoulder by a stick shoved through both handles, or piece of sash cord, but when is only a few tools used, it can be carried the same as valise. The middle size measures when round, about 21 inches in diameter and when flattened sidewise by the shape and weight of the long tools (as jointer and saws), about 33 inches. They are soft and pliable, very strong, and with fairly decent usage will last for years.

Now I love the idea of a wooden toolbox (shown here in the 1912 Rd. Melhuish catalog) but I cannot imagine carrying it on my shoulder. Another possibility: a tool basket.
Rd. Melhuish 1912
Rd. Melhuish 1912

Baskets have limited space, but they are certainly a lot lighter than a big box. They don't seem to have died out until after WW II, and all the tool basket vendors (here the Charles Nurse catalog from 1893 and the 1912 Melhuish) seem to have sold similar versions in different sizes. The engravings for all these retailers look the same and could even be from the same plates.
Charles Nurse 1893 - on the last pages of the catalog it was a late addition
Charles Nurse 1893 - on the last pages of the catalog it was a late addition

Rd. Melhuish 1912 - by 1912 everyone seems to be carrying them
Rd. Melhuish 1912 - by 1912 everyone seems to be carrying them

Various trades used different sized specialty baskets or bags. (The Melhuish catalog doesn't draw much distinction between the bags and baskets - some are made of the same materials.) There are bags for “Engineers” - a general title for what we would call mechanics. And a bag lined with carpet for plumbers. My guess is that the lining was to absorb any water on the tools.
And the Tyzak catalog from the 1930s included a bag and basket (same material) that by its illustration was simpler than those of earlier catalogs, but might also be the same product as Melhuish’s specialty Engineer’s bag. Melhuish might not have had Instagram, but he obviously understood marketing. )
Samuel Tyzak c. 1930's
Samuel Tyzak c. 1930's

Rd. Melhuish 1912
Rd. Melhuish 1912

This large canvas bag from Melhuish 1912 is not only "improved" but in elements and structure seems to be a older cousin of a modern leather bag.
Rd. Melhuish 1912
Rd. Melhuish 1912

The Strelinger catalog makes a good point when it says that the tool box itself is pretty heavy, making a lightweight basket an improvement. But a basket is also open, not protected from rain, and vulnerable to spilling when put down. What is interesting is that unlike regular baskets for regular consumers, these tool baskets (and the ones in Strelinger) are reinforced. Without reinforcement, the material and stitching of the basket or bag will inevitably be stressed by the tools, and likely even cut or punctured. Leather bags were probably made in the era of these catalogs, but by and large they were too expensive for casual use by craftsmen, which could explain their absence from the catalogs I have.** Leather of course is the most waterproof of the natural materials, and most resistant to cuts and bruises. Klein Tool Bags, an American company that has been around since 1857, continues to make a wide range of tool bags today, including a mass-produced bag similar to ours. But by and large, tool bags and baskets seem to disappear from the tool catalogs, although I have not made an exhaustive search. My guess is with the advent of the automobile, the number of tradesman lugging tools around declined sharply and the concept of the milk crate filled with tools began to make lots of sense. And - ask anyone who routinely works on-site - the art of tool transportation can either be done efficiency or chew up half the day. For moving a lot of tools the Festool Systainer system is a great approach, I am seeing more and more of them on the streets in the morning as craftsman go into buildings to work on-site. (I will write about transporting buckets of tools another time.)

But sometimes you don't need a warehouse full of tools. Sometimes - oftentimes if you live in NYC - you’re taking public transportation. Sometimes you are going to a class or an office. Sometimes you not only have to earn a living but you have to impress a client at the same time. Plaster and paint coated milk crates don't leave the reassuring competence than a nice bag does with a client. They just don't want the mess tracked into their apartments.

This need inspires a return to the basics. Yes, if I have a couple of tools to cart, I just dump everything in my backpack and hope for the best. Anything with a sharp edge gets carefully wrapped. My backpack is tall enough for a dovetail or carcase saw but a sash is too long and risky and I worry about the handles getting busted if I put down the bag too roughly. I just brought back two valuable short saws home in my backpack and I wrapped them in cardboard for safety. I can't imagine doing that every day. As I have gotten older, my tools have gotten better, and so is the care I take.

So that brings me to our new Gramercy Tools Leather Tool bags. One thing I like about tools bags in general is that they have a bottom, designed to have a place for heavier tools so that jostling won’t cause something to shift. I don't wrap edge tools other than in a rag so that the cutting edges are both protected and can't do damage. We made sure in designing the Gramercy bags that the hardware and straps are robust (a Klein bag that I loved years ago had strap issues) and the cover really covers. The straps are anchored inside the cover which looks cool but more importantly prevents the leather straps from catching and wearing over the years. I live in fear of a collectible tool falling out. The traditional hand stitching of the Gramercy Bag will wear better than machine stitching and that with the heavy leather should mean that the stitches won't be the first thing to go (the source of my Klein bag’s strap problems). We use vegetable tanned leather because I discovered that I have a tendency to leave tools in my bag for ages without special oiling or waxing and I don't want to worry about rust caused by the leather.

.* Note: While I quote from the 1896 Chas. A. Strelinger & Co, I don't show any engravings from their catalog because I don't own an original and the reproduction I have isn't at high enough resolution to do justice to the original.
** I have other American catalogs of the period but they are currently in storage.

Join the conversation
12/13/2017 Bob Groh
Very nice little summary of tool bag history. I use a bucket when going off to my kid's houses to repair this and that. Not entirely satisfactory but better than the alternative. Your little article got me thinking about the subject and I do need to do better. I had thought about building a simple tool box but, frankly, these elderly shoulders just can't handle any extra weight! But a long'ish bag with ample padding - now you are talking! Definitely worth a thought or two. Thanks.
Original (medieval) tool baskets have not died out. Beautiful baskets, made from basket willow + hand-made in Cumbria, UK are still available.
12/14/2017 Jeff Polaski
I have my grandfather's long, narrow toolbox. Well over 100 years old. A cleaning, replace a panel in the lid, and it would be good to go. However, putting iron, wood and steel tools into it, I would not be good to go.
Do you sell gophers?
12/14/2017 Chris Murray
Joel, Thank you much for investigating and creating in this necessary aspect of the craftsman's life. Having struggled w/ transport of tools, large and small, for quick repairs as well extended periods, I appreciate your focus on this. I have built several tool boxes over the years for transport of hand tools, each serviceable but never perfect. Also appreciate K-E pointing me to current British tool basket construction.
12/14/2017 Daniel Burgoyne
Your toolbags look great! Any thoughts on adding a shoulder strap? Just wondering...
Thanks for your comment. We thought seriously about a shoulder strap,but for the strap to be any good it has to connect to the body of the bag, not just the cover. Then you have to worry about going through the cover overhang. We even considered adding hooks on the inside for an accessory strap. But the hardware and labor would have driven the cost up a lot. I've certainly put bags like this over my shoulder - it's tight but it does work mostly.
12/17/2017 Daniel Burgoyne
Joel, thanks for replying. What I remember from many years ago was a shoulder strap instead of handle straps. I googled "trousse outils Facom" as these bags are more common in France and found a few examples.
01/11/2018 Evie Dechant
I use a small suit case on wheels with a handle that pops up. All the zip compartments come in handy and best of all i dont have to tote it.
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