Jose Balderas

19th Century Tool Chest Restoration

19th Century Tool Chest


One Sunday many weeks ago, I was driving through my neighborhood, and I saw a sign for a garage sale. Though it wasn’t an ordinary sale, it was an all tool sale. They were offering; woodworking, machining, pneumatic, automotive, any many more specialized equipment. Naturally I felt I had to stop by. I wanted to walk away with everything, but restrained my self. Also I didn’t have that much cash on me. At the corner of the garage, was this wooden chest, sizable but able to be carried and transported. Aged and hand built. I was overwhelmed with curiosity and a rush to take it.


The story behind the box, I found interesting. It belonged to a Danish carpenter, built in the late 1800’s before emigrating to the US. Carried for job to job, in Europe and the US. Eventually making its way to a garage in the Bay Area, and for $10 I loaded it in the trunk of my car.

My plan was to restore it. Clean it up and fix some broken parts. After inspecting the tool chest, I could tell it had gone through a lot of wear, but I was up to the challenge.


I took it to the office to begin evaluating just how much work the too chest needed. I set up a workspace at the corner of our shop and began disassembling. The chest has some interesting elements to it. It has as small bin that sits on raised rails, nailed lengthwise on the side walls. There’s also what I believe to be a documentation storage compartment screw under the lid.

On the outside, the tool chest has four brass corner guard along the top corners. And iron handles on the side, on the lid, and a security latch on front.


Luckily there wasn’t a lot of repairs to be made here. Most of the wear was on the outside of the box. The edges of the dovetail joints were worn, which I thought to be normal for something over a century old. The outer surfaces were scratched, gouged, and covered with paint. It also looked like someone carved their initials.

Areas by the where hinges were attached had begun splitting pretty drastically. Also the bottom veneer of the inner bin was coming apart. Overall nothing serious and could be solved with a bit of glue.


One fascinating find was this piece of paper that is stuck, very well, on one of the wall of the lid. I had some trouble making out most of what it said, but I was able to conclude that its English. One small piece that tore off had the word unders typed on it. I left it alone and cleaned around it. I think its unique part of the tool chest that should stay.


Using nearly an entire container of a stripping agent, I scraped off most of the old paint, stains, varnish, and a poorly applied polyurethane coating. The rest of it came off with an orbital sander. It became clear just how bad the abuse the bottom of the box had received. I had to be careful cleaning it. There was some splintering occurring that was worsening as I sanded.


Before I applied tung oil to all parts of the box, I coated the piece of paper with shellac. The shellac keeps it well protected and legible.


Once the shellac cured, tung oil was applied all over. While the oil was setting in, I lightly scrubbed the metal components, removing some paint stains and rust but leaving the patina that shows their age.

Finally, all parts were reassembled, using all of the original screws and components. And filled my new tool chest with a few tools of mine that I keep in the office.