John Hanford: Traveling with the tools of my trade

[John Hanford] I am an artist who enjoys carpentry, woodworking, photography and jewelry-making. Being a gadget lover, I also like steampunk and the retronaut movement. I recently found an outlet for my retro sensibilities by creating a new tool cabinet for myself from an old hard-sided sewing machine case.

Vintage exterior with sturdy new handle: This reminds me of buying an old car with just a little rust, but it now has a new engine and great personality!

I pretty much finished the cabinet in only six hyperactive weeks, and then I started work on the decorative veneer border on the drawer fronts. I will still do lots of tweaking — probably until the day I die.

On the workbench in my studio, I start to rough in the drawers, figuring out what will go where.

Clients call me to hang challenging objects and groupings of family art and memorabilia. I’ve hung mirrors that weigh a couple of hundred pounds, and I once hung a quarter-scale fully functioning Bugatti roadster over a staircase. I decided to make a combination toolbox/art installation kit that really represents what I love to do.

The six drawers have varying dimensions.

In the days of journeymen, at the end of your apprenticeship, you would execute a project — a piece of furniture or something complex and intricate — to highlight the skills you’d learned, a sort of old school graduation test. My goal for myself was to make a box that someone might look at 100 years from now with the same amazement I feel when I look at the tool chest Henry O. Studley (1838–1925) made back in 1920. However, Studley’s glorious chest weighs 300 pounds — and I wanted to make something I can actually take to job sites.

Top drawer: This is the perfect spot to store my business cards as well as drill bits, a nail set, a center punch, files, a wood rasp and a set of hex keys in metric and American standard sizes.

The top drawer is the most shallow. The bottom drawer is slightly less wide than the others, because the case has rounded corners. A big factor in determining the dimensions was my desire to be able to temporarily replace a drawer with readymade plastic part boxes housing things I might need at a specific job site.

Hooks and screws: I added a sliding acrylic lid to this drawer and to my art installation drawer [the very top photo].

Designated drawers: Compartments make it much easier to fit all my tools in tidily. I try to keep everything in its spot.

I call the lid [see below] my “dance floor tray.” I saw the pattern online while looking for inspirations for marquetry and edging. On this project, I put my energy in the design and the inlays.

I used walnut, maple and cherry for the inside of the lid.

My telescoping self-leveling laser [in rear compartment] is an essential tool.

I added a rather slick setup to the exterior of the case [below]. The metal circle with a nut under it allows me to attach my laser level monopod. When it gets within several degrees of level, it levels itself.

The laser port replaces the separate tripod that I used to have to carry, and it doubles as a great place to attach the shoulder strap.

My self-leveling laser in action: The laser beam shows that the installation is indeed level!

I thought I had finally figured out what tools were essential, but when I first loaded up the box, it weighed in at just under 50 pounds, which was way too heavy. I have since pared down to absolute necessities, and I also carry a shoulder bag for overflow. Then I decided to build a rolling transport that can double as a folding stepladder.

The tool trolley is embellished to match the interior of the tool chest.

I also put a laser port in the center of one of the marquetry squares [see above], so I can affix my monopod to the top of the stepladder.

It dawns on me that I might name the box as though it were my pet on its leash. How does Spot sound?

John Hanford considers Mr. Clean sponges to be his most exciting recent tool discovery. He carries a pair of them in his art installation drawer.

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Comments (5)

  1. Posted by Allyson on 10.26.11 at 10:55 am

    I love this! What a beautiful example of style and clever organization.

  2. Posted by Pam on 10.26.11 at 11:17 am

    Wow. WOW.

  3. Posted by Kathy McCreedy on 10.28.11 at 1:07 pm

    Oh my… I am beyond impressed! SO beautiful and completely practical, I am swooning!!!

  4. Posted by Nancy Kuhn on 11.3.11 at 6:49 pm

    John, you are so creative. Totally cool!

  5. Posted by Michele Ferrier on 08.2.12 at 4:09 pm

    I’m one of the lucky people who has seen John’s tool case in person.

    John is also the best handyman I have ever had. If you need a job done, you should call John. His business is House Calls. His work is as precise and neat as the in-lay work he did on his case!

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