Restoring a 100 Year Old Tool Chest
I was casually perusing tools for sale online recently and came across someone selling an entire antique tool chest full of vintage hand planes, saws, and various other tools. Admittedly I don’t know a ton about valuations of antique tools but just from some of the photos I knew a few of the tools alone were worth more than he was asking for the whole chest. Turns out it was an elderly man who ended up with the chest after an auction failed to get the value they were hoping for so he bought it out at the starting bid and passed it on to me for cost! I couldn’t say no to the opportunity to buy the chest with the intention of restoring both the chest itself and the tools within. Today I’m going to walk you through my process of restoring a 100 year old tool chest.
Unfortunately (but expectedly) someone decided to paint this chest at some point in its storied past. It’s pretty common for a wood piece that has seemingly changed hands at least a handful of times to be covered in at least one or two coats of paint or stain. Somewhere along the line someone thought it was easier to just paint over it rather than maintain the wood, or maybe they just liked the look of the paint. Either way, it doesn’t make it any less annoying when you have to remove it.
The problem with removing paint on something like this is that it has a lot of wear and tear on it from years and years of use. That means the paint is down inside those dents, grooves, scratches, and dings. Removing all that paint can be incredibly challenging without removing a lot of material either by sanding, planing, stripping, or a combination of all those things. In this case I used a combination of intense sanding, and stripping to remove as much of the paint (and come to find out stain underneath the paint) as possible and still leave a little bit of the patina.
Restoring without Removing The History
The real challenge in restoring a 100 year old tool chest is finding the line between bringing it back to its somewhat original state without fully removing the history. The character that has accumulated over the years from use and abuse is kind of what makes it unique so to remove all that would be a disservice to the piece itself. My goal with this project was to remove as much of the black (obviously not original) paint and stain while leaving as much character as possible and still make it look good. It’s easier said than done and requires a bit of trial and error. Because of how beat up this chest was, I felt confident that no matter what I did to it, it would still have plenty of character in it in the end.
Fixing & Sanding
Structurally the chest was in pretty decent shape. The red trim pieces on it definitely didn’t seem original. As I started refinishing the piece the wood looked much newer than the rest of the chest. More importantly, they felt out of place and I didn’t like the look of them so I removed them. There were a few areas where the wood was cracked and split but I was able to quickly fix those areas with some wood glue and brad nails.
I spent a lot of time sanding down the surface, eventually getting the pieces down to 220 grit. I focused almost all my effort on the outside of the chest for a few reasons. First of all, removing the interior paint would have been a tremendous amount of additional work. Secondly, the interior has quite a few areas where a name has been stamped into the wood.
Who Is/Was J.R. Lampson?
The name J.R. Lampson is stamped all over the interior of the chest. I’m not sure if he/she is the original owner of the chest, the manufacturer, or just another person like myself who has owned it along its journey and chose to stamp their name all over it. I’m fascinated by tools and pieces that have clear identifiers like this though and really makes me want to know more about who that person is/was. Like it or not, we’re connected through this chest now and I just like to imagine the journey this piece has been on to find its way to me. I even tried to do an ancestry.com lookup on the name but I don’t have enough additional information to come to any real conclusions. If you know someone named Lampson that might have had a relative in the trades (likely carpentry), and you think this chest could’ve belonged to your family, I’d love for you to reach out to me.
For this project I want to keep it as close to the original wood finish as possible. I chose to apply 3 coats of Fast-Drying Oil Based Polyurethane by Minwax. The oil base hardens in the wood and provides maximum durability. It also really brings out the natural color of this beautiful chest. I’m not exactly sure what this chest was built with but the color pop really resembles finished Cherry. If you want to learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of using Oil based versus water based products for your finish coat, check out this other article that goes into greater detail.
The chest had some cheap hardware store hinges on it with mismatched screws which definitely weren’t original to the chest. However, the handles on the sides of the chest are cast iron and definitely seem original so I chose to purchase some cast iron hardware to try and match. I was able to find some cast iron hinges, and a latch for the front. I had to do a little bit of chisel work to make the hinges fit properly but what better way to restore a hand tool chest than by using some hand tools! There is a hole in the front of chest that must have held some sort of original latching mechanism but as that’s long gone I found something that I liked the look of and installed that in its place. I also added some new leather for the lid support with some vintage looking brass nails.
I’m so happy with the way this chest came out! In fact, it far surpassed my expectations as to what I was going to get when I started this restoration. The Fast-Drying Oil Based Polyurethane was absolutely the right choice for refinishing this piece and hopefully will make it last another 100ish years! I plan to have this piece displayed (and working) in my new workshop once I get it built out along with the restored hand tools that occupied it when I bought it. I’ve still got a lot more work to do to get those tools restored but that’s a project for another day!
Thanks for checking out this restoration! If you liked it, here are a few other articles you may enjoy!