The first time I came across a box like this, it was housing a circular saw. It was made from rec room paneling, scrap pine, and roofing nails. While not much to look at, it was strong, and the action of the lift-out lid fascinated me. A couple of months later I learned that this is also the common design for a Japanese carpenter’s toolbox. I knew I had to make one, so with some 1×12s in hand, I had at it. In the last 15 years, the box has carried my tools to nearly every big job. The trouble is, because I built it to fit in my hatchback instead of to fit my tools, it’s kind of big for what I need on most jobs. So instead of continuing to stuff tools into my old messenger bag, I figured it was time to build a new, smaller Japanese toolbox.



As with all woodworking projects, there are many ways to accomplish the same task. The tools and techniques I show here should be viewed as one option, not the only way. Use whatever tools, methods, and materials make sense to you. You can avoid a lot of frustration by selecting the best boards you can find. Look for pieces that are straight, flat, and free of twist. Sometimes that means going through every board they have; sometimes that means getting 2 boards so you can cut around flaws.



Step #1: Choose your sizing

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  • The first step was deciding how big I needed the box to be. Since I like the width of my old toolbox, I used the same 1×12 bottom. Generally, you want the box to accept your longest tool, which in this case is my saw. I found 23" to be a comfortable fit .
  • With the length established, it was time to stack some tools. All together, they measured just over 5" high, and since we lose a little height from the thickness of the lid (and you never know what else you’ll want to stuff in there) I went with 1×8 sides. After doing some math and a quick chalk layout, I determined that, with careful cutting, I could get all of my parts out of 2 boards.

Step #2: Cut the wood

Japanese Toolbox
  • Since I wanted to squeeze everything out of 2 boards, the layout was especially important. The first photo shows where each piece came from. Download the cutting diagram.
  • From the 1×12:
    • A: 11-1/4" × 26" (bottom)
    • B: 9-11/16" x 21-1/8" (lid)
    • C: 1-3/8" x 21-1/8" (lid brace)
  • From the 1×8 (2 each):
    • D: 7-1/4" × 26" (sides)
    • E: 7-1/4" × 9-3/4" (ends)
    • F: 3" × 11-1/4" (top ends)
    • G: 1-1/2" × 11-1/4" (lid supports)
    • H: 1-1/2" × 9-3/4" (grips)
  • TIP: Whenever possible, I try to cut all like-sized pieces at the same time, which ensures that everything will line up properly.

Step #3:

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  • Starting with the 1×12, use a chop saw to trim away about 1/4" to get rid of the factory end; this will give you a cleaner, squarer, more reliable edge. Measure 21-1/8" from the fresh end and make the cut.
  • The bottom and sides are all 26", so to ensure they match, I set up a stop. On the 1×12, mark a line at 26" and align the board on the saw. Place a scrap piece against the cut end and clamp it in place. Check the cut alignment one more time and then make the cut.
  • Take the 1×8, trim 1/4" from the end, slide it carefully up against the stop (you don’t want to whack it out of position), and cut the 2 side pieces. Next, lay out 11-1/4", reset the stop, and cut 2 of those, and then the two 9-3/4" ends. Leave the stop in this position because you will use it again.
  • Next are a couple of rip cuts. On a table saw, rip the lid piece to 9-11/16" wide, saving the offcut for the lid brace. From one 11-1/4" piece, rip two 3"-wide pieces. Lastly, from the other 11-1/4" piece, rip four 1½"-wide sticks. Of these 4 sticks, take 2 back to the chop saw, and using the 9-3/4" stop, cut the 2 grip pieces (keep these offcuts as well). And that’s it — you’re ready to assemble.
  • The method of assembly has a lot of options. Over the years I’ve constructed boxes using screws, nails, glue, joinery, and combinations of the four, all with good results. The point is to approach this however feels right to you. If you prefer nails, great! If you like cutting sliding dovetails, go for it!

Step #4:

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  • The only thing that I would specifically recommend is to try to orient all of the boards with the bark side out. This side of the board will generally remain smoother and will help keep the outside from developing snaggy bits when you sand or plane it.
  • Apply a bead of glue and then spread it across the surface. Don’t spread it so thin that it dries before you assemble, but also don’t make it so thick that your parts are sliding around and a lot of glue is squeezing out (a little is okay).

Step #5: Attach the grips to the ends

Japanese Toolbox

It’s important that the edges are all flush, so check the fit beforehand and take your time adjusting them before you fasten. Apply the glue and then lightly clamp the parts together. Get them exactly where you want them before you fully tighten the clamps.

Step #6:

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Flip the clamped pieces over. Mark the 3 holes 3/4" in from the edge: 1" from each side and one centered. Drill and countersink, then fasten using 1-1/4" screws.

Step #7: Tips

Japanese Toolbox
  • For gluing I like to use an acid brush cut back to about half an inch long.
  • Slipping a scrap piece under the other end will help keep it stable when adding the screws.
  • Because I like the look of evenly spaced fasteners, I always make layout lines. Aside from helping make sure I don’t miss the board I’m trying to fasten to, it also keeps fasteners from conflicting in the corners.

Step #8: Make the body

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  • Using an adjustable square set to 1-1/8", strike a line parallel to the ends, on the outside of both side pieces. Then measure in from each edge and mark at 1" and 2-3/4". Predrill and countersink all 16 holes.
  • Apply glue to the ends of one end assembly and clamp in place. Again, make sure that everything is properly aligned before clamping tight. To make sure the bottom is set back the proper distance, I use one of those cutoffs from the grips (you saved those, right?) as a guide.

Step #9:

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  • When everything is in its place, fasten with eight 1-5/8" screws. Because my clamp pads are in the way, I fasten the 2 center screws on each side first, then remove the clamps and drive the rest. Repeat on the other end, making sure that the grips are both facing outward in the same direction.
  • TIP: Putting the other end assembly loosely in place will help keep the sides from shifting.

Step #10: Attach the bottom

Japanese Toolbox
  • Flip the frame so that the grip side is down, and place the bottom. Lay out the fastener locations: for the sides at 3/8" from the edge, 1", 7", and 13" from either end. For the ends, the first one is at 2" (to avoid hitting side screws) and the center one is at 5-5/8". Drill.
  • Glue and clamp the bottom in place, making sure everything aligns, then fasten using 1-5/8" screws. Don’t be surprised if the bottom seems a little wider than the sides. It happens. No one knows why. You can sand or plane it flush later.

Step #11: Attach the top ends

Japanese Toolbox

Following the same procedure, drill, glue, clamp, and fasten the top ends. Be especially careful when screwing or nailing the outer corners, as the wood is easy to split here. Predrilling is highly recommended. My screws are 1/2" from the end, but 3/4" would be safer.

Step #12: Make the lid

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  • For the lid to work right, make sure everything is positioned accurately. To start, make sure the lid board fits between the sides. It’s much easier to make adjustments to it now, before attaching the supports. It should be about 1/16" narrower than the opening and 1-1/8" longer.
  • On top of the lid board, mark a line 1-1/4" in from one end — this is the long tab. Apply glue to one lid support (stopping about 1" from either end), and lightly clamp it along the line. Using those 2 grip cutoffs again, center the support along the line; it should slightly overhang the scraps. Tighten the clamps, flip the board, and fasten using three 1-1/4" screws.

Step #13:

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  • On the other end, mark a line 5/8" from the end (the short tab) and repeat the process. At this point, you can test the lid. Tilt the long tab in first, slide it in until it stops, drop the other end down, then slide it back.
  • Adding the diagonal is optional. I add it because I like the look, and it makes the lid stiffer and acts as a handle.
  • To add the lid brace, position it from corner to corner between the lid supports, and clamp it in place. Using a sharp pencil, scribe a line on the underside. To keep track of the orientation, after removing the clamps, make a reference mark at one end of both the brace and lid. This is important because it often only fits one way.

Step #14:

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To save the hassle of adjusting the chop saw for these 2 cuts, I prefer to use a handsaw. I place a straight piece of scrap along the line, hold it tight, and run the saw against it. Before cutting the other end, position the brace back on the lid to double check that the cut line is still good. Glue and fasten it in place.

Step #15: Wrap it up

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From here on the rest is up to you. Erase the lines or leave them, flush up the bottom if it needs it (mine did), round edges with sandpaper, and then fill it with tools. Or books. Or cupcakes! As for mine, I will stop here, slide it under the bench next to the larger one, and wait for the next job.


This project first appeared in MAKE Volume 34, page 110.
Len Cullum

Len Cullum

Len Cullum is a woodworker living in Seattle, where he specializes in building Japanese-style garden structures and architectural elements. When not woodworking, he teaches at Pratt Fine Arts Center, writes, and dreams of a robot that would sharpen his chisels.

  • Bryan

    Really, you built a box dude. Congratulations don’t hurt yourself with the same and drill.

    • Hi Bryan,

      That was a very insightful comment, but you forgot to add a link to your awesome project which is just as useful, has interesting cross cultural factoids, a great interface, etc.

      You could make me look stupid here if you replied with a link, but I’m guessing you won’t do that because if you were really a maker, you wouldn’t disparage another one like this.

      • Awesome little box. Would be great for camping too. I think I will “steal” this for a scout project.

  • Thanks for the .gif. I couldn’t figure out why this was better than a milk crate, until I saw how the lid was designed to kind of lock down. That’s nice looking.

  • Bob White

    Waaaaaay better than the last time MAKE described how to make a box. Also, cool interface for the step by step.

  • This was a great project. I didn’t have a miter saw big enough to cut the 1×12 but it still worked out great. I also used Red Oak, for my build. It cost a bit more, and is heavier. I plan to experiment with the sizes, and make one wit my kids. Great project. If I could send you a picture I would.

  • kellie

    do you have a pdf?

  • Ryan Slaugh

    Nice project, a great design! I think building this may be one of my 4th of July activities.

  • William

    Awesome Idea, I’ve always enjoyed the Japanese culture. I decided to make one of these as a toy box for my sons bedroom. Once I get a chance I will post a link to some pics of it..

    • William
      • It’s beautiful!

        • William


      • Goli Mohammadi

        Great job, William! And what a perfect idea to use it as a toy box. Love the paint job.

        • William

          Thanks, the chalkboard paint makes it..

          • Len Cullum

            Very cool. I love the chalkboard paint. I might try it on one of mine for making quick sketches and math instead of writing on scraps.

  • Really functional design.
    I made an 800x400x400mm toolbox for my van from a single sheet of 17mm ply.
    Total cost was $65 (australian), and ~4hrs work.

    Much stronger than any of the sheet metal tool boxes you can buy for ~$200

    My build:

    • Goli Mohammadi

      Looks great, Levy! Thanks for sharing!

    • Len Cullum

      Nice job Levy, looks great.

  • Is there any background info available on how this simple design evolved in Japan?

    • Len Cullum

      I’ve never come across any, but my inability to read Japanese doesn’t help. I’d be interested as well.

    • scottwvincent

      Toshio Odate wrote in the October 1995 edition of American Woodworker that he based his on the one his master had when he was an apprentice in 1947. But that’s the only bit of history I’ve found. You can see it here: http://books.google.com/books?id=vPYDAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA1&pg=PA58#v=onepage&q&f=false

      • Thanks for posting that Scott. It’s helpful to know how it was typically carried and when (at least as late as the post-war period).

        • Certainly. I actually was interested enough myself in the history that I ordered Odate’s book “Japanese Woodworking Tools” through the library, which I got today. The only thing I learned from it is that it’s bad manners to look inside another’s toolbox!

  • scottwvincent

    I really enjoyed this project and I’m very happy with my completed toolbox. Thank you Len for this wonderful project! Here’s the information on mine:


    The only thing I did to make it a little more unique was chiseling my first name onto it in Japanese.

    • Len Cullum

      Great job Scott, and great post as well. Your carving is a nice touch. I carved my first one too. It was the shortened Shunruyu Suzuki quote “In the beginners’ mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few” on the inside of the lid. Didn’t come out nearly as well as yours. It was such a disaster that I ended up sanding it off. Learned some things about carving and the quote in the process. A lesson inside of the lesson I suppose.

      • Thanks! That would be an excellent quote for many projects! I think if I had tried my name in English I would have had a hard time as well. The Katakana characters are very simple, at least for my name.

  • BStahley

    Wow, super cool!

    Totally random question, Len: what kind of watch do you have on in the pics? I want one!


    • Len Cullum

      And here’s a randome answer: It’s a Sottomarino Strumento Gauge. I love it. you can find them floating around on ebay

      • BStahley

        Right on. Thank you so much!

  • JWalsh

    I just finished making mine today. Came out great. I’m pretty much a beginner and I would highly recommend this project if you are as well. Has anybody thought of putting a finish on the final product. I was thinking of 50/50 shellac and alcohol. Any ideas?


    • Len Cullum

      Shellac is a good choice, just make sure it is fairly fresh. Because of its limited shelf life (even unopened), I usually won’t use shellac more than two years old. It also preforms well on the inside of things, unlike oil finishes which often rancid and smell terrible when applied to the inside of boxes/drawers/cabinets.

      • JWalsh

        Thanks Len, that’s really good to know.

  • Tom

    I made a PDF of your project steps. Glad to supply it if anyone is interested.

  • One option I would make to this project is to butress the bottom of the box. Make some 1/2 inch by 3/4 inch slats and attach them with glue and screws at the bottom of the sides, front, and back pieces. Cut the bottom to fit inside the box resting on the slats. This will prevent the bottom from falling out if it is picked up with a lot of weight in it. With just screws and glue to the bottom edges, there really is not anything supporting the bottom piece, leaving you with a nasty surprise one day when you pick it up and have all your sharp tools fall on your feet.

    • Len Cullum

      Hi John, I appreciate what you are saying, but modern wood glues, given a proper surface, create a bond that is stronger than the wood itself. The screws not only add mechanical strength to the joint, but also multiply the clamping force, insuring that the glue creates a good, strong bond. The likelihood of failure is pretty low. Not saying you shouldn’t build it how you feel, but in my opinion, the extra steps would be unnecessary.

      • Len, it is called shock and shear resistance. Glue makes an inherently weak means of handling sudden blows or shearing. Take your screwed and glued bottom and give it some good whacks with a hammer. You will be able to pop the bottom off with just a few blows. Yes, the GLUE holds well but the wood will easily split apart. (shear is where you twist or bend the joint). The screws are essentially worthless and are really there to keep the wood pieces together while the glue dries.
        Think about what this is, a tool chest. That means heavy tools can and will be dropped into the box. Each blow will start to crack the wood and glue joint and the screws have little holding power on their own. After hard use, I would expect the bottom to fall off with all the tools along with it.
        This is not new and it is a basic part of making a box. Drawers in a dresser or cabinet are not simply screwed and glued to the bottom but are inserted into a groove in the sides which also create a kind of cleat. If a simple small drawer uses cleats, you should be using them on a much heavier tool chest.
        The sides could also stand to be cleated or routed into the front and back but I lectured you enough, heh.

        • Len Cullum

          Let me start by thanking you for your insightful master class on ‘shock and shear resistance.’ I feel so enlightened. It is sure to inform how I build everything from here on. Secondly, no craftsperson worth their tools ever intentionally drops them or the box they are carried in. Third, the box bottom is supported by the surface beneath it, so if someone were to be so careless as to drop a tool, the shock would go to the surface below, not through the joint. It is not a drum, so pounding on it as you suggest isn’t relevant. I could go on, but I would rather not, except to point out that if you carefully read the title of this article, you might note that it is not a “John Pombrio Toolbox”, nor is it even a “Len Cullum Toolbox”, it very clearly says “Japanese Toolbox.” So if you have issue with the way it is constructed, take it up with those who have been building them this way for the last hundred or so years (with rice glue and bamboo nails no less). I on the other hand, will stand by the tradition and design that has served me without fault for nearly twenty years

        • The tool box that Len has created here is pretty close to what a person learning woodworking would build in a trade school. Some of the techniques and tools you are describing might not necessarily be learned at the point the tool box would be made. I am not sure I agree with the cleating aspect. It would seem that you are going to reduce the area that would take the “shock and shear”. It would put the bottom of the box into a situation where shear could take place rather than tension/compression. It would not be uncommon at a work site to empty the box and flip it upside down to use as a work surface. Not for pounding on but to have a surface to set your tools or work on a piece. The tool box combined with the floor horses in the other Make skill builder lends itself to a decent raised surface. When I made my box based off of Len’s tutorial here, one change I made was to get more use out of the lid by making it sort of a shooting board to do planing or hold a piece in place for cutting. Also for the bottom, I used trim scrims put in at an angle. The trim screws mostly because they were #6 stainless steel with T-15 heads and they look kinda cool. Making the tool box was an interesting history lesson.

          • Ouch. I am just concerned for people’s safety is all. No disrespect to the author. I went online and Googled simple tool boxes and NOT ONE of them used cleats for the bottom, heh. Far from me to contradict everyone else. It must not be that much of a problem if they do not fall apart! I even found another article on making a Japanese tool box:
            The bottom was just screwed and glued or possibly just nailed together.
            I apologize for any ill feelings or preaching that I did.

  • Cynthia Rose

    I have never seen such a simple design for a toolbox before. I suppose it would fill the need well enough though. I actually really like the look of it.

    Cynthia | http://www.servicevanequipment.com/toolboxes-adrian-crossover.php

  • James Hickman

    This project used to have steps… Am i missing them somehow? Were they removed?

  • Tom O’Brien

    I just finished making two of these with my grandsons (both 10 years old). With the first one we used 1 1/4 flathead Phillips wood screws, predrilled and countersunk.
    With the second we used 1 1/4 flathead square drive wood screws by Quickscrew, called their ‘funnel head’, which will drill, drive, and countersink the screw in a single operation. This was a great learning exercise for the boys, and an exercise in patience for Papa. We signed and dated the box on the bottom, after adding some furniture glides. Thanks for a cool plan and great instructions.

    • torr10

      I guess flathead means something different in your area.

  • Don Chapman

    Great job building the box and documenting it as well. Have you ever needed to use a small board that can can be wedged in to lock the lid closed? Just a thought. I plan to make one of these boxes when the weather cools off down here in Houston.

  • Belia Krouse

    Go to woodprix page if you want to learn how to build it yourself