A tool tote is something every homesteader, homeowner, farmer — well, everyone needs at least one. When I owned a small farm in beautiful northeast Kansas, I had several tool totes, and they each had a different function. One tote had all my woodcutting gear in it, another all my fence building and repair necessities, and since I sometimes did finish carpentry jobs on the side, I had one tote with all the small tools and jigs that I needed for that.
A tool tote is a simple open-topped tool carrier with a convenient handle. They don’t have lids, hinged or otherwise, and they simply transport necessary tools from one place to another. I like them better than lidded boxes because they’re easier to make yourself, and you don’t have a lid getting in the way. A tote is a simple device — and on the farm or homestead, simple is good.
My dad was a simple man who earned a living for his family as a laborer, remodeler, and later a self-employed house painter. He was always in demand. His work vehicle was the family station wagon, later a dedicated station wagon, which carried the tools he needed. He hauled his tools in simple totes, all of different design that he acquired or made. His only lidded toolbox was a small wooden affair that carried his paint brushes.
I’ll describe the design and build of a tool tote that my daughter and I recently made. We actually made two. The size and dimensions of the tote will depend on your needs. The totes we made were roughly 8 inches by 15 inches by 4-1/2 inches. Avoid the urge to make it too big, unless it’s for light specialty tools. Sometimes the size is determined by the materials I have on hand. These are also a great way to use up scrap material. I usually use 3/4-inch material for the sides and handle uprights, and 1/2- or 1/4-inch materials for the bottom. Use what you have on hand. If you have to buy material, get 3/4-inch solid stock for the sides and 1/4-inch plywood for the bottom. The handle can be made with any dowel or tubing that is heavy enough for the load it will bear and comfortable for your hand. I like 1-inch dowels, but I’ve used old broom handles as well. Bigger is better and more comfortable.
I’m lucky enough to have assembled a complete woodshop over the years, and I used my table saw for most of the cuts. You don’t need a table saw. Hand tools, even the simplest of them, can be used. If you’re a small-scale farmer or homesteader, though, try to get yourself a table saw. New ones of good quality are inexpensive, and used ones even more so. Get one, buy a good blade, and learn to safely use it. There are tons of books and videos that describe table saw safety. YouTube is especially helpful.
Begin by ripping your side stock to identical widths. I made these 4-1/2 inches. At this point, you’ll cross-cut the sides to their final dimensions. Cut these as accurately as possible. Opposite sides should be exactly equal lengths. You’ll need to join these pieces in an open box fashion, and here again, you have several options. You can use any standard joint from a simple butt joint to the elaborate dovetail joint. This is a work tote, so I’d keep it simple. A butt joint that is glued and screwed together will be just fine. I like to use rabbet joints, since they’re a little stronger but still easy to cut. Check out the basics of a rabbet joint in the photo above.
Before you begin any assembly, you’ll need to decide how you want to attach the bottom panel to the tote. You have several options. The simplest is to glue and screw the bottom to the tote. This would be plenty strong. My favorite is to cut a groove the width of the bottom stock, 1/4-inch deep, and located so the bottom will be 3/4 inch from the bottom edge of the tote. In this manner, the bottom is trapped inside the sides when you do your final assembly. Be as elaborate with any of these joints as you like, but remember simple is good, too.
To assemble the box portion of the totes, get wood glue — I like Titebond III — and the fasteners you’ll use, either nails or screws, and have them handy. If you have clamps, get them ready, too. I put my totes together by spreading glue on all joints, assembling the parts, clamp, and then pre-drill holes for the fasteners. You’ll definitely need to pre-drill holes for the screws, and I also recommend pre-drilling for nails as well. Check that the box is square using either a small woodworker square or making sure diagonal measurements from opposite corners match. Make adjustments before the glue sets up. Set the project aside and let it dry for the recommended time for the glue you use.
You have many options for the handle of your tote. Again, I like simple. I cut uprights wide enough to enclose the handle stock and long enough to elevate the handle to a comfortable height. This piece usually ends up being approximately 9 inches by 3 inches. Drill the hole for your handle before attaching to the tote. Be as accurate as you can, as it will make assembly much easier.
Final assembly is a matter of placing the handle into the holes you just drilled in the uprights. Adjust the uprights to match the interior dimensions of the box, and glue and secure to the sides. I’ve made totes with handles that are parallel to the long dimensions and also at right angles to the length. Consider the use of your tote, and make yours in the configuration that works best for you.
You’re all set. I usually drive a small nail in a pre-drilled hole through the upright and into the handle to hold it in place, but you can simply glue it, if preferred. I don’t use any finish on my totes, but you can if you want. I’ve even seen some that are painted and labeled. I’ve thought several times of making several totes and painting the ends with chalkboard paint for labeling.
So make a tote! Have fun, be careful, and enjoy the process.
Complete materials list and step-by-step instructions for making a wooden workbench.
Bradley Trimble is a native of northeast Kansas, where he still lives and enjoys woodworking, gardening, cooking, and mostly relaxing with his wife. He also provides sage advice, free of charge, to the Managing Editor of Grit!