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Craftsmanship and Art in an Early Tool Chest

Updated: May 12, 2023

Matthews chest exterior with lid down

The following is excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. VI, No. 2, April 1953

By W. Parker Crutchfield

"The man who built that must have been a bach­elor " announced a lady tourist who was seeing the eight­eenth century cabinet· maker's tool chest on exhibition at the Ayscough Shop in Colonial Williamsburg. She looked admiringly and a bit enviously at the mahogany veneered interior of the chest with its exquisite inlay of boxwood, ebony and striped tulip wood. How beautiful and yet how functional were the perfectly fitted dovetailed drawers with brass drawer pulls. The drawers, numbering forty-eight in all, including the seventeen sim­ulated ones to create grace and balance in design, fitted in four sliding removable sections. Each was de­signed to hold a specific tool – the bit stock carefully fit­ted in one, the almost infinite variety of carving tools in another, the mortise chisels and turning tools in another.

The builder was a master in more ways than one. "No wife," continued the enthralled lady, "would have been satisfied to let her husband keep such a beautiful object merely to keep tools in. So the man that built this must have been a bachelor."

"On the contrary, my dear," objected her husband, closing the chest lid as he spoke. The object of beauty and craftsmanship disappeared; now there could be seen only a large rectangular box, forty-two inches long, twenty-six inches wide and twenty-two inches tall. Around the bottom was a plain six inch moulding. To be sure, even with its worn coating of grey paint the careful dovetailing of the corners was perceptible, yet it remained drab and unattractive.

"The builder purposely painted the outside, because this was his shipping chest, used to protect and guard his precious tools when he made a major move," contin­ued her husband.

"Of course, if he were married, he knew that his wife would ignore such a dull thing as an ordinary deal tool chest painted gray." Actually the cabinet maker who created this work of functional art was a true master craftsman expressing his creative instincts and pride of workmanship in a useful way. This was not uncommon among eighteenth and early nineteenth century crafts­men.

Believed to have been built between 1765 and 1790 by an English craftsman. R. F. Matthews, this chest is an almost perfect example of the intensive pride which the early craftsmen took in their work. According to the tradition of the English family from which the American purchaser obtained it, the chest was in America during the 18th Century, went back to England about 1810 where it remained until discovered and was brought back to this country.

That these craftsmen in days gone by loved their tools is attested by the precision and care in detail which this chest's builder took in making a home for them. Sturdy and strongly built, the chest is basically of seven eighths inch deal (An English or Scandinavian pine or fir) with three permanently built in compartments run­ning lengthwise inside on the bottom, while back and front, resting on the outside bottom compartments or tiers of two removable sections. These will slide individually toward the center to allow entrance to the bottom sections on which they rest. These four sections can be en­tirely removed, forming individual chests themselves. In each of these sections, with the exception of the saw com­partment, there are balanced rows of little drawers, veneered on their faces with mahogany and inlaid with strips of ebony and boxwood, These drawers, which have brass pulls, face each other and open by pulling to­ward the center. To balance the design there are nine false drawer fronts on the side of the saw compartment, each appearing exactly like the drawers in the other compartments. All the visible surfaces within the chest are veneered with mahogany and inlaid with borders of box, ebony and striped tulip wood. Directly on the in­side front of the chest is a narrow tray fitted so that it will pull upward and come completely out. In this tray is contained a mahogany square, several bevel squares, drawing curves, (one with a plumb bob combined in it) these also of mahogany.

The inside of the top of the chest is mahogany veneer with a border of tulipwood, ebony and box wood all around, showing the influence of Hepplewhite and Sheraton. The top is fastened to the chest with brass butt hinges.

The transformation of the chest, from its solid drabness, when closed, to its amazing beauty when opened is startling and refreshing, like a sudden shaft of sunlight piercing a dull, murky sky. The work of a master, who had labored long year, learning his craft is everywhere evident – in the precise perfection of the dovetailing of the drawers, the studied care in arrangement, the delicate, yet positive design of inlay.

No less interesting than the chest itself are the tra­ditional cabinetmakers tools which it contains – though many of the originals are missing. The saws, planes, squares, gauges, spokeshaves, drills, chisels, carving tools, hammers, calipers, compasses, scratch awls, and turning tools bespeak, in themselves the skill rather than the oft thought crudeness of the workman of bygone days. The tools date from the middle eighteenth cerntury to the first quarter of the nineteenth century, many of them undoubtedly having been made by the craftsmen themselves, while others bear the names of famous English tool makers.

On many of these tools appears the name of R. F. Matthews, believed to be the maker of the chest; on others there appear the names of both Matthews and F. Newton. And on some of the latter ones only the name of F. Newton.

Among the tools there is a compass plane for plan­ing concave surfaces, which has attached to the far end of the stock, a sliding device for adjusting the front of the sole so that the plane will work on more than one radius. There is a trammel compass beautifully made of box wood and ivory; several intriguing calipers for both inside and outside measurement; and an iron plated joiner's plane (about 1800) the stock of which is made of ebony.

In fact there arc one or two tools apparently made by Matthews for some special purpose which, so far, have defied identification. Of moulding, rabetting, and tongue and groove planes there are some eighty in all. The styles of the mouldings which can be cut with these planes extends from those of the eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, with the use of the Cyma curve quite frequent. The irons in these planes are both hand forged and cast steel, all of it excellent, as was the steel of the early tools. Included among the moulding planes are a dozen delightful little coach maker's planes – not nearly so common as the often seen moulding planes.

A few of the tools contained in the Matthews Tool Chest. Here can be seen mahogany squares, bevel squares. miters, and curves. Note that the large square has an arrangement for converting it into a level by the addition of a plumb bob. The two large planes pictured are an iron boxed ebony try-plane and a compass plane with an adjustable fore end. The two small planes are coach maker's planes, adapted to cutting mouldings on curved surfaces. Also included are gauges, carving tools and a remarkable trammel compass of box wood and ivory.

tools in the Matthews tool chest

Found in one drawer containing only slightly used mortise chisels are two invoices which follow. The first is from John Lund, Plane Maker, Wholesale and Retail, London Road, Southwark, England ... (Not dated)

"1 Sett of Best Slipt Beads, Doubl Boxt – 1£ 13s 1 Best Plough and 10 irons – 15s 2d

1 Best Stock and 33 Brown Bitts and Collars 1 Sett Mortas Chs – 2£ 8s 2d"

The second is from: John Mosley and Son, Plane, Tool Chest and Mechanical Manufacturers, No. 16, New Street, Covent Garden, London, February 19, 1819.

"Stock Bitts – 1£ 10s 6d Mortice Locks – 2s 6d Sash filister – 10s Doz. Gauges – 4s 9d 2 dbl bent bitt – 1s 1d Dado groove Plane – 7s 7 Turkey slips...(Stones) – 9s 2 pair handscrews – 12s 1d 4£, 2s, 1d"

Matthews Tool Chest Open

Among the miscellany of odds and ends scattered within the chest are the little intimate objects which aid the imagination in recreating a picture of these crafts­men, R. Matthews and F. Newton who used and treasur­ed these tools and chest – The steel punches for stamp­ing their names on valued tools, samples and mouldings cut in Santo Domingo mahogany, hand made paper lining the bottom of drawers, patterns for unknown uses, hand cut brass screws, number punches and letter stencils.

But most fascinating of all is a small card on which is written, apparently in pencil, the following: "Benjamin Banks, Salisbury, 1789. Fecit." Something to con­jure with: who was Benjamin Banks. Fecit: "He made it." Made what? A piece of furniture? A tool? These are the intriguing questions which fascinate and set the mind racing backward.

Ghosts of a bygone era appear; ghosts of honest, skillful craftsmen, artists in the same sense as the builders of the great cathedrals, the painters of matchless pic­tures, the composers of undying music; men exhibiting in their daily tasks the creative desire which distinguishes man from the other animals. These men from day to day were builders and designers of civilization.

Editor's Note: For more (and better) pictures of the R. F. Matthews Tool Chest, visit Bill Pavlak's post at Fine Woodworking. The chest remains in the collection at Colonial Williamsburg.


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