ShopTalk Sunday: Toolbox Shoot-Out, ShopSmith?

If a discussion about toolboxes and whether a ShopSmith (serious multi-tool) seem like an odd pairing, relax.  It’s not.  Both have everything to do with how you get “the job” done.

Let’s Do Toolboxes First

It always struck me as odd:  That Pappy Ure’s shop was constantly piled with tools and projects.  Yet, when we were out salmon fishing, he un-erringly would say “Hand me a swivel from the tool box, second bin from right.”  In what must confuse a lot of psychologists, people tend to organize things in their perceived level of importance.  Or not….and that’s the confusing part.

As a tool-slut, I most likely have one of everything, two of many things, and a world-ending supply of consumables.  Welding tips, how many 50-packs of 2-inch chip brushes do you need?  And is having 15kg of PLA and ABS printing stock on hand a little nuts?  (Don’t answer.  It’d hurt my feelings…)

Tool storage, over time, ends up in one of five places:  Large roll-around tool boxes…

Then we get to the meat of this discussion:  Wooden versus plastic tool boxes.

Representing the plastic is this fishing tackle box from Amazon:  An $11.44 Flambeau Outdoors 3 Tray – Frost Green/Black tackle box.

There are a lot of reasons to like this box for small tools. Besides price.  Things like drills, small sockets, Allen wrenches, and even something heavier in the bottom.  It’s not going to rust, it’s cheap, and it organized a lot of stuff.

Downsides?  Well, if the bottom is lightly loaded and you have heavy items in the top bins, the stability takes a hike and it’s easy for it to fall back.  Then everything is all over the place.

Meet the Competition

This is a bit more uppity, a lot more stable, plus it has that “senior craftsman” look that comes from a piece of wood. Granted, the 7 Elements Beechwood Multi-Function Artist Tool Box is $33-bucks at Amazon, but it has some pluses, as well:

As you can see, even with one of the top drawers open, the unit is not unstable.  And the bin sizes are OK for up to 3-inch hex tools on the right side.  Each compartment may be opened individually.  And, if dropped, you don’t have 1.5 cubic feet of sorting to do.

Downside?  Well, there is no finish like PLA (or that new triple-thick Varathane 3X that’s out now).  It needs something more than the factory finish if you’re planning to take it out in the rain.

How to Rate Tool Storage?

Depends on what your criteria is.  If you are looking for a simple, functional tool box, for something like a Dremel tool (which is where mine will be deployed) then plastic, for sure.

Put the machine, flex shaft, hanging bar, and extension cord in the bottom and load up the bins with small bits.  Just hope you don’t drop it.

Years ago, I actually bought a blow-molded specialized Dremel tool box and have been disappointed in it.  This is rare with a Dremel tool.

Let’s look at the features of their box:  On the inside, you have room for the tool and above is a hatch, which I didn’t notice for a few months.  Upon opening, some things will fit, but not some of my bit kits:

On the top of the Dremel tool box are two clear plastic pop-opens that expose lots of slots for the 1/8th inch bits to plug into.  Like so:

See the problem?

When you drop this box (You don’t drop things? Right…).  The end pops open and since there’s no internal lip to catch things, when you open the clear plastic part, bits are everywhere.

Blow-Mold Box Madness

Blow-molded tool boxes are both a blessing and a curse.  They hide the cords and are less work to clean (with an air nozzle) than cleaning discrete tools.

But, oh my God!  Do they waste space!  At least with the $12 buck fishing box, everything is usable space.

DeWalt (and Milwaukee) make pretty good tools.  And yet, here’s my (highly recommended DEWALT Deep Socket Set, 20-Piece, 1/4″ Drive Metric/SAE (DWMT73811) ($18.69, Amazon). (Don’t forget a 1/4″ adapter for the impact drill…)  Even so, look how much of the space is actual tools and how much of the space is (useless filler)?

See how much is “boxing” and how much is tools, themselves?

Everyone does this.  No idea why, except tool designers need to learn from lingerie designers:  Less is more and more is less!

The ShopSmith Question

STS reader asked last Sunday:

As a kid, I was fascinated with the ShopSmith multi-tool (I think they did everything, including making julienne fries). But by the time I had the wherewithal to buy one, they had been litigated out of business.
Did you even encounter one of these beasts and if so, what was your impression? Worth chasing on CL or Ebay?
Thanks and 73’s.”

Wow – long question to answer, so let’s take it one step at a time.

While I can’t speak to past litigation, the ShopSmith tools are still being made – take a close look at the Mark 7 over here: Woodworking Tools — Shopsmith Woodworking Equipment and Supplies.  Over $4,400 for the Mark 7 basic.  Then addon’s will be ouch moments.

The ShopSmith is a kind of multi-tool on steroids.  There’s a table saw, over and under router, sander, lathe, horizontal boring machine, and drill press.  The systems gives a tremendously wide range of tooling/machine choices.

And there is still some support for the Mark V series and these do crop up on Craigslist and Offer-Up from time to time.

Whether you should buy used (or step up to new) or buy discrete machines as you need them…well, this is where the complexity comes in.  The Doug Reid videos on Youtube and the ShopSmith site will give you a good feel for what the machines can do.

Ure’s Analysis

If I didn’t already have a very large shop with lots of tools, I would definitely take a look at the ShopSmith option.  Realizing there are tradeoffs, though.

You can go through the machine list and come up with your own figures.  But, for example, on the $250 class table saw I have, the rip can be up to 32″ wide.  Both my existing saw and the ShopSmith use 10-inch blades.  But the bore (center hole) on the ShopSmith is over 1-inch while mine is 5/8ths…so better blade attachment on the ShopSmith.

On the other hand, I have mine set up (when needed) with infeed rollers and a couple for the outfeed.  So on either saw, you need to look at the material you plan to be using (like 3/4″ ply as full 8-foot sheets?) in order to see what will really work.

I am a HUGE fan of narrow kerf carbide combination blades…so they got many things spot-on.

It you’re going to be “all overs the place” with materials, the two issues that matter are the total table size (measure both sides from the blade) and then how much distance to the infeed.  That is, operator side of table to saw blade.

On my cheapo saw, the distance is only about 8-inches.  But, you’d want to know that distance on a ShopSmith for comparison.

Knowing the Educational Point:  The further back the blade is, the greater cut stability.  When the blade is back 10-12″ from the front of table is can be called a “hybrid” saw.  Beyond that  (over 12″ from the front) then you’re getting into cabinet saw country.  Check rip widths on this point.

You’d have to do a worksheet up yourself to see if it makes sense.  How big is my shop?  Are your plans for cabinet work?  In which case you might want a cabinet saw. But if you’re doing a wide range of “maker” projects, then it could be a good choice.  Spendy.  Good.

Just remember that a basic ShopSmith will likely need to be kitted out with additional add-ons.  (Warning:  Things get complicated here!).  Because the list price (depending on machine) for their add-on planer (12″ wide) is over $1,000 and the standalones (like my Wen off Amazon) can be a third that.  Maybe not as “good” in terms of quality.  But am I facing off old pallet wood for a some bench project (yes) or opening a furniture factory (no)?

Before buying a used unit, I’d pop the few bucks for the owner’s manual and see what the limitations and capabilities are.  The company is great on the support side with manuals available here.

Another HUGE variable is how much space do you plan on for a shop?  If you don’t have at least 20X20 (e.g. a two-car garage with no cars in it) then maybe another hobby (like 3D printing or online shopping?) would be more your speed.

Have a great Easter and write when you get rich,

17 thoughts on “ShopTalk Sunday: Toolbox Shoot-Out, ShopSmith?”

  1. George

    Happy Easter to all!

    There is some good news today. It turns out that there is a Federal law preventing any government agency from mandating that you get the covid vaccination.

    ” a Federal law 21 U.S.C. § 360bbb-3(e)(1)(A)(ii)(III) requires that the person to whom an EUA vaccine is administered be advised, a person of the option to accept or refuse administration of the product, of the consequences, if any, of refusing administration of the product, and of the alternatives to the product that are available and of their benefits and risks.”

    Go here for more:

    If you want the vaccine ok! If you don’t want the vaccine ok!

    The power hungry can’t make a rule that you have to take it. Prior law prevents that. (yea I know “we don’t need no stinking law”)

    It interesting that you never here of this law on any news discussion of vaccine mandates or passports. Wonder why?

  2. George, I love that wooden art box. I have seen some antique sewing baskets/kits that have a similar, though larger, design. I use a plastic “shoe” box for my art supplies. Actually two, one for stencils and the other for acrylic paint supplies. It fits my paint mug nicely.

    I have never found a great container for my basket making supplies. Reed comes in a one pound bundle that’s approximately a foot in diameter, but once you open up that bundle it seems to grow to fit your space. Since you need multiple bundles open at a time I tend to have piles if reed all over my work space. I have resorted to paper bags and a huge canvas bag.

    Closepins go in a plastic pencil case. But I tend to keep my tools in an open small basket so I can see and easily get what I need one handed. I have tried a variety if containers for these mostly sharp pointy tools but haven’t found anything better than the open basket.

    Since I have noticed prices rising sharply I recently had my garage insulated, drywall put up, and a split air conditioner/heater installed. It’s now a lovely space for an art studio, but also a possible living space if needed.

    • “Reed comes in a one pound bundle that’s approximately a foot in diameter, but once you open up that bundle it seems to grow to fit your space.”

      Coffee can…. when I made sea anchors for the coast guard and we were working on the around the world high altitude balloon for Branson.

      Anyway We used coffee cans to use as thread canisters.we also used those when canning chair seats. Hope that helps. Been there done that on that problem.. it also is an excellent use for the old cans eleanor..

  3. Happy Easter Bunny to you and Elaine. You’ve not mentioned her lately; hope she’s about mended!

  4. Yo G, interesting article on the Burningplatform website. Gent goes into the interaction between humans and nature, especially in regards to a robust immune system. Been digging in the dirt for many years gardening and landscaping and I believe it has helped me stay fit and healthy.

    And oh yes, I agree with you, you are definately a tool slut. You know there is help for that. Happy Easter to you and Elaine. Mahalo

  5. Happy Easter! I won a Shopsmith in a woodworking contest, in Redding, Ca., in 1982. Contestant projects from Northern Calif. and Southern Oregon. Solid Koa roll-top desk. 66″ wide, 30″ deep, 54″ high. Dovetailed drawers (hanging file folders), elaborate pigeon holes, hidden compartments,, came apart in 4 pieces for transporting. I actually made 3 at once (one White Oak, one Walnut, one Koa). Koa was the royal Hawaiian wood, and looked the most spectacular. All raised panels matched,, sunburst pattern on the end of the roll portion. enough ego..

    The Shopsmith, is a contraption that appealed to folks that wanted to be woodworkers (post WWII). It has the most dangerous table saw arrangement ever. It has a 10″ blade, yes, but. With 1″ arbor hole, finding alternate blades is problematic. Its 120 v. motor is underpowered. And the worst part of the saw feature, is that the blade is at a static height, since it’s connected to the main arbor.. Which means, in order to change the height of the cut,, you have to move the table and supports up or down, (and the outfeed table). Countless table saw setups require the blade to go up or down. Nitemare. Timewaster. Danger.

    To change speeds, you turn a 4″ (?) wheel of cast aluminum, with tiny internal teeth, that got eaten easily (several friends helped with that (ha ha). I usually ordered 2 at a time. All the accessories are overpriced (better to buy a dedicated tool) and still rely on the underpowered motor. I never tried the lathe feature (that was hobbyist stuff in my world). However, it was a pretty good boring tool. Either in horizontal or vertical mode, it was versatile (and the motor was plenty strong enough to drill holes). I still have it. I cut down the support tubes, so it was a foot shorter, painted it bright yellow (as I did with all my machines), took off the legs, and mounted it on a maple ply cart with large casters,, and put my (real) 14″ band saw on the other end. All my machines were on wheels (except my unisaw and 8″ powermatic jointer).

    Over 700 unique kitchens, hundreds of other projects, 48 year career. That’s a lot of sawdust. Put to an end by my governments lax border policies. So I sadly sold all the big stuff, and moved to a tiny city in Kansas. Oh well,, (NO whining) I like it here,, like living in the imaginary US of the 50’s and 60’s.

    I digress. If you can find a Shopsmith for a couple of hundred bucks,, OK,, it will do some stuff. But don’t fantasize about cutting 4′ x 8′, 94# sheets of melamine, to build a kitchen,, or ripping 2″ hardwood….

    • Agree with Joe here. My Dad and his brothers bought my grandfather a ShopSmith for Xmas one year. He used it, but when we went to visit, there was sawdust under his Sears table and bandsaw, and just dust on the ShopSmith. My Dad was put out by this, because him and his 2 brothers knew Grandpa was a tool slut, yet he just didn’t use the ShopSmith – so he asked him why not…

      Grandpa said, “Well, by the time I get it all set up to do anything involving plywood, I could have already ripped it on the table saw. Then I have to swap it around to drill holes, then swap it back when I wanna do something else. It’s just easier to go from one machine to the next instead of resetting that heavy monster every tie.”

      The ShopSmith got sold and the money used to buy a really sweet planer…

      It may be a little more expensive, but tools dedicated to a single function seem to be uncompromising, and you can get them to do more with some addons, like a dado head or a clamp for the drill press. Hell, I used a clamp from a 3-axis mill strapped to my drill press to mill steel and aluminum – can’t even bolt that to a ShopSmith without boring the base plate.

      It’s like chainsaws I reckon. You can spend $2-300 bucks and get a “residential model” that will trim limbs – you can even add a longer bar to most of them without reducing performance. But if you have serious cutting to do, that $2-300 is going to get matched by parts and maintenance in about a year, no matter if it is a Stihl or a Husqy. We currently have the biggest “weekender” model Husqy ready to rebuild, as after 2 years the brake, bar, clutch and most of the internals of the saw mechanism are WPFO.

      Our $700 commercial Stihl, with a bigger bar added, has been trucking mercilessly through log after log since we got it in late 2019.

      If you are serious about woodworking or cabinetry, dedicated tools will serve you longer, require far less setup time and are much more effective way to ‘get ‘er done’. Just avoid the direct drive models and you will be far happier…

      One final chain saw note – avoid the battery powered models. I got one for Xmas, the idea being that it would be awesome to trim limbs on a ladder with it. It worked for one afternoon, then it was toast – the motor fried. So having the warranty, I got a new one. It lasted two days and then the motor was so weak it would not cut. With the bar off, it ran just fine.

      So we got a 3rd one under warranty – and it followed the others, managing a single day of use before failing. This time I got my $180 back and wrote it off to a great idea poorly executed. So the old Husky we rebuild will be outfitted with a short bar and used for limbing…

      • OM2, what was the electric chainsaw? I’ve been contemplating one for use as a limber, and eyeing the Makita because I have a stock of batteries already…

        • We’ve got the 20V Black and Decker everything. The elec chain saw will do an 8″ log with fresh chain.
          BUT the chains for these little guys are crap. You need a northwoods send of filing after every big cut.
          30-days of felling non-stop with our carbide super blades? No problem. BUT the cheap steel and no carbide means constant touch-up and an 8″ log plus a 4″ limb and battery change time.
          They work and sure, there’s a time for tree hugging.
          For everything else? Husky, Stihl or Ure’s tweak of a Poulan with the special chain and recarbed about twice a year, lol

      • I truly wish I had my fathers old wood cutting equipment.. he had the only four foot two man chainsaw I have ever even seen.. if it dealt with cutting or chopping , splitting or moving wood he had it.. made his own chains and sharpened them.. had a huge roll of chain material.. when he quit cutting tree’s.. he asked me if I wanted them.. I had first Dibbs on them.. I like an idiot said no.. now I wish I had them.. one of the kids that he cut wood with got his stump grinder.. and pole saw.. He heated with wood.. and cut more tree’s than I can remember.. I don’t think he ever had an electric chain saw.. I have an electric chain saw I gave my branch grinder away. a couple of years ago now…the chainsaw is ok.. but doesn’t have much power but will handle what I need it for.. I did keep his two man crosscut saw just for memories sake….

  6. Yeah, I hate ‘blow boxes’. Takes up too much space. I have one of those Dremel boxes so old the hinge plastic is broken & held together with tape. And lots of accessories piled next to it on the shelf. Time to get a good ‘ole Flambeau tackle box. “Flambeau” is a French name for a river in the Wisconsin northwoods known for it’s sport fishing in the area. That ‘s where the tackle boxes originated.

  7. Happy Easter everyone..
    It’s been a decent day. The grandkids are trying to get me to play archimedes and make a steam canon to puff wheat.. seems everyone is getting into the puffed grain kick. lol lol.
    Will I do it.. maybe..if I find the 3 inch butterfly valve I might destroy the wife’s instapot and make a grain puffer lol.
    I won’t let any of the kids help though its it’s just to dangerous and I’d never forgive myself if someone got hurt over some crazy contraption I made. I’d first have to make a cage to catch the puffed grains in and for a just in case malfunction .
    But not today .

  8. I own a Shopsmith that I bought used. Its advantage is that it packs a lot of tools into a small space, but for the same money you can buy dedicated tools that are easier to use and are optimized for a specific purpose and do the job better. If you are limited in space, its a great deal, but if you have room, think long and hard about individual tools.
    I had a lot of 10 inch saw blades for a 5/8″ arbor, which I use on a Radial Arm Saw. The normal ShopSmith uses a 1-1/4″ arbor. Its hard to find those blades anywhere but from ShopSmith ($$). Fortunately, they also sell a 5/8 arbor attachment, which I now use, but I loose the stability of a larger diameter hole.

  9. Late to the Easter party, but… hope it was a good one.
    Been re-organizing my shop lately, so have been dealing with toolbox and pegboard wall and shelving additions and rearrangements… and more to come.
    Blow-molded cases… except for my Porter-Cable nailers & stapler & Dremel tools and similar-sized BMCs that fit nicely together on a shelf (cases labeled on the ends, of course), I have no use for them… I mean the cases for my dual-base router and drill/circ saw/flashlight kit are freaking huge…. waste of space. I’ve packed for a week-long business trip in a smaller suitcase. My jigsaw (saber saw when I was a kid) hangs on pegboard with blade selection, BMC unneeded…. waste of space. And you can never get the cords wrapped up nicely in the case… except for my Dremel rotary tool – and I’ve never taken the factory twist-tie off that one. I just plug it into an extension cord.

    Adam Savage is another tool slut who hates BMCs… UNLESS they are Milwaukee Tool cases, where the same amount of care, thought and engineering is brought to bear on the tools AND the BMCs:

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