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In a typical wooden tool tote, the sides have grain running horizontally, but what is the best way to run the grain for the ends?

It seems like it would be better to make them with vertical grain strength-wise, but then you have a joint between the ends and the sides with the grain running in opposite directions.

If you make the ends with horizontal grain, they match up with the sides from an aesthetic and wood-movement perspective, but then you’re putting stress perpendicular to the grain when you lift it by the handle. Is one way significantly better than the other?

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  • In looking at several dozen totes on Google, I'd say that more than 80% had ends with grain oriented vertically, so your perception of what's typical might not be correct. Also, totes come in various proportions -- some are tall, others are short. Adding some photos of what you have in mind might improve the question.
    – Caleb
    Commented May 22, 2023 at 21:53

1 Answer 1

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It seems like it would be better to make them with vertical grain strength-wise

Yes it makes most sense to run the grain vertically on the sides for strength and this is one reason this is the orientation that's most commonly seen. Do note however that with the high handle position there's actually a weak point there, due to the "short grain" above the hole or handle mortise1.

but then you have a joint between the ends and the sides with the grain running in opposite directions.

Yup, this makes for a cross-grain situation which woodworkers have to be wary of2.

Here it's not a big deal for a few reasons:

  • when this design originated these would nearly always have been nailed together, and no glue used;

  • typically the joint is not excessively long;

  • these are utility items.

Nailed connections can allow for a surprising amount of flex or movement. When screws are used instead as is probably more likely these days you can either ignore the movement for smaller totes, or for larger/deeper ones drill oversize clearance holes (or elongate them into short slots) to allow for movement; screws should be just tight in this case.

Although there are definitely exceptions, totes tended not to be particularly deep so the total movement in the sides wasn't excessive. Where a tote3 was deep there could indeed be a problem, and one or more splits in the sides of historical examples are known.

Because these were utility items if a split did occur the craftsman who build it might have been disappointed, but it didn't matter structurally and probably nobody else cared or noticed.

Other options include:

  • deliberately choosing wood for minimal movement (whether by species or cut);

  • build the tote from plywood.

Historically totes were often made from pine, and somewhat surprisingly pine doesn't move much (white oak moves a lot more for example). In addition, or instead, quarter-sawn or rift-sawn boards could be chosen for their lower movement coefficient (roughly half).

While plywood is not nearly as tough or stiff as solid wood it can be more than adequate for this sort of thing and possibly with a little reinforcement can last decades of not-careful use — as can be seen by the many plywood totes and tool boxes used by working pros that withstood decades of use and are still around to be sold for inflated prices in antique outlets ^_^

If you make the ends with horizontal grain, they match up with the sides from an aesthetic and wood-movement perspective, but then you’re putting stress perpendicular to the grain when you lift it by the handle.

Yup. Wrapping the grain around the sides can look great and if it's something you'd prefer to do for aesthetics you can take steps to compensate for a tendency for the top of the side to split off.

Nails, screws or dowels could be spaced along the top that go deep enough to reinforce the wood past the likely split line; these would work best if inserted dovetail fashion, with some or all at opposing angles such as \ \ / / or / \ / \

A metal strap could be attached to form the entirety of the top of the handle enclosure.

Doubling up the thickness of the wood internally or externally, possibly with the grain at an angle to form a crude plywood.


1 And could do with being reinforced as a result, e.g. with a cross-grain dowel.

2 Someone may unthinkingly say something to the effect that this is something we should avoid completely but that's actually impossible — the joint between a table leg and the rails/stiles is a cross-grain joint, but of course it's one of the fundamental joints in all of woodworking!

3 Or anything with similar construction, such as a five-board chest.

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  • Good answer with a gentle reminder to avoid dovetails or box joints. (Please don’t ask how I’d know such things.) Commented May 22, 2023 at 15:51
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    I initially meant to suggest dovetails or finger joints, but only on the continuous-grain option obviously :-D
    – Graphus
    Commented May 23, 2023 at 4:24
  • I can’t upvote yet, but that was a much more detailed answer than I expected, so thank you! Commented Jun 3, 2023 at 12:48
  • Welcome, this is what we're (supposed to be) here for. Since another Answer to compete with this is unlikely at this point feel free to give this one the tick which closes out the Q&A process.
    – Graphus
    Commented Jun 4, 2023 at 5:18

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