Beveling with a draw-knife exercise

Traditional Sloyd Tool Cabinet

I recently had the opportunity to make a post to the Popular Woodworking online community which is edited by Dan Farnbach the PWM online editor.

Below is an extended version of that first post:

Bill Rainford -- Preservation Carpenter, Joiner, Instructor
Bill Rainford — Preservation Carpenter, Joiner, Instructor

Bill Rainford is a young and driven craftsman in whom I think you’ll find a lot in common. Voraciously self-taught at first, Bill went on to graduate from the Preservation Carpentry Program at one of New England’s premier craft schools. He now teaches workshops at that school (North Bennet Street) and serves as adjunct faculty at the Boston Architectural College, in addition to developing his own body of commissioned work, building his blog and holding down a day job in software. I want to welcome Bill to the community as an occasional guest writer. He’s going to bring us a little history and several techniques from his area of expertise, which he describes as traditional joinery –though Bill’s skills do not fit neatly in just one category.

We may also do a project plan over the course of the next few months. Please welcome Bill by reading this newsletter and then visiting his blog! Of particular interest is Bill’s recent collaboration with Roy Underhill – more on that at the bottom of this e-mail.


What Sloyd Did For Me and My Woodworking Apprenticeship

Part of what made my training in preservation carpentry so rewarding was the way in which it was taught.  We followed a system of educational handwork derived from what was originally developed at Nääs in Sweden and known as the ‘Educational Sloyd System.’ Sloyd is the Swedish word for ‘craft’ and most commonly associated with skilled manual craft work. In the early years of the school in the late 19th century, there was a strong need in Boston and America as a whole to help new immigrants learn the skills needed to acclimate to this new country and develop skills to support oneself. This Sloyd System trained students by building a series of useful models/items each of which introduced basic tools and skills, built confidence to tackle more advanced work, and fostered the ability to evaluate your own work and push yourself to reach new levels of accomplishment.

Elementary Sloyd Training in traditional woodworking techniques
Elementary Sloyd Training based on traditional woodworking techniques

When Otto Aaron Salomon wrote ‘The Theory of Educational Sloyd‘ (page 7) he described the goals one should strove for in teaching and learning within this system.

The focus was not simply the ‘utilitarian aim’ :

  1. To directly give dexterity to the use of tools
  2. To execute exact work

There was also a larger, more ‘formative aim’ to the education:

  1. To instill a taste for, and love of, labour in general
  2. Inspire a respect for rough, honest, bodily labour
  3. Develop independence and self-reliance
  4. Train habits of order, exactness, cleanliness and neatness
  5. Train the eye and sense of form. To give a general dexterity of hand and to develop touch
  6. To accustom attention, industry, perseverance and patience
  7. To promote the development of physical powers

The goal of all this training was not just to help find a job, but to help round out the person. Students may never pick up a tool again, but they will forever have the knowledge of how to make and evaluate things with your hand and your eye and appreciate the labor of others – something I often feel is lacking in members of my generation.

Sloyd Knife grain direction exercise
Sloyd Knife grain direction exercise

Students in this sort of program would often start with a simple block of wood and a Sloyd knife and learn to make controlled cuts. From this modest exercise they will absorb 3 of the most important lessons a woodworker will ever learn:

  1. Cutting with the grain
  2. Cutting against the grain
  3. Splitting wood

From this most basic of exercises students are able to make usable objects like a pencil sharpener, letter opener, penholder etc. which they are able to keep, evaluate and use. As the training progresses the students will have more freedom to implement their own designs and apply the skills they have learned.

Fast Forward to Today

This sort of learning by doing, ability to be self critical, self-sufficient, and continually push oneself is still present at the school. In the current programs at NBSS students work under the supervision of a master craftsman who will start with the basics and guide students through their training. By the end of the 1, 2, or 3-year program, depending on major, students will demonstrate proficiency in many tasks, and while there is always more to learn they will be well situated to seek out and tackle the next big project.

After graduating from my training, I remained interested in Sloyd and did further research on the topic. I learned that many of the benches and hanging tool cabinets designed and produced for early Sloyd programs were based on the designs of Gustaf Larsson of The Boston Sloyd School and produced locally in Boston. Some of the benches are still in use by the school and you can find some second hand every now and then on eBay, but the hanging tool cabinet was news to me.

Sloyd Tool Cabinet Advertisement from the late 19th/early 20th century
Sloyd Tool Cabinet advertisement from the late 19th/early 20th century

Shortly after learning about the Larsson tool cabinet I made a serendipitous discovery at a local pawn shop in New Hampshire – I actually found one of these cabinets and in very good shape given its age. All the hardware was intact, and only the front door was rebuilt. It was clear that this cabinet was used for a very long time by someone who cared about it, as the replacement door inherited the hardware and layout of the original.

My antique Sloyd tool cabinet
My antique Sloyd tool cabinet

I am working on a reproduction of this piece, and will be presenting parts of that project here and on the Popular Woodworking blog. Future posts will include a bit on how the cabinet was made, interesting details on the tools that once inhabited this cabinet, as well as notes and prices on modern equivalents. If there is interest I will also make some explorations into some of the Sloyd exercises which can help improve your own hand skills.

Roy Underhill is a fellow Sloyd enthusiast and has been inspirational to me in my research. I caught up with him this week and he offered even more wisdom on the topic, saying:

“Everyone human likes to move, so we came up with yoga, dance and sport to make movement more engaging and expanding. So too with woodworking and Sloyd. The exercises of Sloyd can bring every modern woodworker along a thoughtful path of liberating discipline, of progress and accomplishment — and reconnection with the good feelings of our ancient craft.”

Using your Sloyd Training
Using your Sloyd Training

If you’d like to join me in re-connecting with the joy of our ancient craft of woodworking I will be taking some classes at Roy’s Underhill’s ‘The Woodwright’s School’ in Pittsboro NC this July 9-12. The first class is Making a Traditional Jointer plane with Bill Anderson and the second class is Making a Traditional Metal Namestamp with Peter Ross. Both of these classes are a great way to learn some basic Sloyd skills and experience the satisfaction of using a high quality tool you made yourself for years to come. If you’d like more information on one or both of these classes, please check out my post on this topic here. If you are interested in attending, please do not wait to sign up — there is a minimum number of students needed to sign up by mid-June in order for the classes to run.


16 thoughts on “Traditional Sloyd Tool Cabinet”

      1. As a member of the Greenville Woodworkers Guild and an active wood worker I too thank you for writing this peace. I inherited a number of books from my grandfather, Richard Harley (1888-1965), one of which was a teacher’s addition of “Sloyd for the three upper Grammar Grades” by Gustaf Larsson and published in 1907. It has many project plans and curriculum which are still valid today. If you have not seen this publication and are interested I could scan a copy and make it available to you if I don’t encounter copyright issues.

      2. Hi Steve,
        Thank you for the comment. It sounds like you might have a different book or edition from the ones I have seen so far. I am particularly interested in Larsson’s work given the close connection to my own experiences. I have a reprint of “Elementary Sloyd and Whittling with Drawings and Working Directions” by Gustaf Larsson and dated 1906 (available on Google Books). I also have a PDF copy of his book ‘Sloyd’ from 1902 and several of the old Sloyd Record (Newsletters) from the Boston Sloyd School/NBSIS (Available on Google Play/Books)

        I’m also interested to track down a copy of old ‘Chandler and Barber’ catalogs from the 1890s-1920s as they were a supplier that made a lot of benches and cabinets to Larsson’s specs and ‘Specialized in the Sloyd System’

        Take care,

      3. Bill,
        Glad to discover you via Popular Woodworking. You could do a whole series on these hanging tool cabinets. Little homes and singles, single parent families, retired people and more have ‘a few tools’ and need help. Start kids with these and we might have a new generation that could build a few things and be a little more self reliant. Once these are hung, the whole room is useful again for other purposes.

      4. Hi Rick,
        Thank you for the comment. Once this series of blog posts gets out there, I’d love to see folks building and customizing their own Sloyd Tool cabinets. 🙂

        Take care,

  1. Bill,
    Great post! I too am a fan of the Sloyd approach, and have been working on the creation of a program to teach children/adults using the system. I want to ‘modernize’ some of the models used to make them more accessible/understandable by today’s kids. I agree with you that the goals Mr. Salomon wrote about way back then are often missing in our modern education system, and I would like to change that by offering it to parents and kids today. I look forward to reading more posts by you in the future!

    Dan L.

    1. Hi Dan,

      Thank you. I’m happy to hear you’re also exploring the world of Sloyd. Beyond the works of Salomon and Larsson there were several other Sloyd books produced over the years (English Sloyd, Other non-woodworking Sloyd Programs, Sloyd School Newsletters etc) which offered a variety of projects and encouraged instructors to come up with their own projects and try to cater to the interests of their students. In some later posts I hope to explore this a bit and I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts on that topic. I’d love to see what other folks attempting to work in this setting come up with.

      Take care,

    2. Dan,

      I have been asked to examine ‘vocational’ ed,, as a board member of the Christian school that my children attend. I would love to be able to converse online with you about where you are headed with the modernization of the Sloyd curricula, as I think it is a direction that we ought to take.



      1. Hi Carol,

        Here are a few more resources related to Sloyd that is being used today:
        NBSS and its connection to Sloyd in America in the full time programs:

        NBSS applying Sloyd as they work with Middle School Students from the Eliot School:

        And for some newly (re)published historic texts on Sloyd (printed in color with amazing clarity compared to other reprints I had) by the Toolemera press can be found here:

        Swedish Home Sloyd:

        And Otto Salomon’s Teacher’s Handbook of Sloyd

        I hope this is helpful to you and we’d love to hear how you decide to implement and customize sloyd for your own classroom needs.

        Take care,

  2. The Sloyd tool cabinet reminds me of a tool chest I was given as a child and recently passed on to my son.

    1. Hi Paul,

      The one I have was the only one I’ve been able to find so far, so if you have pictures of another I’d love to take a look at them as there were a few small variations over the years . (Based on what I could find in old catalogs and reprinted documents) I am particularly interested in the front door when closed as most of the pictures show the cabinet open, so I am curious if the original door had a knob or pull or if the key in the lock was the only way to open the door. Since this chest was meant to be taken to job sites like a tool box I would think a knob would be real susceptible to being broken off.

      Take care,

      1. Very neat — that is the biggest collection of Handy Andy I’ve seen, thank you for the comment. Much better than the plastic or so lightweight as to be useless tool kits they had for kids when I was a kid in the ’80s. If you poke around my blog you’ll see some of the interesting tool chests etc I’ve come across at various tool shows etc — everything from pressed metal tin kits to very rustic trays to ornate/inlaid chests.

        Take care,

  3. Thanks for your article on Sloyd! I’m a swedish hobbyist woodworker and since there are no magazines about this in Sweden I try to read the american ones, They’re quite easy to get hold on and have good internet resources. And the content is very good! It was fun to see Nääs and Sloyd (slöjd) mentioned, for several reasons. I live in the same region as Nääs and have once taken a weekendcourse there. And my wifes grandfather (gone since many years) was trained there as a Sloyd-teacher in his younger days. Do you know that we still have the subject Sloyd in compulsory school, from first to ninth class? And that all schools have a fully equipped workshop? (Perhaps you have that in the US too?) I’m no expert in that area but as far as I know they still use a simliar pedagogical strategy while working with wood, metal and also textile. All swedes have done that, That doesn’t mean that you continue with woodworking for the rest of your life, but I do remember using most handtools at a Sjöberg-bench and also bandsaw and lathe in school. It gives you a familiarity with the material and the tools and at least some eye for how to work things. I didn’t do proper woodwork for twentyfive years, but as a DIY in your own house there are at lot of skills to use. Now I’ve got a small workshop in the basement, with a traditonal bench in the center (close to 7 feet long). The bench belonged to the Nääs-trained grandfather of my wife, and it’s nice to see how traditions still live. And very nice to see Nääs and Sloyd mentioned by you! Thank you!

    1. Hi Jonas,

      Thank you for the great comment. I definitely feel that Europe, particularly in the northern countries have done a much better job of respecting craftsmen. Americans have been driven too much by price alone which leads to a disposable society fueled by inferior imported goods. I always love the old quote by Ben Franklin “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten” and hope I can get more of my peers to take that message to heart. As a result I often see myself educating folks on the value of craftsmanship. I try to buy North American and European items whenever I can — and make an effort to not by inferior products that will not last (If we don’t support lousy companies they should eventually go away..). A couple of years ago I got to spend some time in Västerås and Stockholm and loved it. I also picked up some Gränsfors Bruks axes I use in my timber framing work and cannot live without. If you find the time and location I’d love to see some pictures of that bench your grandfather-inlaw built. In middle school we still had shop and home-ec classes, and I am not sure if they still have them at my old high school — they seemed to be on the decline even then, but I always enjoyed them and with my own teaching and writing have been a big advocate of teaching hand skills, respecting teachers and craftsmen and all the benefits of Sloyd and similar systems. I’m hoping that the so called ‘Green Revolution’ in building and the recent hand tool revival will gain more momentum in the coming years. Hopefully as we get the word out to more folks we can make a positive impact in this space. Keep in touch.

      Take care,

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