Gerstner & Sons Tool Chest Refurb

February 17, 2020


It's finally done!  The refurb of my Gerstner tool chest has been a long time coming.  It started probably 9 or 10 years ago when my Dad gave me this classic machinist's tool chest:



For many years it sat up on the third floor as a shabby chic decorative piece, always with the thought of refurbishing it.  You can actually see it in the left lower corner below...


But there were so many projects that really needed doin', so the chest had to wait its turn.  Well, a few months ago I hurt my back pretty bad, and after I started to heal I needed to find some small projects to do.  So, back in December, I decided now was the time!  I started by Googling "how to repair a wooden tool chest", and found a ton of information - a learned a ton too!  First, I learned that this was a machinist's tool chest.  I had no idea, which is kinda shameful because my Dad has been a machinist my whole life and I really never had a clear picture of what he did.  Well, researching this chest, I learned so much about what it was to be a machinist and the tools they use - absolutely fascinating!  Along with that research, I learned about my tool chest, especially the fact that it's a Gerstner!


Turns out, H. Gerstner & Sons (check out their history - there were actually no sons!) has been one of the premier makers of machinist's tool chests since 1906.  Throughout my refurb I frequently referred to the collection of restoration videos Gerstner has on YouTube, so lucky they post such things!  I also found out that my tool chest was built anywhere from the 1930s (it has the spring-loaded lid pins) to the 1950s, and mine is Style 41 C.


Anyway, one of the trademarks of Gerstner was the green felt in the drawers, but that had long since been removed and the whole chest was showing its age...


I started by giving the whole thing a good cleaning...


Decades in a machine shop left the chest showing its years of use...


After cleaning the drawer fronts, I gave each three coats of Minwax Paste Wax.  I was careful not to give the drawers too thorough a cleaning because the sentimentalist in me sees the value of leaving a bit of the man who used this tool chest before me!


There were also a couple joints that needed to be repaired but, amazingly very few...


Then came the most tedious part of the project.  The hardware was, like me - a bit rusty and aged...


So, I took to it with a wire wheel on the drill press...


Then came lots and lots of polishing on the bench grinder.  I screwed the parts to a 2x4 to make holding them a bit easier...


And some final polishing using the rotary tool and some toothpaste (ugh, the toothpaste was a huge mistake!)...


And finally, the corner hardware started looking pretty good...


But, some of the hardware was just a little too far gone to make them look like much, so I ended up ordering replacements from Gerstner, but we'll look at that a little later.  The next step was to repair the leatherette covering, as there were some small tears, on the bottom in particular...


Because Gerstner uses hide glue, I used the same thing for the repairs.  This is a closeup to show the rough condition the bottom was in: 


After the covering was repaired, it was time for a really good cleaning.  There was some paint splatter on the chest, and I knew that would drive me nuts.


So, taking a risk, I used Goof Off and some 0000 steel wool to gently remove the paint...


And some of the color from the leatherette...


Not to panic though.  After a little research, I realized I could just use some RIT fabric dye to revive the black leatherette.  After it dried, I applied 3 coats of Mother's brand Back to Black automobile trim restorer to seal the dye and even out the look.  


No worries, there was no support from these companies at all, just cataloging the products just in case I need to refresh, or do another tool chest someday.  I didn't get a picture of this stage, but you can get a sense of it here, before I polished the handle hardware...


Then it was time for the finishing touches.  Like I said, some of the hardware just couldn't be saved so I ordered replacement parts from Gerstner.  This included the lock and the four latches.  The finish on the new parts is considerable shinier than the hardware I cleaned up but, you know what? - I'm okay with that!


I also ordered original Gerstner green felt (I'm such a traditionalist!) and the trademark Gerstner mirror.  The felt is really thick and has sizing in it so it's much stiffer than craft felt.  It took couple hours to get the pieces cut properly...


And of course, here's the obligatory artsy shot...


After that...the project was done!  Let's begin the reveal!  It's not perfect, but I didn't want a complete rebuild.  Like I said, I wanted to keep a piece of those who came before.  Here's the exterior (obviously)...


Lid open, and there's the mirror!


I wanted to try to get a shot showing the felt in the drawers...


The wood combined with the leatherette, hardware and felt looks awesome!


And the final piece - the Gerstner name plate.  Interesting little fact, to get one of these you have to provide the company with pictures for proof of ownership!


Little did I know what a great piece of history I had when Dad gave me this tool chest, and what a fun project this would be!!  Now, to get some tools in it!

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