The Cutting Edges of H.O. Studley

The point of this blog entry is that you can sharpen a tool in a dozen different ways – your way, my way or the way of a dead guy. In short: Don’t be a dullard.

For the last few days I have immersed myself in the cutting edges made (presumably) by H.O. Studley, a Massachusetts piano maker who created a legendary wall-hanging tool chest. His tool chest is a testament to his skill. It is flawless in almost every way, from the design to the tools’ composition to the craftsmanship of the chest itself.

So what sort of sharpener was he?

To take a stab at this question, I spent most of today looking closely at every cutting edge in the chest. From what we know about this chest, the tools have been mostly on mothballs since Studley left the trade in the early part of the 20th century. So there is a chance that the edges on the tools are actually his edges.

I looked at every edge in the chest under high magnification and compared them all to one another. I suspect Studley was the last sharpener of many of the tools based on the consistency of many of the edges, from the augers to the planes to the chisels to the marking gauges. The pattern of scratches left on the tools was quite consistent. So if I were H.O. Studley, here is what I would tell you about my sharpening regimen.

1. I like a convex bevel. Nearly all of the edges I observed had a slightly convex bevel. A couple tools had evidence of a hollow grind in the middle that was in the process of being removed by sharpening the bevel (making it convex).

2. I like cambered edges on my planes. Nearly every edge of the plane blades (blocks, smoothers, jacks and try) had a cambered cutting edge. Many of the edges were significantly relieved at the corners.

3. I sharpen the entire bevel. Only one tool had any evidence of a micro-bevel.

4. I lap the backs of my irons and chisels. All of the tools in the chest have lapped backs. The lapping is not to a mirror sheen, but there is evidence of significant and continuous work on the backs.

5. I lift my plane irons slightly when I polish the backs. Over and over I saw evidence that the very tip of the back was polished to a higher degree than the metal behind the tip. And (using a machinist straightedge) I could see that the tip of the back was ever-so-slightly dubbed from this polishing. The polishing on the backs was heavier on the bevel-up planes than on the bevel-down planes.

You can take the above information and twist it however you like. Studley was a hand-sharpener. He sharpened the entire bevel. He did something similar to the ruler trick – though he probably didn’t use a ruler. He knew that he needed two intersecting surfaces to create a sharp and durable edge.

Or maybe it was someone in the Studley family who knew this and sharpened all the edges in the chest. Maybe it was the family’s lawyer who acquired the chest. Maybe it was some compulsive sharpener at the Smithsonian who ran wild through the chest while it was in the care of the institution.

The truth is, we don’t know. But we can guess. And my guess is that most of these edges were from the hand of H.O. Studley. And with the help of some incredible photography technology we’re using, you’ll be able to see this for yourself when we publish the book on H.O. Studley in the next two years.

— Christopher Schwarz

Note: All the photos with this blog entry were taken by Narayan Nayar.

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
This entry was posted in Books in the Works, Virtuoso: The Toolbox of Henry O. Studley. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to The Cutting Edges of H.O. Studley

  1. Kyle L says:

    Make sure to wipe the drool off the all those edges i know i would have too

  2. Tom Pier says:

    Studley was indeed a stud. No way my tools would hold up as well to such a microscopic examination today, much less after sitting unused for decades.

  3. Alec N. says:

    The lesson of course, sharpen your planes and chisels as if someone is going to write about your technique a hundred years later. 10,000 grit every time baby.

    I’ve probably viewed the images of the empty chest on flickr a few dozen times, really incredible:

    Studley Chest, empty and half open

    I’d normally say “I can’t wait,” for the book, but I can wait for this one. Too important. Thanks for doing this.

  4. .

    Well, if nothing else emerges, it’s safe to say that whoever last tended those blades knew what he was about.

    A consistent series of competent cutting edges by the looks of it.
    .

  5. Jonas Jensen says:

    I had hoped the book was going to be ready for Christmas 2013. But I guess I might have to wait a little longer.
    Anyway I am sure it will be worth it.

  6. Scott says:

    Entirely unrelated, a blast from the past. Narayan, a heck of a nice bloke. Tell him to update the farm.

  7. billlattpa says:

    It seems, from what very little I know about it, that cambered edges seemed to be more popular a century ago than today. Looking at planes I’ve seen at flea markets and such I’ve seen a cambered edge on just about every one. I’m thinking about cambering every plane iron I have rather than just a jack plane. If it’s good enough for Studley…

  8. Harlan Janes says:

    I’ll ask before Roy does, did you se any signs of mutton tallow?

  9. Brett says:

    Chris, how sharp did Studly make his tools? Were the finest scratches comparable to those left by a 4000-grit water stone, a hard Arkansas stone, or something much finer or coarse?

    • lostartpress says:

      They were all the same polish; the scratches looked like what you’d get from a hard Arkansas. I didn’t see any mirror polish, like what you would get from a strop.

      More polish does not mean they are sharper. But I don’t have the intestinal fortitude to discuss that point.

    • burbidge says:

      Glad you asked that. I was wondering if Chris has a handy piece variably polished ‘litmus iron’ to test against the Studley’s tools!

      Will his workbench feature in the book too?

  10. “1. I like a convex bevel. Nearly all of the edges I observed had a slightly convex bevel. A couple tools had evidence of a hollow grind in the middle that was in the process of being removed by sharpening the bevel (making it convex).”

    So does this reflect a sharpening process much like the way Paul Sellers uses, Chris?

    • lostartpress says:

      No clue. I am only reporting what I saw. You’ll have to draw your own conclusions. I’ve not seen Paul Sellers’ edges.

      • Here is a video of Paul demonstrating his sharpening technique…

        In either this video or his chisel sharpening video, he explains how this is the technique he learned as as apprentice some 40 years earlier.

        I only just stumbled across this a few days ago, which is why it is fresh in my mind.

  11. Paul B says:

    Since so few of us will ever see this thing in person, I think it might be cool if you could take some stereo images of the toolchest, the way Herzog did in The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Might be a nice extra feature for a companion DVD.

  12. Paul B says:

    …it would also be a opportunity to perform some great Herzog-style narration.

  13. John says:

    Is there information about the piano company Mr Studley worked for about his duties. Did he sharpen his own tools or was there an apprentice to do this? Did he turn his own tool handles or was there a lathe room where he asked for some tool handles from a turner. Did he build the entire tool chest or were there specialists in the piano factory that produced parts or did inlay, or joinery? Have any pianos been identified that he worked on and what parts of the work did he do? Chapters about the work this craftsman completed would be the icing on the cake for this book.

  14. Lance Granum says:

    Studley was clearly a master and I am very happy about the book. Let me know when I can pre order.

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