Obsessed with H. O. Studley

Narayan Nayar’s eyes hop briefly off the road ahead and aim right at me.

“Do you think you are an obsessive person?” he asks.

“Um, not really,” I answer. “Do you think I obsess about things?”

“Absolutely,” he replies, returning his eyes to the road.

At first I thought it was an oddball question that came out of the blue during a long car ride. But in hindsight (or perhaps thanks to three beers at dinner), it now makes sense. Because today Don Williams, Narayan and I are on the trail of one of the most obsessed-over woodworking gems of the 19th and 20th centuries: the tool chest of H.O. Studley.

On Tuesday morning we will begin measuring and photographing the famous chest for a book that Don is working on that is tentatively titled: “Virtuoso: The Toolbox of Henry O. Studley.” After years of work, Don has managed to get access to this much-heralded tool chest.

So after Woodworking in America wrapped up on Sunday afternoon, the three of us took off on a car ride to an undisclosed location to visit the chest and and the workbench of this piano and organ maker who worked for the Poole Piano Co. of Boston and died in 1925.

Even in his lifetime, Studley was well known for his tool chest.

“Mr. Studley had for a great many years been in the employ of the Poole Piano Co., and was accounted a rather unusual mechanic,” according to his obituary in The Music Trade Review. “He was the possessor of a set of tools that was the envy of his co-workers, all of them made by himself by hand and some of them beautifully inlaid with pearl and ivory, and which were always proudly exhibited by Mr. Studley to those who showed an interest.”

The chest is quite obviously the result of one man’s amazing obsession with his tools and the chest that holds them. Every tool is perfectly fitted into a compartment – even the small items in the tiny drawers.

And obsessions with the chest have survived for almost 100 years after Studley’s death. Woodworkers have pored over the poster of the chest published by Fine Woodworking. The episode of “The New Yankee Workshop” that features the chest has been analyzed frame by frame. People have built near-replicas or miniatures of the chest. One company – Shepherd Tool – even tried to produce a commercial kit of the chest. Planemaker Wayne Anderson says a photo of the Studley chest is what first inspired him to become a toolmaker.

And now we are set to photograph and measure every square inch of the thing – a rather obsessive chore – for a book that probably will be 18 months to two years in the making.

In fact I shouldn’t even be telling you this – it’s far too early to discuss a project like this. And I can’t tell you much else – such as where we are or who owns the chest. All that I can tell you is that we are staying in a roadside motel (all the chain hotels are full) and we ate a huge meal of … no, that might give something away.

Stay tuned here. We’ll be giving you more details as we obsess over them.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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22 Responses to Obsessed with H. O. Studley

  1. Dave from IN says:

    Interesting. I thought that I heard somewhere that the chest was in the Smithsonian, and for some reason I had Patrick Leach associated with the bench. If you are in secret agent mode, I guess there probably won’t be too many details forthcoming, but I am rather surprised that these iconic relics are privately held and haven’t made it into museum collections yet. Quite surprising!

    • John Cashman says:

      I have no idea about the bench. Maybe it was always kept together with the toolchest. But the family/heirs sold the toolchest to a private collector before it surfaced with the general public, and the buyer lent it to the Smithsonian. They did considerable repair and cleaning to the chest — I don’t know if that was at the Smithsonian’s expense, or the owner’s. Obviously the owner now has it back in his own hands.

  2. badger says:

    Where do I pre-order?

  3. Bengt says:

    Good luck with the work guys. Don’t forget the little white cotton gloves!

  4. John Cashman says:

    Two years? Ahhhh, from your last post I was thinking it was nearly ready. I’ll have to control these ticks until then.

    Do me a favor and ban from your blog the first woodworker who asks for a cutlist for the Studley toolchest.

    • Dave from IN says:

      Haha! A cut list would be hilarious!! Banning the requestor would certainly be appropriate.

      Besides, I would much prefer a fully detailed Sketchup model. 🙂

      (despite the sarcasm, I wouldn’t be surprised if a model did get developed and released! I would never expect it, but this seems to be a project that just may produce something exceptional like that)

  5. robert says:

    Road Trip!

  6. Here I went to the American History museum looking for it and they just told me it was not on display but probably in the back.

  7. Gene says:

    “He was the possessor of a set of tools that was the envy of his co-workers, all of them made by himself…”

    The chest has always been the big hit, but this is the first time I’ve realized that all/most of the tools were handmade. Several chapters on that topic, please……

    • John Cashman says:

      The account, obviously is wrong. I’m not sure if he made any of the tools, in fact. The marking gauges, maybe? But the planes, saws, chisels, combination squares, etc etc, were all store-bought. Good, hard-working everyday tools, too, not ivory center wheel plows and infill planes.

      I’m going to wait and see if Harbor Freight comes out with their version of the Studley.

  8. Turnus says:

    Is a cut list available?

    I kid, I kid.

    My tool box is my shop. I can find everything I need, eventually.

  9. I’m having a hard time deciding if “Chris Schwarz, Book Publisher” is going to cost me more or less money than “Chris Schwarz, Magazine Editor”…

    Fewer tool reviews (and recommendations, especially since The Anarchist’s Tool Chest), but more books for my library – I guess we’ll see. At least I’ve been able to hold off the Leather-Bound Limited Edition bug up to this point.

    • John Cashman says:

      Oh, books are cheaper than tools. Probably even the leather-bound versions. He can’t possibly publish fast enough to bankrupt us with books.

      Can he?

  10. Johan says:

    A book to look forward to ! This is one that I will get as soon as it´s out !

  11. Mike Siemsen says:

    I envy your opportunity to see the Crown Jewels up so close. Have a great trip!

  12. Bob jones says:

    Call me stupid, but why the secrecy of the location? Is the owner nervous of theft?

  13. Raney says:

    Bob – many of the finest private collections (of all manner – not just woodworking) are often kept just as they’re called – private. There are any number of reasons someone who owns pieces such as this might not wish it announced publicly, beginning with the theft issue and working on down the line. Remember last year when Chris posted photography of one exceptionally well-outfitted shop, along with the owner’s name? The response was atrocious. The owner had to read every bozo’s opinions of his livelihood and hobby. Similarly, if I owned the Studley chest I might not want to have to listen to the public’s opinion of my ownership, or questions about my collection, etc. etc… Also – how many requests for information, photography, photos, etc etc do you think might follow the publication of the owner’s name?

    Anyway – I think that it’s a bit hard to understand sometimes why people might not want their possessions acknowledged publicly — but the fact is that the majority of truly high-level collections tend to be relatively private. This isn’t unusual at all.

    Personally, though, I hope Don, Chris and Narayan will be sure to thank the owner for the access — I think it’s likely to benefit all of us.


  14. Michael Brady says:

    I’m a bit surprised to see the wall chest mounted behind a heavy door that is hinged within inches of this priceless masterpiece. I my house on a windy day that chest could undergo some very sudden alterations as the doors flap in the breeze.

  15. Ricky says:

    I have H.O. Studley’s Tool Box as my wallpaper. Does that means I’m obsessed too?

  16. J says:

    This may be a difficult request, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the chest devoid of tools, that might be an interesting photo perspective showing it empty vs loaded. Maybe even a dry/loaded weight comparison. Like you say, you are likely only going to get one shot, so wanted to throw out another idea.

  17. Mark Schreiber says:

    Chris…this is a great idea for a book. I will be looking forward to it.

    New subject, new suggestion. I had the opportunity to view Duncan Phyfe’s toolchest at Williamsburg at the first 18th century woodworking symposium. I shot almost three rolls of film and discovered after developing that my flash was not synching so no pictures. How about a book about Duncan Phyfe’s toolchest? Maybe something along the line of the Seaton Chest. Anyone may view the DFs chest at the New York Historical Society which I did some years ago, but I think a more detailed book would be neat.

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