The H.O. Studley Tool Cabinet is a Masterpiece


Years ago I received a frantic phone call from a friend who needed to know who owned the H.O. Studley tool cabinet. He wanted to do a 3D scan of the cabinet so he could then program a laser-cutting machine to make all the parts of the cabinet for a kit.

Customers could then order the kit for $300 and build the Studley tool cabinet. In Baltic birch plywood.

I listened patiently to his pitch and then told him that I didn’t know who owned the cabinet. This was the truth, as it was many years before I’d met Don Williams and was taken to the secret Studley bunker in Kentuckistan.

As I hung up the phone, I remember thinking: People want to build the Studley tool cabinet?

After years of talking to woodworkers, the answer is: Apparently so.

So during the 10 seconds before I first saw Studley’s tool cabinet, I remember checking my bag to make sure I had all the measuring tools needed to create a mechanical drawing of the cabinet for the book “Virtuoso: The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley.” Tape measure? Rule? Caliper? Check, check and check.

When I saw the cabinet, however, I forgot about my measuring tools and any plans for measured drawings. Does a book on the Taj Mahal require 100 pages of blueprints so you can reproduce it in your back yard?

At that moment I knew we would be making a book that was unlike the normal woodworking book, the stuff I was accustomed to churning out 11 times a year as a magazine editor. I set my measuring tools aside and resolved to treat this object in a way that was foreign to me: As pure 100-percent high art.

This was not easy. As someone who has devoted his life to writing about tool chests, workbenches and handwork, my first urge was to dismiss Studley’s work as impractical and something that should not be imitated. But after four years of dealing with this chest (I think I’ve unloaded and loaded it at least four times) I have nothing but the upmost respect for the maker and his intent.

Henry O. Studley’s tool cabinet is not for us to copy. It is for us to decipher.

I defy you to stand before this chest and not be changed as an artisan. It is beyond language. I freely admit that as a writer. You need to see it.

So this sounds like an advertisement for the May 2015 exhibit of the cabinet and workbench in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And to be sure, if you have two sheckels to rub together, you should be there. I have bought tickets for my friends, family and mortal enemies. You won’t get another chance in this life, so fly or die.

If you can’t be there, I urge you to check out our book on the cabinet. Last week I reviewed the digital proofs for “Virtuoso” and was on the verge of tears as I scrolled through the book’s 216 pages. (Full disclosure: I have all the emotions of a protist, so this is fairly unusual.)

Henry Studley, a slim, balding and upright member of his community, managed to make something for the ages.

See it. One way or another.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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15 Responses to The H.O. Studley Tool Cabinet is a Masterpiece

  1. When we look at a piece of art we are given a look into the mind of the artists. For something like the last 8 years I have been looking at, and studying, the FW poster of H. O. Studley’s masterpiece.

    Anyone looking at the chest must come to the realization that Henry Studley possessed an extraordinary mind. And there is more. Much more.

    Henry O. Studley, or more properly addressed as Bro. Henry Studley for I too am a ( fifth generation ) Master Mason, filled his chest with many clues as to whom he was both as a man and as a Mason. For those who are not Masons I can report that those statements are not hidden messages to take over the world but rather small bits of admonitions to be better as well as little hints on how to be so.

    Bro. Henry’s mind was a marvel, and his wonderful chest hole clues both to understanding that marvel, and to yet deeper understandings Architecture and Geometry.

    I am very much looking forward to this book.

    Laurence Lance

  2. Just out of curiosity, have you ever tried to guess (or count) how many individual parts comprise this chest? (wood, ivory and screws, not the tools!)

    • Don has counted the decorative elements. But no, we did not attempt to count the individual parts. Someone could make a guess based on the photos in the book because we show every hinged panel. But even then it would be a colossal task.

  3. Thom Hickey says:

    Thanks for a deeply fascinating post. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox.

  4. Nice post Chris. I’m looking forward to seeing it for myself.

  5. lblack2x4 says:

    Is there any chance that the video of the toolchest being unloaded will be put up here along with at the exhibit. I cont make it because of school but I would really like to see that

  6. pathman98 says:

    we would like to have you back to speak to our Guild, please let me know how i can contact you… gary Assarian, Detroit

  7. beshriver says:

    Measured drawings…the tribe has spoken

    • I’m looking at my copy of the FW poster of Bro. Henry’s chest. While I’ve no idea if it’s true, I’ve read that the chest contains some 300 tools and has a weight of about 300 pounds.

      Bro. Henry O. Studley, 1838 – 1925, died at age 87.

      For me here is where the mystery begins. The design of complex items of the time was done in measured drawings by draftsmen, using “onion skin” with pencil or more often India ink. And yet…something doesn’t fit.

      What we do know is that we see before us an example of an extraordinary mind. The layout of even one layer of tools of this chest boggles. While I can’t see it clearly, and most likely missed some, I count at least 29 separate tools on the left side of the chest, and not less than 34 on the right. Not to mention the drawers.

      So, not less than 63 tools in layer #1 of the chest. It appears the chest has two, three and perhaps four layers of tools.

      Consider the complex tool holders of the chest, as well as the layout necessary to hold specific tools in a chosen order, all the while making each tool readily accessible while not obstructing the access of other tools. Which brings us back to how the chest was planned.

      Then we come to how the designer solved the mechanical problems of weight, access, and function in the design.

      More complexities; We have a 300 piece jigsaw puzzle of interlocking pieces. What happens when out of necessity of design, or function, we must change the shape of one of those interlocking pieces?

    • Not a chance. I leave that for the next generation.

      • beshriver says:

        “The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.”
        ― Gaylord Nelson

  8. ctregan says:

    This cabinet is an outcome of his trade; he was a piano builder. Look inside an old piano and see the barrage of moving parts and cramped space. All 88 keys on a piano must play exactly the same, that is no easy feat. They should have one of his pianos on display with the chest, then the tools and cabinet will all make sense.

  9. carubiol says:

    Only when a woodworker proudly starts to build pieces of furniture whose quality is meant to surpass the length a single lifetime is when we come close to comprehend the monumental achievement represented by this chest. In my own work, I aim to maintain high standards, even while working in mundane projects.
    Let this book be a testament of what we are capable of producing when fully immersed in the creative process and have the vision to see what is possible.
    Great job on this book, looking forward to getting my copy.

  10. dzehner2 says:

    Wish I could afford to go, but I can’t take the time away from work during a bit of a financial dark time for our family… I’ll be drooling over it in spirit!

  11. In our trade, imitation is a form of respect. As long as credit is given. I think if people have the time, talents, and patience, they should reproduce is chest. I’m not saying you or Mr Williams should sell detailed step by step cut lists, but let’s face facts, who would not be proud to have their version of a reproduction of this chest hanging over their bench?

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