Virtuoso! A New Book about H. O. Studley and His Tool Cabinet



My hat is off to Don Williams. Again. Don’s depth of knowledge about how things are and were made is nearly bottomless. Retired from his post as Senior Furniture Conservator at the Smithsonian, Don is anything but just kickin’ back. I recently asked him, now that the Studley extravaganza was moving into the past, what’s next? Here’s his reply:

“Roubo on Furniture Making wrap up, many conservation projects in the studio, begin Historic Finisher’s Manual (two years), finish the models for lost wax cast finger planes, Roubo Glossary, The Furniture Conservation Primer (ebook), Roubo on Trellises and Gardens, Roubo on Trim Carpentry, The Duncan Phyfe Tool Chest book, Roubo on Carriage Making, Technology and Preservation of Tortoiseshell and Ivory book, writing mystery fiction, speaking here and speaking there, working on the barn, projects aplenty on the homestead… ”

Yeah, Don. Just chillin’.

Don communes with Henry
Don communes with Henry

Linda and I had the rare privilege of seeing The Studley Exhibit, Don’s display of the Studley tool cabinet at the Scottish Rite Temple in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a couple weeks ago. It was late in the day, after the exhibitors’ get-together after setting up for the Handworks show in Amana (just a half hour away.) Don sold tickets to the Studley exhibit but allowed us tool-makers to get a preview, knowing we’d have no way to break away from our show to come see his show. (Thanks again, Don.) The tool cabinet has gained fetish-icon status in the woodworking community and it doesn’t disappoint in person. In fact its cult status became understandable, for me, anyway, when I saw it in person. I can’t begin to do it justice here which brings me to the meat of this post…

Virtuoso: The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley by Don Williams, photographs by Narayan Nayar, published by the virtuosi at Lost Art Press. I honestly believe that Don Williams and Henry O. Studley were intended to meet like this. Don is probably the best-suited person on the planet to document Henry’s tool cabinet. Don is the consummate expert and professional throughout Virtuoso. Yet, he describes this incredible artifact and its contents in a warm, friendly and engaging style. Not a moment of stuffiness, Don’s words show that he is a friend to the subject and to the reader.

Williams begins Virtuoso with a compelling description of his own journey leading to the H.O. Studley chest. What began simply enough for Don turned into a 6 year free fall down a rabbit hole, utterly surrounded by the obscurity, the preciousness and swirling specifics of the now famous Studley tool chest. Don continues the narrative with a hard-won biography of the enigmatic H.O. Studley, then segues into the rich and chewy center of the book. Here is where you will find detailed descriptions of each tool and widget contained in the chest; photographed on their own, alone and meticulously “nested” among their peers.

All along the way we are treated to Nayar’s sumptuous photos of the tiniest details of the chest, of the deepest layers inside, and out.

A coffee table book? Yes, in the way large format pictorial books are coffee table books. But, Don Williams’ Virtuoso is one coffee table book that also contains a massive amount of technical and aesthetic information, a book to which you probably won’t bring a cup of coffee even near.

I really don’t have a place in my sense of art/history/sculpture/museum-things/precious-objet-d’art/beautiful-tools for the Studley tool cabinet. It floats in a new zone between practical and fetish, a fine craftsman’s eccentricity, high art and utility. Don lays the question before us as he notes that while the tools appear well used for the most part, the cabinet does not. So, the beautiful and somewhat haunting question remains, “Why such an elaborate and involved monument to the tools Mr. Studley used everyday? Is this H.O. Studley’s masterwork, a final repository for the tools of a past career?” I’ll get the Ouija board. No, wait! Don Williams’ Virtuoso may just be the Ouija board: I’m happy to go through it again, and again, to ruminate on H.O. Studley’s remarkable accomplishment.

Such a simple thing in concept, a tool chest. Amazing.

Handworks Worked!

Yes, it was crowded … but in a good way.

Handworks 2015 was hands down the most exciting and satisfying show Linda and I have ever done. The attendance was huge — there must have been a couple thousand of you that showed up from all over the world — we were busy every minute. The weather was, as I understand it, typically Iowan, in that it changed dramatically every few minutes. For the most part it was warm and a bit muggy but otherwise quite comfortable. Not too anything.

We had planned to attend the first Handworks but had to bail at the last minute. Here’s what we did then, instead. So we were doubly primed for a great show. And overwhelmed by its success.

The organizers made sure all the exhibitors got a chance to hang out with the other tool-makers which is a real treat for me. I met many of them at “Plane Day” in Cincinnati in 2005. That was a special day for me in that I realized I was part of a community of tool makers. Really cool tool makers. So a chance to shoot the breeze with them is a rare, special event. But once the doors opened on Friday morning it was enthusiastic woodworkers non-stop for two days. My legs and feet are still a bit sore.

Everyone loved Roy Underhill’s… “talk”? “Performance”? “Song and dance”? Roy is always Roy and we all loved every minute of his delightful “history” lesson.

Thanks to all of you who could make out to the heartland. Those who didn’t/couldn’t, maybe next time? (Here are some pretty great photos taken by Bartee Lamar.) And our deepest gratitude to the Abrahams for their hard work and generosity. They put on one great show.

Oh, yeah, Don Williams was there with the Studley tool cabinet. On display nearby in Cedar Rapids. More about that and his new book, Virtuoso: The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley, published by Lost Art Press, in my next post. Stay tuned.