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

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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.

About Ron Hock

Owner of HOCK TOOLS (.com) and author of "The Perfect Edge, the Ultimate Guide to Sharpening for Woodworkers"
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3 Responses to Virtuoso! A New Book about H. O. Studley and His Tool Cabinet

  1. Steven says:

    Very well said Ron.

  2. Erik Hinkston says:

    Wish I could have seen it in person but with this book and the commentary of yours and others I have read I have been given a glimpse of it through your eyes and the others.

  3. Johannes Jacobus Lutzke( Kobus) says:

    I followed the entire studley story and everything about it for the last couple of years on my laptop . I could not get enough of this masterpiece and can not wait to get copy of this book,but i will have to put in a couple of days leave because i know when i start reading i wont want to put this book down.

    Big greetings from south africa

    Kobus Lutzke

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