Tool Chests – A History of Function and Art

Tool chests obviously come in many different shapes and sizes, but few are really special. H.O. Studley’s amazing tool chest was made back in the 19th century, and is an inspiration to those of us who dream of building the perfect tool chest.

I am an amateur woodworker and I love tool chests. It’s funny, but one of my earliest memories is of watching my Grandfather show up at a work project with his tool chest. It wasn’t particularly fancy or even that deluxe. It did, however, capture my imagination. When he opened the wood top there were all these wonderful tools that made it possible for him to fix, adjust, and even create things that he otherwise would not be able to do, and it was the chest that held all that potential. When I got old enough I got a tool box, then another, and then another. I am not sure how many I need, but in the back of my head somewhere I know that someday soon, toolboxes just aren’t going to cut it anymore, and I am either going to make a tool chest like my Grandpa’s or I am going to have to make something a bit more deluxe; something heavy and solid.

I have looked at a lot of the different types of tool chests and am really amazed at many of the designs that people have come up with. But perhaps the most incredible one I’ve seen is one that Woodworking magazine featured years ago. It is an absolutely beautiful tool chest to behold. It was the chest made by the 19th century stonemason and master carpenter Henry O. Studley. A bit of research about Studley revealed that he was a piano maker that worked in Quincy, Massachusetts for a company called the Poole Piano Company. He worked to build his tool chest over a long thirty year career, and it is just stunning. I would never presume to be able to build anything like it, but it does get a guy thinking.

As a piano maker, Studley had hundreds of tools to house and use. As he acquired more and more tools, he would work on his chest to make it accommodate those tools. It is believed that he kept the chest on the wall by where his workbench. He made it out of materials used to make pianos – rosewood, mahogany, ebony, ivory, and mother-of-pearl. You owe it to yourself to do an image search and see what this amazing chest looks like. It is one of the world’s truly masterful tool chests. It literally fits more tools in it than seems physically possible. Not only is it a work of art, it holds over three hundred tools! And, it isn’t really that huge. When shut it measures a modest 39″ high x 18″ wide x 9″ deep. Other tool chests have nothin’ on this bad boy. Each tool has a holder fashioned to keep it in its place and to show it off. Now that beats digging in a tool box any day of the week.

Studley retired from piano making when he was in his 80’s.  He died in 1925, but before he did he gave the chest to a friend. Later, that friend’s grandson loaned the chest to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. in the late 1980s. Since then it has been sold several times to private collectors.

So, as I contemplate the tool chests that might inspire my humble version yet to come, I pay homage to, and am inspired by, H.O. StudleyScience Articles, for his masterful example of an amazingly functional and beautiful chest.

Author: MJ Marks