The H.O. Studley Tool Cabinet – Magnificent Masonic Masterpiece

H.O. Studley Tool Cabinet Freemasonry

The exquisite Studley Tool Cabinet (aka Studley Tool Chest) houses an impressive and complete set of woodworking tools as well as machinist, stonemasonry, piano-making & other specialty tools purchased and made by the cabinet’s builder. Many describe it as the finest collection of hand tools made prior to 1900 and the entire ensemble as a pinnacle in the tool, folkart, and the woodworking worlds. Just one tool - the Stanley No. 1 plane housed in the ebony archway in the upper-middle-left part of the chest - was appraised at $700.00 in 1993.

The chest was constructed by Freemason Henry O. Studley (1838-1925), a professional organ and piano maker, carpenter, and a mason. Studley was employed by the Smith Organ Co. in Boston, Massachusetts, for 25 years and later joined the Poole Piano Co., also in Boston. It is believed that while working at Poole, he used his precision woodworking skills developed over his life’s profession to construct and perfect the cabinet between 1890 and 1920.

The chest is made out of mahogany, rosewood, walnut, ebony, ivory and mother-of-pearl, probably retrieved from the Poole Piano Company's scrap material. Designed to be hung on a wall, despite holding 300 tools, when closed, it measures only 22.8 cms deep, 99 cms high, and 45.7 cms wide. It weighs 32.6 kilograms empty and 70.7 kilograms with tools. Every tool has a custom-made holder, many with beautiful inlay and tiny clasps that rotate for easy access. When folded closed, tools from each side nestle precisely in a “jigsaw puzzle arrangement” of flip-up trays, fold-out layers and hidden compartments in three layers. It is secured locked with a built-in dial combination lock.

Studley was well into his 80s when he retired from the piano company. Before he died in 1925, he gave the tool chest to a friend. That man’s grandson, Peter Hardwick, loaned the chest to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. in the late 1980s as the centrepiece of woodworking and other tradesman tool chests. It was later sold into the hands of private collectors, the current making it occasionally available for inspection. In 2006 it was restored with a few missing tools returned and inlays renewed.

Like many other woodworkers, Donald C. Williams is fascinated by the chest. Mr. Williams, a conservator, educator and scholar, was the Senior Furniture Conservator for the Smithsonian Museum’s Conservation Institute for three decades and describes the cabinet as “... quite literally the icon of art woodworking. It is the gold standard for creative craftsmanship.” After retiring he published a book on the chest titled “Virtuoso: The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley”.

Little is known of the Master Craftsman Studley who fashion the chest. He joined the Massachusetts Infantry at the start of the Civil War and was captured in Galveston, Texas in 1863. After the war he returned to Quincy and joined the Rural Masonic Lodge in 1871. “H. O. Studley”, and his Massachusetts hometown of “Quincy” are engraved on plates just above his brace, but in elements like pillars and arrangement of Square & Compasses, it’s evident he left Freemasonry as striking theme in the chest, to say nothing of the allegorical symbol of striving for beauty and perfection, both in form and function, nor of the fact the chest’s tools are in three layers reflecting the three degrees of the Craft, or perhaps that’s mere coincidence? The whole chest might be an allegorical representation of the order and beauty of Freemasonry. Interestingly, the last time the chest was exhibited (May 2015), it was hosted in a Masonic Building, the Scottish Rite Temple of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Could a brother Freemason have purchased it?

To really appreciate the chest, seeing its moving parts helps.

See videos made on the Studley Tool Chest;

Detail H.O. Studley Tool Cabinet Freemasonry
Close up picture H.O. Studley Tool Cabinet Freemasonry
Close up picture H.O. Studley Tool Cabinet Freemasonry
Close up photograph H.O. Studley Tool Cabinet Freemasonry
Close up photograph Studley Tool Cabinet Freemasonry
Photograph H.O. Studley Freemason