by Steven D. Johnson
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Form Versus Function – The Studley Tool Chest or "How I Will Probably Offend Chris Schwarz"
The recent special 20th Edition of The Highland Woodworker was a fascinating look at the Henry O. Studley tool chest. If you haven't seen it yet,
watch it now
or you will have no idea what I am talking about.
I will likely never be able to see the Studley Tool Chest in person, but I believe Chris Schwarz when he likens it to "perfection" and Don Williams when he effuses about the "art" of the cabinet.
I also realize that we may never know all the facts, but we can assume that Mr. Studley likely built the tool chest as a testament to his life's work, an exhibition of his talent at its peak, as a grand obsession, a pure artistic endeavor, or even a self-involved pastime, or perhaps some combination of all those things. My question is, "Does it work?"
Art for art's sake is fine. Utility, as a defining design parameter, is fine, too. Combining art and utility, form and function, is an order of magnitude greater in difficulty, and is accomplished only by a select few, and even by them, only occasionally.
Before everyone gets mad, including Mr. Schwarz and Mr. Williams, it is obvious that everything within the Studley Tool Chest "works" but my question is, "Does it work as a display cabinet or does it work as a tool chest?"
I ask the question because in a particularly revealing moment, Mr. Williams says, "…I don't know about your shop, but sometimes in my shop a tool is just hanging where it was most convenient to put a nail…" It was this statement that caused me to wonder how "workable" the Studley chest was… or if it was even intended to be functional. Was the tool chest designed, and will it be defined, as only an expression of art? Art of a high order, mind you, but just art, nonetheless.
In practical use what beautiful panel must be moved or removed, levered up or down or out of the way simply to get access to a tool imbedded in the second or third layer of tools behind? And the next tool needed for a project might be somewhere else in the cabinet; behind a panel, in a drawer, another niche, or another cubbyhole. In my opinion, the only way the Studley tool chest could serve as a "workable" tool chest would be to remove every tool potentially needed for a project, spread those tools out on the bench, and get to work. Going back and forth and retrieving tools on an "as needed" basis would be unworkable.
My point is not to detract from the accomplishments of Mr. Studley. Quite the contrary. My point is merely that I have seen shop cabinets and tool chests that might not have the "high art" of the Studley chest, but still look darned good and actually function well as tool chests. In fact, Chris Schwarz himself shows us how to
build a Traditional Tool Chest in two days
that, in the combination of form and function, is more impressive to me than the Studley tool chest. It works. And it is intended to augment our work as woodworkers. And like Mr. Williams, I'm likely to put a nail in the wall and hang something right where I use it… fast, convenient, workable.
If Mr. Studley actually used his tool chest, it was likely cumbersome in practice. If Mr. Studley built the tool chest merely to store his tools at day's end and to display them in a high work of art, he accomplished that… in spades. But we should call it what it is then… a tool "display cabinet."
For a "Down To Earth" kind of woodworker, I will more loudly praise your version of Chris Schwarz's Two Day tool chest or your under-the-table-saw-wing tool cabinet, your wall-hung clamp rack, or your meticulously arranged pegboard. Form AND Function. Combine those two well, and I am more impressed.
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Steven Johnson is retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and
supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis
(although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his
Steven can be reached directly via email at