Studley: The World’s Best-known Tool Cabinet
I wouldn’t typically give away free on our site an article that hasn’t yet been seen by magazine subscribers. But this is not a typical situation, and time is of the essence. Don Williams, whose latest book, “Virtuoso: The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley” (with photographs by Narayan Nayar) will be shipping in just few weeks from Lost Art Press. But the book will be available for the foreseeable future.
What is far more pressing is that for the first time since it was on display in the late 1980s at the Smithsonian Institution, you have the opportunity to see this stunning tool cabinet, the tools therein and Studley’s workbench (never-before displayed) in person, for three days only: May 15-17 at the Scottish Rite Temple of Cedar Rapids, Iowa (in conjunction with Handworks in nearby Amana, Iowa). It is unlikely this chance will ever come again. Tickets are $25, and only 1,200 are being sold – and as I write this, there are still some available…which astounds me.
So, I share here with you the End Grain column Don wrote about Studley for the June issue, which mails later this week.
Get your tickets. Get to Iowa. I’ll see you there.
— Megan Fitzpatrick
Decoding the Mystery of Piano and Organ Maker Henry O. Studley
by Don Williams
The amazing tool cabinet of piano-maker Henry O. Studley has fostered intense admiration and contemplation surrounding its origins and creator for nearly three decades. I’ve heard a lot of this speculation while conducting research for the book “Virtuoso: The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley” (Lost Art Press). About the only thing I’ve not heard is that Studley’s creative genius was proof of extraterrestrial visitation.
The reality is both inspiring and mundane.
Who? Studley was born in 1838 in Lowell, Mass., into a family of skilled tradesmen; he died in Quincy, Mass., in 1925. As a young man he mastered the cabinetmaking trade and worked nearly his entire adult life in the precision woodworking world of organ and piano building. The only known portrait of Studley presents him at the top of the piano-factory food chain.
What? His tool cabinet, filled with in many cases customized tools, and his workbench, were fabricated from premium mahogany. The cabinet is enhanced with ebony details and hundreds of ivory and mother-of-pearl inlays. The workbench top is laminated from mahogany faces on an oak core, and features two amazing vises.
When? Studley’s obituary states that the tool cabinet was constructed during his circa 1898-1919 tenure at the Poole Piano Company. I don’t (yet) know whether he built it in his free time or on company time, or how long it took.
Where? While there is no way to know where he built the cabinet and workbench, there is no record of a home shop; “the factory” is the likely answer.
How? This one is easy: with consummate skill. All the workmanship is crisp and confident, and the composition and detailing demonstrate genuine inspiration. Clearly the cabinet was constructed specifically for the tools it houses, with all the spatial and aesthetic details resolved prior to starting.
Why? I believe it is fair to conclude that Studley was simply showing off a lifetime’s acquisition of skill and tools. And given the skills evident in the cabinet’s design and execution, he had much to show off about.
In 2010, my inquiries about the tool cabinet led to a phone call from its owner, who invited me to visit and examine the cabinet and workbench. The rest, as they say, is history. The result is the book “Virtuoso” and the first-ever exhibit of the cabinet and workbench together, May 15-17, 2015, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
And yet, there is much left to learn about this enigmatic genius. PWM
Don is a furniture and decorative arts conservator and author of “Virtuoso: The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley (Lost Art Press). His web site is donsbarn.com.