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Virtuoso -The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley , by Donald C. Williams

by J. Norman Reid
Delaplane, VA

Since the famous poster was first published in 1988, the Henry Studley tool cabinet has occupied iconic status within the woodworking community. The cabinet and its hundreds of tools have been the subject of many articles and, for a time, a display in the Smithsonian Institution. It was featured on Norm Abram's The New Yankee Workshop . Its contents have been catalogued and listed. And yet, for all its exposure to the public, the cabinet and its contents have remained in semi-obscurity. Even more so its creator, Henry O. Studley.

With the publication of Virtuoso, all this has changed. This latest release from Lost Art Press combines the research and editorial skills of Don Williams, furniture conservationist and tool cognoscenti, with the photographic talents of Narayan Nayar. The result is a complete illustrated documentation of the fabulous cabinet's design and execution, its tool collection and as much of its and its maker's history as can be ascertained.

Virtuoso's eight chapters begin with a description of Williams' first encounter with the cabinet that represents an homage of sorts to its alluring appeal. A brief visual overview of the cabinet follows.

Successive chapters detail what little is known about Henry Studley, a highly-skilled Boston piano maker in an era when richly-detailed decoration adorned high end instruments intended for finer homes. Only a single photograph of the enigmatic Studley is known to exist, a newspaper photo of him standing in his workshop, the famous tool cabinet hanging in the background. When and where Studley built his cabinet are, frankly, unknown.

More certain is the history and provenance of the cabinet, and the account of its discovery and rescue from near-certain extinction makes for fascinating, almost detective story, reading.

The bulk of the book is devoted to a highly-detailed account, richly-illustrated, of the cabinet's many components, its Masonic symbolism, and the individual tools it was designed to contain. Built of mahogany, with inlaid ivory, mother-of-pearl, ebony and other materials, the cabinet is surprisingly compact, given the large array of tools it holds in layers as much as three deep.

Williams carefully examined and documented each tool in the cabinet, its maker and marks, its condition and as much as is known about its purpose. Many of the individual tools were made by Studley himself and reflect the careful detail he lavished on the cabinet.

Although the cabinet has long been the object of high interest, much less is known about Studley's workbench, the top of which was rescued from decades of storage in a Maine barn. It had been separated from its base, now lost, but its present owner, who prefers anonymity, constructed a replica that appears to be very like the original. Like the cabinet, the workbench incorporates design elements that set it apart from its contemporaries in the piano industry, in which this particular workbench style appears to have predominated.

Williams compares the Studley workbench with other similar benches that have survived. But he is especially intrigued by the face and tail vises on the bench and devotes special attention to their design, again comparing their features with similar vises, none of which bear makers' marks.

Virtuoso concludes with a brief summary of the Studley cabinet's impact on popular consciousness, a bibliography and index.

Virtuoso is pure celebration of the exquisite craftsmanship and artistry of Henry Studley and his ingenuity in fitting such a large array of tools into a surprisingly small space. Anyone who has admired the now iconic poster will find this full exploration of the cabinet fascinating. Though perhaps few woodworkers will attempt to match Studley's craftsmanship, his rich design and highly-skilled execution are now more evident than ever and will inspire more careful design and attention to detail. Collectors will find the documentation of Studley's 19th century tools useful. And students of American industrial history will experience enduring interest in this slice of Americana. Virtuoso is a good read, a feast for the eyes and a collector's item in its own right that will be greatly appreciated by many.

CLICK HERE to order your copy of Virtuoso -The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley

J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living with his wife in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains with a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who believe they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He can be reached by email at nreid@fcc.net .

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