The following is excerpted from “Virtuoso: The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley,” by Donald C. Williams, with photographs by Narayan Nayar.
In a space of just 10” x 39” x 19-1/2”, H.O. Studley managed to arrange – with perfection – more than 250 of his tools into a dovetailed mahogany cabinet that has captivated tens of thousands of woodworkers since it was first unveiled in 1988 on the back cover of Fine Woodworking with a single shocking photograph.
After a brief stay at the Smithsonian, the cabinet was sold to a private collector and hadn’t been seen by the public for well over a decade. Studley’s workbench has never been on public view.
For four years, Donald Williams and a team of supporting characters researched, documented and photographed both the cabinet and Studley’s equally amazing workbench to create “Virtuoso: The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley.”
This book is an in-depth examination of one of the most beautiful woodworking tool chests ever constructed and presents the first-ever biography of Studley (1838-1925), a piano and organ builder in Quincy, Mass. It features measurements, details and photographs of all the tools in the cabinet. Every swinging frame, hinged panel and nook of this three-dimensional, multi-layered sculpture has been analyzed so you can understand how it folds in on itself like a giant piece of mahogany origami.
But most of all, you will see the cabinet in a way that only a handful of privileged people ever have. And you will realize that the magazine photograph that electrified the woodworking world in 1988 only scratches the surface of the cabinet’s complete magnificence.
My late colleague and dear friend Melvin J. Wachowiak, Jr. once remarked that anything made more elegantly than necessary for its usefulness was Art. By that assessment, with which I agree, the Studley tool cabinet is unrestrained Art. There are a multitude of visual and physical moments in the cabinet that did not need to be there. Their presence is either to aesthetically enhance the whole, or to demonstrate the maker’s virtuosity at his craft and his delight in it.
To a modern woodworker the tool cabinet might seem opulent, even garish, but in the late-Victorian world of organ and piano building, the exuberance made sense. The material vocabulary is what you would expect for a palette of inlays on a piano-maker’s toolbox: ivory, ebony and mother-of-pearl.
The inlay techniques Studley used on the cabinet were straightforward and exacting. For the round, button-like inlays he likely used a drill bit to excavate the pockets. The inlays vary in size, but most are in the range of 1/4″ in diameter plus or minus, with a few in the 1/8″-diameter range.
Almost all of the 136 ivory inlays are buttons or roundels.
The 217 mother-of-pearl inlays are more evenly divided between buttons and roundels, and pieces of other shapes (alas, I did not conduct a count on that distribution). The shaped pieces were “made to fit,” but there is no way to identify which came first, the void or the infill.
Typically intarsia (a technique by which pieces are literally “inset” into a background) is accomplished by first creating the decorative element, then creating a void to fit that element by scribing the outline of the element on the background and excavating a void. My microscopic examination of the inlays was cursory and inconclusive, but I did not see any tool marks on the background surfaces.
Regardless of their material or shape, on all but a few of the inlays there are no irregularities until extreme magnification is employed.
The opulence of using ivory buttons, inscribed with inked numbers to mark the progression of tool sizes (for example, the graduations of the drill bits) is awe-inspiring.
There is place for every drill bit in the graduated set, and an engraved ivory button for each drill bit. Also take note of the subtle but elegant treatment of the bottoms of the spacers between each Gothic arch; the curved double-chamfer is found in numerous locations throughout the cabinet, almost never glaringly obvious.
Concurrently, the mother-of-pearl elements used as mere decoration impart an intense luminescence to the cabinet, especially as the light or the viewing position changes.
The Sculpted Details
The strictly sculptural elements of the cabinet, by which I mean those that are rendered and presented to the viewer in three dimensions, number literally in the hundreds. Because it is not possible to rank them in importance or even prominence, I will cluster them into four major areas.
First are the roundels, turned button-like elements scattered throughout the cabinet, never haphazard and always enhancing adjacent elements. There are many different sizes of roundels, ranging from about 3/8″ to 1-1/2″ in diameter. Most, but not all, of the roundels are festooned with round mother-of-pearl inlays at their tips, about which I will speak more in a bit. Each of the roughly two dozen roundels is turned from solid ebony.
Closely related to the roundels are the drawer pulls and stopper buttons at the ends of the metal tubes containing tools. I include these 17 examples here because, like the roundels, they are small, turned ebony elements.
Second are the shaped decorative elements, which are further subdivided into those that are 1) functionally similar to the roundels in that they are applied to the background, or 2) movable tabs or catches used to restrain tools. Most of these from either category are further enhanced by mother-of-pearl inlays and reflect the element outline as a whole.
Of the first group, numbering roughly 90, many serve to frame a space but others are demarcations between tools belonging to a graduated set, such as the chisels and drill bits. The second group consists of about 50 ebony tabs.
The third type of sculptural enhancements are carved elements serving as stand-alone sculptures in their own right. The most prominent of these is the drop pendant that tops the arch above the niche containing the Stanley No. 1 plane. The detail on this element is breathtaking, all the more so when you consider its scale; it is roughly the size of a dime. There are only a dozen or so of these examples in the case, but they are spectacular and attention-grabbing.
The final widespread instance of sculptural exercises in the cabinet includes the arches and their buttresses, most notably around the set of four awls above the Masonic symbol, along with those around the chisels and the two sets of drill bits, which are in the upper right portion of the cabinet on the second and third layers. The arch-and-buttress vignette framing the awls takes its place proudly among the most beautifully designed and crafted artworks I have ever seen.
Quantifying precisely the inventory of these decorative details is nearly impossible (is it a series of a dozen arches, or is it a single element of an ascending set of arches?) and frankly not especially useful.
But because you asked, I number the total of individual decorative elements to be in excess of 500.
Perhaps the most gifted craftsman I know recently replicated a single inlaid mother-of-pearl and ebony element from Studley’s cabinet and found it to be a vexing and time-consuming effort. If we fixate on the Herculean labors of Studley we might become obsessed with the mechanistic minutiae of envisioning and fabricating hundreds of stylistic touches, each consuming some quantity of a superb craftsman’s time.
Instead I ask you to think of them – and the case itself – as a unified cornucopia in which the whole is infinitely more affecting than a summation of the magnificent individual components.
Editor’s note: There are many more photographs in the book than I’ve shown here of the artistic details discussed above.