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: The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley”
And yet, there is much left to learn about this enigmatic genius.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine
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