Virtuoso: The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley (a brief review)

A couple of months back I bought a copy of Virtuoso: The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley. Written by Donald C. Williams, conservator and scholar, and photographed by Narayan Nayar, it is an exceptional publication from Lost Art Press. On vacation at the cottage this summer, I finally found time to read it. The tool cabinet of Studley is probably the most well known cabinet in the woodworking community. This may be partially due to the aesthetic beauty of this cabinet, and the fact that the cabinet is hand-made, and specific to Studley’s trade of piano-making. It is also unique because of the complete absence of similar vintage tool cabinets, which is rather strange considering the number of companies which sold cabinets, usually with tools,  in their catalogs.

The book is composed of eight chapters, and is extremely well laid out. The photographic record of both the cabinet and workbench are exceptional. The first portion of the book deals with Williams’ endeavour to find the cabinet, and an insight into the life of Studley, tracing the lineage of the cabinet since its creation. Little is known about the actual construction of the cabinet, or its day-to-day use, which is unfortunate. Obviously the cabinet itself is a work of art, but did Studley plan it this way? Did he put a tool back in the cabinet after it’s use, or maybe only at the end of the day? Studley himself is somewhat of an enigma, with only one picture in existence, published in The Music Trade Review, March 30, 1918. It shows Studley in his workshop with the cabinet in the background shortly before his retirement.

The core portion of the book chronicles the tools within the cabinet and their arrangement. Encompassing nearly half the book (94/204 pages), Chapter 5 is a detailed review of the cabinet and its contents, exploring every nook and cranny. The tools themselves are often not as awe-inspiring as one would imagine, but then they were used to work with on a daily basis, and not just to look at. It is the cabinet itself, with its unique tool storage solutions, often layered three deep, and aesthetic design that are of appeal to the reader. The cabinet is made of mahogany, with embellishments in materials such as ebony, ivory and mother-of-pearl. From the visual dissection of the cabinet found in the book, one obtains a sense of the cabinet being utilitarian in one sense, and a work of art in the other. The interesting tools are the ones built by Studley himself for his trade.

Chapter 6 briefly alludes to “artistic flourishes”, such as inlays, which contribute to the cabinet’s overall aesthetic appeal. The final portion of the book examines the Studley workbench. Whilst the original base of the workbench is missing and has been reconstructed, the interesting aspect is of course the bench slab, and vises. The form of the bench-top is a curiosity, composed of a sandwich of laminated oak encapsulated with mahogany faces, and trimmed with ebony. The chapter concludes with an investigation of the unmarked handmade piano-makers vises and a compendium of similar bench/vise combinations which still exist.

Overall this is an extraordinary book, as both a reference guide, and a book to sit in the living room and invite discussion when friends visit. It may also spur some re-creations of similar cabinet. Ultimately it would be great to see the photographic exploration used in this book extended to other projects. For example a photographic record and evolutionary discussion of Stanley’s planes perhaps? Kudos to Lost Art Press for publishing a flawless manuscript, and to Williams and Nayar for their commitment to such a woodworking icon.

NB: The interested reader can read about building a replica of the workbench top on Don Williams blog.


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