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Most woodworkers who have seen the Studley Tool Cabinet, whether in person, on television, or in photos will acknowledge that it is a masterpiece of cabinet construction. Not only is the form amazing (it holds hundreds of tools perfectly in an unbelievably small footprint), but the attention to detail is staggering. The chest is adorned with intricate mouldings and ornate inlay work that elevates it from an extremely well made tool cabinet to a work of art. This is no mere tool cabinet, nor is it just a very nice example of high end woodworking. It goes beyond those things because it is a truly personal glimpse into the mind and talents of a highly talented craftsman. It was not built to be copied, or duplicated; but to hold a very specific set of tools, the implements of a woodworker widely considered a genius. Likely constructed as a labor of love, the Studley Tool Cabinet has become an icon in the world of woodworking, serving as an example of high-level cabinet making, art, and a historical artifact.
Admittedly, I know very little of the history of the Studley Tool Cabinet. I know that it was constructed well over one hundred years ago (obviously by Henry O Studley), and when he died it was left to a member of his family. Maybe thirty years ago it was sold at auction to a private buyer. I was first introduced to the cabinet on an episode of the New Yankee Workshop probably more than twenty years ago. At that time, I had never woodworked, I did not own any woodworking tools (unless you want to count a combination square and a block plane etc.), and I hadn’t planned on taking up woodworking as a hobby. But just because I knew little of woodworking at the time, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t immediately recognize the Studley Tool Cabinet as a masterpiece. I probably didn’t realize just how unique this creation actually was, but even my then untrained and inexperienced eye knew a work of art when it saw one.
Last week I broke one of my cardinal rules, and commented on a “professional” woodworking blog. My comment was pretty innocuous and uncontroversial. On the Popular Woodworking web page Megan Fitzpatrick wrote a blog article about the upcoming showing of the Studley Tool Cabinet next month in Amana Iowa. This is quite possibly the last time in my lifetime, or anybody’s lifetime, that this cabinet will be displayed in public again. My own comment, paraphrased, was simply that I wish this cabinet was not “owned” by one person privately, but rather part of the collection of a museum so that all would have the chance to see this one-of-a-kind masterpiece of woodworking in person. Sure as the sun will rise, a douchebag I’ve never seen before on the PW page chimed in with a comment which was supposed to be oh so witty accusing me of wanting to confiscate the tool cabinet and how would I like it if somebody wanted my stuff and what “ownership” really means, etc. I’m paraphrasing his words but that is the gist of it. I replied to his comment, told him what I thought of him, and that was the end of it.
What bothered me wasn’t the comment, writing a blog I’ve dealt with many that were much worse, but the fact that the commenter was more than likely one of..somebody’s..fan boys.
A legitimate question to ask would be “How do I know that?” Well, I don’t for sure, but I have a strong hunch. Firstly, while I’m not exactly positive, I believe that..somebody..has something to do with the showing of the Studley Tool Chest next month. Secondly, the commenter was doing his best..somebody..imitation with his comment. Here again, I have nothing at all against..somebody, I just happen to think that some of his fans are complete assholes. They are the people that keep me going to the gym and working the heavybag, just for the off-chance that I have a run-in with one of them. Many are extreme conservatives disguising themselves as extreme liberals, which makes some sense considering that once you get to the extreme end of any ideology you have only arrived at the same nut house by taking different roads. To clarify, I am not trying to get political, because I am as politically moderate as it gets. When I say “liberal/conservative” I’m not necessarily speaking of politics, but of a mindset.
As far as the ownership of the Studley Tool Cabinet is concerned, it is really none of my business who paid the money for it. I will say this, there are certain creations that I believe should not be owned by any one person, and this tool cabinet happens to be one of them. Why? Only because this is a singularly unique piece of woodworking history, and perhaps the most famous “toolbox” ever made. This isn’t an end table, or chest of drawers, or Highboy that happened to be owned by a famous person. In those cases, it is not the object that bares the relevance or importance, but the owner who made them “important”. In the case of the Studley Tool Chest, it is the creation itself that is so significant, with all due respect to Henry O Studley. A table or an overcoat that may have been owned by a person such as George Washington certainly has historical value and importance, but those objects may have been very common items in their day that many people owned. This tool cabinet is perhaps the most unique piece of “furniture” constructed in well over a century, or maybe much longer. In my opinion, it is to woodworking what the Mona Lisa is to art, or what the Sphinx is to Egypt: a true one-of-a-kind work of art and irreplaceable piece of history. That is why I wish that it was part of a museum collection and not just owned privately. Of course there is nothing that can, will, or should be done about that fact; I just wish it wasn’t the case.
And as far as the current owner, I have absolutely nothing against him or her. Whomever this person happens to be, it seems pretty clear that he or she respects the cabinet and its significance both historically and to woodworking. At the very least there is no worry that it will be stripped of its tools and thrown in a trash bin. It seems that it will be well taken care of for the foreseeable future, and I suppose that is all anyone could ask. But pretty soon it will disappear from the public eye, maybe forever. I feel no better about that than I would if a collector entered the Louvre, offered them an obscene amount of money, and purchased the Mona Lisa for their own personal collection never to be seen again. Of course that would be absolutely none of my business, nevertheless it would be a sad day for anybody who happens to like art. To me, the last public viewing of the Studley Tool Cabinet happens to be a sad day for woodworking. Maybe I’m overvaluing the cabinet, maybe I’m just being melodramatic, but that is how I feel about it, and I’m certainly not going to let a witless douchebag tell me different.