Back before the invention of wood movement, joiners had much more flexibility in the way they designed furniture.
Without the fear of cross-grain self-destruction, furniture makers would build chests, cabinets and sideboards with the grain running in opposition – horizontal grain on the front and back; vertical grain on the sides. They could nail a tabletop to its base without worrying about the coefficient of expansion for radial and tangential grain. They could make ledged doors that were vertical boards clinched with horizontal and diagonal boards.
And they could make this stool, a common sight in Europe and at Old Salem Museums and Gardens in Winston-Salem, N.C.
This type of simple stool shows up a lot in the furniture record, and it is still in use today in kitchens, workshops and homes around the world. I’ve always been fascinated by these stools because they should have torn themselves apart, been thrown out for firewood and replaced by the Mammut.
But they survive, and they vex woodworkers, many of whom try to improve the joinery so the stool will survive. I don’t think you have to improve anything.
But first, why do I call this Moravian stool a “Windsor-style” stool? Well, for the lack of a better word, I’ve decided to use “Windsor” to describe constructions where a plank seat or platform is pierced by legs – like a Windsor chair, a Roubo bench or a Moravian stool.
The “problem” with the stool is that the seat is joined to battens with sliding dovetails. Nothing wrong with that, according to the wood-movement scientists. But then the joiners would pierce both the seat and the battens with the through-tenons for the legs.
The legs then prevent the top from expanding and contracting the way it wants to, and so the top splits. Game over, right? Nope. While the top splits, it doesn’t destroy the stool. The sliding dovetails keep everything together. If you like, you can drive a few nails through the top into the battens to keep things tighter – this was a common solution on originals.
So the question is: Why were these stools built this way in the first place? Without a Ouija board, we don’t know (wouldn’t that be a great session at Woodworking in America?). But after building one of these stools, I can make a few guesses.
The stool is very light. By using this sliding dovetail construction, the entire stool weighs only 3 lbs. 9 oz. in poplar. Had the seat been a solid plank of 1-1/4” poplar, it would have weighed a lot more.
It uses less material. The stool can be pieced together from thinner, narrower pieces of wood. I used scraps. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Moravians used scraps as well.
It appeals to the Germanic mind. I’m mostly German. I teach in Germany and deal with many German woodworkers. I don’t have a better explanation, but I see this sort of interlocking joinery in vernacular Bavarian joinery. I know this point is weak, but I think it’s true.
But why would a joiner of any skill or sense build a stool with this kind of cross-grain construction?
The answer, for me, was to change my definition of wood movement.
As woodworkers we try to tame the wood so that it stays in some sort of pristine form – flat tabletops, unwarped doors, tight seams all around. We allow and accommodate for wood movement in tabletops, benchtops and panels. That wood movement is allowable and OK.
But what if a split was OK?
— Christopher Schwarz