Furniture of Necessity: Windsor-type Stools

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

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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27 Responses to Furniture of Necessity: Windsor-type Stools

  1. TJ says:

    Have all the legs remained tight in the examples you have seen? It seems kind of brilliant. When the seat shrinks it counters any leg shrinkage and pinches the tenons tighter.

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  2. The simplest stool is just a seat with legs in holes. But what if it splits? Then it’s no good. So reinforcing the seat with through-dovetails makes a workable seat even if the wood does split. If it does, then just be sure not to get pinched by the split as you sit on it!!!

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  3. bawrytr says:

    I remember the first time I looked at Peter F.’s site he was pegging a seat on a joint stool. One board fixed at each corner. I thought, how does that not either split or tear the stool apart. Riven stock of course was the answer. But I agree with Darrell and TJ above. Durability, reinforces the joints. And absolutely, you go to an antique store and look at vernacular furniture here in France and there are splits and bad joints and plane tearout all over the place. In the antique store it is seen as character, but when you see new work in solid wood, a lot of times it looks like it was made in some kind of veneered particle board and machined within a hair’s breadth of its life.

    I also see a lot of chests, for instance that are built on stiles, but no rails or panels, the faces and sides and backs are made of boards jointed together tongue and groove, and then tenoned and pegged into the stiles. They split, the tongue and groove joints open up a bit. But one at my inlaws’ has been around for more than 200 years spent most of its life unfinished in the barn as an oats chest for the animals, and is still solid as a rock.

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    • Paul B says:

      I want to build an Central European style box settee/bench with the board/stile construction you’re describing. Can you tell me if the boards pinned at the tops as well as the bottoms? I’ve recently left questions about this exact technique on a couple of forums without much feedback.

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      • Paul B says:

        ….I was wondering if maybe the top ends of the seat and the arms were holding the stiles together while the boards were pinned at the bottoms only. I’ve never seen one in person.
        http://www.johncornallantiques.com/antiques-benches-seating/antique-pine-box-bench-in-aged-grey-2-0-refno-1227.html

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      • bawrytr says:

        The chests I am talking about are really pretty tall, 70 – 80 cm sides made up of two or three boards. They are mostly pinned in one place on each board, so the boards can move, but sometimes they were just done any-old-how it looks like and so some splits. So they are a little different that what you are talking about from the photos in the link. You can see pretty clearly that the boards are single boards and pinned at top and bottom. I dunno. Maybe one of the holes in the boards was cut slightly into a slot to allow a little movement without sacrificing its holding strength like in a “breadboard” joint? Or maybe there is just enough give in the pine to allow the board to move a bit without splitting. I made a similar bench a while back, and just used a big tenon double pinned in the center of the board with a sort of tongue and groove running the rest of the width of the board/stile joint to keep it closed and stop it from cupping. No worries so far in ten years.

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      • Paul B says:

        Thanks Brian. It’s typical, the ramdom bench example I linked to (without looking at carefully) shows the pin construction better than the dozens and dozens of other benches photos sets I’d examined.

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  4. Andreas says:

    Chris, you are right, these kind of stools (and chairs) have been very common here in Central Europe. You can find them virtually in every museum showcasing vernacular works. But frankly, it is not very common, though, that the tenons are pierced through the seat as well. Usually they stop underneath it, in the battens. In German this kind of constuction is called “Brettstuhl”, literally “board+chair”. These pieces have lasted hundreds of years of hard, every-day-use, that is really impressive. I am looking forward to your book!
    Andreas

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  5. Jonas Jensen says:

    I think that Darrell has got a good point.
    I also think that a lot of these stools were built at home and not by a professional joiner. And in this case it is nice if it can be made using smal pieces of wood. E.g. firewood that has been riven.

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  6. Sean says:

    Wouldn’t the better answer be to wedge the legs in mortises that only went through the battens and then slide the battens in place and lock them with a coulple dowels at the center line – i.e., the sliding dovetails can move on either side of the center.

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  7. Ray Schwanenberger says:

    Chris, as a maker of Windsor chairs I agree that the stool is “In the Style Of” a Windsor. I also agree with your assessment that the battens give the legs more “meat” to bite into therefore giving it strength and not requiring a thicker slab that would have been reserved for a chair. Were the legs and mortises tapered and wedged like a Windsor?

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  8. Brett says:

    Even though the seat and battens have grain running crosswise to each other, I suspect that these stools are less likely to split because the bottoms of the legs are not attached to each other with stretchers. When the seat and battens move, the legs can “tilt” in the holes (in the same way that a nail can bend to the side a little) which lowers the stress on the seat and reduces the chance of it splitting. Stretchers might stiffen the joints, but cause more seats to split.

    Note: As an American who lived in Germany for a few years in my teens, I always felt awkward when I introduced myself to a German-speaker as “Brett” (“Huh? Your name is ‘Board’?). In English-speaking countries, however, “Brett” means “native of Britainy [France]” or “native of [Great] Britain”–which provided a measure of comfort to my self-conscious, teen-age psyche.

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  9. Colin says:

    Are the legs just glued in?

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  10. Ron Dennis says:

    Chris – Did you see that Season Six of WoodSmith TV will feature a “Campaign Furniture” episode? If I recall that places you on the “bleeding edge” once again.

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  11. Brett says:

    Ron Dennis, I saw that campaign chest “trailer” on WoodSmith’s website, too. It would be interesting to track the topics covered by various woodworking magazines and TV shows, and figure out who’s doing the original work and who’s doing the copying! (I’ve little doubt that CS is leading the way on campaign furniture, though).

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  12. George R. says:

    Please, please, please, anything but a mammut. Thank goodness there are still people like you, Peter F. And others that make stools that are pleasing to the eye.

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  13. Scott S. says:

    I don’t mean to disrespect academics, but sometimes there is no complicated involved answer. As an inquisitive lad vacationing in Appalachia, often times the answer to a question was simply a variation of ‘that’s the way it’s done’. Word to the wise, never ask for the recipe to moonshine.

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  14. gdblake says:

    There is a simple reason these stools were built this way. Wood splits (breaks) easily with the grain, but is strong perpendicular to the grain. Without the crossgrain battens the seats would split along the grain line in no time and fall apart just from being sat on. With the battens in place it doesn’t matter if the seat eventually splits along the grain line, it will hold together until someone heavy enough to break the seat across the grain takes a load off.

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  15. Ron Dennis says:

    The rest of my comment: Why wouldn’t the legs just pivot as the seat moved?

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  16. David says:

    I appreciate that furniture like this was simply intended to be functional. Not ugly, but not designed for a magazine cover, either, or for a museum, despite where they’ve ended up. The slot in the seat and the light weight make it easy to carry around the house or the farm, which makes it continually useful, and honestly, when your behind is on it, you can’t see the split anyway! It’s a stool, says that logic, a means to an end (sitting) and not an end in itself. A good thing to remember sometimes when we think too much about how perfect a piece could be.

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  17. Graham Burbank says:

    As to the rest of the furniture made with a (seeming) disregard to wood movement, we are often overlooking key points of both construction and environment. Six board chests are one example. What is the material, how was it rendered(riven, quartered, old growth, stable species in service, etc.) How was it used? A country piece, in an uninsulated house, heated marginally or not at all (think mexico or the medeterranian) We suppose it will self destruct, and it may, indeed, brought into a modern home heated or air conditioned with large swings in humidity in the central united states. But, these were made locally, used locally, of native wood, by folks who understood more about wood than many of us assume we know, and in a region with a more stable climate.

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  18. Clark Schoonover says:

    Chris, I have built the Moravian plank chair that St. Roy featured in one of his books. It used the legs only through the battens and locked into place by the back passing through both the seat and battens. A handy design for reenactors who need breakdown furniture.

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  19. Chris, I’m intrigued by this stool because it is similar to a table I’m working on. Mine is a reproduction of a table designed by Arts and Crafts architect Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott (Museum of Modern Art: http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=O%3AAD%3AE%3A25615&page_number=1&template_id=1&sort_order=1) . The most puzzling feature, to me anyway, is the legs, which are hexagonal and tapered. After a couple of years of work, I’ve finally made a jig for my table saw that allows me to make hexagonal (or any number of sides) tapers. Are the legs of this stool hexagonal and tapered? I’d love to know how they were made. Thanks for posting this. Here is my blog post about the Baillie Scott table: http://furnitude.blogspot.com/2011/05/moma-table.html
    Thanks,
    Mitch
    Furnitude

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  20. Noel Hayward says:

    Hi Christopher,

    I know that this is a while since your post, but this photgraph was in the Gteborgs Posten today (Friday 19 Oct 2012) in an article on decorating bathrooms. Sorry for the quality, but that was as good as it would scan. I have not seen an example of the stool here at all, but then I should add I have not looked very hard either.

    Best regards and keep up the good work.

    An Australian living in Sweden

    Noel Hayward

    Date: Tue, 4 Sep 2012 02:26:16 +0000 To: noel_hayward@hotmail.com

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