About Those Nubs of Yours


A fair number of tables from the Middle Ages and later appear to have a couple of extra pieces attached below the tabletop to thicken up the area where the leg tenons intersect the top. I call these “nubs” for lack of a better word, and they raise several questions.

These nubs are similar – very similar – to the battens in early stools and chairs found in Germanic cultures (I’ve also seen some in the Netherlands). Typically, these battens were attached to the seat using a sliding dovetail, they thickened the area for the joinery and they strengthened the thin seat. They strengthened the seat because the grain of the battens was 90° to the seat.

This grain arrangement is typically a Bozo No-No when it comes to wood movement, and a fair number of seats I’ve seen in Germany and American Moravian colonies have split. It’s also fair, however, to say that many have not split and even those that have split still work fine.

So are these Middle Age nubs attached with sliding dovetails? I can’t see any sliding dovetails in the paintings. Did they skip drawing the joinery? Many artists would draw in the wedged through-tenon joinery. But not the dovetails? Were they too small? Are the nubs parallel to or 90° to the grain? Again, many artists from the Middle Ages didn’t draw in the grain, so I don’t think we can answer this from paintings.

How were the nubs attached – if not by sliding dovetails? Were they simply captured between the shoulder of the leg’s tenon and the back-wedged joint above? My guess is this could work. Glue maybe? Nails? I’ve never seen any nails through the top in the paintings – though that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. They could have been driven in from the bottom – through the nubs.

Aw crap; now I’m going to dream of nubs.

— Christopher Schwarz

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21 Responses to About Those Nubs of Yours

  1. amvolk says:

    I was looking at the drawings, especially Nub 2 and Nub 4, and it looks like those are not so much battens as a block (possibly square) that thickens the spot where the leg attaches. Nub 4 even has a split in the seat that tells the direction of the grain. Given the quality of glue then, some sort of mortise or dovetail would have be needed to hold it in place, especial with the load it seems to be under.

  2. calebjamesplanemaker says:

    Here’s my thought. All those ways were tried or done to join the leg, nubs, and top together. If you can think of a way to do it no doubt some maker tried it as well at some point. I doubt there was “one way” that it was done.

    That said, from the perspective of someone who has made chairs, I am sure that if the chairs feature sliding dovetails then that same method no doubt was applied to the table because as you know, if you make chairs people want tables too. I would guess the guy making the chairs made a fair number of tables and I don’t see him switching up his methods from the chair to the table.

    Thats my two cents.


    • Agree completely.

      Given that we have the same tools and technology available to us, then all those methods were likely used.

      Totally agree with you on the chairmaking perspective. This next book shows what would happen if chairmakers took over the furniture world…..

      • mylordsladiesandgentlemen says:

        Which tools did you use to cut these long sliding dovetails of the Middle Ages? Not some 21st century machinery of necessity, I hope!

      • mylordsladiesandgentlemen says:

        ‘Handsaw, chisel, old woman’s tooth.’
        Wow! Much respect. I humbly withdraw my dubious remark.

  3. tpier says:

    Colloquially a nub is a quarter chub.

  4. Rachael Boyd says:

    keeping in mind that time is money even in the 15 hundreds , I would say that a dado was used by most of the workers. the hide glue with the legs going through the nub and the seat would hold pretty dam tight. it would also not surprise me if they used pegs through the nub into the seat to keep it in place. the same could be said about the table

    • Rachel,

      What if we took glue out of the equation? While hide and fish glue have been around for almost as long as we have been cooking animals, glue was out of favor during the Middle Ages.

      In fact, one source (Hibben “The Carpenter’s Tool Chest”) discusses how glue was outlawed in the Middle Ages for furniture.

      If you don’t have glue, then a dovetail makes sense. Or just capturing it between the shoulder of the leg and the wedges.

      Just thinking out loud.


  5. ctregan says:

    One method of fastening that allows for seasonal wood movement are “figure 8’s”. Production hardware, yes, but work well.

  6. Stumpy Nubs says:

    Dreaming of Nubs isn’t all that bad, Chris. Just keep it platonic and we’ll be good.

  7. If you kept the dovetail “floating”, but tight couldn’t you keep the joint from splitting as well as making a knock-down chair or table? 😉

  8. In my expereince here in sunny Wales the full width” planks are there to hold the thing together when the tops split (as illustrated) particularly after a good punch up ! All the ones I have seen have been nailed on with the nails not going right through the top .Having the privalage of being able to wandering around and work on some very old buildings with very old furniture in . I am no longer amazed by how often you see nails holding things together . I was recently visited an out of the way 11th century church with an amazing 15 century rod screen and saw a full log coffer (chest) which is at least 600 years old still being used and full of plastic cleaning brushs dust pans etc.

  9. Ohps a bit seems to have got lost . The coffer had some very old nail repairs in side. Also having the legs set in the planks means that when the top is knackered you just nail them on to a new top . Also nearly all the stalls benches I have seen have no glue if the leg goes through the top and glue if it doesnt.

  10. Sean Hughto says:

    The nubs would make for a pretty straightforward knock-down mechanism. You could use threads or an even more simple sort of keyed arrangement where the top of the leg had a peg or pegs that let into the nub and with a twist locked into a groove. The nub then becomes a sort of large wooden nut that can be attached to the top or to a batten – dovetail or otherwise in numerous ways. Don’t know if any of this has any basis in reality, but the thought occurs …

  11. avhb says:

    Trenails? (Or am I displaying my ignorance?)

  12. momist says:

    A narrow taper into a thin chair (or table) seat/top would tend to split the thin slab of wood. The nub has greater depth to resist that force. I will go with trapped between the shoulder and the seat, where it spreads the load to reduce the leverage that could cause the splitting.

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