In A.S. LIV I was honored to be asked by Their Majesties to steward Collegium. Any event, of course, is a team effort. Kingdom events add more complexity. Collegium had the added labor of creating and managing a large on-line database and repository of scholarly works. This last part was well beyond my skill set. Additionally, in those pre-Pandemic days, there were not a lot of volunteers available with the necessary skills.
In stepped the honourable lady Alicia du Bois. In short order, Lady Alicia set up on-line registration, created and maintained on-line class schedules, and built a library of past and current Collegium presentation documents. As a Thank You for her efforts, I set about creating something useful and functional for her, as well as being appropriate for her persona’s aesthetic.
The Evolution of Box Stools
What is a box stool and how does it fit into the history of furniture? Simply put, it is an evolution of English turned-leg stools, adding a drawer for storage. A stool is best defined as a legged seat lacking arms or back, suitable for a single occupant (hybrid “backstools” existed, but only after 1650, according to Chinnery). By contrast, seating for two- or more- is a bench (if it has a back) or a form (if it does not); and seating with arms and/or back for one occupant is a chair.
Before the middle of the sixteenth century, English stools were “boarded”, that is: made of three or more boards, two of them forming wide legs in support of the seat. The development of open-frame joinery made possible the introduction of very light and strong “joined” stools.
Open-frame joinery abandoned heavy leg boards in favor of pairs of slender legs joined together by “stretchers”: rails which connected each leg to two others, firmly affixed using mortise-and-tenon joints. A mortise is a hole, usually rectangular, into which a tab called a “tenon” of the corresponding shape is inserted. This creates a rigid joint, which can be further strengthened by pinning, nailing, or gluing the two together.
As the making of joined furniture grew, further embellishment to stools was introduced in the form of “turned” legs. Turning is the process in which a cutting tool is used to shave a workpiece which is rapidly rotating by means of a device called a lathe. Various angles, shapes, and sizes of cutting tools can be applied in a multitude of angles to shape the workpiece into decorative forms.
By the late sixteenth century, turned-leg joined stools were in common production by cabinetmakers (in some areas, the turners were in a separate guild and they made the legs which cabinetmakers then used in the finished piece). Cabinetry, at this time, encompassed the making of all moveable furniture; thus cabinetmakers made stools, as well as benches, settles, armoires, cupboards, chests, and other domestic, ecclesiastic, and public furnishings.
Toward the end of the sixteenth century we finally see the introduction of storage underneath the seats of stools. The storage was accessed either by lifting the hinged seat, a hinged front (boarded stools only) or by withdrawing (hence the word “drawer”) a box suspended underneath the seat (joined stools only). These “box stools” have been dated as early as 1530 and may have continued to be commonly produced until around 1700 judging by extant examples. Taller ”box tables” may be their direct descendants.
The typical turned leg box stool would have a seat –often with edges planed into a decorative moulding—set directly upon the legs and attached either with wooden dowels (called pins, pegs, or trenails) or with iron nails.
The sides and back had tenons which inserted into mortises set in the legs and secured with dowels.
The lower legs were each secured to two others by means of stretchers tenoned and doweled into mortises below the turnings. The turnings in the image above are in the classical baluster style.
The drawer either sat upon a bottom panel or rode upon runners set into grooves planed into the sides of the drawer. Note that the single dowel-hole on each upper front leg is evidence that this stool was built to have a drawer.
Box stools such as these had multiple uses and users. Emmison relates that drawers with locks likely held sundry items such as papers, books, or sewing materials. Whereas those without locks may have held less attractive items, such as chamber pots. Wills and inventories (Agius) from Oxford in the early 1600s record that box stools were found in domestic settings of a range of households, from those of weavers and carpenters to those of affluent tradespeople, and were valued in a range of 40-48 shillings.
The process began with sketching ideas with the aim of a historically accurate reproduction of a box stool appropriate for the recipient’s persona.
A co-worker, who is the same height as the intended recipient, allowed me to take measurements so as to determine the right distance of the stool seat from the ground. The rest of the dimensions grew from there.
Wood Selection and Preparation
After creating a design, I began selecting wood and breaking down the selected boards into pieces somewhat larger than necessary for the final product. I chose to use Black Walnut for this project. Although the extant box stool is of White Oak (which subsequently over the ensuing centuries has had darkened significantly), stools, boxes, chests, and other moveable furniture were made from a wide variety of woods, including Walnut. The choice of Walnut was made with two considerations in mind: it weighs less than Oak (3.25 pounds per board foot, versus Oak at 3.75 pounds per board foot); and it is visually appealing to the modern aesthetic.
All of the pieces –legs, stretchers, seat– were cut by hand using Detail from the Standebuch of Jost Amman, 1568 showing a frame saw Saws are among the most recogniza... More consistent in tooth pattern and general design to hand Detail from the Standebuch of Jost Amman, 1568 showing a frame saw Saws are among the most recogniza... More of the 15th and 16th centuries.
Turning the Legs
Next, I created a visual guide for recreating the stool’s legs. As this would be my first time “turning” wood (using a lathe to change the form of the wood from square into a round cross-section) I simplified the design from the extant original. I wanted to find a balance between what I could achieve and what retained enough elements of the original as to be recognizable and related.
Alasdair mac Robert taught me how to turn the legs. I had come supplied with a stock of hickory blanks to practice on until I felt I had the hang of it. Then I switched to Black Walnut.
Assembling the Stool
I bored holes from the outside of the leg, passing through the tenon, but not going all of the way through the far side of the leg. Then I pounded in a freshly-made dowel. Any compression the dowel experienced when being made will allow for the dowel to minutely swell and lock itself into the hole.
The back and rear stretcher, both pegged into the legs. The stretcher is lighter in color as it was made from the sapwood of the walnut boards. This was not a choice made for form or function but from economy.
Next it was time to begin constructing the drawer. Having run out of black walnut, I found some White Oak* I had ferreted away. I set it upright and scratched out the tails for dovetail joints. (*Having then run out of Oak, the back of the drawer was made from Myrtle).
Lock and Escutcheon
At some point I failed to take pictures, but here you can see one of the grooves cut on the sides of the drawer. Into these fit rails mounted between the front and back legs. The drawer slides on these rails. I also wiped down the stool with walnut oil.
Forged Ring Pulls
After installing the drawer I quickly realized how difficult it would be to open it without something to hold onto. So I decided to learn how to make ring pulls. I began by flattening one end of a 1/8″ rod, then pinched it alongside a 1/2″ rod held upright in the vise.
In the 1600s, a box stool such as this would most likely have been painted. Over the ensuing centuries, surviving Oak furniture has lost its paint and White Oak has oxidized to a rich black. I went with Black Walnut conscious that it was not the right wood, and I left the wood unpainted likewise.
So why did I leave it unpainted? Because this was to be a gift, and I wanted to make sure it was appreciated. So as much as I wanted to make something historically accurate, I also wanted to make it aesthetically pleasing to the modern eye.
I learned a lot during this project: more about felling trees, milling lumber, drying planks, constructing drawers, and turning. Next I want to do more turning, more forging, and more exploration of vernacular furniture.
Techniques used in the creation of this Box Stool include Design (the planning produced to show the appearance and function of a piece prior to the creation), Joinery (the craft of forming joints or joins to affix two or more pieces of wood together), Cutting (the use of tools which reciprocate, rotate, or advance to remove waste wood), Turning (the use of stationary or laterally moving tools to shape a spinning piece of wood), and Smithing (the craft of shaping metal through the use of heat and force).
I selected Black Walnut as the primary wood to use in this project for its beauty, strength, and relative lightness. Although White Oak is the wood used most commonly in the extant examples, that may have as much to do with longevity as with popularity. Chinnery mentions other woods than Oak in passing (his book is specifically focused on Oak) such as Scotch Pine, Ash, Walnut, and Sycamore. Although Eames does not mention box stools (her focus ends with a hard stop at 1500), she does list Walnut among the extensive native and imported woods used in cabinetry in England. The secondary woods I used for internal parts were White Oak and Myrtle.
I used low-carbon steel (wrought iron being difficult to acquire) to forge nails and ring pulls. Low-carbon steel is a generally-accepted substitute material for wrought iron, as it has similar properties. Lastly, I used a reclaimed 19th century mortise lock and escutcheon. The escutcheon (the metal surrounding the keyhole) would not be out of place in a 16th century piece. Mortise locks, however, were first patented in 1778. I used this anachronistic lock because it was available to me and proper medieval locks are both cost-prohibitive and beyond my ability as a locksmith to manufacture at this time.