When a Furniture Maker Buys Furniture

The other day I suddenly realized that, to my knowledge, I have never actually bought a piece of furniture. When we were newlyweds, my wife and I gladly accepted nearly any secondhand (or third- or fourth-hand) furniture that was offered to us. Then I began building furniture for myself. So after nearly 20 years of marriage, my wife and I had still never bought furniture.

Until recently. She and I were on a casual date, browsing local antique stores looking for vintage tools and other household goods. We pulled up in front of one shop we’d never visited before, and immediately we spotted this oak stool on the front porch along with a bunch of other grimy chairs. Before we even got in the door, I had decided that this was coming home with us.

In terms of styling and overall dimensions, this piece is clearly a “joint stool” or “joined stool,” modeled on a 16th-17th-century form–as popularized today by Peter Follansbee. (Here he is demonstrating construction on Roy Underhill’s Woodwright’s Shop.) I’ve never seen a piece quite like this in the wild before–certainly not down here on the Gulf Coast where most of the good antiques are made from solid mahogany and displayed in antebellum house-museums.

Wanting to know more about this stool, the first thing I did was turn it upside down. Looking at the hidden surfaces will tell you a lot about a piece’s construction–and may give glues as to when it was made. It has no manufacturer’s marks anywhere, which suggests to me that it might not be factory-made.

The frame does seem to be assembled using mortise-and-tenon joints, all of which are extremely tight. I think I can just see a bit of a tenon and shoulder on the underside of one of the rails (above). However, I believe that the joints are not actually drawbored. The peg in the leg is too low to serve much purpose in drawboring, and it doesn’t go all the way through the leg. I’m pretty sure it’s a decorative feature, though I appreciate the fact that whoever built this was paying close enough to the design of a genuine 17th-century joint stool to replicate the look of a drawbored joint.

The underside of the top and the backs of the rails are all planed straight and smooth, and all the pieces are planed to exactly the same thickness–a clear sign that the stock was prepped by machine rather than by hand. The moldings are quite regular, though I can’t tell if they were made by a powered router or by a set of molding planes.

It has also been very lightly used over the years.

There is very little wear on the bottom of the feet, indicating that it hasn’t been dragged across very many floors. The chuck marks from the lathe are still clearly visible on the bottom of each foot. I’m guessing it spent most of its life as a side table and not as a sitting stool.

The legs are splayed a little bit, but not nearly so much as a 17th-century joint stool’s would be. Still, it’s fairly stable in use. The top is perhaps the most curious part of the whole piece. It’s glued up from three pieces of solid oak, with a traditional thumbnail profile all the way around. But it’s not flat. Instead, it is slightly concave across the grain, and while the original glue joints have separated on the ends, the top is still quite solid. The concavity is entirely intentional, and the top rails are even scooped out a bit to accommodate the curvature. It makes the stool remarkably comfortable to sit on.

But I cannot for the life of me see how the top is attached. There are no fasteners anywhere to be seen. I can only assume it is assembled with blind dowels or something of the sort.

I can’t tell when this stool might have been built, but my best guess is sometime in the middle of the 20th century. Why then? Because there seems to have been a short-lived resurgence of 17th-century-style furniture in the mid-20th century, and this stool fits that description perfectly. The construction methods fit that era, too.

Regardless of its age, it is proving useful at home. As soon as I brought it home and cleaned it up, the stool immediately became a favorite in our house. It’s just the right height for perching on, whether one is a kid or a grownup.

I am especially fond of this piece because I have owned Follansbee and Alexander’s book Make a Joint Stool from a Tree (pictured above) for almost a decade now. I really enjoyed it when I first read it, and I have always meant to make myself a couple joint stools. But I’ve never gotten around to it. Now, the enthusiastic reception that this little stool has gotten in my house has definitely bumped the joint stool to the top of my list. I have a feeling that everyone in the family is going to want one.

I’m especially excited to build my own joint stool because I now have a model to work from. I definitely won’t copy this one exactly, but having one in my hands gives me a concrete place to start–especially in terms of overall dimensions. And that’s part of the value of buying a piece of antique furniture. Not only have I acquired a piece of high-quality furniture at a bargain price, but I am also inspired to make something like it.

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1 Response to When a Furniture Maker Buys Furniture

  1. I learn more from studying antique furniture than I do from reading woodworking magazines

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