joined stool seat board, pt 1

joined stool, red oak

Joined stools are among my favorite things to make. The seat poses a real challenge, it requires pretty wide stock,  radially riven. Takes a big tree to get the width. As it happened last year, I built a bunch of stools, but could only finish one because the logs I had were not big enough to give me 11″ wide radial stuff.  MacIntyre brought me up a seat blank of red oak that he split in Maryland so I worked on it some Saturday.

Here is the riven section; including some sapwood. Usually I remove the sapwood, but here it is sound. You can usually judge it by its color. If the white is grey and mottled, then the wood has begun to deteriorate, and should be discarded. There was enough width so that I could ditch all the sapwood, but the wood near the center of the tree, the “juvenile” wood, was a little twisted, so I chose to keep the sapwood on, and trim the twisted grain out of the juvenile stuff.

riven seat blank

So the way I proceeded is the same sequence for most any stock – check with winding sticks, and then plane one face flat. The winding sticks are quite helpful for checking that the board is flat; but Alexander & I have never found period evidence for them however. Moxon does not mention them, nor Randle Holme. We use them anyway. (later I will dig out the only early engraving we have seen that shows a pair of sort-of winding sticks in use…it’s one of Alexander’s favorites. )

winding sticks

For this sort of stock, I usually do much of the planing across the board. working with the stock shoved against a bench hook, I need to make sure each stroke of the plane is aiming at the bench hook, or the workpiece whips around.

cross-grain fore planing


After finishing this face, then planing one edge, I hew away the excess off the 2nd face.  The stance and positioning are important from a safety perspective. Note that my right leg is slid back, away from any glancing blow of the hatchet. Also the workpiece is positioned across the stump, not the near edge… 



Then back to planing. Here’s a shot of the fore plane, and the 2nd face in process. It’s hard to see in this photo, but I planed a small bevel on the forward edge of the board, to minimize tear-out at that edge.

fore plane, 2nd face of seat


The stool seat has a thumbnail molding around its four sides. To create it, I first plane a rabbet. Here I have a fence secured down with two holdfasts; (the 2nd holdfast is hidden here by my hands).  The rabbet plane rides against this fence.

planing rabbet for molded edge


I also use a moving fillester plane;  it eliminates the seperate fence. There is only one reference that I have seen to fillesters in the 17th century, and it doesn’t describe them at all. Randle Holme just says, oh yea, there is a fillester plane too. the nicker helps score across the end grain, making a clean cut of things there.

planing rabbet w fillester


Right now, the seat has a pretty high moisture content, so I decided to leave it at this stage for a while. It’s roughed-out, and has a shallow rabbet all around. Next week I will go over it with a sharp plane, finish the molded edge, and peg it to the frame. If it were summertime, I wouldn’t bother waiting; the stock would dry more slowly then. But in winter, the shop’s heat is on, and the stuff can dry too quickly, sometimes leading to distortion or cracking. It will still be pretty wet by modern standards; but will behave a little better with some drying time. This is one of the tricky parts of this aspect of green woodworking. I try to be aware of the general humidity levels in the shop at any given time; and act accordingly…with a little practice, it’s not a problem.

seat board thus far


Completely unrelated to the above, I got a severe case of book lust at the public library recently. Silent Spaces: the Last of the Great Aisled Barns by Malcolm Kirk  (Boston, Bulfinch Press; 1994) What a beautiful book…the barns are from England, Netherlands, Germany, France and maybe more besides. Nicely photographed… visitors to my shop often comment about 17th-c carpenters, saying they do the “simple” stuff, and my carved furniture is the real craft. I always respond “nonsense” – a good look through this books shows carpentry at its peak…earlier that 17th century, but what a treat!

Silent Spaces


cruck roof in Wiltshire barn

14 thoughts on “joined stool seat board, pt 1

  1. Peter: It is always good to see you make a stool from a tree! Your comments about moisture content are adjectival but very helpful. I recognize that we have struggled to find a general term. I suggested that we wait to finally plane wood with substantial moisture until the wood contains “workable moisture content.” I think this isn’t very clear. Hey, you can “work” the dickens out of sopping wet properly split and hewn green wood. You demonstrate that here. So now I suggest that we use the term “finishable moisture content.” Just more words? Nope. When a sharp smooth plane doesn’t rip up the grain (particularly when planning the ray plane face) you are at “finishable moisture content.” Do you have any pictures you could put up of the pocked surface of the panels in the otherwise well constructed 17th Century piece we saw at Williamsburg? Indeed close examination of 17th Century joint furniture surfaces shows more surface grain tear out than expected. These guys were often in a hurry to get the job completed. Also, the piece may have been constructed and/or used under poor lighting anyways.
    Yes, the Ravens did remove New England from the Playoffs. My sympathies.

  2. Peter

    Interesting blog as ever, methinks there may be a future book lurking in these pages……

    But a quick question, if I may. Given the fact that the stool top will expand and contract across its width in use, what was the general method of fixing in those days that would take movement into account and avoid splitting? I expect that there will be the ubiquitous nails somewhere…..

    Perhaps I’ve missed it, but a picture of the underside of the top showing the fixings would help.

    Personally, when I make a modern version of that type of stool or small table, I use buttons screwed to the underside running in grooves along the inside tops of the side rails. I expect that this would not have been a technique used in those days.


  3. Thanks, Howard.
    I will show how I fix the seat soon, hopefully next week. But the gist of it is four square pegs driven from above, down thur the top into the stiles. the rivne, quartered boards shouldn’t move much. I have never had one split yet.
    more to come.

  4. Peter: You mention chamfering the edge towards you as you foreplane the second surface of the stool top. Chamfering all four sides of the piece down to the gauged lines that mark the thickness of the piece is helpful. The gauge lines are difficult to see. Using a dark pencil to emphasize them was most likely not period practice. And if done some of the darkened lines are out of sight when scrubbing away. Chamfering can be done quickly with the foreplane. Then hew and scrub the waste wood from the surface until all four chamfers disappear. Now if you really want to go rapidly, cheat and darken the chamfered edges with a black pencil. Stop scrubbing when the pencil marks disappear.
    To avoid confusion it might be helpful to call our short foreplane just that. I don’t believe we have found any support for the use of such a plane in 17th Century English and American work. I speculatethey did. In later times the very descriptive term scrub plane is used to describe a short foreplane.
    Howard: Though it seems topsy-turvy, if possible, finish the stool seat first. It will dry even further while you make and assemble the understructure. In the best of possible worlds, stool seat mc at assembly should be within its normal mc range when in use. I can hear Follansbee snort at my persnickety approach. My chairmaking career has made me a moisture freak. More often, the world is impossible or close to it.Though made in many possible worlds, none of my seats have split.

  5. peter-

    I’m interested in winding sticks. Do you have that engraving to spoke of?

    As you know I was using the winding sticks in the shop until my departure. If you were to make a pair, how would you go about doing so?

    • Bryan
      I’ll dig it out, it’s not much. Hope to finish the seat tomorrow…so will address winding sticks again. Just need two lengths of very dry, straight-grained stock…I made some out of 1/4rd oak, but they got shuffled out of the shop. They looked too much like everything else, so I think they got burned.

  6. Hi Peter,

    Its been a rough day in the shop.

    After my first project, a simple “milking stool” here a pic:

    I am attempting a joined stool, very inspired by the one in this blog page. I have a nice piece of white oak, green, which is about 10 inches across. Im debating if I should use remove the juvenile wood as it seems a bit softer but isnt showing any signs of rot per se. I may simply make a two piece seat.

    In any event for some reason I am having a devil of time planing today. My planes keep ripping or tearing out strands of the oak which is quartered. I have very carefully sharpened the blades and adjusted the blade depth so as not to cut too much but for some reason I seem achieve a 90% smooth surface and then damn if I dont tear some strip out, ruining that otherwise good smooth surface. Its like my planes are mocking me.

    This is the second time Ive planed white oak..I had no issues with my first piece but it was about a 10 months old. This piece Im working on now is about 3 months old.

    Could it be the wood? Or something Im doing? Are there any insightful things I should keep in mind when planing green oak?

    I guess I could keep fiddling but I fear reducing this piece down to nothing…


    • andrew
      white oak can at times be tricky, more so than red oak. It might actually work better drier; harder work but better results. If the problems are near the juvenile wood, then off it comes. But I have worked with white oaks that look to be very straight grain, but once I got planing found there was a steady consistent wrinkle in the grain that resulted in a lot of tear out. If you have a low-angle plane, block plane or otherwise, that will help too.

      • Thanks. Yeah I think I was probably being a bit to rash. I relaxed and slowed down a bit. Tinkered more with the plane.

        It makes me think more and more about making some planes. I feel I would have more control over the tool rather than adapting to the tool, philosophically speaking.

        Oh, I tried out my fro today, first time. Its made from a huge piece of forged spring steel I got at the junkyard. Insanely difficult to roll into a socket, but finally got it without reducing too much of the temper.

        In my exuberance to try it out, I forgot to put a wedge in the socket/handle. I got about 50% through a log with a perfect sexy cleave …and then the handle popped out.

  7. A quick follow up….

    I am having far more luck with my drawknives….I am essentially just scraping the piece smooth.

    Yet while this does give me a passing surface, Im bothered by my planing difficulties.

    • update…

      I took a break. Grabbed a Moxie and fiddled even more. Lowered the blade to a mere hairs width sticking up. Used a good stone sharpener. Pretty good success.

      One thing I seem to be noticing is the general wisdom of planing in a single direction, not both way—or at least not if you run the risk of the plane blade grabbing and tearing a previously gouged area.

  8. Peter

    Ive been thinking about this for a long time…I own several pieces of period furniture from the 15th – 17th centuries but now that I am trying to make accurate replicas of them, I am leery of trusting these pieces insofar as their original surface smoothness/texture, given their age and weathering over the years.

    A friend who makes medieval furniture often says that smooth is relative and that tool marks are typically seen.

    How smooth should a piece of 16th or 17th century furniture be? If I run my hand over my boards its pretty smooth but my fingers still pick up small hair width curls that stick up from the surface—I could carefully scrape them off I guess….but would I eventually be going overboard, too far for furniture texture of this era?

    How smooth is too smooth?

    In achieving an accurate 16th or 17th century surface finish, when should one stop?

    Do you find there is a conflict between modern expectations and your sense of actual surface finish? (this is true in the historical armour world, for sure!)

    Guilds and guidelines existed, but we seem to find people escaped the yolk of those regulations far enough into the countrywide…do you think there was a range of quality between surface finish, even for similar model pieces?

    Could you discuss smoothness and textures?…maybe in a formal post or something? There might be others like myself who have pondered this issue (before throwing their planes across the room, lol)


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