Slab-ended (boarded) stools

Stools and benches (also called "forms") made from five boards, with or without a stretcher, are frequently depicted in 15th and 16th century paintings and manuscript illuminations, where they are often shown used as tables or prie-dieus.

Copy after Rogier van der Weyden, 1435

Christ Appearing to his Mother

Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

Master of the St. Ursula Legend, late 1480s

Saint Paul with Paolo Pagagnotti; Christ Appearing to his Mother

Metropolitan Museum, NYC

Hans Memling, 1480-89

The Annunciation

Metropolitan Museum, NYC


Dirck Bouts, The Last Supper (triptych), 1464

St. Peter's Church, Leuven



 Tapestry ca. 1500, Beaune, Burgundy.


Several examples of these stools also survive, permitting an examination of construction techniques.

Figure 1: French stool ("escabeau"), 15th century

Figure 2: English, 16th century (V&A)

Figure 3: Prie-Dieu, Flemish, 15th century (Gruuthuse Museum)


The ends of the stools are made of wide boards; the bottom has an arch cut out to make feet, the top has two tenons that hold the seat. The edges of these boards are shaped in a variety of styles. Two horizontal boards, called "aprons," pass through slots cut into the top of each end, and are typically held in place with one or two pins.




Figure 4: Detail of English stool in V&A Museum. Note position of two pins, extending through the apron joint, fixing the apron to the leg. The position of the lower pin indicates that the apron is not notched. Also, note that the pin is placed where the apron is widest, for maximum strength. Architectural form and engineering function are typically, though not always, consistent in medieval work.




Fig. 5 Detail of apron joint on a prie-dieu in Our Lady of the Potterie museum, Bruges, Belgium. (This stool is a mate to the one shown in Fig. 3.) The top edge of the apron is rabbeted to fit into a groove in the underside of the seat, apparently to improve stability. Note also the position of the single peg fixing the apron to the leg.









Some other authors have postulated a sort of half-lap joint, where a notch is cut in the bottom of the apron. I can find no evidence that any of the medieval stools were made this way. The position of the pins in the stools illustrated here clearly demonstrates that the aprons are not notched. In the photo of the broken stool (Fig. 6), it can be seen that the apron has no notch and that the slot in the leg runs the full width of the apron. Finally, there are examples of stools made without slots in the legs at all - the aprons are simply nailed to the outside of the legs.


Figure 6: English, 16th century (from Chinnery). Note that part of the leg on the left side has split off, revealing the geometry of the joint. There is no notch in the apron; instead the apron is set into a long notch in the leg. In this case the leg profile does not widen where the pin passes through it, and the joint failed at the weak point.

Figure 7: Two 16th century (or early 17th) stools (from Chinnery). The aprons are simply nailed onto the legs.



Figure 8: English, 16th century (V&A). Again it is clear that the notch in the leg accommodates the full width of the apron.


When the tenons fit tightly into the mortises in the seat, and the aprons are pinned to the legs, these stools become quite rigid and stable. If the tenons are loose, however, the stool becomes wobbly. To counter this, a stretcher can be added between the legs to lock them in position. This feature seems to have been added in the third quarter of the 15th century; it appears, for example, on the stools in the Dirck Bouts painting of the Last Supper, ca. 1464, in the Beaune tapestry of ca. 1500, and there is an extant French example (Fig. 1). The stretchers are joined to the legs with a mortise and tenon joint; sometimes this is a wedged through-tenon, but often the tenon is flush with the outside of the leg and there is no evidence of a peg. It may be that the stretcher is "sprung" in place, or the tenon could be glued into the joint (hide glue was known and used in this period).

It is doubtful whether any of these stools were actually made to be taken apart for transport or storage. Although the wedged through-tenon seen in some paintings is a knockdown joint, the pinned aprons and tightly fitted tenons in the seat are not. Having made a number of these, I believe the stability consideration outweighs the slight convenience of a knockdown stool. These objects belong to the era when furniture, in the houses of the wealthy, was not particularly mobile.

The dimensions of these stools appear to vary, but in general they are about a foot wide and 18 inches to two feet long. There are also long benches ("forms") from the 16th century that are simply elongated versions of these stools. One point worth noting is that the seat is generally higher than modern chair seats, which are standardized at about 16 - 17 inches. Two 16th century stools in the V&A are about 20 inches high, for example, while the Bruges prie-dieu is about 24 inches tall. In part, this may be an indication of their frequent use as tables; but it must be noted (from personal experience) that it is far easier to "perch" on a taller seat while wearing the constricting garb of the late 15th and early 16th century.


Figure 1: "Mobilier Moyen-Age Renaissance," Monica Burckhardt, pub. CH Massin, Paris, no date.

Figures 2, 4, 6, 7, 8: "Oak Furniture, the British Tradition," Victor Chinnery, pub. Antique Collector's Club, 1979.

Figure 3: "Treasures of Bruges," pub. Stichting Kunstboek, 1998.

Figure 5: Author photo.


Albion Works makes stools like these:

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Page made by Tim Bray, 6/27/03