Troublesome Triangles – Turners & Joiners

This is another story about how I did all the research I could and still did everything wrong. It all began with a triangle stool, which even the man who is possibly the foremost authority on their construction termed the ‘Troublesome Triangle Stool’.

https://player.pbs.org/viralplayer/2270257698/

I first encountered these little triangle turned stools when researching costuming of the period. The wonderful tradition of artists in the low countries for market scenes, kitchen scenes, and depicting contemporary aphorisms in the persons of contemporary commoners is a rich trove of information about not only costume, but also the material goods and foodstuffs of the period. In many of these paintings, you will spot these delightful triangle stools.

Seriously, once you begin to notice them, you start seeing them everywhere.

Sometimes they’re used as end tables, sometimes as seating, sometimes to support acrobats. They’re ubiquitous and ubiquity means I need to understand how they were made if I’m to accomplish my goal of being a renaissance man in the sense of ‘that guy that lives down the street, circa 1565’.

Brunswick_Monogrammist_-_An_Inn_with_Acrobats_and_a_Bagpipe_Player
An Inn with Acrobats and a Bagpipe Player by the Brunswick Monogrammist, c.1550 via Wikimedia Commons. (I shall leave the 16th century acrobatics research to someone else, if it’s okay with you.)

I am always curious when I find something like this that so permeates the life of the period, yet is curiously absent from most reenactments and renaissance faires. You would almost think they didn’t exist, just as you might assume that the so-called Savonarola chairs were more common in the period than they actually were.

I don’t know if it’s our modern attachment to sitting in chairs or what, but I suspect that the fact that these stools cannot be easily made to break down flat for transport has caused this distortion, where the uncommon has become commonplace and the commonplace has become rare. I don’t mean to shame anyone, but it’s the unfortunate fact that historical reenactments are heavily weighted toward the easily-packable forms of furniture. After all, the renaissance merchant class didn’t need to pack their worldly belongings into the back of a Subaru for cross-country hauling.

There are a few places where you will find recreations of the form, but most of these appear to rely heavily on glue to hold them together as with modern furniture, and that’s unfortunate since it is not how things were built in the period. The period approach was much more annoying than that, which also might lend itself to their scarcity in the modern reenactor’s kit.

As Peter explains in the video embedded above, there are no surviving examples of the stools to work from, but there’s a chair variety that did survive into the 17th century and thus into our modern age. In the chair, one of the legs extends an additional 24 inches or so to form a back for you to lean on. (To the consternation of the nation’s acrobats, I’d imagine.)

In the chairs, the plank seat sits in a groove that has been cut into the rails akin to the bottom of a barrel. The rails go into the legs at 60 degree angles and interfere with one another, a round tenon through a rectangular tenon, the tension holding the whole together.

In many of the paintings I mentioned earlier, you can see the round tenon and the rectangular tenon. It’s an unusual arrangement to say the least, so its significance might not sink in were it not for Peter’s extensive research and experimentation. (Links to his process and research documentation below.)

For the record, when Peter and Roy started their show by throwing the thing into the stove, they were underselling it. The one photographed above is now firewood, I undersized it in every dimension and if you drill the round tenon even one degree off, the whole thing gets out of whack… and oak isn’t terribly tolerant of whacking.

Back to the drawing board on this one.

– Scott

Works cited:

Peter Follansbee, Popular Woodworking Magazine, Art & Mysteries (column) Issue 187, October 2010 https://www.popularwoodworking.com/articleindex/arts-mysteries-three-legged-turned-chair

Peter Follansbee, Joiner’s Notebook (blog post) 24 July 2016  https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2016/07/24/3-footed-turned-stool/

The Woodwright’s Shop, television show, PBS/UNC TV, Season 32, Episode 7, aired: 09/06/12 https://www.pbs.org/video/woodwrights-shop-troublesome-triangle-stool/

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