Turners & Joiners: Who made the triangle stool?

Our triangle stool has not yet finished causing trouble because it creates an anomaly of sorts.

The pieces are turned on the lathe and the joinery includes a square mortise and a groove cut by a plough plane into which the seat is set, which tools and techniques are the exclusive purviews of the Worshipful Companies of the Turners and Joiners, respectively. It’s more than any tradesmen is worth to violate these rules, for violations were harshly punished.


In the episode of the Woodwright’s Shop in which Roy Underhill and Peter Follansbee make one of these stools, Roy makes passing reference to the prohibited cross-use of the tools they’re using to make the stool. Follansbee shrugs it off because his focus is the American colonies.

In America, we’re not used to these things. The guild system of monopolies and exclusions never really caught on in the “New World” though the Dutch and the English settlers both came from places with stringent guild rule. At first, life in the colonies was simply too harsh to specialize, and by the time things settled into what passed for civilization, it was too late: the shoemaker was cobbling and the joiner was turning, dogs and cats were living together… mass hysteria.

Put another way: I have a lathe and three plough planes, and if you reach for any one of them, your hand’s going to get smacked with a mallet.

The guild monopolies never had a chance.


As I’ve previously noted, most of the images we have of these stools are Dutch, and they drew their lines differently among their guilds and those lines differed from city to city, falling in line according to local custom. It is possible that any examples in English lands were made by Dutch craftsmen who were among the protestant refugees that flooded England throughout the 16th century during the Spanish occupation of the low countries.

Indeed, historian Nick Humphrey, in his paper on the influence of the Worshipful Company of Joiners in London during our period calls out the presence of immigrant joiners who were sometimes employed by members of the guild (their exclusive right) but often operated outside the guild, practicing at their own peril.

“However the influence of the London Joiners’ Company was by no means total. Furniture for the royal household was made by joiners in the Office of Works, who did not have to be (but might be) Company members. There was also a sizeable group of Northern European immigrant furniture makers working in the London suburbs, for whom company membership (because of their immigrant status) meant more penalties than advantages. As many as 99 unlicensed joiners are recorded in 1563 — mainly in Westminster, St Katherines, and Southwark – and a similar number twenty years later – a much higher number than for other London trades.”  ~Humphrey

So maybe our stools were made by rogue Dutch joiners or turners, operating in defiance of guild mandates. Those scamps.

Maybe that explains every turned stool and chair in the realm.

However, there is a tantalizing image famed in the history of joinery called the Stent Panel. It is a carving of a joiner and a turner working side-by-side, and details a great many of their tools and work surfaces, and is therefore much studied for the details given, especially the bench and lathe used by the 16th century joiner and the turner.

It intrigues me most because it is a contemporaneous depiction of a workshop with a turner and a joiner, working in tandem. So did the joiner and the turner co-habitate? Certainly there are many portable goods of the period that show the mark of the lathe. Turned table legs, turned balusters, and other round goods were worked into many items that were under the purview of the Joiner.

Peter Follansbee, who focuses on the 17th century, especially the colonial era, discusses the panel at length in his 17th century joinery introduction which he wrote with Jennie Alexander. Here’s Follansbee on his blog during the research phase of that book.

‘The “Stent” panel has been published a number of times. As far as we can tell, the first major publication to discuss the panel was W L Goodman’s excellent book The History of Woodworking Tools (1964). Goodman cited the saw handle as evidence that the panel is probably English.’  ~ Peter Follansbee

Is it possible that workshop-style production was more common than is generally thought? Certainly for larger gigs like outfitting a manor house, or the aforementioned Office of Works where royal furniture was turned out without regard for guilds or memberships. But on the regular? Maybe not.

In his paper, Humphrey notes that fancy carved or turned pieces would be ordered from other craftsmen and assembled, which makes all sorts of sense, but look at that stool under Christ’s foot up there at the top of this post. There’s nothing fancy about it. Nor the acrobats in the inn using a couple of stools for handstands and such.

These were items of the common room at an inn, of the humble abode of Margaret & Mary.

I don’t have an answer. Maybe if one of these stools had survived, but all we have are some of the least comfortable-looking chairs imaginable. And they’re not talking.

So we can look and be befuddled and bemused and other b-words, but the furniture is silent.



Works Referenced:

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/

Furniture and woodwork in Tudor England: native practices, methods, materials and context by Nick Humphrey, Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department, Victoria and Albert Museum, accessed 08/21/2018

A Seventeenth Century Joiner’s Bench (blog post on the Stent Panel) by Peter Follansbee, 2 January 2009, accessed 08/21/2018

Make a Joint Stool from a Tree: An Introduction to 17th-century Joinery by Jennie Alexander and Peter Follansbee. published by Lost Art Press 2012

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