A Four-Post Backstool with a Rush-Woven Seat

Materials: Quartersawn English Beech, Natural Rush, Linseed Oil

Backpost height: 38 inches.

Seat Height: 17 inches.

Seat: 12 inches (interior rail length).

The design for this chair is based on an early 17th century New England piece, but the basic form and turning profiles are similar to pieces in late 16th and early 17th century Flemish artwork. It differs from its prototype in several regards, chiefly size (I intended it as a low workchair, not a sidechair) and dimension (the seat is square rather than trapizoidal). The functional inspiration for this chair is from Jost Amman's Book of Trades, where tailors are shown at work sitting in low turned backstools with woven seats. It has been my observation from a number of period illustrations that there was a class of low stools and backstools used for handwork, where their low height allowed the sitter to use his or her lap as a work surface, or to tend a cooking fire. It's my hypothosis that many chairs that furniture historians now describe as "cut down" or for a child were in fact deliberately sized for such handwork. The size also makes it convenient for transport.

Having made several stools with panel seats, I also wanted to try a rush-woven seat (also known in period as a matted seat). Such seats appear to have been very common throughout the medieval and early modern period, and have the advantage of comfort without the expense of a cushion.

I had not worked with beech before, but when I stumbled on a large timber in a dusty corner of the lumber yard, I decided I need to give it a try. Beech turns beautifully, having a very smooth grain and meduliary rays similar to oak. It takes detail well and is easy on the tools.

The construction of the frame was fairly straight-forward; with a square seat, all joint angles are 90 degrees. Since I intended a matted seat, the seat rails are staggered slightly, with the front and rear rails slightly lower than the sides. This allows the rail tenons to intersect, locking them together, and makes for a somewhat more comfortable seat. The spaces in between the weaving are stuffed with scraps of rush to pad out the seat.

All joints (except those locked by intersecting tenons) are pegged. I rough-carved the pegs from beech scraps, clamped the joint up tight, drilled a mortise for the peg, and then drove the peg home with a mallet. The mortises for the peg are angled such that the peg prevents the tenon from backing out. I left the peg ends slightly proud, as I've seen in some period examples, though I doubt I could extract a peg if I wanted to.

Weaving the seat turned out to be less trouble than I feared, though you can clearly see some imperfections in my weave. The rush must be worked damp, and regardless of how tightly the rush is woven, it will slack somewhat when it dries. An alternative would have been hemp, or more common in later period, bark splits.

The finish is boiled linseed oil, and the rush has been left unfinished (paper woven seats are often varnished).