Virginia remarked of late that she would like another small side table, so I undertook to produce one. I thumbed through a few books and old auction catalogues for inspiration and we eventually settled on a cricket table.
Cricket, a variation of the word cracket (the first recorded use, in 1635), describes a low three-legged stool.
1643 W. Cartwright Lady Errant v. i. (1651) 69 I’ll stand upon a crickit, and there make Fluent Orations to ’em.
1665 Ibid. 332 For a crackett for the reading pew, 1s.
1691 Shadwell Scowrers, I went thither (to Westminster Hall), expecting to find you upon a cricket, civilly taking Reports.
1694 S. Johnson Notes on Lett. Bp. Burnet i. 104 (She) threw her cricket-stool at his Head.
1713 Guardian No. 91 That he hath privily conveyed any large book, cricket, or other device under him, to exalt him on his seat.
The etymology of the word is unclear for in the fifteenth century; the word ‘buffet’ was in common usage to describe a three-legged stool¹.
The appeal of early three-legged furniture is not explicable by aesthetics, thriftiness or poverty, but simply that three legs were more stable than four on the uneven clay and stone flag floors in the cottages, inns and taverns of the day.
Crackets were items of household furniture, not milking stools as so often mislabelled by antiques dealers (no doubt looking to capitalise on the bucolic idyll). The low stance of crackets is said to enable the sitter to remain below the pall of smoke from the open fires in meagre dwellings without chimneys or smokeholes².
Fig. 1. An engraving from The Military Adventures of Johnny Newcombe, illustrated by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827)
Cricket tables date from around the same period and were made, like their lowly rustic counterparts, with three turned (or shaved) legs tenoned into a solid plank top (fig. 2).
Early joyned examples were constructed in much the same manner as joyners made stools and other tables of the day – without glue, and their mortises and tenons were draw-pegged together (figs. 3 & 4).
Fig. 3. A 17th century joyned oak cricket table, the circular top above a frieze drawer, on turned and block legs united by peripheral stretchers.
Fig. 4. A late eighteenth century cricket table with three-board top and shaped aprons.
We already have a turned ash and elm cracket in the living room, so I was drawn to a simple, late eighteenth century style of table with shaped aprons and straight legs with just a small amount of turned detail on the lower regions. The final design is not a copy of a particular table, but an amalgamation of strict elements borrowed from several tables which were made within the last twenty years of the eighteenth century.
Timbers commonly used for British vernacular furniture were ash, beech, elm, fruitwoods (including apple, cherry, damson, pear and plum), oak, sweet chestnut, sycamore and walnut. I happened to have some rather nice ash at the time and when I resawed it, I was pleasantly surprised to see areas of ‘green ebony’ or ‘olive’³ . The olive occurrence is akin to spalting in spalted beech and the ‘brown’ in brown oak. It’s caused by fungal attack and is purely a discolouration of the wood and not a structural defect (fig. 5). Any rural British joyner would have exploited the appearance of olive ash and, in keeping with the soul of the table, so did I.
Fig. 5. The olive staining revealed.
The most challenging part of the table (though not difficult) is the cutting of the legs which are kite shaped with only two adjacent faces at right angles to each other. Before turning the lower leg sections, I chopped out the mortices, using a specially made cradle to support the mortice faces of the awkwardly shaped legs horizontal (fig. 6).
Fig. 6. The leg cradle.
The ends of the aprons/rails are cut at an angle so as to splay the legs outwards at the bottom, thereby affording the table a wider stance and increased stability. I drew the ogee profile onto the lower edges of the aprons, cut them out and tidied them up with a spokeshave. Holes were drilled in the legs for the draw-pegs and then I dry assembled the table frame. I marked the hole centres through the legs and onto the tenons, dismantled the frame again and drilled the off-centre holes in the tenons.
Note I use the word ‘pegs’ and not ‘pins’ – pegs are wooden, pins are metal. Drawbore pins are handled, metal pins occasionally used for initial alignment of mortise and tenon joints prior to hammering home the wooden pegs.
I assembled the first apron and its respective legs and hammered in the draw-pegs, drawing the tenon shoulders tightly against the legs. Before proceeding with the remaining two aprons, I took a hammer and knocked the ends off the protruding pegs on the inside of the legs. This may sound drastic and somewhat uncouth, but examination of the interior of early joyned furniture often reveals the broken ends of pegs where they might otherwise have impeded the installation of adjacent rails. With the second assembly stage of a triangular table frame, the remaining aprons/rails and leg are joined in unison and one has to be precise with the lengths of the remaining draw-pegs (fig. 7).
Fig. 7. The frame assembled and pegged.
Fig. 8. Leg detail showing some of the olive staining.
Cricket table tops were invariably made from three jointed boards (sometimes glued together). Occasionally one sees a single piece top (usually elm due to its resistance to splitting), but they are customarily warped or cupped.
To reduce waste, I cut the three boards for the top roughly to shape from a single board. The first board was cramped in the vice, some horse sauce was applied to its edge and that of the adjacent board. The two boards were then rubbed back and forth until the glue began to gel and I made sure I finished rubbing with the chalk alignment marks coincided. Most of the horse sauce is squeezed out (the feint brown line visible in the picture). The process was repeated with the third board (fig. 9).
Fig. 9. The three table top boards rub-jointed together.
Immediately the boards are rubbed together in this manner with horse sauce, they can actually be picked up and held horizontally without fear of the whole lot falling apart. It makes for a very strong assembly.
Those thinking ahead will have realised that the three boards of the top will be well supported at one end (where they cross one of the rails at ninety degrees), however, at their opposite ends, only the centre board will be wholly supported and the ends of the two outside boards will be left tentatively detached from the frame. The solution is to let in a bearer, the same width as the base of the triangle and equidistant from the table centre as the base of the triangle (fig. 10).
Fig. 10. The bearer in situ.
The bearer is a common feature of ‘three-board’ triangular tables and adds rigidity to the otherwise unsupported ends of the side boards4. Such bearers’ ends were normally radiused and tapered, making them less obtrusive (fig. 11).
Fig. 11. Radiused and tapered bearer end.
The bearer was nailed to the underside of the top with wrought nails (fig. 12) after the top was attached to the table frame with more pegs (fig. 13).
Fig. 12. Bearer nailed to top.
Fig. 13. The table top pegged in place…
Fig. 14. The completed table in-the-white.
The table was coloured with a combination of dye and pigments. Ash was often given a reddish finish, so I mixed up a red concoction and brushed it on (fig. 15).
Fig. 15. I applied the base stain which interestingly revealed some rather beautiful quilting in the legs.
Fig. 16. The ‘patina’ was then built up with oil, resins and wax.
Fig. 17. The table top received subtle fading and ageing too.
Fig. 18. The draw pegs are left slightly proud to imitate the effects of shrinkage in the legs.
Fig. 19. Highlights exhibit more wear than the lowlights.
1. English Country Furniture 1500-1900, David Knell, second edition, printed 2000, p. 255.
2. Irish Country Furniture 1700-1950, Claudia Kinmonth, printed 1993, p.30 with reference to Contributions to the Study of the Irish House: Smokehole and Chimney, A.T. Lucas.
3. “Some Ash is curiously cambleted and veined ; I say, so differently from other timber, that our skilful cabinet-makers prize it equally with Ebony, and give it the name of Green Ebony, which their customers pay well for; and when our woodmen light upon it, they make what money they will of it : But to bring it to that curious lustre, so as it is hardly to be distinguished from the most curiously diapered Olive, they varnish their work with the China varnish, hereafter described, which infinitely excels the linseed oil that Cardan so commends when speaking of this root.”Silva: or, A discourse of forest-trees, and the propagation of timber in His Majesty’s dominions, as it was delivered in The Royal society, on the 15th of October 1662, by John Evelyn, third edition, volume 1, York, 1801, p.149.
4.Oak Furniture The British Tradition, Victor Chinnery, printed 1979, p. 296-297, plate 3:182b.