Terms of the Trade: Wainscot Chair

Popular throughout Europe and colonial North America, the wainscot chair is a style of oak seating that rose to prominence in the early 17th century.

The term wainscot derives from the Middle Saxon term ‘wagenschot’, meaning to line the wall with boards, and refers to the oak panelling common in Manors and Country Houses throughout Western Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The oak used in wainscot panelling is traditionally taken from larger, slow-grown forest trees which results in a lighter, knot-free timber, which is easy to work with and produces a more aesthetically pleasing finish. Naturally this strong, fine quality wood was also ideal for making furniture.

The classic wainscot chair has a number of defining characteristics, which set it apart from other oak seating of the period. Firstly, it is common for the front legs to be lathe-turned for decoration, while in contrast the rear legs are simple, square-sectioned supports. All four legs are traditionally joined by low, straight stretchers. 

As a rule, the flat wooden seat of a wainscot chair is almost never upholstered but the chair should always have arm supports. These are often finely carved or decorated, in keeping with the manner of the front legs.

Wainscot chairThe final defining feature of a Wainscot is the solid oak panelled back. Sometimes plain and functional, many of the finer examples have intricately carved back panels, elevating a relatively simple piece of furniture to an art form in itself.

At a time when benches and stools were still common in many households and meeting places, a wainscot chair would have been allocated to the head of the house or the most important attendee at a gathering.

The hard, straight back panel of the chair design requires the sitter to maintain an upright posture, creating the impression of a commanding presence. This is further enhanced by the addition of the arm supports, which broaden the sitters’ shoulders adding a sense of power and strength. 

If, as the famous Elizabethan judge and politician Sir Edward Coke proclaimed, “A man’s house is his castle”, then the Wainscot chair was unquestionably the throne.

Click here to view a collection of Wainscot Chairs currently available from BADA members.