Elegant Step Stools

Not every woodworking project needs to be a multi-week adventure. Sometimes something simple is needed. In this case it is some step stools.

We now have 7 grandchildren ranging form newborn to 6 years. We have them over on a regular basis (3 days / week minimum during the school year). With the kids running around they need to be able to reach the sinks to wash up. We had a small & narrow step stool that had been handed down of unknown origin. However being narrow in depth from the counters meant it was easy for the kids to tip over and take a tumble. Last week one of the youngest ones took a hard fall and Teal strongly recommended that I get busy and make the step stools I had been talking about making for a while (years).

What I had envisioned is a stool with angled legs that splay outwards for stability in both width and depth. A simple cross bar between the legs for strength, and no visible fasteners. The plan was to reduce the pile of “too small for furniture and too pretty to burn” wood scraps that had been accumulating for some time. The strong grain patterns present in that stash and simple angular design would yield what I hope are pretty as well as usable stools.

The design work started with some simple sketches with the size constraints in my notebook. No CAD for a simple design such as this. As you can see from the erasure of the left leg, there was some trial and error involved.

From the drawings, the dimensions and angles were derived. High school protractor measured the angles. Some basic trig was needed to calculate the leg length based on the angle and desired height. Now I had the sizes needed and it was time to check the stash to see if I had parts that matched. Width of the legs was an issue for the second (maple) footstool. The quarter sawn white oak for the first one was just barely wide enough. The oak top was sawn square, and the spalted maple top features a live edge. Tops were cut and squared up first. The live edge top did require some shimming along the radial arm saw fence to get both edges roughly parallel as the cuts were made.

For the legs, they were ripped to the widest dimension – 9″. Then the top and bottom edges were beveled at 18 degrees. This was done at the table saw. Next, the front edge bevel was cut with the miter gauge set to 9 degrees. A sacrificial stick was used to avoid further damage to the face of the miter gauge as seen below.

Cutting the front bevel on a leg

The next thing was to cut the cross bar. The height is not critical and did vary between the stools due to trying to retain as much of the wood character as possible. The bottom length is 12″ and the ends are angled at 18 degrees to match the bevels of the legs.

Cutting the cross bar to width and angle

At this point I did a rough fit up of the parts and decided that the arch cut-out on the bottom of the legs did not fit with the cleanly angular design. If I needed to allow for an uneven floor, foam or felt pads would be glued on the bottoms of the legs.

The cross bar is joined to the legs with #10 biscuits. This joint is primarily in tension which works well with biscuit joinery. The slot in each end of the cross bar is straight forward. To make the slot in the legs, a fence is needed to register the biscuit jointer against. This was a scrap of lumber and the whole thing was clamped to the end of the table saw top.

Cutting the biscuit slot in a leg
Resulting biscuit slot

Now it was time to sand all of the pieces to final finish (220 grit) and bevel the edges. The edge bevel is 45 degrees and about 1/8″ wide. The parts are then dry fitted together. As usual, the biscuits had swollen due to humidity and had to be hammered thinner to fit. With the tapered legs, the clamping is a bit unusual. A pair of K body clamps are used to hold the bottoms of the legs at the proper spacing and to keep them square. A ratchet strap was borrowed from the truck to apply clamping pressure to the sides. Be sure to check that the cross bar has not slid down (as it had in the picture below on the right hand end). Measure up from the bench and tap it back into level position.

Clamping the legs

For the quarter sawn oak stool the next step was to spray dye and garnet shellac to enhance the grain visibility. This step was skipped for the maple stool as the goal was to maximize the contrast of the spalted and streaked wood.

Dye and shellac applied

The top is fastened to the legs with dowels. The dowel holes are drilled first in the legs. Note that the holes are not centered on the tops of the legs but rather offset to the outside edges. This is to ensure that the hole for the dowel does not exit on the inside face of the leg. Dowel centers are used to transfer the locations to the top. 3/8″ dowels were used.

Drilling for the dowels in the legs

The positions of the holes are transferred to the top in stages. The top is measured and checked for proper location first over the dowel centers for one leg. It is then rapped soundly to transfer the points as indentations in the wood. This pair of holes is then drilled. The centers are removed and dowels inserted into that leg. The centers are then inserted into the other leg as shown below. The top is then placed on the dowels, pressed down and rapped to get the location of the second set of holes. These are then drilled.

Ready to transfer the positions for the second pair / leg of dowels

Now the stool is ready for final assembly. I used thick CA (Cyanoacrylate / a.k.a. super glue) for this step. It was applied to the dowel holes and a strip was down the center top of each leg. They were then pressed together with persuasion form a mallet and then the joint line was sprayed with accelerator. The final finish for the Oak stool was Minwax Satin Wiping Polyurethane and for the maple stool it was General Finishes Satin Endurovar water based finish.

Completed Step Stools