Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 157, September 2018 Welcome to Highland Woodworking - Fine Tools & Education Learn more about Highland Woodworking View our current woodworking classes and seminars Woodworking articles and solutions Subscribe to Wood News
Project: Building a Step Stool
By David Alvarez
Atlanta, GA

Click on any picture to see a larger version.

Step Stool built by Kirsten Benson at the Freeside Makerspace,
Atlanta, GA

My name is Dave Alvarez and my step stool project started from a beginning woodworking class I have been teaching at the Freeside maker space here in Atlanta. This beginning woodworking class was never intended for an audience of advanced woodworkers, but rather for people who had never used the equipment and techniques of the ordinary workshop. The class allows them to become more familiar with the tools and the shop space, in the hopes that they join the space and pursue woodworking further.

Below are the steps I have laid out for this beginner's step stool project, accompanied by pictures of some of the completed step stools from previous attendees of my class.

1) After you decided to build (as opposed to 'make'; trees are the only ones who actually 'make' anything in woodworking) your step-stool, your first task will be to buy some wood. Here is your first entre into real, live woodworking, estimating materials. If you are seriously short of cash, you can always lay out every single constituent piece (length and width) on a piece of paper before doing any cutting at all. Unfortunately, you don't have a board yet, so you don't have any constraints to work within (sort of a chicken and egg problem). What most professional woodworkers do is to draw up a list of rough dimensions, multiply out all their areas (L x W, in feet or inches) and add a certain percentage to their list based on their experience. There is a danger in this of being forced to glue back together some of the pieces in order to be able to build all the parts, which is only 'dangerous' since it will cost you another day waiting for glue to dry before proceeding, but is a whole lot easier than 'guessing' any particular board's size, and then laying it all out beforehand. Hence, the commoness of this technique in woodshops. In our 'beta' version of the stepstool, I estimated (as was true) that it would require about 5-1/2 board feet, and sure enough it did, though we did need to glue together off-cuts of the original board (costing a day) in order to build the steps.

2) After you have your board in hand, your next woodworking task is to draw up (write out) a 'cut bill.' That is, a detailed list of all the pieces to be cut for assembly in order (generally) of their widths but also including their lengths (W x L is the actual listing). Here is where we begin to think deeply about how the piece will look upon completion, noting the order to cut the parts. Take your time here, keeping in mind the logic of the progression of cutting, which will become clearer after you've actually completed this project.

3) Now, we begin to actually cut some wood. This stage is generally called the 'milling' stage, where we begin to bring the board into roughly usable parts (the 'roughness' being refined out at each subsequent stage). Begin by straightening one edge on the jointer, flattening one surface also on the jointer (if necessary), and, if we've flattened a surface, thicknessing the parts by running them through the planer. These three pieces of equipment all work together (jointer, table saw and planer) in order to bring the parts to rough size/finish to be refined throughout the subsequent stages. Before beginning each machine operation (which will be cutting wood), think to yourself how will this removal of wood effect all the subsequent stages? Do I really need to permanently remove this bit of the final product? Thinking beforehand now will save you innumerable hours of repairing the messed up piece later.

4) All of the pieces have now been 'ripped' to width on the table saw, and we only need to cross cut the now narrow(er) boards to length. For more 'critical' lengths (as defined by their necessary precision in length AND the squareness of the cut) use the sled on the table saw. The use of the sled can be awkward, so get a pal to help if the board feels at all 'tippy' when pushing through the saw, and/or ask the instructor for other strategies to complete this task.

Step Stool built by Sharon Ben-Dov at the Freeside Makerspace,
Atlanta, GA

5) You should now have a pile of assorted parts for the project, and we will begin to complete the final shaping, closing in on the assembly. Begin with the cut outs on the two long and two short sides of the stool. In our 'beta' project, we just used a handy round thing (a paint can) for this, measuring its diameter, and transfering half of the measurement to the appropriate parts, tracing around the round thing to draw the line to follow on the band saw. This cut out isn't too important, but decreasing the length of the sides from one about 8" long to two about 2" long (i.e. from one looong 'foot' to two short feet) is important for stability of the final product. After the lines are drawn on the parts, carry the four sides to the band saw or (if that's down) to the jig saw/saber saw and carefully cut them out keeping outside the line by about 1/2 a 1/16th of an inch (a.k.a. 1/32"). Again, not crucial but do this in order to begin to build up your careful eye/hand. The extra 1/32 will be dealt with once both parts are together, which will begin in the next segment.

6) Now you still have an assortment of miscellaneous parts, which we will begin to assemble into final parts. To do this, take the two halves of each of the long sides, assemble their edges flat on a handy bench top to where you'd like them to end up in the final piece, and make a mark on both pieces about 1-1/2" away from any visible edge for the biscuits. Once this is completed, bring the biscuit jointer to the bench and run it on both pieces. Collect 4 biscuits, carry them to the bench (along with, maybe, some wooden blocks) along with 2 long clamps and a bottle of yellow glue. Run a thin bead of the glue along both edges (keeping in mind that the edges do NOT get glue along their entire length) and squirt some of it into each of the buiscuit slots. Insert the biscuits, lay the parts on the wooden blocks, double check that the parts really are where you want them to be, and clamp the entire assemblies together (there are two of them) keeping a weather eye out that they clamp up flat and straight, adjusting the clamping pressures as necessary. After this is complete and you are happy, stand the clamped up assemblies against a wall or out of the way for 24 hours or so, taking care to wipe up the glue squirt with a damp rag before the glue dries.

7) Well, the pile is smaller, so that's progress. But not much, since you still have a whole bunch of small parts and now 2 large(ish) ones to contend with. Begin by unclamping the sides, standing back and admiring them, and carrying both of them over to the belt sander, where we will now refine the half-circle cut outs from the rough, band sawn edges to a consistent, smooth(er) belt sanded edge. Do this on the circular edge of the belt sander, and don't stress over the roughness of the belt sanded edge. Do be aware of the fuzz that will end up on the edges. This will easily be dealt with in the final sanding, if we remember that it exists!

8) Since it is so much easier to sand a bunch of flat parts than a 3 dimensional step stool, we will do the majority of our sanding now, before the final assembly. Here is where you may regret some of the decisions you made earlier, since sanding a soft piece of pine to be painted is handled much differently than a hard piece of red oak to be stained and clear coated, though the steps are about identical. Begin by laying out each of the parts onto a flat, clean surface (i.e. blow it off so no offending small chips remain) and select a progression of sand paper, beginning (usually) with 120 grit. If the oak, in partular, is full of machine marks, then start with rougher grit, maybe 100 grit. The point is to use the roughest (first) course of sand paper to remove ALL the machine marks (including cross grain scratches!) from the parts, then each of the finer grits remove the scratches from the previous grits, so the first is the MOST important since you will need to work twice as hard (or maybe 18 times?) to remove the same marks with the finer grits. So suck it up and just do it with the first course. Most likely, 120 is adequate for pine that will end up under a coat of paint, but not so on red oak. If your project will end up under stain/clear coat, then proceed from the 120 grit to a medium grit (maybe 150), then on to 220 grit. Be careful and thourough. You will be well rewarded once the 220 is completed. Also, pay special attention to the edges. Do they have machine marks? Yes, a jointer DOES leave machine marks even though it doesn't look like it at first blush and machine marks will telegraph through paint, so make them go away now before it's too late. However, if an edge will only end up next to a flat, then leave the jointer marks (but not the sawn edges!); they won't appear in the final product. Also this is a good time to begin to knock over the sharp edges, but isn't completely necessary yet; only before the final finish (paint or stain) is applied.

9) So now we have a pile of SANDED parts and we'll begin the process of finishing (again, much easier to finish a flat pile than a 3-dimensional footstool) but this will be different depending on which sort of wood you are using. For pine, the next step is to apply a primer ('KILZ' brand is prefered), paying special attention to the edges. For red oak, apply a stain. In both cases, lay the parts up to dry for 1 hour (if primer) to 4 hrs. at least (for stain). In the case of the primer, lightly sand the entire part with 220 grit, blowing off the dust once complete. In the case of stain, get ready to apply the clear coat. This will be identical to applying the paint.

10) Before the final step of applying the top coat, complete the final assembly. In the beta project, we used Kreg pocket hole screws. Once all of it is assembled into a 3-D stool, the final step is to apply the top coat; paint in the case of pine, clear coat in the case of red oak (I'd suggest polyurethane, for forgiveness and durablity).

11) Stand back and admire your work, you've earned it.

Step Stool built by Christina Wellman at the Freeside Makerspace,
Atlanta GA

You can email David at dalsquared@yahoo.com. You can also take a look around his local makerspace website at Freeside Atlanta.

Return to the Wood News Online front page

Click the images below to visit some of our most popular tool departments

Wood Turning 
Highland Woodworking Social Media Take a look at the Highland Woodworking Facebook Page Check out the Highland Woodworking Twitter Page View the Highland Woodworking YouTube Channel Pin from the Highland Woodworking Pinterest Page Connect with the Highland Woodworking Instagram Page Read the Highland Woodworking Blog

Highland Woodworking
1045 N. Highland Ave. NE
Atlanta, Georgia 30306
Tel. 800-241-6748

Email us at email@highlandwoodworking.com
Visit us on the web at www.highlandwoodworking.com

Copyright © 2018 Highland Hardware, Inc.

Errors regarding pricing and specifications are subject to correction.
SOME SALE QUANTITIES MAY SELL OUT and become unavailable at the advertised price.