I don’t remember much of the furniture I grew up with, but one small piece stands out in my memory. It was a small, oak footstool, which was kicked around my parents’ kitchen for years (sometimes literally). I believe that it was made by some friends who were into woodworking at the time. They made a batch of them to sell, and my parents bought one. It’s survived several decades of heavy use in their house, so when I first began working wood, one of my first projects was a similar kitchen stool.
My resources were limited, and so was my skill set. The original stool, which I built 10 years ago, was made entirely from pine. I was not at all confident in my mortise-and-tenon joints, so I ended up just dovetailing the legs into the sides.
That stool stood up for five years, but eventually the legs all came loose. By that time I had the tools to make tapered tenons, so I ended up cutting the stool’s top shorter, boring angled mortises, and installing new legs, also made from pine.
That version of the stool lasted five more years. But even though I had reinforced the pine top with battens underneath, the whole thing finally split in half. It was clearly time to replace this old stool with something more substantial.
This is the rebuilt and re-broken stool, standing atop the pieces that will become its replacement.
In theory, there was nothing wrong with the rebuilt stool’s construction. The only problem is that construction-grade pine is not a good material for the seat. The open grain in the mortises doesn’t take glue well, and the wood is too easy to split.
An ideal replacement would have a hardwood top, preferably made from a close-grained hardwood, and legs made of a tough hardwood appropriate to the task. I had no wood thick and wide enough for the top, though. After considering the wood I did have on hand, I opted for a laminated cherry top and red oak legs.
The cherry wood is a story in itself. I had several boards that I had gotten for free out of a pile of junk lumber. They had a lot of bug holes, and the ends were rotted–which is why they were free! But each one had a little sound wood inside. It took all the good wood from two of these 6′ boards to make one top for a stool.
As I cut into the cherry, I had a minimum length in mind (11″), but I was able to cut a few pieces longer (up to 12″), just in case I needed to cut around defects later on. As I looked at my collection of wood strips, though, I found that I could place the longest ones in the middle and the shortest at the end, which would allow the ends of the top to be curved instead of straight. There’s no functional advantage to curved ends, but they will look nicer.
The wood strips were pretty rough when I brought them into the shop. I oriented all the worst edges in one direction (see photo above), which would be the bottom. Then I planed the other three sides.
Even nasty looking lumber can clean up nicely.
Lots of glue and an overnight clamp-up later, I had a top.
While top was in the clamps, I turned my attention to the legs. I selected some straight-grained red oak I had stashed away for just such an occasion. The oak came from a neighbor’s tree, which was taken down a while ago. I had sawn up a few pieces to about 1 1/2″ square, expecting to eventually build some kind of a stool or chair. I cut four billets to about 12″ long. That allowed me plenty of leeway to eventually trim either end to final length. The stool itself will end up 10 1/2″ tall.
I planed them roughly square, but there was no reason to obsess over making them identical in thickness. What’s the final thickness of the legs? I have no idea. Somewhere a little under the 1 1/2″ they started out as. But it really doesn’t matter.
I set them in cradles to plane the square pieces down to octagons.
I love how the oak shavings pile up on the windowsill beside my bench.
I marked the approximate center of each leg with a Forstner bit the same width as the small end of the tapered tenon cutter–in this case 1/2″. I have a tapered tenon cutter (essentially a giant pencil sharpener) that allows me to shave down a perfect tenon. First, however, it is necessary to roughly shape a taper on the end of the leg before cutting it to final shape with the tenon cutter.
For one insane moment I considered sawing the taper down–eight cuts on four legs. Then I came to my senses and reached for my drawknife. I marked 1″ below the tenon cutter’s length and started with the drawknife. Although the tenon cutter makes an accurate cut, it can be slow going. If the workpiece is just a little too thick, the tenon cutter stops cutting, and then it’s necessary to remove more stock with spokeshave before continuing with the tenon cutter.
Eventually I got them all cut.
The next day, I turned my attention back to the top. The glue was dry, and the top was ready to be planed. This is the “good” side, which will be the visible top.
Planing across the grain with a jack plane quickly leveled out the slab.
A smoothing plane with the grain leaves everything flat and silky smooth.
Viewing a planed surface with raking light helps identify any irregularities. I know I’m going overboard here, though. This surface is going to be stood on regularly, so it’s not necessary to make everything precisely flat and smooth. But a smooth surface is less likely to collect grime and easier to clean than a rough surface.
Plus, cherry is fun to plane.
Next I cut a gentle curve on each end. Marking out the curve was easy. To mark this kind of curve, I’ve seen woodworkers rig up some kind of trammel or pencil-and-string apparatus. But it’s not necessary to draw a geometrically-precise curve. Your arm will do nicely. Your elbow is the pivot point. Place it in line with the center of the workpiece. Then hold the pencil and swing your arm from side to side. The result is as fair a curve as you could want on a stool.
The only really tricky part of this whole build is boring the holes at the correct angle. Set a bevel gauge to a pleasing angle (I used one of the legs on the original stool) and eyeball the rest. If I do this much more, I’ll make myself an angle-gauge that will stand up easier. I kept knocking the bevel gauge over.
I did have to double-check that I was boring the correct angle on the correct side. The last time I did this, I bored the holes backwards, and the bottom instantly became the top.
Actually, boring at the correct angle isn’t the hard part. It’s reaming the holes at the correct angle that is difficult. At least with the auger bit, once you’ve established the correct angle with a few turns of the brace, the bit will keep going at pretty much the same angle you started with. The reamer, however, can be tilted in many different directions at any time, so you have to repeatedly check your angle every few turns.
Even with repeated checking, the angles are visibly different from each other. Oh well. They’re not far enough off to affect the stool in use.
Also, as you approach the final depth with the reamer, test-fit the leg frequently. Once the top of the leg pokes up through the top, it’s time to stop reaming. Mark the hole and the leg so you make sure you don’t get them mixed up later.
Now, as tempting as it would be to just glue up the legs now, it is best to do all the shaping and trimming work on the top before inserting the legs.
First, I eased the edges just a little all around the underside of the top. It gives the whole piece a lighter look. I used a plane and spokeshave to relieve all the sharp edges. You don’t want a sharp corner when you inevitably bash your shin against it while carrying dishes through the kitchen.
I also found just a few old bug holes and one little soft spot on the end that needed attention. I saturated the soft spot with thin superglue, which will stabilize the wood. I filled the bug holes with sawdust and dripped superglue onto them, too. After drying the superglue with a hairdryer, I used a card scraper to remove the excess glue, leaving a perfectly smooth, filled void.
Once the top is shaped, trimmed, and smoothed, it’s time to get ready to install the legs. I find that legs like this will tend to work loose if they aren’t secured somehow, so I decided to wedge the tenons. Here’s how:
- Make the wedges the same width as the top of the mortise. Give them an aggressive taper–not too low an angle! Use a tough, seasoned wood like oak or hickory. These are pecan, also a tough wood.
- Insert the legs and mark a line across the grain of the top. With the tenon saw, cut a kerf in the top of each leg to a depth of about 1″. You just need the kerfs deep enough to allow the very top of the tenon to expand and lock the leg into the mortise.
- Use a half-round file or a knife to relieve the tops of the mortises, just on the end-grain. That way, when you drive the wedges in, the tops of the tenons will have space to expand, creating a reversed taper and locking the legs in place.
- Place clamps across the top to prevent the top from splitting as you drive the tenons in. This is a nice time to call in a little shop assistant to help.
Dinner was almost ready. Once the smaller kids were done setting the table, they each came over to help insert the legs into the mortises. We slathered the tenons with lots of wood glue, rotated them in the mortises until the whole surface was coated, and then pressed them in. I had marked the inside of each leg so I got the best grain oriented to the outside. Finally, we tapped each leg home with a mallet.
Before sitting down to dinner, we flipped the stool over and drove in the wedges. Wedging tenons is a tricky thing. If you don’t drive the wedges in deep enough, the wedging action won’t happen. But drive a wedge in too hard, and you risk breaking it off inside the slot. (If that does happen, about the only thing to do is to quickly cut another wedge with a blunt tip and try to drive it in on top of the broken one. Sometimes it works.) Just tap the wedge firmly until it stops. If you’re paying attention, you’ll feel it stop.
I let the glue dry overnight, then sawed off the tops of the wedges and planed everything flush.
On a stool like this, there are two potentially weak places, so it pays to reinforce each one. The first is the joints, which can work loose over time. Which is why I wedged the tenons. The other potential weak spot is the top itself. The long grain between the legs is unsupported and could possibly split in half if, say, somebody jumped and landed hard on the middle of the stool. So as one final piece of insurance, I nailed two battens underneath the top. For the battens, I selected a wood that is strong along the grain but fairly lightweight: southern yellow pine.
Although these battens will be mostly unseen, I still took the time to plane them smooth and chamfer the edges. Not only will this make picking up the stool easier on the fingers, but it lends just a little bit of grace to what is otherwise a very plain design.
What are the dimensions of the battens? I don’t know, really. Probably about 3/8″ thick and 1 1/2″ wide, more or less. What is more important is that they are flat sawn or rift sawn, not quartersawn. When nailing battens like this in place, the nails will hold better (and be less likely to split to wood) if they punch through the growth rings rather than between them.
I used cut nails, which require a pilot hole but hold very firmly. With a good pilot hole, you can pound in these nails perilously close to the ends of the battens without splitting them. I placed the battens as far apart as I could, which ended up being right up against the legs.
The last major step is to cut off the bottoms of the legs so the stool won’t wobble.
The easiest way is to place the stool on a relatively flat surface (such as the top of your workbench) and use something of the right thickness as a gauge to mark around each leg with a pencil. The end of my bevel gauge happened to be just right.
The only difficult part of this operation is holding the work steady as you cut the legs to length. It seems that however you hold them, the other legs are in the way of your handsaw. Well, so be it. Saw carefully, and try not to hit the other legs as you do so.
Just saw to your pencil lines, and don’t worry about being any more accurate than that. You could try to get the bottom of each leg precisely co-planar so the stool will sit perfectly on a perfectly flat surface. But that’s pointless because your floors aren’t that flat. As long as you get everything close enough, the stool’s top and legs will flex a little as you stand on it, and it won’t wobble in use.
The last shaping job to do is to relieve the sharp edges around the bottoms of the legs. Chamfering those edges will make the legs less likely to splinter on the ends. I used a spokeshave, but you could use a sanding block and sandpaper just as easily.
And now, here it is, the finished product:
The final dimensions are 10 1/2″ tall, 11 1/2″ wide, and 9 1/2″ deep.
Now to apply a quick finish to bring out the colors and make the inevitable dirt a little easier to clean off.
I applied some homemade Danish oil (equal parts polyurethane, safflower oil, and mineral spirits), using a couple heavy coats on the top especially. After letting it dry for a day in front of a fan, it was ready to use.
Here’s a shot of the underside now that everything is finished:
And the completed stool:
Now that it’s done, I’m thinking it’s almost too pretty to use.