Build a step stool

Author: Evan
Photos: Evan
Illustration: Len Churchill
Published: April May 2022
evans stool
post-thumbnail

This step stool can be used for many different everyday tasks. If you’re thinking of buying a step stool, why not build one that’s durable and looks awesome? It can be a fun family project, especially for kids.

  • DIFFICULTY
    2/5
  • LENGTH/TIME
    2/5
  • COST
    2/5
evans stool drawing
evans stool cutlist

The dimensions I used for this stool are 11″ × 11″ × 9″ high. Once you decide on the measurements, you’ll need to pick your wood. I suggest using a hardwood like walnut, oak, cherry or maple. Using a soft wood, such as pine, will show wear with use, but as long as your joinery is well made it will stay together for a long time. For my stool, I used scrap walnut pieces, but if you’re buying wood, I suggest buying a piece of lumber that’s 72″ × 6″ × 1″. I always buy a little more than I need, just in case mistakes are made.

During the design phase, work out details like joinery, whether the stool will be painted or stained and any other things you would like to do to make it your own. Once you figure out your plan, now you can begin the fun stage of building.

Mill It Flat
A jointer is a great way to flatten one face of a piece of rough lumber before planing it to thickness and machining further joinery.

Mill It Flat

Glue Up the Top
With the boards that make up the top milled to rough size, glue and clamp the edges together and let the assembly dry overnight.

Glue Up the Top

Sand It Smooth
Power sanders work great for large, flat surfaces, though at some point hand sanding will have to be used.

Sand It Smooth

A Helping Hand
A dowel jig will improve accuracy and speed the process when drilling holes for the dowels that will keep the stool together for years to come.

A Helping Hand

One Big Assembly
Evan glued the entire base up at one time, though it’s also possible to glue the base up in assemblies to make the process less stressful.

One Big Assembly

Apply a Finish
A finish will both enhance the look of the stool and protect it from wear down the road. Evan hand-applied a penetrating oil finish to his stool, but there are many options when it comes to the approach you could use.

Apply a Finish


Breakout

I suggest starting with the top part first because if you’re gluing two pieces together, like I did, you’ll want to let the glue dry overnight while you work on the base. Keep in mind that if you use wood that’s not milled, you’ll likely need to use a jointer, planer and bandsaw or table saw to square up the lumber.

For the top part of the stool, I cut two pieces of wood, roughly 12″ × 5 1/2″, and glued them together using clamps, wood glue and two dowels to make sure the two pieces didn’t shift in the clamps while drying. Using dowels isn’t necessary for strength, but it will assist with alignment. I also alternated the end grain to keep the top of the stool flat over the long-term. I then set the clamped-up top aside to dry overnight.

For the stretchers that make up most of the base, I cut two 6-7/8″ pieces on my miter saw with a stop block to make sure the two pieces were the same length. If you don’t have a miter saw, a hand saw will work. Once complete, rip these two pieces into eight separate pieces, each 1-1/4″ wide. These eight pieces will become the stretchers for the base. For the legs, I cut four separate 1-5/8″ square pieces to 8″ long using my miter saw with the stop block. For both the stretchers and legs, it’s also an option to rip a longer length to width, then cut the parts from that blank. It’s sometimes easier to rip one long length as opposed to many short lengths of wood. After all the pieces for the base are cut to size, ensure that they line up with your plan and there are no mistakes.

Joinery

I marked each piece so I knew what face was out and up, and also where the dowels would be placed. I used 5/16″ diameter dowels for this project, but 3/8″ would be even stronger. Dowels only 1/4″ in diameter would be on the weak side. I located the dowels towards the front face of each stretcher and leg so they wouldn’t interfere with the dowels in the other face of each leg.

Adding dowels was the most time-con­suming part of this build. In additional to adding strength, dowels also make glu­ing the base together easier, as they help locate each joint during assembly. There are many different ways you can join the base together. Using dowels is just one cost-effec­tive option.

I used a dowel jig to help me carefully locate and drill all the holes for the dowels. It speeds the process and improves accu­racy. Dowel centers can be used, but it’s hard to accurately drill a hole into end grain when using dowel centers. Since the holes all need to be drilled accurately, I wouldn’t recommend this approach.

Sand the base parts

To prepare for assembly, sand each piece of the base before glu­ing and clamping them together. I suggest sanding each piece to 150 grit, though that decision is up to you. Start with low grit sand­paper like 60 or 80 and work your way up to achieve the desired smoothness. As always, sand with the grain.

Assembly

A base like this which has many parts can be glued up in stages or all at once. Gluing it up in stages is easier and less stressful, but takes longer. To glue the base in stages, you can glue up a pair of legs between two stretchers first and repeat that same process for the other two legs. Next, when those two assemblies are dry, bring them together with the final four stretchers between them.

When gluing together the parts of the base, don’t be shy with the number of clamps you use. For example, for my stool I used eight clamps, as I glued all the base parts up at once. If you glue the base up in stages, you’ll need to use two clamps for the first two glue-ups, though four clamps will be needed for the final glue-up.

Once you apply the glue to the dowels and the dowel holes and the clamps are applied, check to make sure all the joints are square. This is true whether you’re gluing the base up in stages or all at once. This is a very important step because you don’t want a lop­sided stool. As with clamping the top part, you’ll want to leave the legs to dry overnight in the clamps.

Once dried and removed from the clamps, remove any glue that has squeezed out with a chisel and some sandpaper.

Rout a round-over

For my stool, I applied a 3/8″ round-over on all exterior edges of the base using a router table, followed by sanding them by hand. Although a router table makes it easier to machine the round-over, it’s possible to do this step safely with a hand-held router if you have a steady hand and are comfortable with using a router.

Incorporating a round-over isn’t a necessary step, but it does add a little extra style to the stool. Install the bit in your router or router table and ease all the edges. Moving too slowly will cause the bit to burn the wood. Moving too quickly may cause tear-out. If this operation is new to you, practice on a piece of scrap first.

Return to the top

Once the base is complete, go back to working on the top part of the stool. Cut the top part to its final size, which is 11″ × 11″, using either a miter saw, table saw or hand saw. Once complete, you can machine a 3/8″ round-over to the edges if you want to, followed by sanding, using the same process as for the base.

Finally, I glued the top part to the base, leaving a 1/2″ overhang on each side. Solid wood moves with the changing seasons, swell­ing in the summer and shrinking in the winter. These forces are strong, yet mainly affect the width of a piece of wood. The length (the dimension parallel to the grain) is virtually unaffected by the changing seasons. If the top gets glued to all four upper base stretchers, seasonal movement could possibly cause the stool’s joints to become loose and weak.

To counteract this, yet still keep the top fixed to the base, there are two options. L-bracket hardware can be used to secure the top to the base, or you can apply glue just to the center 4″ or so of two opposing stretchers, towards the end grain of the top. This is the approach I used. This will allow the width of the top to expand and contract, yet keep it anchored in place for years to come.

Once you glue and clamp the stool together, leave it to dry overnight.

Finishing

Applying the finish is my favourite part. Before applying the finish of your choice, make sure there’s no dust on the stool. There are dif­ferent ways to remove dust. You can use a tack cloth, paper towel, air compressor or vacuum. You can then apply your finish. I recommend using an all-natural oil finish because you may have young children or pets that lick or chew the stool. These types of finishes are often called penetrating oil finishes. Apply at least one coat of finish, though more will give the stool’s surface added durability. Wipe the finish on with a rag, making sure to evenly apply the finish to all the parts.

Oil-soaked rags can spontaneously combust, catching fire if left to dry in a tight ball. After you apply a coat of oil finish, lay the rag flat on the floor to dry for a few days, away from anything else combustible.

The final step is to attach rubber feet to the bottom of the legs. This ensures the stool doesn’t scratch the floor and, more impor­tantly, will prevent the stool from slipping when it’s used.


Evan - [email protected]

Evan is a 13-year-old woodworker from Toronto. He started his business when he was 10 years old and donates a portion of each of his sales to SickKids Foundation. When he’s not busy in school or in the shop, he loves to go to camp.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



More projects to consider