Turn and Weave a Shaker Stool

Comments (0)

This article is from Issue 2 of Woodcraft Magazine.

If you have an interest in Shaker chair-making, this little stool would be a good introduction to the process. It requires you to turn Shaker posts and rungs, to cut round mortises in round posts, and to weave a splint seat – all within the limits of a piece simple enough to complete in a single weekend.

The little stool in this article is one of several that appear in “Shop Drawings of Shaker Furniture: Volume 1” by Ejner Handberg, published by Berkshire Traveller Press. I selected a stool high enough for seating, because we needed such a stool in our bathroom. There are, however, two others in that same book which are of a better height for use as footstools, and the construction methods I demonstrate here apply to those forms as well. 

The original stool Handberg drew was likely made of hard maple, since that was the wood of choice in most Shaker chair-making shops for several very good reasons. Hard maple is widely available. It’s strong, and it’s dense enough to work well under edge tools. Its only drawback is a rather plain appearance, a shortcoming the Shakers often addressed by dipping the frame in a vat of stain before applying a finish.

I chose walnut for mine, however, simply because I like the wood and hadn’t worked with it for a good while. Ash, oak, or hickory would be solid choices, too, particularly for a stool likely to see heavy use. The stool could also be made of cherry or figured maple, although these are much less tough than hard maple, ash, or even walnut.

Working at the lathe

I have a set of story sticks for each of the many types of Shaker chairs and stools I build in my shop. Each set contains all the information I need to construct a particular piece, and although you can build this stool working from a drawing rather than a set of sticks, I recommend that you take the time to make the some before you start work on the stool, since the sticks really do simplify the construction process. (You can see one of the story sticks being used in Fig. 1.) This stool requires only a pair of story sticks: one cut to the length of the rungs with tenon lengths marked, and another cut to the length of the post with side-rung mortise placements marked on one side; front- and back-rung mortise placements marked on the other side.

After your story sticks are made, you’re ready to rip out the turning stock. Rung stock should be 4/4 (1") on a side, and post stock should be 6/4 (11/2") on a side. Rip out a bit more than you expect to use – inevitably some parts will need to be discarded because of material flaws or because a tenon is turned a bit undersize. 

Most Shaker chair parts can be turned with a very minimal tool kit. To create this particular piece of seating furniture, I needed only four lathe tools: a 11/4 " roughing gouge, a 11/4 " skew, a 1/2" fingernail gouge, and a 11/4 " butt chisel I’ve reground for the purpose of turning rung tenons.

Begin by creating the stool’s four posts. With your lathe set on a slow speed, use a roughing gouge to knock the corners off of a 6/4 turning blank, making frequent checks of the post’s diameter. If the stock is accurately centered and reasonably straight, you should have a cylinder by the time the blank has been reduced to about 17/16". Next select a faster lathe speed and use the roughing gouge to cut a taper at the bottom of the post. Then with your skew, cut about 50 percent of the rounded crown at the top of the post, but no more – if you cut more than that off the rounded crown while the work is in the lathe, you run a risk of having the piece break off while you’re working it.

If you feel confident enough to skew plane, use the tool to reduce the post to its finished diameter of about 13/8". If you’re insecure about your skew work, use the skew as a scraper, then go back and finish the post with sandpaper. Once the post is finished, mark rung locations with your story stick (Fig. 1).

The rungs are a bit more challenging to turn. They should finish out at a diameter of nearly 1" in the middle, tapering to about 11/16" at the shoulder beside each tenon. Take your time with this critical process – tenons that are even a tiny bit oversized make the stool impossible to assemble, and tenons that are more than a few thousandths undersized will be too sloppy to give the stool the kind of strength you’ll want it to have.

After reducing a rung blank to a 1" cylinder, mark the tenon shoulder on each end by standing your skew on edge and using it to score the blank (Fig. 2). Then switch to your 1/2" fingernail gouge to hollow out the tenon, working cautiously until the smallest diameter of the tenon is just over the 5/8" finished measurement (Fig. 3). 

At that point, I use my specially ground butt chisel to create the length of the tenon, laying the tool bevel-side down on my rest and engaging it with the work until the full length of the tenon is the same diameter as that section I hollowed out with my fingernail gouge (Fig. 4). I then complete the tenon by cutting a 1/16" taper on the end of it with my skew. If you don’t have such a tool, a wide scraper will do the trick, as will a skew laid on its side acting as a scraper.

Although you can’t see this detail in the finished stool, there are two different types of rungs used in the construction (Fig. 5). The “show” rungs (top) taper from a 1" midpoint to an 11/16" shoulder on each end. The seat rungs, on the other hand, maintain as much of their thickness as possible throughout their entire length. These two different shapes can be seen in Fig. 9.

While you can sand each part as you turn it, I find it easier to do all my turning first. I then jack up the lathe speed, put on my dust mask, turn on my air cleaner, and sand all the turned parts in a single session, working my way up through the grits from 100, through 150, and ending with 220.

Marking the posts

There are two ways to mark the rung mortises on your posts. The method I use requires a lathe with an indexing head, which is simply a metal disk centered on the lathe’s axis of rotation. This disk has holes drilled at regular intervals along its circumference, allowing the operator to divide turned forms into equal segments. The indexing head on my lathe has 36 evenly spaced holes that divide anything on my lathe into 10-degree segments.

To draw a line on the outside diameter of the post parallel to its axis of rotation, I lock the indexing head into a position that places the post’s most attractive figure and grain where it will be most visible. I then use the marking gauge shown in Fig. 6 to draw the line along which the rung mortises on one face of the post will be located. I next place my story stick on this line and mark rung mortises. 

I then count off nine stops on the lathe’s indexing head, relock it and draw a second line 90 degrees from the first line, then mark the rung mortise locations for the adjacent face of the stool on this second line.

If your lathe doesn’t have an indexing head, here’s another method of marking rung mortises: On your bandsaw or jigsaw, carefully slice a carpenter’s pencil lengthwise so that the full length of the pencil lead is exposed. Lay a pair of stool posts on your bench side by side. Then run the sliced pencil along the posts so that the sliced lead engages the surface of both posts. This will result in a pencil line on the outside diameter of each post that is approximately parallel to the axis of each post. Then with your story stick as your guide, mark rung mortises along each of these lines.

Then rotate the posts approximately 90 degrees and rub a second pair of lines onto their outside diameters with the split pencil. Mark the rung mortises for the adjacent face of each post along each of these lines.

Don’t worry if the second sets of lines aren’t exactly 90 degrees from the first sets of lines. The precise placement of the side-rung mortises will be achieved later through the use of the side-rung mortise jig.

Drilling the mortises and assembling the stool

To drill the first set of mortises on each post, press the post against a drill press fence set so that the lead point of a 5/8" Forstner bit is a distance from the fence that is exactly half the finished diameter of the post. The fence in Fig. 7 is set to drill front and back ladder mortises in a post with a diameter of 13/8".

Slide the post along the fence under the bit until you’ve drilled each of the three mortises on that face of the post. These mortises should be 15/16" deep. This depth will accommodate the 7/8" length of the tenon and leave a 1/16" glue reservoir at the bottom of the mortise. Repeat on the three other posts (Fig 8).

After you’ve drilled the first set of mortises in each post, glue up your front and back ladders. (These are the ladders with the lower-rung mortise locations. The side-rung mortises are placed 5/8" higher than the front and back mortise locations.)

Begin with a dry assembly of each ladder to ensure that all the tenons will fit into all the mortises. Then swab a little glue on each tenon and in each mortise. Tap the tenons into place with a soft mallet. When both ends of all three rungs have been started into their mortises, press them into place with a pipe clamp working your way up and down the ladder (Fig. 9).

Go slowly, because it’s possible to crack a post with the pressure from your pipe clamp. Once they’re assembled, check the squareness of each ladder with a framing square. Rack the ladder if necessary to bring it into the correct alignment. Clean up glue squeeze-out with a wet rag and a toothbrush.

Position the side-rung mortise jig – which is nothing more than a fence screwed to a sheet of plywood long enough to support the full width of the stool – to the drill press table so the fence is a distance from the lead point of your Forstner bit equal to half the diameter of the post.

Then slide the ladder along the fence under the bit and drill each of the side-rung mortises (Fig. 10). These mortises, too, should be 15/16" deep.

Dry assemble the stool, but don’t fully seat each tenon because some may get stuck in their mortises. When you’re satisfied that all the parts will come together properly, swab glue on each tenon and in each mortise. Then press the tenons into place with your pipe clamp (Fig. 11).

Before setting the stool aside to dry, check to ensure that all four legs make simultaneous contact with the surface of your bench. Rack the stool, if necessary, to bring it into alignment, then clean up glue squeeze-out as before.

Weaving the seat

The seat of this stool is nothing more than a basket woven in 1/2" rattan splint around the stool’s seat rungs. I use rattan splint, also called “flat reed,” because it’s available in good quality from several American suppliers. The original stools were likely seated with ash splint, which is today much more expensive than rattan. Of course, you can make the seat with “Shaker tape,” which is becoming harder to find at a reasonable price.

A single hank or coil of 1/2" splint is almost enough to weave this seat, but it’s better to buy two hanks since it may be necessary to discard a few pieces of splint that may be too thin or too badly split. If you order three hanks, you’ll have more than enough to seat two stools.

Prepare the splint by soaking it in a tub of warm water for a couple of hours. Then pull it out of the water and open the hank up on the floor.

I don’t like to weave chair seats in my shop because I can never get the shop floor completely clean, and wet splint is an irresistible attractant to dust and dirt. Fortunately, I’m blessed with a very understanding wife, who never complains about the mess I make weaving chair seats in the house.

Select one of the longest strips of splint. (There should be a least a couple in each hank that measure 8'-10'.) Then tape one end of the long strip of splint to one of the side seat rungs with a wrap of masking tape. 

Begin wrapping the splint around the front and back seat rungs. (These front-to-back strips are called the “warp.” The side-to-side strips you’ll add later are called the “weave.”) When you come to the end of the first strip, splice on another. You should do this on the bottom side of the seat where it won’t be noticeable, even if that means wasting some of the strip. The splice is created by lapping the last 6"-8" of the first strip over the first 6"-8" of the second strip. Join the strips with three staples from a regular office stapler. 

I know it sounds goofy. After all, those staples couldn’t possibly support the weight of a person sitting on the seats. But the purpose of the staples is not to hold the weight of a person. The staples merely hold the strips together until the tightness of the weave grips them and holds them in place. In fact, once the seat is finished, you can pull the staples out with a pair of needle-nosed pliers. I’ve been weaving seats in this manner for almost 20 years, without a single seat failure.

When the warp has completely filled the seat, tape the end of the last strip to the side seat rung, just as you did with the starting end of the first strip. You’re now ready to begin the weave.

There are many different weave patterns from which to choose. My favorite is the herringbone pattern, which I used on this seat. This is a pattern in which the weaver – the single strip of splint that goes from side to side – is passed under three strips of warp, then over three strips, then under three and so on. Successive weavers are then staggered one strip before beginning the under-three-over-three pattern.

Begin the weaver on the bottom side of the stool, weaving across the full width of the bottom side of the seat (Fig. 12). In this photo, note the masking tape holding the warp in place.

When you come to the opposite side of the seat bottom, turn the stool over so you’re working on the top side. Then weave your way across the top side going over three strips of warp and under three strips of warp (Fig. 13). When you reach the other side of the seat, invert the stool and weave your way across the bottom. Continue in this manner until you reach the end of your weaver. At that point, splice in a new piece by lapping the last 6"-8" of the old over the first 6"-8" of the new, as before (Fig. 14). 

Many craftsmen make these splices on the bottom side only. I splice on both the top and the bottom because the weaver splices are all but impossible to see, and they involve no unsightly staples.

As you work your way toward the front of the stool, you’ll notice that the weave gets progressively tighter; at about three-quarters of the way to the front, you’ll find yourself struggling to get the weavers inserted. I find that a butter knife inserted into the warp can help guide the weaver (Fig. 15), and for the last couple of rows, a pair of needle-nosed pliers is very helpful in gripping and pulling the weaver through the warp. As the edges of the splint can be sharp, you may want to protect your fingertips when tugging on the weaver at this point. I simply wrap some masking tape around my fingers, but thin gloves would probably work just as well.

Final touches

If you choose to seat the stool with Shaker tape (you better have a fat wallet), you must apply the finish before you seat the stool. But if you seat the stool with splint, you can put off the finishing process until after the seat has been woven.

There are two reasons for doing this. First, the process of weaving a splint seat is very physical and finished parts can be scuffed as you muscle those last few rows of weavers into place. Second, the seat itself must be finished for both aesthetic reasons and to protect the splint from becoming soiled. A finished surface is much easier to wipe clean than is an unfinished surface. It makes sense then to hold off on the finishing process until you can finish the wood and the splint at the same time.

After the seat weaving is completed, let the splint dry for a couple of days before finish sanding. Begin with 220-grit paper, sanding all exposed wood very thoroughly, followed by 320-grit (Fig. 16).

Next I apply a coat of Waterlox to both the wood parts and the splint, brushing it on liberally, then wiping it off with a clean, lint-free rag. (I find old T-shirts are best for this.) I let the piece dry overnight, then resand with 320 and refinish with Waterlox, again allowing the finish to dry overnight. At that point, give the piece a final sanding with 600-grit paper, followed by a good coat of paste wax to the wood parts only, rubbing it out vigorously when it’s dry.

Kerry Pierce

Pierce has been a professional furniture maker for more than 20 years. He is the author of 10 woodworking books – including the recently published “Authentic Shaker Furniture” – as well as dozens of magazine articles. His work has appeared in many regional shows, including, most recently, Ohio Furniture by Contemporary Masters at the Ohio Decorative Arts Center.


posts (4)  13/8" x 161/2"
rungs (12)  1" x 151/2"

Note: All wood is of a hardwood stock of your preference. Remember that these are all net measurements – extra length should be added to all turned parts to allow for centering in the lathe. Also, the gross (beginning) thicknesses should be a bit greater than the net thicknesses listed here to allow for stock removed during turning and sanding.

1/2" splint or flat reed
Two hanks (coils), $8.08 per hank

Connecticut Cane and Reed
(800) 227-8498

1" Shaker tape
28 yd. (one 20-yd. roll @ $22, and one 10-yd. roll @ $11)

5/8" Shaker tape
42 yd. (two 20-yd. rolls @ $16 each, and one 5-yd. roll @ $4)

Shaker Workshops
(800) 840-9121


Write Comment

Write Comment

You must be logged in to write a comment. Log In

Top of Page