Simple Step Stool


A fresh approach to a Shaker tradition 

I enjoy Shaker furniture—it’s beautiful in its simplicity and it possesses an elegant utility. A particular piece has always caught my eye: the long-back hanging step stool. These unique steppers take on many shapes and sizes, but the basic design elements—a single step and an elongated back with a hanging hole—have remained defining characteristics. I wanted to incorporate modern design elements into this traditional piece while making a project that’s easy for anyone to build with a modest set of tools.

A design conference with the staff yielded a clever means to make the back and front leg from one glued-up assembly. We also developed easy methods for routing mortises and sawing tenons, along with a few other valuable tips. In many traditional versions of this stool, dovetails join the front leg and step—and you can adapt this design to do that if you’d like to. However, I wanted to simplify the joinery. While not as invincible as dovetails, the screwed construction approach will endure for generations.

In addition to providing adults a step up to high cabinet shelves, this stool elevates tykes to counter height for handwashing or helping in the kitchen. It will also allow them to take a peek at workbench activities in the shop. But when not in use, you can hang it up out of the way and out of reach (see onlineEXTRAS).

Order of Work

  • Glue up back/leg panel
  • Cut leg arches and rout mortises
  • Separate, then bandsaw to shape
  • Make the stretcher, and assemble
  • Make and attach step boards
  • Sand and paint

In this all-poplar piece, the leg and back provide a wide, stable stance and feature arches cut out at the drill press. Their scalloped edges add visual interest while reducing mass. An arched stretcher connects them via strong mortise-and-tenon joinery. The two overhanging bandsawn step boards sweep rearward around the long, narrow upright. The steps are drilled for counterbores and screwed to the top of the front leg and the back’s shoulders. Wood plugs conceal the screws.

Make the back and leg

Download and print the patterns, then adhere them to template material such as the inexpensive chipboard available at most craft or office supply stores. Knife out the templates and set them aside. Rip two 3/4" boards to 3-1/4" wide and, using a stop to ensure identical length, crosscut them to about 19" long, which is double the leg’s length plus extra. Cut a third board to 3" wide by about 50" long, which is double the leg length plus the length of the back. Edge-glue these boards as shown. Clean up as needed when dry, then gather your layout tools. From the back’s shoulders, measure down and mark the bottom of the back’s leg portion, adding half your table saw blade’s thickness to account for separating the pieces later. Lay out the arch and joinery. At the drill press, cut out the circle that will become the arches, and then rout the mortises. Separate the leg and back at the table saw. Bandsaw the leg profiles and clean up at the spindle sander as shown before detaching the pieces. Finally, bandsaw and sand the back’s top profile and drill the hanging hole using a Forstner bit and backer board to prevent tearout.

Edge-glue. With the long board in the center, edge-glue the three pieces that comprise the stool body. A caul at the end of the assembly helps to align what will become the back’s shoulders.
Layout lines. Lay out the arch locations as a 5"-dia circle. Then, mark the mortise locations and the hanging hole and top profile (inset), where shown in the drawing on p. 49.

Drill the arches. Chuck a circle cutter set to a 21⁄2" radius in your drill press. With the assembly secured to a backer board clamped to your drill press table, drill the hole. Use a slow speed, and raise and lower the bit as you go to avoid burning. Once the center bit exits the workpiece, flip the piece over, reclamp, and finish drilling the hole from the opposite face (inset).

Rout the mortises. Clamp a piece of straight scrap parallel to your mortise locations. Chuck a 1⁄4" upcut spiral bit in your handheld plunge router. Guide the router along your straightedge to rout the 1⁄2" deep mortises in a couple of passes.
Separate the pieces. Align your separation line with the blade, set a miter gauge fence stop against a back shoulder, and separate the front leg from the back. Then slide the bottom of the leg piece over against the stop and trim the piece to perfect length.

Bandsaw the profiles. With the leg and back double-face taped together and the pattern traced on the leg, saw the parts to shape.

Managing Double-Faced Tape

Double-face tape is invaluable for myriad shop tasks, but many woodworkers tend to use more than necessary. You may only need a few small pieces, depending on the size of your workpiece, the strength of your tape, and the particular operation you’re performing. Here, I stuck a single 1" square of white tape near each corner. This provides plenty of grip for bandsawing and spindle sanding, since there’s no strong working force trying to separate the pieces. When you do want to increase bond, clamp the taped parts together for a few seconds. But beware: too much pressure, too much tape, or too much time together, and the parts will be hard to separate. In that case, drizzle denatured alcohol into the seam at the tape location to weaken the adhesive. You can also use denatured alcohol on a clean cloth to remove tape residue from the seperated workpieces.

Make the stretcher and assemble

Cut the stretcher to size, and then prepare your table saw for cutting the tenons. Set your dado stack to about 5/8" wide, partially burying it in an auxiliary fence that’s double-face taped to your rip fence. Raise the height of the dado stack to a hair under 1/4". Saw the tenons’ cheeks as shown. Cut the shoulders using the same setup and procedure, and then finesse the tenons to fit your mortises. Trace the pattern from your template, and cut the arch in the stretcher at the bandsaw, following up at the spindle sander. Sand the pieces through 220 grit before assembling.

Saw the cheeks. Run the stretcher on the flat over the partially buried dado blade as shown. Rotate the workpiece to cut the opposite cheek for the same face. Then flip the piece over to saw the cheeks on the opposite face in the same manner.
Saw the shoulders. Using the same setup, run the stretcher over the dado blade on edge. Repeat for each tenon shoulder, flipping and rotating the piece as before.
Finesse the fit. After cutting the tenons a bit fat at the table saw, plane them for a perfect fit. A few swipes with a sharp shoulder plane should trim the tenon to just the right thickness. Use a chisel to round off tenon corners to fit in the routed mortises. Chamfered ends help the tenon slide in.
Assembly. A single parallel jaw clamp brings the parts together so long as the jaws of your clamp completely cover the joint. Gauging with a square, cock the clamp as needed to ensure 90° corners. A pair of I-beam risers allow clamp access and elevate the work to a comfortable height.

Make and install steps, and paint

Cut both step boards to size. Trace the profiles from the template to the show face of one step board. Then, double-face tape the inside faces of both step boards and stack-cut them to rough shape at the bandsaw, following up at the spindle sander before pulling the pieces apart. After sanding the step boards through 220 grit, clamp them in place on the assembly. The steps should overhang the sides and back about 1/2", with 1/2" between the two pieces and a little space between the steps’ rear profiles and the long back. Drill the holes as shown, and then drive the screws. Drip glue in the counterbores and brush a little on the edges of the plugs before inserting them in their holes. (If you don’t plan to paint, align the plugs’ grain with the step board grain.) Tap them in place with a lightweight hammer until a thud indicates full seating. When the glue dries, trim the plugs flush. Finish up with any final sanding, and ease the exposed edges. Finally, apply your finish of choice. 

Smooth at the spindle sander. Double-face tape the two step blanks together, trace the pattern template, and rough-cut them at the bandsaw. Then sand to your layout lines, using a spindle sander for the concave curves as shown here.
Drill and drive. Drill the holes after laying out their locations (see drawing, above). One bit can drill your pilot hole, your clearance hole, and the counterbore all in one shot. (See the Buyer’s Guide below for more details.) After drilling, drive the screws.
Online Extras
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