How to make a handy step stool

Published: August 7, 2019

Green step stool with hammer behind it Photos courtesy of Raj Chaudhry

Whether you are reaching high, or working low, a small step stool is a steady friend. It will be there to save your back when you need to scrape the baseboard. It will be there to give you a boost when you need to paint crown moulding. And when you’re finally kicking back in your favourite Chaise lounge, it will even hold your beer.

Small purple step stool with purple flowers
Photo 1: For the past 15 years, this little step stool has handled every chore my family has thrown at it. We’ve used it for gardening, for painting walls, for changing bulbs and for hanging curtains. Along the way, it’s earned every scuff, stain and ding. That’s why every cottage needs one.

This simple stool is a fun weekend project that will serve you faithfully for years. It has only five parts: one pair of sides, one pair of ends, and a top. The base (Illustration 1) is constructed with simple butt joints, which are fastened with dowels and glue. Figure 8 fasteners connect the base and top.

Illustration of step stool taken apart
Illustration 1: Glued dowels pin the butt joints of the base. Figure 8 fasteners connect base and top, and allow them to move independently with changes in moisture.

Almost any wood, or combinations of wood, will work for this project. The original stool in Picture 1 is made entirely from cypress. A great pairing of easy-to-source woods might include poplar for the painted base and oak for the top. Or use Baltic Birch plywood. Plywood is a little heavier than most solid woods, but super strong and, unlike hardwood, requires no planing. Because plywood is so stable, a top made of plywood could be glued and screwed directly to the base, simplifying the project further. The edges of the plywood do reveal its core of stacked plys, which may show through paint.

Green step stool with hammer behind it
Photo 2: This stool features a birch plywood base, finished with milk paint, and a figured hardwood top. The top has a hole to make it easy to carry with one hand. The entire project is sealed with a low-gloss polyurethane.

The example shown in Photo 2, and built step-by-step below, uses birch plywood for the base and hardwood for the top. If you are making your base from solid wood, you can use either wide boards or panels glued up from wood strips.

Here’s how to build it:

1. Download the detailed shop drawings here. Lists of tools and supplies appear at the end of the article.

2. Rip and crosscut the sides and ends to their finished width and length, as shown in Table 1 and the shop drawings.

Illustration of stool

Table 1

Table with measurements of stool

3. Draw the arcs on the sides and ends. First, mark the width of the feet along the bottom edge, 1- 3/4” from each edge on the side pieces, and 1” from each edge on the end pieces. Then draw a centre line, top to bottom, on each part. Continue this line onto a piece of scrap butted against the part, as shown in Photo 3. Use double-sided tape or screws to hold the scrap block in place. With a compass set to a radius of 3-7/16”, and its point on the centre line, swing an arc through the points that mark the bottoms of the feet. Repeat for each part.

Using a beam compass
Photo 3: A scrap block of wood creates a place for the compass point. Set the radius, and swing an arc through the lines that mark the width of the feet.

4. Cut along the arcs. You can use whatever you have that cuts curves; a jig saw, bandsaw with narrow blade, scroll saw or even a coping saw. Stay inside the line (Photo 4) and sand the rest of the way to it. A spindle sander (Photo 5) or drill-mounted sanding drum makes this job easy, but you can also use a half-round rasp and sandpaper wrapped around a dowel.

Cutting an arc with a scroll saw
Photo 4: Cut the curves using a jig saw, bandsaw or, as shown here, a scroll saw. In each case, stay just inside the line, and sand the rest of the way to it.
Using a spindle sander to sand arc
Photo 5: If using a spindle sander to perfect your curves, you can save time by tacking sides and ends together in pairs with double-sided tape.

5. Test to make sure your dowels and drill bit are a good match. In this instance, my new 5/16” dowel pins were too big for the 5/16” bit I had hoped to use. (Photo 6) You should be able to insert and withdraw the dowels with your fingers. If you need use force when they are dry, things will only get worse when glue is introduced. Even if you manage to drive them in, your joint will be glue-starved and weak. One option, in this situation, is to choose a larger bit. A neat trick is to use a drill chart, available online, to jump between drill measurement systems. This allows you to move in tiny increments. In this case, a 5/16” drill bit is 0.3125” in diameter, smaller than my 0.314” dowel. Better choices include an 8mm bit, at 0.315”, or a letter O bit, at 0.316,” which is the size I used. Another option is to resize the dowel, either by sanding it or by driving it through a properly sized hole in a piece of plywood or metal. Since this project uses only 12 dowel pins, it makes sense to check all of them in more than one hole to eliminate surprises during glue-up.

Dowel caliper measuring 0.314 of an inch
Photo 6: My 5/16” dowel pins ran large. A 5/16” drill bit has a diameter of 0.3125”, smaller than the dowel’s 0.314”. When this happens, you can choose a slightly larger bit, resize the dowel, or do both. You should be able to insert and withdraw dowels with only your fingers.

6. Pre-drill the sides for the dowels. Rather than drill the holes through the sides and into the ends at the same time, I drill the sides first with a drill press. This way I know the holes will be square to the face, and I can use them in the next step to guide my bit straight as I drill by hand. The sides have six holes, all the way through the part, three each along the left and right edges. Details of the layout are shown in the Shop Drawings. All of the holes are 3/8” from their nearest side edges. The top and bottom holes are 1” from the top and bottom edges, respectively. And the middle hole is centred 4-1/2” from top and bottom.

7. Clamp the base square (Photo 7), and continue the holes you’ve drilled through the sides into the ends. The dowel holes extend 1” into the ends, so mark your drill bit with tape for a 1-3/4” total depth. (Photo 8) This will leave about 1/4” of the 2” dowel sticking out. Also mark the bottoms of the feet so that you can quickly repeat the orientation and alignment of the parts.

Base of stool clamped together
Photo 7: Clamp the base. Then continue the dowel holes you’ve pre-drilled through the sides into the ends. If you need to shift clamps to make a hole accessible, you can maintain your alignment by inserting dowels into the holes you’ve completed.

 

Tape wrapped around drill bit
Photo 8: A piece of masking tape around the drill bit creates a depth gauge for precise dowel holes.

8. Drill weep holes, and chamfer the edge of dowel holes on the inside face of the sides. Dowel joints are simple, strong and time-tested. But they have a few quirks. One is that a snug dowel tends to act like a piston, compressing glue and air in front of it. This means you have forces acting to push or hold the joint apart, when you want it tight. The design of the dowel pin alleviates much of this. Store-bought pins are grooved or fluted, which gives excess glue a way out. They also have chamfered ends, which mainly make them easier to insert, but also create some space at the tips. Woodworkers often leave 1/16” of an inch at either end to accommodate a little glue, and you can certainly use this method. In this instance, I prefer to use weep holes through the end pieces, which are small, say 1/16” diameter, holes into the dowel chambers. With this method, you can seat the dowel fully, for the strongest possible joint, and any extra pressure has an exit. The weep hole will disappear with a little filler. Use a small square, set about a 1/16” less than the depth of the hole, and drill into the very end of the chamber. You only need to penetrate about 1/4” and you will feel it when the bit hits air.

Chamfering refers to the cutting of a tiny bevel around the dowel holes. Do this only on the inside face of the sides. (Photo 9) Use a countersink bit and take a small cut; no need to exceed 1/16”. The purpose is to remove the edge of the hole, which can swell upward from the moisture in the glue and prevent the joint from closing easily and completely.

Countersink bit above hole in wood
Photo 9: With a countersink bit, cut a small chamfer around the dowel holes on the interior face of the side. This eliminates the chance that edges can swell outward when glue is applied and create an open or weak joint.

9. If you plan to route round-overs on the edges of your project, route the inside edges of your leg curves now. It will be impossible to reach these with a router once the base is assembled. (For the feet, I prefer to just break the sharp bottom edges with sandpaper in a later step.)

10. Apply a light coat of glue to the mating edges and dowel holes. A small dowel or chopstick helps to spread glue inside the dowel hole. Work one joint at a time. Attach the two ends to one side. On the final side, you’ll need to glue and dowel the last two joints at the same time. It’s important to work quickly. And have a mallet and pair of pliers handy. Some people like to seat the dowels in one half of the joint, brush any glue that squeezes out over the exposed portion of the dowels, and attach the mating piece. My advice is, don’t try this with more than two dowels at a time. Slight differences in dowel angle can make it difficult to press a side down over three dowels at a time without binding. As soon as you can, clamp the assembly side to side with as many clamps as you can fit. Don’t worry about glue that squeezes out. You’ll scrape it off later. The dowels will remain proud of the surface by about 1/4”.

11. After the glue has dried, unclamp the base. Scrape off the glue. I like an old plane blade for this job. Others use cabinet scrapers. With a flush cutting saw or sharp chisel, trim the dowels as close to the surface as you can. Sand them flush, and remove the dust. Now is a good time to fill your weep holes and any other imperfections. You can use a commercial wood putty or make your own filler from glue and sawdust. Allow your filler to dry and sand the base through 100 grit.

12. Mill recesses for the figure 8 fasteners. I use a Forstner bit, usually 5/8” or 11/16” depending on the specific hardware, to drill recesses in the top of the base, about 7/16” from the outside edge. (Photo 10) To use this method, your drill press will need to have sufficient vertical capacity with the bit in place. Many benchtop drills don’t. It also helps to have an extended table on the drill press so that the stool base can stand squarely under the chuck. This can be as simple as a piece of MDF clamped to the stock drill table. If you lack the set-up for drilling, you can always cut shallow notches on a table saw with a dado blade, or use a handsaw and chisel. The overhanging top will hide the notches from most angles. In either case, you want the hardware to sit flush with the top face of the base.

Drilling holes for fasteners
Photo 10: Use a Forstner bit to drill recesses for the figure 8 fasteners, which should sit flush with the top face of the base.

13. Route round-overs, if you want, on the outside edges of the base. The round-over bit cuts a radius on the edge, and produces a finished look. A radius formed by hand sanding can lend a more rustic, aged and handmade look. For routed round-overs, use a small radius, like 3/16” or 1/8”. In either case, on edges on the top of the base and the bottom of the feet, just break the sharp edges with sandpaper.

14. Sand the base, inside and out, beginning with 100 grit and ending with 150 grit. Blow off the dust between grit changes and upon completion. Depending on your work space, it may make sense to wait and sand the base and the top at the same time.

15. Paint as desired. On both stools, I used a powdered milk paint. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions. If you like a distressed look, sand away some paint here and there, focusing on the edges.

16. Clear coat the base with polyurethane. Again, prepare the surface and apply as directed. 17. Rip and crosscut the 3/4” stock for the top to 11-1/4” square.

18. Find the centre of the top by connecting the corners diagonally. Mark the centre with an awl or punch. (Photo 11)

Locating the centre of the top of the step stool
Photo 11: To find the centre of the square top, draw diagonals from corner to corner. Then mark the intersection with an awl.

19. Bore the centre hole in the top with a 1-1/2” Forstner bit. Use a sacrificial board underneath to prevent splintering. (Photo 12)

Boring a hole
Photo 12: When boring the finger hole in the top, use a backing board to both protect the bit and avoid splintering the workpiece as it exits.

20. Radius the outside and hole edges with a 3/16” or 1/8” round-over router bit (Photo 13) or by sanding.

Routing the top of the step stool
Photo 13: Routing the top. A bearing on the round-over bit holds the part at the proper distance so that the blades can mill a consistent radius on the edge.

21. Sand the top through 150 grit. Remove the dust between grit changes and before finishing. Before applying the finish coat, you can oil the top with linseed oil or Danish oil. This can add richness to the wood, emphasize the grain, and give a little extra protection. (Note the difference between Photo 2 and Photo 11.) Just make sure to let it cure completely and sand lightly before applying a top coat.

22. Finish the top with several coats of polyurethane. Follow the manufacturer’s directions, and scuff lightly with a fine sanding pad before applying the final coat.

23. Attach the top. Drill 3/32” pilot holes for the figure 8 fasteners in the top of the base and attach with #6 screws. The screw heads should fit flush in the fasteners. Don’t tighten the screws so much that the fasteners can’t pivot from side to side. Place the top face down on the bench. Flip the base upside down on top of it. Using a small combination square, centre the base on the top. If your project matches the plans, the top will overhang the base by 5/8” on each side. With the fasteners close to the centre of their travel, mark for the screws into the top. Draw witness marks on the base and top so that you can place the pieces together again in the same orientation. Remove the base and drill pilot holes in the top for the screws, taking care not to drill through. Place your base back on the top, using the witness marks you made previously. Start all the screws in their holes. Check to ensure the base is properly centred and tighten the screws gradually in a criss-cross sequence.

Green step stool with hammer behind it

Tool List

Table saw

Small combination square

Tape measure

Beam compass

Awl

Straight edge

Curve cutting tool: bandsaw, jigsaw, scroll saw or coping saw Spindle sander, drill-mounted sanding drum or half-round rasp Router table with 3/16” or 1/8” round-over bit (optional) Hand drill with drill bits

Forstner bits: 1-1/2” diameter and 5/8” or 11/16”

Countersink bit

Clamps, four to six, 12” capacity

Right angle clamps, four (optional)

Mallet or hammer

Flush cut saw or sharp chisel

Scraper for dried glue

Pliers

Random orbit sander or sanding block

Drill press

Jointer

Planer

Screwdriver to match screws for top

Supplies List

Dowel pins, 5/16” diameter x 2” long (12 total)

Masking tape

Double sided tape

Type III wood glue

Sand paper, 80 grit through 220 grit

Figure 8 table top fasteners (eight total)

Glue spreading tools: Acid brush, small dowel or chopstick.

Milk Paint or paint of choice for base

Polyurethane

Danish oil or boiled linseed oil (optional)

Paint brushes

Flat head screws, No. 6 by 3/4” long (1” optional for fastener-to-base connection)

Pencil

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