Home > Woodworking > Shaker Step Stool – Part 1

Shaker Step Stool – Part 1

There aren’t many days left until Christmas so I’m in the workshop and getting down to business. This year I decided to make the little Shaker step stool which can be found on startwoodworking.com. Tom McKenna from FWW takes you through the build with a 6-part video series and there is a downloadable PDF with project dimensions. I felt this was a perfect match for Christmas.

Ordering Stock

For the first time I’m not using home center lumber. The example build used walnut which I was going to replicate only when I got on the Woodworkers Source website I ended up changing my mind. I was hoping for American walnut but they had a “tropical walnut” on special and I almost bought it. This species was very dark brown, certainly not traditional but not offensive by any stretch. I actually had it in my cart when I ran across the sapele which was even less expensive than the tropical walnut. I decided to order the 20 board feet project pack which arrived on my birthday.



Another first will be milling and jointing “rough” lumber although I must say, this rough lumber was quite friendly. As it turned out I had two boards with the width I required for making these stools and it ended up working out that I could make three from the materials at hand. Originally I had planned to make 4-6 of these but now that I’ve started the work I’m glad it is only 3. Although touted as a beginner level project, I personally feel it to be intermediate, at least if you are to have the skills to do a decent job of it.

I began but rough cutting all the pieces to 1″ over the final length except where I didn’t have enough board. In this instance I left them as long as I could and was careful.

Golden Rule #1don’t make cuts to size until you have to. Why prematurely cut you stock when you may find out done the line that you made it too short? Leaving stock oversized give more flexibility should tear out or other unforeseen issue occur.

The rough cut boards were stickered until I could get started on the project which happened to be last weekend.

Rough Cut Stock

Stock preparation was fairly typical although for me it was another first. I’ve used my jointer/planer before but this time it was the real deal. I jointed two faces and planed the third. I took as little off as necessary and wound up with a thickness of about 0.8″. The fourth face was cut to width on the table. Milling 101 stuff but again my first time completely through the process. I wanted to keep some level of grain match so as I chopped up the boards, I labeled the pieces using chalk. I used “R” to make reference (jointed) faces.

Stock Prep IMG_3871


Golden Rule #2 – practice on scrap. I had plenty of select pine around so I started the project by working on a prototype. Why not practice first?

Before I started cutting on the sapele, I built the router template jig for the whale tail and tested on pine. The pdf provided half a full-sized template of the profile and the video showed how to make the jig.

"Whale Tail" jig

So far so good.

Prototype Stool Leg


This weekend I was able to get started in earnest. To say that I am an experienced woodworker would be somewhat comical however, I do feel comforted that I am gaining some experience and finding it useful. I certainly can’t predict all situations but I am beginning put order in the process. For example, with all the measuring I need to do on the legs to find where the hole goes, lay out the whale tail cut, and place the mortise, why would I taper the legs first? In fact tapering the legs will come last so the piece can be registered along the width. Another example, one could choose to drill the hole after making the whale tail but it wouldn’t be difficult to predict that the drill bit would wonder and tear out would be inevitable. I believe it is Chuck Bender that always says you are experienced (or gain experience) when “you can predict how the wood will react when you put a tool to it”. I’m not there yet but I’m starting to use my head more often than in the past.

Blue Tape Trick

So I don’t know who actually invented the blue tape trick but I first heard of it as presented by Michael Pekovich Fine Woodworking Magazine.

Blue Tape to Reduce Tear out

I also followed another Pekovich (thanks Mike) trick and used a wooden spacer to layout the top of the mortise. My marking gauge scribed the mortise side and a simple carpenters’ square located the bottom line of the mortise. Not having to fiddle with settings allowed me to mark all 6 pieces pretty much identically. I first scribed the wood, then applied tape and repeated the scribing to remove the mortise window.

Marking leg mortises

I set up the fence and a stop block on my drill press to exactly excavate one end of the mortise and set the drill bit depth to penetrate just over half way through the board. I then carefully drilled the first side flipping the board over to complete the hole. I repeated this step for each of the 6 legs, then moved the stop block to the other end of the mortise and repeated the process. A third iteration completed the excavation by taking out the remaining center section.

Drilling out mortises

The couple of hours were spent the old-fashioned way, hand chop with chisel and mallet.

Cleaning out mortises on the legs

The Whale Tail

For the next step I decided to move on to making the center decorative cut out on the legs, the Whale Tail. I reprised my process at the drill press, adjusting the fence and stop block to precisely the location marked by punch at the top of the tail. Once again I drilled from both sides to replicate clean holes on all 6 pieces. I was able to use the template and a 1/2″ center punch to mark both the hole and one side of the whale tail profile. Flipping the piece over allowed me to mark both halves of the tail and then over the band saw. I began by making a relief cut right down the center of the tail cut out. I then tried my best to cut out the profile, leaving between an 1/8″ to 1/16″ of material to be routed away. I now know that I should have left about 1/8″ because when I got very close to the line in some areas, the router didn’t want to cut that area. Much cleaner to have the router shave the entire length than to have areas with band saw marks and burning to be cleaned up by hand.

Whale tail profile routed

For the most part the router template jig worked perfectly. Because I left my stock a teeny bit oversized (why not, I didn’t need to waste precious wood) I needed to add a template extension to the end of the profile (top right of photo just above the C clamp). It was worth it to add this piece and clean it up nicely because the legs came out great.

It was the very next step that through me into a spiral. The router bit won’t fit all the way up the crotch to the 1/2″ hole so there is about 3/4″ of wood that must be chopped to the profile line with a chisel. At least that is how Tom did it in the video. I found this part was problematic and I ended up with tear out at the end of the leg profile pretty much no matter how I approached it. I recommend a careful study of the grain and very chisels if you are going to attempt it. Personally I was looking for an alternative but soldiered on anyway.

Mortises for Tops

Well after a bit of study over the plans and ciphering on my particular board dimensions, I decided on where my mortises should go on the tops. For this I used two marking gauges and two carpenter squares to layout the mortises on front and back sides of the 3 tops. It took a little while but I wanted to get this part completed and ready for my next shop session.

Marking mortise locations in the stool tops

It’s going to take some time but I’ll be setting up the fence and stop and one by one drilling all the holes required for all 4 mortises. Once set a hole will be drilled on all 3 tops, then reset for hole next, etc. Each setup will allow me to drill (partially) through all 4 mortises (but not all on the same side of the board. In this case, I’ll set the Forstner bit tip to just barely poke through the other side and then will flip the board over and line up the mark to complete the hole. This will need to be repeated of course for each hole of each setup. As I said, it is going to take a little while but should produce accurate and clean results. I’ll just need to keep my concentration……

Join me next time and we’ll chop more mortises and cut some tenons together…..

Categories: Woodworking Tags: , ,
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: