How To Make A Step Stool – Solid Wood General Woodworking
I’ve made a few step stools over the years, but none quite as nice as this one. I still have the one I made from plywood a few years ago and use that in my shop. And while I really don’t need one as much in the house, it’s nice to have one anyway. Who knows, I might get shorter and actually need it to reach the high shelves.
This project includes a free printable plan with all of the dimensions and you can get that here.
If you are new to woodworking, I’ve put together a build series for this that goes through every aspect of the project and that is available at the $5 per month level on Patreon.
The material I used is a piece of ash. It’s the only piece in my stack that has a significant amount of heartwood, so it’s kind of the odd man out:
It was 99″ long and around 7″ wide, so more than enough to build the entire stool. I cut in half to begin with and cut about 12″ off of one end that didn’t look good. Doing that reduces the amount of planing to mill the boards down to the final thickness of 3/4″:
I like to do the rough sanding (100 grit) before cutting out the individual parts. The longer pieces are easier to handle. I use an old bath towel on my workbench for padding and it also keeps the boards from moving around:
The towel also collects some of the fine sanding dust and I can take it outdoors and shake it out after I’m done.
Parts required: two short legs, two long legs and two steps plus an extra piece for the stretchers:
I designed the stool so that the legs flare out at the bottom by three degrees. This improves stability to help make the step stool less tippy. Each of the legs need to be cut to that 87 degree bevel on both ends and I did that on the table saw. Here are the short legs stood on end to show that angle:
I made a simple fixture to hold the legs while I cut the sliding dovetails:
Made from scrap plywood, I cut it to that 87 degree angle on one end:
I used two dovetail router bits in my router table to make the sliding dovetails. Mainly because this bigger one is newer and sharper and will give a clean, burn free cut:
The second one is smaller, older and duller and I saved that for cutting the sliding dovetails in the steps. They are both the same angle – that’s important. Of course you only really need one bit to do everything, but it should be smaller than the thickness of the stock. I recommend one that is 1/2″.
I dialed in the cut on a sample before using it on the legs:
I can’t stress enough the value of using a sample to make and fine tune test cuts before cutting the good stuff. Yes, it takes longer, but so does cutting new stock to replace the parts you messed up.
Here are all of the legs with the sliding dovetail cut on one side:
I used the other side of the fixture to hold the sample to line up and make the second cut:
The actual size of this dovetail isn’t critical, just that it is bigger than the bit you’ll use to cut the sliding dovetails in the steps. Mine is around 5/8″ wide and the bit I’ll use for the steps is 1/2″:
It’s also important that all of the dovetails in all of the parts are the same size. You’ll want to cut all of the legs at the same time so that they end up the same size.
With those dovetails finished, I cut the legs to their final width. I also cut out the stretchers that help to support the steps and tie the legs together:
These fit into a mortise cut in the top of each leg. These aren’t deep enough for the stretchers, but there’s more to do:
I used the angled fixture again to hold the legs at the 3 degree angle while making the cuts on the table saw. I show that operation in the video at the bottom of this page, and in detail in the build series that’s available on Patreon.
The bottom of the mortises need to be angled so that the stretcher locks in. I could have set up another fixture to cut this on the table saw while cutting the mortises, but decided it was just as fast to do it by hand. I cut a scrap of wood at 20 degrees to act as a guide for my chisel to make the cuts:
Again, this operation is more clearly shown in the build video.
It’s VERY important to pay attention to the orientation of the parts while laying out and making these cuts. You need to end up with pairs that are opposite:
This angled cut on the bottom of the legs can be done after they are glued together with a band saw, hand saw or jigsaw, but I’m doing it now on the miter saw for a cleaner cut:
I used regular wood glue to join the leg parts and clamped firmly until dry:
I didn’t use any dowels or biscuits in the joint, since the glue forms a bond stronger than the wood itself. However if you irrationally don’t trust the glue to be strong enough, you can add dowels or some other mechanical means to reinforce the joint.
I let the glue set overnight and then sanded the leg sets thoroughly with 100 grit in my random orbit sander (mainly to remove the glue squeeze-out) and then with 220 grit on the inside only by hand:
I thought it would be interesting to add a tapered bevel to that triangular cutout on the bottom:
I did that with a VERY sharp chisel that I tuned up using my chisel sharpening jig.
To hold the legs at the right angle and distance, I made this buck from a piece of scrap 1×4. The holes allow me to clamp it to the top of the longer legs while I mark the stretchers:
There are details in the plan on how to make this part.
The stretchers cut to fit and put in place:
Here you can see how the legs flare outward to greatly improve the stability of the stool:
The top of the stretcher needs to to be flush with the bottom of the dovetail:
The best strategy is to cut the stretchers slightly wider than needed and then trim the top down to fine tune the fit. After it’s fitting properly, mark the ends that stick out and trim them off with the miter saw set to 3 degrees.
The finished stretcher:
Note the angled cuts that lock into the ones on the legs. I show how that’s done briefly in the full build video below and in more detail in the build series.
I trimmed the stretchers flush with the outside of the legs, but if you want a different look, you can let them stick out slightly:
When I was happy with the fit, I glued the stretchers in. I used polyurethane construction adhesive this time for its longer open time:
Also, the thick glue doesn’t seep into the wood it squeezes out onto and is easier to clean up.
Installing The Steps
I let glue set overnight and then started working on the steps. Fitting these is probably the most challenging part of the build and I go into great detail in the build series. The key is to start with a sample and get that right before cutting the dovetails in the steps. While a perfect fit is best, you can have a bit of slop in the joint, especially if you use the construction adhesive to put it together. It will fill the gaps and create a very strong bond:
I spread the glue thinly on both parts and then slid the step in place:
You’ll want to get a couple of clamps on there until the glue sets.
I left it to dry overnight, but fitted the upper step while waiting:
The upper step is not as wide as the top of the longer leg, and that was intentional. I want the back of that longer leg to taper from the bottom up and I figured the easiest way was to just plane it down after the step was fastened:
I could have cut the taper beforehand, but I think every solid wood project needs at least a little bit of hand plane action.
With the taper planed to meet the step, I started sanding:
And spent a good 30 minutes going over every surface and easing over slightly every edge. Thorough sanding will elevate your woodworking to the next level and do justice to the time you’ve spent putting the project together.
I’m using a tung oil blend for the first two coats. I like the way that the oil accentuates the grain and gives the piece a “wet” look that you don’t get with a water based finish:
Bushed on fairly liberally, I let it sink in for a few minutes and wiped off the excess.
I let the two coats of oil dry for a few days and topped that up with two coats of wiped on water based polyurethane. The poly will bump up the protection without creating a plasticky buildup:
And since this is a step stool, it’s a good idea to mot make the steps too slippery. The natural grain of the wood has texture to help make it grip.
Here’s the build video quickly going through the project from start to finish:
And this is the intro video for the build course that’s available at the $5 per month level on Patreon:
If your are interested in making one of these for yourself, the detailed build series goes through all of the methods I used to make mine. While the joinery for this project is fairly complex, I break it down into easy to do and easy to follow steps.
Overall, if you are a woodworker who is just starting out, this would be a great project to build some skills and improve your accuracy. If you are a more experienced woodworker, this should pose enough of a challenge to test and refine your abilities.