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Woodworking with P. Michael Henderson


Making a Step Stool

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I teach veneering and for years, I've had my students do a small class panel, about 10" by 13". Recently, my wife took my veneering class and she made a couple of suggestions regarding the class.

One suggestion was to offer the students the opportunity to make a panel that could be used as the bottom of a serving tray. I like that idea, and did a tutorial on how to make a rectangular serving tray. That works for those who choose to make the tray bottom, but what about those who choose to make the traditional student panel? What could be made out of that?

That was my wife's second suggestion - she suggested that the traditional student panel be used as the top of a step stool, since she always needs a "step up" to reach things. Thus this tutorial. I begin by assuming you have the traditional student panel. If you don't, you can make up a panel any way you like, including just gluing some boards together to make the top.

This is not a "simple" project. There are a lot of angles in this project, which requires some calculation and special handling. You need to be careful in your work and make sure you know the cut you're going to make, and that you're making it in the right place. Before you cut the expensive wood, it's always a good idea to make a prototype out of cheap plywood or some other low cost wood.

If you find this tutorial helpful, please send me an e-mail at with "Step Stool" in the subject line. I'd just like to know how many people use these tutorials.

But let's get started. Here's a picture of the class panel. It's actually the panel my wife made in class.

And here's where we're going. This is a picture of the completed step stool. Now let's see how this is made.

Let me start with a few comments about the design of a step stool. First of all, the legs should splay out beyond the edges of the top of the stool. If the legs don't splay out, you have a chance of tipping the stool over if you step too far out on the edge, especially if the stool was not exactly level. Think of the step stool that the railroads used.

The porter would alight first with the step stool and place it so that the passenger could step on the stool to board the car, or when leaving the car. That step stool had the legs splayed out quite a bit to make sure it was stable as people stepped on it.

Second, how tall should a step stool be? If it's too short, it won't be of much use. If it's too tall, the person will have a hard time stepping up to get on it. I decided to make this step stool about 10" high, which I thought was a good compromise.

For looks, I decided to have the top of the stool overlap the base by about one inch all around. Since the top (the student panel) is about 10" by 13", the top of the base will be 8" on the sides, and 11" on the front and back.

Next design question - how much should the legs be splayed out. The bottom of the legs needs to be more than 10" on the sides, and more than 13 inches on the front and back. I decided on about 12" at the bottom of the sides and about 15" on the bottom of the front and back. Those are just rough numbers. Doing a bit of arithmetic, those numbers give me an angle of about 78o for the splay.

Knowing that the pieces will splay out by 78o, I can calculate the angles required to cut the pieces to give a perfect miter on each corner. The angles come out to about 11.75o and about 43.75o. This is similar to cutting crown molding so if you have experience with crown molding you can probably calculate the angles needed.

You can find calculators on the web which will do these calculations for you, or contact me and I'll send you a spreadsheet.

Here's a couple of pictures showing the size of the top of the stool.

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