PROJECT: Stool with Stretchers

PROJECT: Stool with Stretchers

This article, “A Stool with Stretchers,” is from the pages of American Woodturner and is brought to you by the America Association of Woodturners (AAW) in partnership with Woodworker’s Journal.

If you can turn a spindle, then making a stool is not above your abilities. I often see turners making simple three-legged stools that look like a milking or foot stool. This is a great beginning point for stool and chairmaking, but with just a few extra steps, it is easy to make a more sophisticated chair, barstool, or bench with stretchers. Stretchers can provide a place for your foot to rest, and they add stability.

Design Your Stool

Testing stool build on small model
A scale model made from scraps helps to confirm design choices.

All of my projects begin with research and development. That means paying attention to every seat I sit on. When I find a comfortable seat, I study it. Why is it comfortable? Is it the shape, the height, the placement of the stretcher, the curve on the edges, the angle of the legs?

I typically begin with a sketch. It does not need to be perfect, just an idea on paper. This allows me to think through details and building challenges before even cutting a piece of wood. When the idea of the stool is clear in my head, I make either a scale or full-sized model using scrap wood and dowels.

The legs of the stool are angled, or splayed. This is the hardest part of the design. My most common stool leg angles range from 11˚ to 19˚. If you set your stool legs at 90˚, like a table, it could be tippy, and if the legs are too splayed, the feet could stick out and become a tripping hazard or cause the legs to break. This is the kind of detail I work out in a model.

I start by determining the size and shape of the stool’s seat, which can be made from one piece of wood or gluedup pieces. The stool I made for this article has a seat 1-1/2″ thick × 15″ deep × 17″ wide (38mm × 38cm × 43cm), and I decided the stool would stand 24″ (61cm) tall. To determine the shape of the seat, I cut paper half the scale of the seat, folded it in half, and cut patterns until I found the shape that works best with my drawing. I then traced the drawing onto a scrap of wood.

Setting angle for installation of stool legs
Test various leg-splay angles and note your desired angle using a bevel square and bevel gauge.

I then grabbed three scrap dowels (not worrying about final leg shape) and cut them to 12″, or 30cm (half the final leg length). Holding them at different angles to the model seat, I was able to determine the leg splay that looked right to me. Keepin mind the two front legs can be a different angle than the back leg. I consider not only the angle from the actual seat, but also the angle I want it to be from the centerline of the seat, splaying out to the sides. To identify the final angle, I used a bevel square and bevel gauge, but you can also use a protractor.

You must also decide how far in from the seat’s edges the legs will be positioned. Too close to the edge might cause breakage, and too far might look odd and/or affect stability. I usually place the center of the legs 1-1/2″ to 2″ (38mm to 5cm) in from the seat edge.

Marking out a seat pattern for a stool
Make a full-sized paper cutout of the seat and mark it with all pertinent details, including hole locations, angles, and splay lines.

Once you have determined all of these details, make a “map” of the seat by cutting a full-sized version of the paper cutout. This pattern will aid in applying the final shape of your seat to the wood, and it will allow you to reproduce this stool anytime in the future. I write all of the key pieces of information on this map: leg angles, direction of splay, center location of leg holes, etc. I will also note any bevels or sculpting on the final seat, including depth and point of the deepest cut in the seat.

Checking stool leg template against stool seat template
A paper cutout of the leg can help you confirm its shape and splay angle. Make adjustments now, before committing to wood.

At this stage, you should also decide on a leg shape. Cut out a full-sized paper mockup of a leg and hold it up to the seat cutout, making adjustments until you are happy with the shape.

Seat-drilling Jig

Transferring stool seat markings from template to blank
Extend the splay lines down the sides of the seat blank to aid in alignment on the drilling jig.

Transfer all of the mapped information from the paper cutout to your seat blank, including all of the drilling locations, and cut out the shape of the seat.

Drawing cut lines on side of stool seat blank
Use the paper “seat map” to trace and cut out the seat shape and to apply all pertinent details to the seat blank.

The splay lines will start at the centerline and continue through the center points of your hole locations; continue these lines down the edge of your seat blank.

Drill press jig for stool parts
The author’s drill press jig, which allows for easy adjustment of splay angles and repeatability.

I use a simple shopmade jig for drilling the leg holes in the seat. The jig comprises two pieces of 3/4″- (19mm-) thick plywood, one piece cut about 1-1/2″ longer than the other, with the top overlapping the bottom.

Hinges to adjust drill press jig angles
The curve at the end pivots on the drill press post, and the hinges allow for angle adjustment.

My drilling jig measures 19″ wide × 17″ long (48cm × 43cm), but this may vary for you depending on the size of your drill press table. Two hinges at the bottom edge hold the two pieces together and allow for angle adjustment at the drill press.

Pivoting system for adjusting drill press jig
A centerline stemming from the arc aids in seat blank alignment.

The bottom of the jig is clamped to the drill press table, and a small arc butts up against the drill press post and acts as a centering pivot point.

Center jig on drill press table
With a drill bit chucked in the drill press, pivot the jig until the centerline on the jig aligns with the bit.

It is important that both pieces of the jig line up edge to edge. Draw a centerline on the top piece from the drill press post to the hinge end. This line will help you align the stool seat on the jig.

Clamping drill press jig to tool table
Lock the drill press table in place, and clamp the jig to it.

Center the jig on the drill press table by pushing the arc against the drill press post and rotating the jig until the centerline aligns with a drill bit chucked in the drill press. Lock the drill press table, and clamp the bottom of the jig to it.

Set Jig Angle

Setting drill press jig angle with spacer
Two strips on the bottom part of the jig hold a custom spacer that sets the jig at the correct angle – in this case, 15° for the back leg splay. The bevel square, set on the jig and next to the drill bit, confirms the angle.

For this stool, the front legs are splayed 12˚ and the back leg is splayed 15˚. I drilled the back leg first. Set a bevel square to 15˚ and set it on the top surface of the drilling jig on the centerline with its blade facing the drill bit. Lift the top piece of the jig until it is at the correct angle, and temporarily shim the jig with scrap wood at this angle.

On the bottom piece of my jig are two strips of wood with 3/4″ space between them. With the temporary shims in place, measure the distance between the bottom and the underside of the top piece at the back edge. Cut a strip of plywood to fill that distance and slide it in between the two strips. Remove the shims and doublecheck the angle. Slight adjustments can be made by adding veneer to the spacer or cutting a little off.

Drill Leg Holes

Placing stool seat blank on drilling jig
Set the seat blank on the jig, aligning the hole location with the point of the Forstner bit and the splay line with the centerline on the jig.

I use one of two ways to join the legs to the seat. If the top of the leg where it meets the seat bottom has a decorative element, I drill one hole. This way, only the tenon is inserted into the hole. But if the top of the leg has no special features, I drill two holes, allowing the top of the leg, in addition to the tenon, to be inserted into the seat bottom. This was the case for the stool shown in this article, and this method provides a very strong, tight union. It also hides any gap that might be seen where a flat and angled surface meet.

Securing stool blank to drill press jig with clamp
Clamp the blank to the jig.

Both holes are drilled with the jig at the same angle, but one hole is drilled for the diameter of the top of the leg and one is sized for the tenon. Always drill the larger hole first. In this case, my tenon was 1″ wide, and the top of the leg was 1-1/2″ wide. I drilled the wider hole first, about 1/4″ deep on the shallowest side. Forstner bits are a good choice for these holes.

Creating hole in stool seat for installing legs
Then use the Forstner bit to drill your hole.

Place your seat blank onto the jig and position it by putting the point of the drill bit on the center point of the hole to be drilled. Keeping the point of the bit in this location, pivot the seat blank until the splay line over the edge aligns with the centerline on the jig. Clamp the seat to the jig, and drill the first hole for the back leg.

Drilling other leg holes for installing seat legs
A small centering bit and pencil lines make it easy to accurately reposition the seat blank on the jig.

Since I wanted all the hole depths to be consistent, I noted the depth of the first hole (back leg) and set the depth stop on the drill press. I then changed the angle of the drilling jig to 12˚ for the front two legs, using an appropriate spacer, repositioned the seat on the jig, and drilled the holes for the front legs. It is easy to realign the seat on the jig. Just use a smaller centering bit in one of the holes, and align the edge lines with the centerline on the jig.

Stool seat blank with all three leg holes drilled
 Move the seat and drill the other hole locations, using the depth-stop setting from the first hole.

After drilling all four holes for the front legs, first the larger and then the smaller, I repositioned the seat and drilled the smaller tenon hole for the back leg, the depth stop now being set for that hole after drilling the tenon holes for the front legs.

Turn the Legs

Marking cut lines on stool leg template
Adhere the paper cutout of the leg to cardboard to make a story stick.

Glue the paper leg cutout to a piece of cardboard, keeping the centerline of the drawing parallel to the edge of the cardboard. To make a story stick, draw perpendicular lines through the leg and to the edge of the cardboard. These lines should include positions for joinery, the widest and narrowest points, and a few lines in between that will help maintain the leg shape.

Transferring markings from template to stool leg blank
Perpendicular lines note key locations on the leg.

I rough-turned the first leg blank, then used the story stick to mark key positions. I continued shaping the leg by using a parting tool and caliper to transfer all positions and depths to the wood.

Using calipers to mark stool leg blank
Use a caliper to transfer key diameters from the story stick to the workpiece at the lathe.

As you turn down to the various depths, the overall shape will develop. Take care fitting the top of the leg and tenon.

Checking partially turned leg blank against template
As the leg takes shape, compare its profile to the paper cutout positioned behind it.

Hold the drawing up behind the leg and compare the horizon lines as you get close to the final shape.

Make Stretchers

Marking stretcher installation location
A block of wood is used to mark the height of the stretcher holes, ensuring consistency from leg to leg.

I decided my stool would have two stretchers, one between the front legs and one extending from the center of that stretcher to the back leg.

With the legs tapped but not glued into their holes, place your stool on a flat workbench or table. I decided that my stretcher would be 7″ (18cm) up from the table surface. Cut a block of wood the height of the stretcher’s center, slide it up to one leg at a time, and make a pencil mark on each leg.

Clamping stool legs together to prepare for drilling stretcher holes
A straightedge accurately clamped to the legs serves as a visual reference while drilling by hand.

Since the holes for the stretchers are drilled by hand, I needed a horizontal reference to drill straight and parallel to the table surface. Use a straightedge clamped to the front legs. To position the straightedge, cut two blocks the same length and a couple inches taller than the 7″ marking block. These blocks need to be tall enough so the ruler will not get in the way of the drill but be as close as possible to act as a guide for drilling. Clamp the straightedge to the front legs.

Drilling hole for stretcher to depth marked by tape
Drill holes for front stretcher.

Wrap tape around a bradpoint bit to indicate the depth you want to drill. I usually go 1/2″ (12mm) deep, but that will depend on your design and leg thickness. Drill both of the front legs.

Checking distance between stool legs
Push the front legs apart slightly and hold them in this position with a scrap of wood.

The name stretcher is literal; it pushes the legs apart, “stretching” the width. Holding the bottom of the front legs, pull them apart just to the point of resistance. I cut a piece of scrap wood to fill the span between the bottom of the legs and hold the legs in this position.

Creating a scrap stretcher to test length
A thin strip of wood cut in half and inserted into the stretcher holes serves as an accurate indicator of the required stretcher length.

Here is a trick to determine the required length of the stretcher. Cut a thin strip of wood several inches longer than the width of the front legs. Then cut the strip in half. Place the two halves all the way into the stretcher holes, allowing the halves to overlap in the middle. Mark the two halves where they overlap.

Using test stretcher to mark up blank for turning stool stretcher
Mark this length on the stretcher blank and cut the blank to length in preparation for turning.

Remove the strips from the holes and place them on a work surface, realigning the marks. The two halves taped together indicate the required stretcher length; transfer this length to your stretcher blank, and cut the blank to length.

Marking tenon lengths on stretcher blank
Use the indicator strip as a story stick to show tenon length at each end.

The taped strips can be used as a story stick after rough-turning the stretcher. Use the stick to capture the depth of the holes in each leg, and transfer that depth to the ends of your stretcher blank.

Installing stretcher blank in lathe
Start turning the front stretcher.

Turn the blank to your desired shape. I drilled a hole in a scrap block using the same drill bit, so I could test-fit my stretcher ends at the lathe. It helps to bevel the end of any tenon before test-fitting.

Checking the fit of the stretchers between stool legs
Test fit the front legs and stretcher by tapping them into their holes without glue. Adjust as needed.

When testing the stretcher in the stool legs, first insert the two ends into the legs without the seat; then tap the legs into the holes in the seat bottom. If the tenons will not go in all the way, you will need to shorten the stretcher or adjust the leg tenon fit. To remove legs, put a block of wood on the seat and tap down while holding leg and pulling up. Keep trimming and testing until the legs go all the way into the seat and the stretcher fits snugly in its holes.

Using drill press to cut out stretcher hole
The author uses a V-block at the drill press to drill a hole in the front stretcher.

Once the front legs fit, start on the back stretcher. Locate the center of the front stretcher and then disassemble the stool. I drill into the stretchers at the drill press. To drill straight into round spindles, hold the stretcher in a V-block, first centering the bit over the V-block before drilling the hole. If your spindle is tapered or has decorative details, you will have to shim it in the V-block so it sits parallel to the drill press table.

Drilling out hole for installing stool back stretcher
A wide block serves as a visual reference for drilling the back leg stretcher hole by hand.

To keep the drill bit straight and parallel when drilling the back leg, I positioned a wide block beneath the hole height and used its top surface as a visual reference.

To determine the length of the back stretcher, use the same process as before. Turn your second stretcher. When dryassembling the stool, loosely insert the front legs first, then add the stretchers and back leg before tapping the legs into the seat. The stool should feel tight enough to function without glue.

Sculpt the Seat

Multitool sander smoothing out seat corners
A variety of tools, both motorized and hand-powered, can be used to sculpt the seat to a comfortable shape.

Now you have a stool, but what about comfort? Shape the seat any way you want, but remember it needs to be functional. Softening the front edges and sculpting the seat to the shape of the human body makes the stool look and feel better. I have used carving tools, traversers, scrapers, and grinders.

Smoothing sharp edges of stool with hand rasp

Recently, I acquired a large air compressor that allows me to run a die grinder, which I use with a variety of rotary rasps, but some people love the relaxation of slowly shaping with hand tools. To sculpt the seat, an angle grinder with a rotary rasp removes wood quickly.

Cutting concave stool seat with power carver

When I finished shaping the seat, I sanded all of the parts before final assembly, using wood glue in the leg and stretcher joints. Now that you have made a stool in this way, it is easy to add a backrest with spindles using the same drilling jig, which turns the stool into a chair.

Beth Ireland, a professional architectural woodturner and sculptor with more than thirty years of experience, lives and works in St. Petersburg, Florida. She teaches the two-month Turning Intensive at The Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine, as well as workshop classes at major craft centers around the country. For more, visit her website.

Posted in: