Shaker Stepstool

The walnut version of this stepstool.

The walnut version of this stepstool.

Back when the Shakers started making furniture in the late 18th century, the only tools available to them were powered by people. No table saws, no electric jointers or planers. Your tool kit consisted largely of hand saws, chisels and planes. Your planer, jointer and table saw were usually a young apprentice who prepared stock by hand. The skilled woodworkers handled most joinery tasks.

Shakers eagerly sought out power tools and technology to help them do their work. But during the heyday of most Shaker communities, hand tools did most of the work.

Today there is a group of woodworkers who still pride themselves in building furniture this way. They call themselves “Neanderthals.” And the way they communicate is, ironically, usually through the internet. We thought it would be interesting to build a project using only hand tools to get a feel for how early Shakers and electronic-age Neanderthals work. Admittedly, we copped out on one aspect of this project: We didn’t surface the lumber from rough stock using hand tools. We rationalized this by figuring an apprentice would have done this work.

I think you’ll enjoy unplugging your router for a few days to tackle this modest but satisfying project. And if you cannot give up your power tools, you can rest easy knowing that the early Shakers would have paid almost any price for that precision plunge router on your bench.

Clamp a straightedge to the back line of the stool, gently press the saw against it and rip the back edge. Use the ripping teeth on the back of the Ryoba.

Clamp a straightedge to the back line of the stool, gently press the saw against it and rip the back edge. Use the ripping teeth on the back of the Ryoba.

These stools were used in Shaker housing to get to the upper drawers in the enormous chests built for communal use. The stool was placed against the lower part of a chest for support. If you want to use this as a freestanding stool, add a hand rail.

The tools needed are as follows: clamps, a block plane, jack plane, a couple Japanese saws, two sharp chisels, a coping saw and a hand drill. For marking dovetails. I use a sharp knife, a square and a sliding t-bevel.

Begin construction by laying out the panels for the sides. Use a cardboard template to lay out the best yield from your panels. Because you aren’t going to make these cuts with a table saw, you will have to make stopped cross-cuts and rips in the middle of the panels to cut out the steps using hand saws. I’ve found the best way to do this is with Japanese saws.

Courtesy of Japan
Begin construction by laying out the panels for the sides. Use a cardboard template to lay out the best yield from your panels. Because you aren’t going to make these cuts with a table saw, you will have to make stopped cross-cuts and rips in the middle of the panels to cut out the steps using hand saws. I’ve found the best way to do this is with Japanese saws.

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