Build a Safety Stool - Canadian Woodworking Magazine

Home Project: Allow your child to participate in counter-height activities by building this stool.

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Build a Safety Stool



Photos by Matt Dunkin; Illustration by James Provost

Just before my son turned two, he began to want to participate in activities that were happening on our kitchen counter: making muffins, stirring the batter for Saturday morning waffles, or chatting with us as we were cooking. We tried for awhile to have him stand on a basic stool but he couldn’t get up on it without our help and had a couple of falls because it wasn’t stable enough. I wasn’t thrilled with the stools that were commercially available, so I decided that the solution was to create a stool that would allow him to be able to get up and down himself and would welcome him to participate more fully in family life by bringing him closer to our level.

I designed a stool that would combine ladder-like stairs with handholds so that he could climb to a platform that was enclosed on three sides. It was meant to be pushed up to a counter or sink area but not be too large as to clog up our kitchen floor space. I wanted it to be strong enough for an adult to stand on but light enough that a little person could pull it across the floor to where it was needed.


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Dimensions & Materials
I chose to make the sides out of ½" Baltic birch plywood and it is possible to get the material for two stools out of one 5'x5' sheet. The stairs and platform are made out of 1x4 maple and one piece 8' in length is required. The stool is 35" high so as to fit under the overhanging edge of most kitchen counters and the platform height I set at 18" from the floor. Little feet can handle the rise of 6" between steps and layout is simple. Overall width is 16" and the stool’s sides are 18" at the base but taper to 12" by the time they reach the top. For anything to exist in our house it must be useful on more than one level, so the front of the stool doubles as a chalkboard and easel.

The Platform and Stairs
I took the 8' length of 1x4 dressed maple and cut it into six 15" long pieces. Four of those I edge-glued together to make the platform, alternating the grain patterns, clamping them tightly together and removing glue squeeze-out with a plastic razor blade. After a couple of hours of drying time, I cleaned the glue up with a card scraper and a random orbital sander to make the surfaces smooth. Along one edge of the glued platform panel I used a ¼" round-over bit to soften the leading edge of the platform and did the same on all four corners of the two stair treads. I ripped ¾" off the back of the platform to make it the correct depth and cut the platform and the two stairs to exactly 15" in length.


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A Strong Platform – Since ½" Baltic birch would not be strong enough, laminate a solid maple panel to the platform.

The Sides
I took a 5'x5' sheet of ½" Baltic birch plywood and cut a piece of plywood that was 35" long by 30" wide. I placed a mark 12" in from opposite corners and ripped the panel with a track saw to create the two identical sides, each tapering from 18" at one end to 12" at the other. Next I laid out where the stairs would go on the sides and got ready to create the handholds.
 
The Handholds & Edges
A simple template and router allow uniform handholds to be cut in the stool sides. I set the dimensions at 4 ½" long by 1 ½" wide and created a handhold template out of an off-cut of ½” stock, over-cutting the hole with my chop saw. Clamping the template onto the stool sides ¾" back from the edges, I drilled a pilot hole and used a jigsaw to hog out the bulk of the material inside the handhold area. Next I used a ¾" pattern bit on my plunge router to rout the remaining material out of the holes, travelling in a clockwise motion. The diameter of the pattern bit creates a soft radius in the corners for little hands.

Similarly, the two top corners of the stair sides were softened with a curve created by a rounded template, jig saw for bulk waste removal and a router with a template bit. Finally, I ran a router with a ¼" round-over bit in a laminate trimmer around both sides of the stool sides softening the perimeter of each handhold and each exposed edge.


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Round over Certain Edges – To eliminate some of the sharp corners, use a round-over bit in a router table.

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Cut into the Sheet – After some planning, cut the plywood parts to size. 

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Simple Template – Make a simple rectangular template to guide the router.

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Trim to Size – After roughing out the hole with a jig saw, use a router and template bit to cut the hand holds to size.

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Ease the Edges – So that little fingers have an easier time, round over many of the exposed edges.

The Easel
For the front of the stool I cut a piece of ½" plywood that was 18" long by 15" wide and eased the one top edge with the ¼" round-over bit. This would become the third side of the railing around the stool’s platform and, when tilted back slightly and painted with some chalkboard paint, it would be transformed into a place to create artwork.
 
Assembly
I drew the stairs, platform and easel onto the stool sides, stacked the sides together and then drilled tiny pilot holes through for screws through both pieces at the same time. Two screws hold the stair treads and the screws into the platform and easel are roughly 4" apart. Next I countersunk through the exterior faces with a ½" Forstner bit 3/16" deep to create clean holes that could be easily filled with shallow plugs. On the inside of the stool sides I used the Forstner bit indexed into the pilot holes to give me location marks for the angle of the easel, and drew a light pencil line to aid in assembly. I assembled by gluing, pre-drilling and screwing 1 ¼" pocket screws through the sides into the treads, platform, and easel. Laying the first stool side on a sawhorse and screwing up from the bottom made assembly relatively straightforward.

I used a ½" tapered plug-cutting bit in a drill press to drill maple plugs out of my off-cut and then taping them in place, ripped through the back of the plugs to free them from the block. The tape kept them from flying out and disappearing as they were cut. Placing glue in the holes, I oriented the grain to match the plywood and gently tapped the plugs into place. After the glue had dried, I used a sharp chisel to pare off most of the plug and then sanded it flush with a random orbital sander.


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Drill Stacked Parts – Stack like parts on top of each other, then drill pilot holes to ensure they are in the same location.

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Counter-Sink – Counter-sink holes ⅛" deep. Any further and you might weaken the screws’ holding power in the ½" material. The holes can be plugged later.

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Added Assistance – A light pencil line can help when it comes time for assembly.

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Easy Assembly – During assembly, lay the gable down so gravity doesn't fight you.
 

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Plug the Holes – On the drill press cut enough plugs to fill all the holes and then glue them in place.

The Finish
To create a simple dye I used orange pekoe tea, giving the wood a warm glow. Letting eight tea bags steep in four cups of boiling water overnight gave me a suitable colour. I wiped on the tea and removed the excess after a few minutes.

I let it dry fully and then finished the stool with AFM Safecoat Low Odour Polyureseal BP in a Satin Finish so that it wasn’t too slippery but would be easily wiped off if there were spills. The easel area I painted with two coats of Benjamin Moore’s Studio Finishes Chalkboard Paint. Felt pads on the bottom of the stool allow it to glide over our hardwood floors but are resistant to slipping when the stool is in use. A large binder clip permits paper to be attached to the top edge for painting or drawing. A narrow ledge may also be added at the bottom of the chalkboard for chalk or crayons.


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Double Duty – Cover the back surface with chalkboard paint so the stool can also be used for artwork.

Safety
The stool has garnered much praise among parents who visit our house and I am happy with its design. Its stability is ideal for it to be pushed up against a counter and it is wide enough to be stable. If my kids were to be using it away from counters or walls I would outfit it with “toes” that would give it more forward stability but that would still allow it to fit under a standard cabinet toe-kick recess.

I haven’t done so because it wouldn’t store well in our kitchen as a result and would create a tripping hazard. As our daughter begins to crawl and experiment with climbing, the stool may need to go away for a brief time until she is ready for it. We also need to make sure that knives and other risky items are not left on the counter so they are not in reach of little hands.

My son’s stair stool has been well used over the last year; as a hand-wash platform, an art studio, and even an extra dining room chair in a pinch. I can clearly remember giving it to him as a gift and watching him climb it and with a grin of satisfaction begin to participate in life at counter level.




MATT DUNKIN
Matt Dunkin