Skill Builder: If I told you that it was possible to build a stool for your workshop bench without ever picking up a tape measure or ruler, and that if you wanted to, you could build 2 or 2000 stools and they would all be identical, would you think I was trying to tell you a tall tale? No, it’s not a tall tale, but it is a story stick. In this case, it's twenty-nine inches tall.
Story sticks have been used in furniture making for a long time. Craftsmen through the ages have recorded the details of their designs by carving them onto long narrow wooden boards at full scale. This provided a durable record of their work, and an item could be reproduced easily by transferring measurements directly to the work piece. If you eliminate the need to measure, then naturally, you reduce the potential for measurement related errors. How many of us have measured something at 33 1/4" as an example, and then marked the board to be cut at 32 3/4" just by looking at the tape from the other side?
If you are building a project from a plan, transferring the information from the paper plan to a story stick has several advantages. As you transfer the key information to the story stick you will become familiar with the overall scale of the piece. Seeing it full scale on the stick makes it much easier to visualize the end result than by looking at a scale or perspective drawing. As you create the story stick you will find out if there are any conflicts on the paper plans that might pose a problem during construction, as details are recorded full size and in proper relationship to each other. Paper plans get dirty, torn, wet and otherwise mutilated in a shop, but the same information cut into a story stick, highlighted with a pencil, covered with a quick coat of varnish, and hung on a peg, will last for generations.
Selecting a Stick
You'll want to select a stick that is large enough to contain all the information you’ll need to record. Of course, for large projects, such as an entertainment center, you might have two or more story sticks. If, for example, you are building a table, the stick will have to be as long as the longest dimension of the table. For our bench stool we'll use a stick that is 29" long. This will allow for the 25" height of the stool and a little extra for a hole so we can hang up the stick for easy storage.
You can lay out information on all four sides of the stick. The wider faces can be divided into columns to allow multiple layers of information. I chose a piece of ⅝" x 1 ⅝" x 29" pine. Based on the design of the stool, two vertical columns and four horizontal sections will hold all of the information required.
Using the Stick
Using a marking gauge, divide each wide (1 5/8") face in half and label the columns: 'face' and 'side'.
Begin by finding something to sit on that is at a comfortable height when working at your bench. This will be the top of the stool; place your stick along the side of the stool and mark the height of the seat on the stick. I use a utility knife and score the edge slightly. If you change your mind there is only a small mark, which is easier to ignore than a bunch of larger false marks. You could use a pencil, but there is a risk that the mark will rub off. This is the only measurement that we need to get started.
Some left over 2x6 and 1x4 lumber is all the material required for this stool. With the height of the stool marked on the stick, clamp it to the bench to lay out the rest of the information. Place a second mark on the stick to define the bottom edge of the seat slats. This should be less than your material thickness to allow for planing. You now have two important pieces of information: the thickness of the seat, and the exact length of the legs.
One side of the stick will show the vertical information and the other the horizontal information. The score lines in the wood are durable, but hard to see, so highlight them with a sharp pencil. Using a small square, extend the marks for the seat across the two columns. This information is important in both views and should appear in both columns.
Next, mark the width of the upper stretchers on the stick.
These are the same all the way around and appear in both columns as well. The lower section is different when viewed from each direction; both columns will contain different information. Visualize all of the horizontal parts, and mark those on the story stick for each view. When you are looking at the piece, any part that presents end grain in that view is indicated with an "X" drawn from opposing corners. The parts showing long grain are just left blank.
Joinery details could be included in another narrow column in the center if needed. When I make story sticks I layer the information a little differently. First, I mark all of the horizontal dimensions with a knife, which I then score across the width of the column. I then highlight the scored lines, which define the parts, with a pencil. I know when I look at my stick that the pencil lines represent 'parts' and the scored lines represent 'joinery' or other significant details.
To get a complete plan for the stool, we need to lay out the information for the front and the side as well. Divide the other side of the stick in half with a marking gauge and highlight it with a pencil. On one side of the stick, record all vertical dimensions for parts as seen from each view. In the upper row show all significant vertical dimensions at the top of the stool, and on the lower row do the same for the lower stretchers. Do this for both views. The level of information to include is up to you; if it is too crowded, it becomes confusing to read – if you don’t include enough information you may not have all of the relevant details to reproduce the item accurately. In time you will develop your own method that works best for you.
With all of the critical dimensions laid out on the stick, it’s time to start milling lumber. A set of dividers, a small square, and a knife or pencil are the only tools you’ll need to transfer all of the information to your material to build your project. Most of the measurements can be transferred directly by holding the stick against the relevant material. If this isn’t possible, use the dividers to transfer the measurements from the stick to the parts.
Drill a hole at the top of your story stick and hang it on the wall when you’re finished. It won’t be long before you’ll be asked to make another stool and you’ll just have to reach for your story stick and a stack of lumber.
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