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Shaker Sewing Steps

Here's some construction details and photos for the shaker sewing steps I made for my Mom. The inspiration comes from the ``Sewing Steps'' shown on page 142 of Christian Becksvoort's The Shaker Legacy, Perspectives on an Enduring Furniture Style. Sewing steps provide a foot-rest for someone sewing by hand in a seated position. It's also an easy project that uses less than 2 board feet of hardwood.

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Original sewing steps Here's the original from Christian Becksvoort's book (right) and my version (which isn't quite finished in this photograph) on the left. It was made of walnut. My version is made out of white ash. Any strong hardwood would work.

My version

The first step in the project is to cut the five pieces to size. I started with a 2 inch thick piece of white ash, which I re-sawed into 6 pieces that were approximately ½ by 8½ by 10 inches.

Resawing ash The Shaker original had 5/16 inch sides and 3/8 inch treads. These are probably minimum thicknesses with modern hardwoods. If you are using softer hardwoods, you will want at least ½ inch thick pieces for the treads.

I did the resawing with a frame saw I made (shown on the right), cut the pieces free using a Disston D8 crosscut saw (shown on the left), and flattened each piece with a Stanley scrub plane (#40) followed by a Stanley jack plane (#5). To help prevent the pieces from warping after being cut I coated all sides with a 1 pound cut of dewaxed super blonde shellac.

Freeing pieces I cut one tread and the cross-support from one of the pieces, used two pieces for each side, and used a fourth piece for the other tread. If you have wide enough material (9 inches or wider) to start with, you should cut both treads from a single piece. I tried to match the treads as much as possible, and choose the best faces for the sides. You also want to try to make the side pieces as close to the same thickness as possible.

Set a bevel square to the correct splay of the legs (3/8 : 7 7/8) and mark off the sides of the cross-support. Cut off the ends using a fine ripsaw and smooth the end grain surfaces using a low-angle plane. I used a Disston D-7, 8 TPI ripsaw and a Stanley #60½ low-angle block plane.

Planing flat The curve on the cross-support is laid out using a compass with the center set back from the edge. Cut out the waste using a coping saw. I don't have a spokeshave that has enough of a curved sole, so I used various grits of sandpaper to smooth the inside of the curve.

The steps in the sides are cut out using a fine cross-cut and rip saw. Make the cuts as close to the line as possible, especially on the crosscuts so there is less trimming later.

Sawing curve A chisel or chisel plane is used to flatten the cut edges with interior corners. The cuts that support the treads are less important because they will fit into grooves on the underside of the treads. We'll be angling these later anyway. I used a Stanley #92 shoulder plane with the front piece removed for the interior cuts, and my Krenov-style jack plane for the cuts it could reach.

The treads are cut out using the same fine crosscut and rip saws used before. The front of each tread is rounded over using a block plane, spokeshave, or a molding plane. I used a Stanley #60½ low-angle block plane.

Now that all the pieces are sized, we need to cut the grooves in the sides for the cross-support, and cut the grooves in the treads for the sides and the cross-support on the top tread. All of these grooves are stopped groves, and the grooves for the side pieces in the treads are angled.

Sawing groove sides I used the same method for cutting all the grooves. I chopped a short section of the groove at the stopped edge. Then I use a backsaw to define the edges of the remainder of the groove. The section of the groove that was chopped out allows the tip of the saw to clear it's sawdust when sawing the rest of the groove. For the angled grooves in the treads, I used a guide block cut at the correct angle, and ran the side of the saw against the guide block to insure the groove was at the right angle. The waste between the sawed edges is then removed with chisels and the bottom smoothed with a router plane.

A side rabbet plane (I used a Stanley #79 side rabbet) is used to adjust the width of the grooves until the matching pieces fit snugly into the grooves.

The groove for the cross-support needs to account for the expansion and contraction of the piece. I calculate that in white ash the cross-support will expand and contract approximately 1/16 of an inch over the range of humidity expected in a modern home. If the project is being complete in summer, the groove can be made full length, but if you are making it in winter, be sure to make the groove slightly longer than the cross-support.

Once all the pieces fit together without any glue, it's time to smooth all sides of each piece. I used a combination of a Stanley Type-11 #4 smooth plane, a Type-17 #3 smooth plane, a Stanley #80 cabinet scraper, and a hand scraper wherever necessary.

According to Christian Becksvoort, the original steps were nailed together. I decided I'd rather simply glue the piece together. Because the cross-support is in a cross grain position, I also pegged the top of this joint to keep the cross-support from lifting off the top tread.

To assemble the piece, put glue in the groove for the top of the cross-piece, fit it into the grooves in the sides, and drive the pegs home. Do not put glue on the ends of the cross-piece so it can expand and contract in the groove with changes in humidity. Glue goes in the rest of the grooves, and the treads are applied. I used hot hide glue for my glue, and used bricks to "clamp" the steps while the glue dried.

The finish is a spar varnish, turpentine, boiled linseed oil finish. Six coats of this mixture is wiped on, allowed to get tacky, and then wiped off, waiting at least 24 hours between coats. Between the first three and the second three coats, I waited three days, and rubbed out the finish with some #0000 steel wool while the finish was wet. Allow several days for the finish to harden and apply some paste wax.

I do have plans available for this project. Jump to my plans page, or download the PDF plans (75 KB) directly.