Woodworking matters. It’s more than a pastime or hobby—being a woodworker means that you know the satisfaction and pride that comes from using your hands and mind to build beautiful, functional objects, and that you’re as interested in the process as the outcome. Amid the speed and chaos of the modern world, woodworking gives us a place where we can slow down, pay attention, and take the time to do things right.Aimé Ontario Fraser
Your most humble and obedient servant is exceptionally proud to have never made any project published in a woodworking magazine, with one exception: The Michael Dunbar Windsor Shop Stool. This the story of my version of his stool. With some twists.
I have a policy: While I have no qualms about showing portfolio pictures of past work to prospective Honored Clients, I don’t publish, distribute or email images of work done for HC’s. The reasons are simple. First, to avoid violating their privacy, I need to get their permission in-advance, in writing, which can be a pain. Second, while showing pictures of their property may not offend them now, it may in the future. Misunderstandings can occur even when backed-up by a piece of paper.
I also dislike bragging about my work in public, and nothing can be more public than the internet. But I am making an exception with this post because the subject is something I made strictly for myself, and it is decidedly ridiculous. If Gentle Reader doesn’t find it interesting, perhaps you’ll find it amusing. I invite you to snigger gracefully at your humble servant’s atrocious efforts.
The title of this post includes the strange term “Pragmatic Contrarianism.” What does it mean? It’s a term I invented, I suppose, but the intended meaning is a personal policy of examining problems from an angle opposite of what is considered conventional, and then formulating workable solutions based on an analysis of those observations, not caring if the resulting conclusions and the solutions implemented contradict standard theories and/or common practice so long as they achieve the designated goals and objectives more efficiently. It does not mean an uncontrolled compulsion to be idiotic, disruptive, argumentative, deceptive, sexually abusive or psychotic like the management and staff of the Communist News Network.
A contrarian is a person who takes an opposing view, especially one who rejects the majority opinion.
One definition of pragmatism is as follows: “A reasonable and logical way of doing things or of thinking about problems that is based on dealing with specific situations instead of on ideas and theories.”
A pragmatic contrarian therefore is a person who actively seeks solutions different from standard convention, and implements those solutions in a way that yields desired performance and functionality.
This stool is your humble servant’s expression of this concept.
A good workshop stool must be more than just simple furniture: it is a woodworking tool in and of itself, especially in a small shop, where it must serve not only as a butt rest but as a step-ladder, tool rest, sawbench, parts table, paint-can holder, cat bed, and even weight-spreader during glueups. These jobs require a stable, durable and reliable tool. Lightweight is a big plus too. And bench kitties always demand servants and cushions.
Let me begin by telling you why I needed to build a stool. Perhaps you share some of these same reasons. Perhaps the solution I struck on will give you some ideas. Stranger things have happened.
Since moving to Japan, my workbenches have been in storage back in the U.S., so while stationed on the remote island of Guam planning construction projects for the Japanese government, I built one for the little woodworking shop I set up in my garage for making sanity retention components. Of course, I needed a stool too, so I considered my options.
On the US mainland I used cheap wooden stools produced in Eastern Europe or China that became rickety as quickly as a newly-elected politician’s moral convictions, so I was in the habit of tossing them each time we moved and buying a cheap replacement at the new location. Sigh… Would that crooked politicians were so easily disposed of.
Thinking back, those stools were clunky, ugly, top-heavy, and too tall requiring me to cut them down to a height convenient for hammer and chisel work at the workbench. This time I wanted a lighter, more comfortable, more attractive stool that would provide good service past my lifetime instead of mass-produced garbage-in-training. There aren’t many stores on the island, selection is bad and prices are high, so after shopping around I decided to build a lifetime piece of furniture myself this time instead.
Now, I am not a chairmaker, but lack of experience never stopped me from making a fool of myself before, nor did it this time.
As I contemplated the design of the stool I remembered seeing an interesting example in an article by a professional Windsor chair maker, instructor, and author named Michael Dunbar, and decided it would be just the ticket. Of course, true to my pragmatic contrarianistic principles, I modified the design to fit my needs, tools, and peculiar sense of beauty.
I do not own, have never owned, and do not want to own a wood lathe, so I did not even consider attempting the elegant turnings that beautify every component of Mr. Dunbar’s stools. Being a contrary sort of fellow, I decided that instead of trying to imitate his lathe-work, I would design my stool so that not a single piece of it could possibly be produced on a lathe, not even by mistake. And since I didn’t have any stationary power tools, the design ensures the final shapes could not have been made on a tablesaw, bandsaw or shaper. Every component is shaped entirely by hand, no exceptions. How’s that for pragmatic contrarianism?
The legs are designed similar to the birdcage style seen in Mr. Dunbar’s simplest design except for being octagonal. I am fond of the birdcage style, enough so that I commissioned a dining room set in cherry wood from an Amish furniture maker back when we lived in Ohio. In this case, however, the legs all have different dimensions, thinner in some places and fatter in others. No rounded swells, but closer in appearance to irregular octagonal bamboo segments. None of the curves between segments are uniform. The picture does not do justice to the artistically (ツ) chaotic angles and uneven surfaces.
An octagon has 8 angles of 45 ° each. So, consistent with my contrarianistic aspirations for this stool, I made each angle just a little less or a little more than 45°. It looks kinda sorta strange until you carefully examine the stool and realize that it is definitely strange. Perfect!
Just to extend the contrarianist principle to its ludicrous conclusion, I made all the angles between seat and legs slightly different too. It would have been a lot easier to make them uniform, but what’s an adventure without some pointless struggle? At least this adventure didn’t leave me dead in a pile of garbage on K2!
Like Mr. Dunbar’s stool, the seat is hollowed out, but instead of being circular, it is octagonal and sculpted to look as if it has a segmented joined perimeter covered with worn green leather sagging over 8 ribs radiating from the seat’s center. There are no segments, ribs, and of course, no leather, just a single board seat, but I carved 8 little ridges into the seat to suggest the existence of these supporting ribs, just another detail that could not be made with a lathe.
The green color of the seat is intended to imitate the green leather commonly used for furniture in days of yore.
The wood I used was exceptionally-dense Mahogany from a board I found fallen behind the racks of an old lumberyard on the termite-infested rock that is Guam. The figure was nothing special, but my hand plane turned the dirty grey board a beautiful dark red color. Better than a paintbrush. If I recall correctly, it was an exceptionally large and clear 8/4” x 23” x 14’ board. I had already used most of it for other projects by the time I got around to making this stool, but had just enough scraps left for the job.
I made the stool without using power tools of any kind, just handsaws, handplanes, spokeshaves, chisels, knives, Auriou rasps, spokeshaves, and my Father’s old brace with fine-screw Jennings bits. I cut the beading detail using carving chisels. It was fun, partly because there was no customer to complain (not even the Mistress of the Blue Horizons), and partly because it was something new.
I did not sand the wood but left all the tool marks in place. Mecha retro.
I followed Mr. Dunbar’s advice and finished the stool with three color coats of red, green and black milk paint topped with a coat of thinned flat polyurethane. This was my first experience using milk paint and I loved the results. I highly recommend it.
Applying multiple layers in different colors is not an original idea, but it is genius. Each coat creates a distinct layer of color over the uneven toolmarks which remain on the wood’s surface. And this finish ensured that as the stool has become worn, scratched and paint-splattered over the years in my shops it’s character has not been damaged but only improved. Would that my face had improved to the same degree instead of growing more purple warts sprouting vigorous clumps of long black hairs!
After applying the milkpaint, but before the PU topcoat, I distressed the finish with files and sandpaper, especially at high-wear areas, exposing the various layers of color unevenly to produce the appearance of a chair that has been used, abused and repainted in different colors several times during its lifetime.
I have no interest in reproducing antiques, but the colors are charming to my eye and there is something to be said for accelerating the process of perceived wear from shiny-and-new to worn and patinated instantly bypassing the grungy-looking intermediate period. Besides, no matter how much I abuse it, it only changes appearance without getting worse. I can’t think of another applied finish that does this better.
Another advantage of traditional milk paint (v.s. the latex-based faux milk paint sold in home-centers and hobby stores) is that, since it contains large amounts of ground minerals, it cures to a hard surface that is surprisingly wear resistant — certainly more abrasion-resistant than standard latex, acrylic or polyurethane coatings commonly used for finishing wood. Excellent for rough use in a workshop.
I didn’t have specialized tools for coning mortises and tapering tenons, so the leg/stretcher/spreader joints are simple round tenons fitted forcefully into tight round mortises, pared larger in diameter at the top, and wedged in-place. The geometry of the seat to leg joints places the leg/stretcher and stretcher/spreader joints in tight compression ensuring they will never loosen or come apart unless the seat fails or the tenons breakoff. So far so good, knock on numbskull.
Windsor chair leg geometry is genius, if a bit tricky to assemble. Not only have the joints remained tight, but 11 years later I can still strike any part of the stool with a mallet and it rings like a wooden bell even during Japan’s dry winters and humid summers despite being built in the unchanging 85% relative humidity of Guam. Amazing.
I was doubtful at first, but Mr. Dunbar’s seemingly-unlikely assertion that a hollowed-out seat is more comfortable than a flat seat for a workbench stool was curiously correct. It’s not only more comfortable but more stable because instead of being perched on top of a flat surface, my posterior fits down into the seat giving me better purchase, another application of the venerable “ butt clamp. “ This extra stability is a big advantage when using handtools at the workbench.
No matter how many scrapes, scuffs, dents, paint drips, or other indignities this stool has suffered, like a good pair of boots it has taken them all in stride without complaint
It remains to be seen, but I think this stool just may meet my 200-year service lifespan goal. I intend to hang around and personally confirm this, of course, but please remind me in 189 years to post the results on the subspace net if I forget.
If you want to try your hand at the basics of Windsor chair making while gaining a shop stool superior to any other type—one with the potential to become both a useful tool as well as a family heirloom—you might want to give Mr. Dunbar’s stool a try. Or, even better, be a fellow pragmatic contrarian, run with his design concept, and make your own interpretation. Hairy warts are optional.
And don’t forget to sign and date the seat’s underside. In 200 years some of your descendants might be curious about who made it.
You might take away several lessons from this story of a silly stool. Perhaps the first one is that instead of spending hard-earned cash on future landfill stuffing made in the PRC, you can build the furniture you need for your house and workshop yourself at less cost and without powertools.
You don’t need to go into debt or put off making that table or chairs or bed until you can afford or have space for a tablesaw, bandsaw, jointer, lathe and thickness planer. And you don’t need to save pennies for years to buy expensive hardwoods, just be pragmatic and design the furniture around the tools you already own and the wood you can get your hands on cheaply.
In fact, the first furniture I made as a married starving student with a newborn baby was a knock-down coffee table, two end tables, a sofa and a loveseat from 2×4 DF/Larch concrete formwork I salvaged from the construction jobsite I was working as a carpenter in Las Vegas during Christmas vacation. The only hardware I had was a mix of used lag bolts scrounged from the guys who installed the rollup doors at the jobsite’s loading dock (thanks, guys!).
I worked on that furniture set nights and weekends using the concrete slab in front of our dingy Las Vegas apartment and three 8″ high horses as a workbench and only limited handtools, an electric drill, and a sparking, aluminum-bodied router. I finished it with WATCO danish oil.
We bought discount cloth and foam from an industrial upholstery supply house, and my diligent and intelligent wife sewed all the cushions using a friend’s sewing machine. The neighbors thought I was insane, and maybe I was, but they kindly tolerated the energetic college kid with the cute Japanese wife who was always making sawdust and sweet-smelling plane shavings out on the sidewalk as they provided sage advice while smoking their cigarettes and drinking beer in the gloaming.
I could disassemble the entire set to fit flat in our VW van when we moved, and it served us well for seven years for only the cost of some fabric, upholstery foam, sandpaper, and half a can of wood finish.
If you are contrary like me, you might want to use your handtools to make something that couldn’t possibly be made by stationary powertools. After all, what’s the benefit of owning and being proficient with handtools if everything you make looks just like the stuff sold at the local “Furniture Warehouse” or whatever they call the purveyor of discount garbage-in-training in your community?
Another possible lesson is that, depending on the design of the furniture you make and how it mutates during the fabrication process, you can use classical structural details and design elements, such as durable mortise and tenon joints and the clever details of the Windsor chair, to turn inexpensive wood into family heirlooms that get better with age. Imagine that, the victory of intelligence, adaptation and diligence over money. I like it a lot!
You don’t need to spend a lot of money or have lots of space or own fancy powertools to have lifetime furniture with character so long as you are willing to be pragmatic and a little contrary.
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