After a band of powerful storms ripped across northwest Georgia a few years ago, Marvin Garner woke to find two large trees — a cherry and a sycamore — resting horizontally on his property. An avid craftsman, lover of trees, and recycler, my friend breathed new life into the trunks. He cut several wide slices from the felled trees, sanded the surfaces, added legs, brushed on a few coats of stain, and transformed the rough, woody rounds into rustic stools.
I was the grateful recipient of one of Marvin’s magnificent cherry log stools. Today, it’s a showpiece in our home and collects compliments from every guest who sees it. I’ve always wanted to learn how to make my own stump stool, so when two tornadoes toppled trees in my yard last year, I asked Marvin for a stool-making lesson. He obliged.
Prior to operating a chainsaw, ensure the saw is functioning properly and the chain is adjusted and sharpened according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Clear away dirt, debris, or small limbs before you start cutting the trunk. Wear proper personal protective equipment when operating a chainsaw, including chaps, work gloves, safety glasses, hearing protection and work boots. And as always, be cautious of saw kick-back.
According to Marvin, hardwood tree rounds produce the best stump stools. Hardwoods include oak, hickory, maple, cherry, walnut, elm, poplar, sycamore and more. “But sweet gum wood tends to crack a lot during the drying process, so I don’t use sweet gum,” he says.
Step 1: Make the Cuts
With a chainsaw, cut one or more 12- to 18-inch diameter rounds that are approximately 4 to 5 inches thick. Larger diameters and thicknesses will produce very heavy stools that will be almost impossible to lift and move around.
“Making level cuts with the chainsaw will greatly reduce your sanding work, so take your time,” Marvin says.
You will also need to identify and cut tree limbs for the legs. These don’t necessarily have to match your wooden round. Indeed, using different wood for your legs makes the stool more interesting. Three legs are fine for most smaller stools, but larger stools need four legs for stability. Marvin used three sassafras sections and a length from a fig branch that were about 11/4 inches in diameter.
Step 2: Dry the Wood
For the best possible results, you’ll need to allow your wood to dry out. Place your cut wood in a covered area out of the elements — in a garage, workshop, basement, or attic — and forget about the project for a little while. Place your round on four or five smooth rocks or shims so that air can circulate around it.
Marvin dried his cherry and sycamore wood slices for several months before making his stools. He used one of his sycamore rounds to teach me the art of building a stump stool.
Step 3: Remove the Bark
You don’t have to remove the bark, but you can if it’s your preference.
“After my wood dried for a few months, the sycamore bark practically fell off when I touched it, but the bark of other types of trees will still be somewhat attached,” he says. “I used a large belt sander to remove the remaining pieces of the sycamore slab and smooth the sides a bit.”
Step 4: Sand the Surfaces
If you have a deep gouge on the surface, you can use that side for the bottom of your stool, or you can use a planer to shave the higher surface down before sanding.
Start sanding the round surfaces with your sander. Start with course paper, then sand with medium grit paper, and finish with a fine paper. This step may take several hours, but keep sanding until the round surfaces are smooth.
Now, sand the sharp edges down until they are beveled and smooth.
Again, Marvin used a large belt sander, but you can use a hand-held belt or palm sander and achieve the same results — it will just take more elbow grease.
Wipe the surfaces with a cloth and examine the surfaces. Decide which side will be the top of your stool.
Step 5: Fill Holes and Cracks (Optional)
I like interesting knots and cracks, but if you don’t like holes and cracks, patch them with wood filler, let the filler dry, then sand the surfaces again with fine sandpaper.
Step 6: Mark Leg Holes
Carefully place the top of your stool on a soft piece of cardboard. Measure the circumference of your stool, then divide by four or three, depending on the number of legs you want. On the bottom side, make four, or three, marks on the edge spaced evenly using the quotient you calculated. Using a combination square, measure two inches from the edge at 90 degrees, and make a dark mark.
“My log is 52 inches around, and I’m going to use four legs, so 52 divided by four is 13,” Marvin notes. “I make my marks every 13 inches around, then measure two inches toward the center.”
Step 7: Drill Holes
Using a power drill and a 1-inch spade bit, drill holes in the bottom surface. Make the hole at about a 30-degree angle and 3 inches deep. Use a shop vacuum to suck out the sawdust periodically. Marvin marks 3 inches on a round dowel rod and uses it as a depth guide for the holes.
Step 8: Fit and Glue Legs
On each leg (branch), measure and mark three inches from one of the ends. Using the mark as a guide, shave off a little of the exterior bark with the belt sander, and check the fit frequently by inserting the leg in a hole. Keep shaving until you can insert the leg all the way in the hole with a snug fit.
“Use carpenter’s wood glue to glue the legs in place,” he says. “I put a little in the hole and a little around the shaved part of the leg, then work the leg into the hole. I let the glue dry overnight.”
Step 9: Cut the Legs
With your stool still resting upside down, measure 18 inches straight up from the cardboard surface on one of the legs and make a mark. Using your first mark and a carpenter’s level, mark a horizontal line on the two or three other legs. Check, cross check, and recheck. Saw your legs using the horizontal marks.
“I clamp trim wood onto my legs, recheck to make sure my marks are level, and saw using the trim as guides,” Marvin says.
Turn your stool upright on a flat, level surface and inspect to see if there are gaps under any of the legs. If the stool is wobbly, make small adjustments with your belt sander until your legs are flush, and they sit evenly on the floor.
Step 10: Stain (Optional)
Using a brush, apply stain to the top surface and the legs of your stool, allowing the coats to dry between applications.
Step 11: Seal
Using a brush, apply a protective coat of polyurethane to the top surface and sides of your stool. Drying time depends on temperature and humidity. After drying for several hours, lightly sand the flat surface with a very fine grit sandpaper or steel wool, wipe the surface clean, and then apply a second protective coat of polyurethane. Allow your stool to fully dry before using it in your home.
Set your stool in a prominent place in your home and be prepared for dozens of compliments.
Read more: Get a glimpse in to Editor-in-Chief Hank Will's numerous woodlot projects.
Amber and Marvin enjoy making stump stools from hardwood trees in northwest Georgia.
• You can use the same technique to build a stump end table. Follow the same instructions, but make your legs a little longer to produce a higher surface. Also, the thickness of the slice of wood can be reduced to 3 1⁄2 or 4 inches since a table doesn’t have to support the weight of a person’s body.
• Don’t like the legs? You can purchase iron legs from a home improvement store and fasten to the bottom of your stump. Or, you can cut a 15-inch-long log from your stump, sand the top surface, apply stain and polyurethane, and tack furniture gliders on the bottom. But be warned, a solid log stool with furniture gliders instead of legs will be very heavy.
• You may love the bark on the sides of the stool, but if you prefer a smoother look, chip and chisel the bark from the sides and sand to get the desired appearance. The bark will be easier to remove if you’ve allowed the wood to dry for a few months.