Ben Franklin Chair-stair

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Project by Bertha posted 03-29-2020 05:58 PM 1244 views 5 times favorited 23 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I saw a picture of a convertible chair-stair attributed somehow to Ben Franklin. It looked complicated enough, so I built my version of it. It’s basically divided into 2 triangular sections, hinged at the middle.

I started with 1”-ish walnut a year off the mill. I don’t really like curves, so I wanted a bunch of them. Started with that. I’ll use the same template for both divisions.

First, I’m going to have to worry about angles. 90, 45, and 22.5. Started laying out mortise and tenons by hand. I used the planer to get close, the bandsaw to cut the curves, and that should be it for powertools.

Then tenons and dry fit.

Fast forward a few days/weeks

Everything gets drawbored and I made a few pins for the purpose

Some of the step supports will have to be angled, but it can get tricky on the curved stiles. Obviously, everything has to remain parallel to the floor, so trammel points and a level bench were a staple. The face of the steps had to fall in line with the curve of the uprights.

Started putting things together

I made a little spacer to meet at the apex of the sides. I kept trimming it to fit, then trimming, until there was very little left. I found it challenging to keep the sides of the 2 divisions exactly the same.

Lots of curves. Pulled out all the curve tools. I have a curved Clifton spokeshave that’s tuned for a very aggressive cut’

I scooped the seat with a combination of a 2- and 1-hand scorp. Then curved spokeshaves and even gouges. I took a ton of wood off. I wanted to leave tool marks readily visible on the seat and didn’t want to smooth them with scrapers, etc.

Moving ahead a bit, but here’s how much I took off lol. I modeled the seat profile from the coronavirus response’s ass.

OK, departure. I made the top bracket/feet (in stair mode) sacrificial. Meaning, if I want something to fail, I want it to be this, not the uprights. It also gives me the flexibility to allow for replacing of the seat, permanent unlevel floor, etc. If you build one, you’ll understand what I mean. The top rung is curved in 2 planes, like a Queen Anne leg, so it’s a weird contraption that called for a weird joint. I wanted no ability to twist/rack.

The site is locking up on me. I’ll try to finish later.

It might be working again.

Like I said, weird joint but it’s strong as all get out. I guess this takes me to wood movement. I saw no evidence that the historic ones accounted for it, other than nailing. These are big slabs of wood and although dry, they are going to move. I tried to use dovetails and M/T the best that I could but I had to decide how to allow the seat to move, which was my biggest concern. I didn’t want it to bind the mechanism so the whole seat had to be free…but anchored…you know what I mean. The steps are only bound on one side.

Assembly in divisions worked best for me. Split the seat and install 180-degree hinges.

I got some blacksmith-made latches to keep it in position.

On to finish. I used Danish oil flood, then wet sanded with 500 grit. BUT, I did something different from there. I took most of the slurry off with some 0000, let it dull-dry, then applied clear wax straight to it, rubbed it in. Looks horrible. Then I aggressively rubbed it out with cotton fabric. Lots of it. It gives it an old look I’ll talk about in a second. I wanted tool marks to show, but not dominate the piece. Some say it looks sloppy, but I think glassy is boring. A lousy power tool can do that.

Here’s a late 1700s piece I’m restoring for a church. See how years of waxing without cleaning the surface causes that gunk to settle. It almost makes the surrounding wood look like a veneer. In this case below, it isn’t. That’s kind of what I was trying to achieve with the danish oil slurry/wax. Jury’s out, I guess.

Moved it outside to heat the wax, then buff it.

Moved it into the study where my barristers live.

Good times. Thanks for looking. I found this difficult. Maybe I’m stupid, but if you have any questions, let me know.

-- My dad and I built a 65 chev pick up.I killed trannys in that thing for some reason-Hog

23 comments so far

View BurlyBob's profile


8868 posts in 3351 days

#1 posted 03-29-2020 06:42 PM

That is one fantastic looking chair and an incredible build series.

View Andre's profile


4531 posts in 2892 days

#2 posted 03-29-2020 06:47 PM

Heirloom! Your deliberate sloppy is my refined finish:) I call them fingerprints.

-- Lifting one end of the plank.

View Combo Prof's profile

Combo Prof

4650 posts in 2363 days

#3 posted 03-29-2020 06:51 PM

I very much like this.

-- Don K, (Holland, Michigan)

View Cindy Braunheim's profile

Cindy Braunheim

53 posts in 3701 days

#4 posted 03-29-2020 06:51 PM

Beautiful work – inspiring!

-- Cindy in Seattle,

View MrWolfe's profile


1558 posts in 1209 days

#5 posted 03-29-2020 06:56 PM

Beautiful piece and great blog showing your process.
Thanks for sharing.

View MrWolfe's profile


1558 posts in 1209 days

#6 posted 03-29-2020 06:57 PM

Beautiful piece and great blog showing your process.
Thanks for sharing.

View RDan's profile


183 posts in 3410 days

#7 posted 03-29-2020 07:11 PM

Yes, that is beautiful and inspiring. Dan

View shampeon's profile


2167 posts in 3269 days

#8 posted 03-29-2020 07:31 PM

Awesome work. That joint is craaazy.

Also nodded with satisfaction at the pigsticker and Butcher chisels.

-- ian | "You can't stop what's coming. It ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity."

View Jim Jakosh's profile

Jim Jakosh

26210 posts in 4191 days

#9 posted 03-29-2020 08:22 PM

That is a really cool chair.stair. Very nice joinery on it too!!

Cheers, Jim

-- Jim Jakosh.....Practical Wood Products...........Learn something new every day!! Variety is the Spice of Life!!

View balidoug's profile


524 posts in 3564 days

#10 posted 03-29-2020 10:20 PM

great build, and great photo essay. Thanks for the inspiration.

-- From such crooked wood as that which man is made of, nothing straight can be fashioned. Immanuel Kant

View Oldtool's profile


3220 posts in 3277 days

#11 posted 03-30-2020 01:20 AM

This project came out fantastic, really beautiful. I agree with your thoughts regarding the build – hand tools, tool marks, etc., gives the piece a beautiful hand built appearance, something someone took pride in making.
Enjoy the fruits of your labors.

PS: almost forgot, nice story and description of the build.

-- "I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The point is to bring them the real facts." - Abraham Lincoln

View swirt's profile


6205 posts in 4058 days

#12 posted 03-30-2020 01:59 AM

Awesome joinery. Thank you so much for the build photos. I enjoyed seeing your process….and great old tools.

-- Galootish log blog,

View Foghorn's profile


1217 posts in 472 days

#13 posted 03-30-2020 03:17 AM

Loved the build pictures. Well done!

-- Darrel

View gsk3's profile


25 posts in 453 days

#14 posted 03-30-2020 10:21 AM

Amazing work, philosophy, wit. Franklin would note your coronavirus comments then vote accordingly.

View Mauricio's profile


7166 posts in 4237 days

#15 posted 03-30-2020 12:10 PM

I agree with Andre above, truly and heirloom piece. So many beautiful details. Awesome piece of work!

Great to see you working that wood Bertha!

-- Mauricio - Woodstock, GA - "Confusion is the Womb of Learning, with utter conviction being it's Tomb" Prof. T.O. Nitsch

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