Early March 2020. I could see the Covid pandemic overwhelming hospitals and cemeteries, decimating towns and cities in Italy – news from China was harder to discern – taking hold in Spain where I had just returned from, and forcing governments to implement lockdowns and quarantines. I imagined the same thing happening soon in London and then the rest of Great Britain. Anxious and probably intuiting I would be spending time confined at home, I decided to make a big footstool so I could lounge more comfortably while reading.
Some time ago I'd found a ten by ten centimetre two metre beam and smaller offcut of ‘mahogany’, probably Sapele, in a skip outside a shop renovation. It had been stored for ages outside my flat, so I decided to use that and the few hand tools I had for DIY at home.
The footstool was to accompany a big comfy second-hand leather lounge chair, perfect for reading in, that has been in the family for decades. I bought it from blokes stripping-out a night-club for refurbishment in Shoreditch, it still smells of smoke.
First I had to resaw the beam into more usable planks so I clamped the Sepele to my kitchen table bench and rip sawed for hours and hours, and hours. The Sapele is tough and coarse, grainy even, it twisted when cut so I had to wedge the rips open to enable the pull-saw to move smoothly. Dust was everywhere and I started coughing.
After resawing the timber, which took the best part of a day, I planed the rough-cut surfaces flat, then square and finally smooth. Clamped to my bench, I sat and planed the Sapele and again it took its toll on my energy and the plane blade, I had to sharpen it every half an hour or so. I was coughing more, dust allergy I thought. Planing the four planks probably took another day too, and produced a mountain of woodshavings.
I thought the footstool top could be made from a big, almost metre square suede covered floor cushion that my mother-in-law had fabricated for our daughter some twenty five years ago. My daughter was long gone from home and I’m too old to sit on the floor now, so I had no real use for the cushion, but of course I’d saved it. Maybe this would be a new lease of life. I was coughing repeatedly.
I realised, although without knowing how, that I had contacted covid. I had all the described symptoms. Persistent cough, flu-like aches and fluctuating temperature. I felt terrible, took to bed and listened to the city slowly shutting down and the wail of the emergency services. I was ill for a few days, felt better, got up and with a surge of manic energy cleaned the bathroom. Then I felt much, much worse. Like the virus was installing itself in my lungs. My breathing got shallower, I returned to bed not sure if my symptoms were anxiety or the struggle with the virus but feared this was the beginning of the end. A few more days in bed accompanied by hallucinatory dreams culminating in a spectacular fever and it was gone. I felt weak but eventually got up confident that I had encountered the virus and survived.
By now London and the UK was in lockdown. We were only allowed out for an hour a day to shop, which was fine as I had little energy. Maybe a couple of weeks had passed since I started sawing and in the meantime the whole world felt radically different. News spooled from the radio of deaths and overwhelmed mortuaries, too-calm government ministers misinformed and I was frightened. Frightened for loved ones and for my wellbeing. I thought it would be good to concentrate on something creative, something simple, so slowly I resumed the footstool.
I decided to make a frame with mitered corners to fit snugly around and just over half way up the suede cushion. Through more rip sawing I cut the timber to width and roughly to length, then clamped them together to plane square and smooth. I marked out and cut the mitres by hand, unfortunately a bit out of square. Off. So I improvised a shooting board by screwing a guide to the bench to plane the joints tight. Once happy with the fit I set about assembling the frame. But, how could I hold the frame together while drilling countersunk pilot holes for the screws when I didn’t have enough clamps? I scoured YouTube and saw a clip of someone using four angled wooden corner jigs and a nylon cargo strap to assemble a picture frame. I had some straps and thought that could work. I sawed out the jigs from some woodwaste, attached a cargo strap and pulled the frame tight. It did work. With pilot holes drilled, I disassembled the frame, added glue to the mating surfaces, reassembled, pulled tight, checked for square by measuring the diagonals, watched as glue squeezed from every joint and finally double screwed each corner. Done.
While the glue was drying I remembered I had some scraps of seven-ply Birch plywood waiting in a store cupboard and from this measured and cut a one metre square backing that would fit flush inside the frame. Flush inside the frame so it wouldn’t be visible yet hold the cushion. After the frame glue dried I glued and screwed the cut plywood in. Now I had a neat bespoke tray that held the cushion in a tender push-fit, next I needed an apron to secure the legs to. Oh, and I needed legs.
I thought it would be good for the cushion top tray to cantilever out over the legs and be the same height as the lounge chair seat. I probably half recalled an image of an Eames lounge chair and ottoman. I like the idea of the legs being tucked back under the top, you’re less likely to trip when passing and it might make the footstool feel a bit smaller. Nimbler. On the underside of the top I estimated the offset for the apron for the legs, scribed the distance in pencil all around from the edge then stood some wood in position temporarily. I wanted to see how it looked. Well, not only how it looked but whether it was appropriate. Maybe a bit more offset? No, the footstool might be prone to toppling over, no, I think it's ok. Once satisfied I again sawed some Sapele down to size and roughly to length to be the apron, clamped them together to plane a consistent width and cut mitered corners. A bit neater this time. Assembled using the corner jigs and cargo strap, the apron was set-back about seven centimetres all around from the edge of the top. Bold. Bold but safe.
From the smaller offcut of mahogany I cut four rough blanks for the legs. I calculated the length and cut to size, planed them square and flat and then taped them temporarily to the apron with masking tape. I balanced the tray and cushion on top, placed it in front of the low chair and stepped back to take a look. Wow, good, but not right.
The height was good and the offset too, but the legs, the legs were ugly. Too chunky. They needed something. They needed to be tapered, they needed to meet the floor more delicately, they needed to enable the footstool to look like a piece of furniture and not decking support.
I looked at images of furniture and noticed that it’s a convention to leave the two outside surfaces of a leg square, and to taper the inner two. This is what I did. Clamped to the bench I ripped a gentle taper on two sides of all four legs and then planed them flat. Of course I left the top, where the legs engage the apron, square. With the apron flush on the floor I placed the legs upside down at each corner, tapers inwards, clamped, drilled pilot holes, countersunk, uncamped, added glue, reclamped and finally screwed the legs to the apron. Sturdy.
Once dry, about an hour later, I placed the cushion tray top on the apron, marked it’s position and drilled pilot holes through the plywood base and into the rails of the apron to enable me to securely screw the two parts together. This is what I did.
I pushed the cushion in the tray, moved the footstool in position, sat in the chair and lounged. It’s good, the footstool's suede top is comfy and dense enough to work as a serviceable low table. I painted the whole footstool with Osmo wood stain and protector, to seal and indeed protect. It adds a nice silky sheen. Throughout various lockdowns, and even after they were all over the footstool has proved a great addition to my life.
Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle
Companion projects, a text about Community on the boundary estate, a collaborative stool making event and a short film about community.