Step Ladder Making I Enjoyed

 June 2017

I recently concluded developing a new pair of stepladders, actually I made two pairs in the perfecting of the video series we made. In the mix of everything I used two woods that made me conscious of how much we do indeed take our wood for granted. When I went to the US to live I was quite surprised the first time I heard people say something like, “I was surprised to see you as a craftsman making something nice from trash wood.” I naturally defended the wood and still do simply because my understanding was utterly different. Whereas most woodworkers rightly defend oak as a resource, in Britain about half of the furnishings produced for utilitarian pieces including furnishings did indeed come from the softwood range of timber. I’ll admit the pine I was using when living in the USA seemed less stable than ones I was used to in England, but I attribute that to extreme levels of force drying, forced growth and short tree life and not the wood itself as a problem. Kiln drying is an impatient forcing of moisture removal that seriously affect timber stability. Pine is mainly associated with rough pallet wood when mostly it’s not pine that’s used so much as colourless and characterless other white-grained woods. Strangeness aside, pine has been an amazing resource to us and we have relied on it for centuries. I will always love it. What most people may not know is that not all pines are created equal. By equal I mean they share a name in part but even with identical names they grow in different conditions and therefore produce different results and so differ in density, workability and more. Beyond that, how long and where the wood grows, how it’s cut makes wood unique to its tree. How anyone can say wood is a trash wood I shall never know, beyond it being in ignorance alone.

I often wonder if we know sometimes what we are actually saying when such things are indeed said that way though. Evaluations are one thing but on what basis are they made. Opinions matter all the less usually if they are not based on true knowledge through the experience of working i it and working it for a longish period. I have seen many vintage tool chests made from pine a hundred years old and in permanent service. If the men I served my apprenticeship with used it to make their tool boxes from as a commonly available wood, and then carried their tools in them for five or six decades, who am I to deem the wood trash wood and unfit for purpose?

The pine stepladder is very lightweight and strangely resilient to adverse pressure. When it squats on all forms it’s solid as a rock and it has no rattle anywhere. I feel absolutely secure on them. Even the better made aluminium stepladders rattle and flex and I strongly dislike that despite the fact the most H&S guidelines support the use of aluminium stepladders to be used in the workplace over wooden types. If I wasn’t filming I could make the pair I made in a full day whether they be pine or a hardwood. My mahogany pair were pure joy to make as mahogany peels like butter. I love the dark, rich grain for its diverse colour but also the way it works with hand tools. Join us on woodworkingmasterclasses.com for this and several other new projects about to unfold.

At the end of all things man has no right to say any wood is a trash wood. When he does he is saying he has no understanding of wood. Without it we would have no clean air to breathe. Isn’t that enough for us to value it alone?

44 comments on “Step Ladder Making I Enjoyed

  1. Those are really lovely. I’m sorry some of us Americans are less aware of wood and it’s beautiful variety. I love pine. Whenever I show someone some pine that was surfaced with a good smoothing plane they are amazed. It glows in ways they’ve never seen.

    Keep the good work coming our way.

    -Eric

  2. Hi Paul, ladders are a nightmare to have around the house. I have a particularly ugly metal set that weight about 20kg!

    Sorry if I missed it, but is this going to be a live project soon?

  3. Thanks Paul. I don’t have a step ladder that is of a handy size for my house and the one at my dad’s is very old and ratty looking (and mostly I am the one going up and down it to change light bulbs for him). I would love to make a pair (one for my dad and one for me).

    Do you address step thickness thickness and weight bearing capacity for these ladders in the upcoming videos?

    All wood is beautiful. I found some poplar one day that has these amazing hues of purple and gold that looks amazing as a shelf under my workbench. I wouldn’t trade that piece of wood for any other and it was quite inexpensive but I wouldn’t call is junk wood.

    • Weight bearing.
      My personal perspective is to test things is important and I do this myself when I make things because generally tested strains are not readily available or appropriate to the product I am making. So I test the rockers for say a rocking chair I am making by turning the individual rocker over and standing on the arch. That way, if it holds my weight, and I am using two rockers not one, I know that the rocker is at the very least twice the strength I need and more likely several times more. When I tested both the pine and the mahogany I took a piece of pine four times longer than the longest tread and suspended it between two points and stood on it. Then I added Hannah to my weight and it just bounced like a trampolene. It didn’t break. So, many times stronger than needed for the average male; 71 kilo or 156 1bs. Mahogany has a bending strength of 11,500psi and redwood pine is higher.

  4. The more I think about it, I want to make a total of 4 (one for me and three for various in laws). They would make excellent Christmas gifts.

    Do you have a feel for when they will air on master class (the desk series is just starting)?

    Also, would it be possible to get a rough approximation of wood sizes per ladder (and hardware) so I can go buy some wood now and start it acclimating in my shop?

  5. Hi Paul

    I keep on asking….sorry….can you PLEASE give some time to moulding planes and a sticking board

    Thanks John

    • Not at this time, John. We are focussing more on basic techniques at this time because this seems to be an area of lack for most people getting started. I do hear you though. This too is somewhat basic, but it is also more specialised at this point. Perhaps in the future. I will put it on the list though as I think it is important.

  6. Hi Paul,
    I recently re-modeled a large room in our house which included building a large book case. I had in my mind to build a step ladder to reach the higher shelves and your project here is perfect for my needs.
    On the subject of pine as a resource I am English born but live in Western Canada and I am appalled at the attitude to all softwoods except fir and cedar. One trip to our local municipal dump would make you cry to see the timber people throw away.

  7. Having grown up in forestry and farming i can only agree no two trees, even from the same species, are the same.
    There can be vast differences depending on soil, location, climate etc.
    Depending on those factors there are trees that are trash/unusable for furniture making.
    However they still have their use for firewood, wood chips and the like.

    The advantage that Aluminium ladders have is they are lightweight, dont rust and are impervious to insect damage which might explain why H&S favors them.

    • None of those are the reason but I see the points of view. In my view most aluminium ladders may be a little lighter than wooden ones, they also feel unsteady because of their light weight. Most ladders are rarely carried long distances and pine ladders, as strong as the alluminium ones, weigh about the same. Of course they don’t rust either and insect damage is the rarity not the norm.

  8. You are right to point out that not all pine is created equal. I recently (last November) rescued several lengths of century old pitch pine which was destined for the bonfire. It was lovely to use, looks great and smells wonderful when sawn or planed, even after all these years. For heavier duty projects, I find scaffolding boards are always worth considering.

    • you should be careful with scaffolding boards. the glues and chemical additives and materials used to bond and preserve them to get them to the strength and resist the elements in order to obtain the performance OSHA requires are very, very, toxic. In fact the manufacturers have warnings not to cut them at the risk of some nasty reactions to the chemicals used in the scaffold planks. Also, OSHA is US health and safety only and not international.

      • Is this a national truth, and international truth? I have seen scaffolding planks cut and go out with no treatment whatsoever and cut the hoop iron for hundreds of scaffolding boards at one time and the wood was just raw wood straight off the saw in the saw mill. Can you tell me where you are before we start a possible rumour. Many secondhand and recycling, upcycling centres sell scaffold planks for rustic furniture too. Can you give us the source?

  9. I have been woodworking for around four years now since taking your full course at Penryhn. I like to think I have come along way, but by far my biggest difficulty is sourcing timber, particularly pine. I would dearly love to work in the clear straight grained pine used for these steps, but in Northern Ireland where I live, I just cannot get it. Where do you source yours around Oxford? What do you ask for , do you have to buy in bulk, is it shipped in from a specialist? Am I missing a trick here?

    • Paul Craig – I too would be interested in knowing this. Pine at my local DIY stores is of dire quality.

      Every now and then I manage to find a bit of dense grained and knot free pine (like Paul provides students on his courses) and it’s a pleasure to work with (including the smell when cut). I’d be very happy to get my hands on a decent supply.

      • If you are in South East England, I suggest looking for the nearest Alsford branch their Premier timber is probably what you are looking for.
        OR again in South East look for a Q-line timber stockist – my local timber merchant stocks it, their PSE sections are pretty clean and stable – not cheap but you get what you pay for. Avoid all the big box stores

  10. I am currently making a few trays from yellow pine. I’m surprised.to learn it’s considered a hardwood here in the US. It is certainly tough and hard and seems quite stable, although the annual growth rings give me problems starting a saw cut. Can you comment on yellow pine?

    • I’ve never heard of an evergreen referred to as anything but softwood, regardless of how hard it is. Likewise, deciduous are always called hardwood, nevermind how soft. Maybe it is just the part of the country I’m from.

  11. Hi Paul, I’ve spent the last few months scouring your blog and Masterclass website, learning and gathering information whilst restoring my fathers old tools. The knowledge I’ve in such a short time has been amazing. I’m so excited about the ladder project that I’ve already ordered the hinges so I’ll be ready. In the meantime I shall continue to practice my sharpening and learning how to plane and use a chisel properly.

  12. I live in the states and I love pine. I live in a house that my grandfather built back in the 50’s. He used a lot of pine for: trim, door frames, built in cabinets, closet doors. From what I’ve seen, pine was very popular in the southeast if you roll the clock back a bit. Perhaps some of the negative perception comes from the often poor quality wood people see in big box stores here. I can personally attest that the yellow pine they stock locally for framing is not a joy to work with. It also seems that people do have an obsession over what they consider “premium” woods. The list of these seems to tie back to marketing from big manufacturers of flooring, cabinets, etc. With these folks, the hardwoods are billed as premium. Like I said, though, in older houses around here I see lots of beautiful original cabinetry done with pine.

  13. I always appreciate your perspective Paul, but this is one area where I have to disagree, at least in part.
    I’m not going to say Pine is a trash wood, but more so that what is available here for Pine in the western US is trash.
    I wish it were properly kiln dried. It’s not, it’s sold very wet even if it has a “KD” stamped on it.
    I can’t recall the last time I even saw pine as clear as your step ladder appears.
    Home builders around here have started framing with LVL(micro-lam) because it’s so difficult to get decent lumber. I have family involved in construction at the Yellowstone Club (a private club with homes in the millions of dollars). They use LVL for hidden framing, and have started importing Russian Larch for exposed framing because the quality is so bad here.

    Again, that’s not to say specifically that the wood itself is subpar, but simply that people’s perspectives may be based on what’s produced and available to them.

    • I am not sure that you really ought to so generalise the whole world based on the limited perspective of North America. That said, I also know where I can buy lovely, clear, knot-free Eastern white pine in large quantities 12″ wide and 12 feet long tomorrow in Upstate New York. Home builders are not all the same but many look for ways they can cut a dollar where it is unseen in the project. I understand what you are saying and it is problematic finding the right wood.

      • I wasn’t trying to comment on the whole world, only that one can understand that point of view from some people when the lumber in their region is dominated by sub par material.
        Also, as far as the US is concerned, Eastern white pine, and Southern yellow are both superior to Western white pine. The wood out here in Montana, is just not as good.

  14. I know chippys who would describe pine as junk, but then use veneered mdf to do wardrobes and cabinets. Opinions with no base in fact or experience is just verbal diarrhea and should be avoided at all costs. Take food 20 years ago cheaper cuts of meat were deemed junk, now with love and knowledge they grace the menus of the finest restaurants throughout the land. I love pine because it gets you started in joinery, I wouldn’t have risked or been able financially to buy walnut or cherry to get my first pieces and learn how to make lovely pieces of work. In fairness I use pine more than any other wood but I do prefer a higher grade of European red pine as it has a hardness that offers a reassuring resistance when being worked by hand. Thanks as always for your beautiful insight into the world of wood and craftsmanship. Keep it coming Paul and all the team, love it love it love it.

  15. Trash wood? I follow the old standards. If the Masters built it out of pine a century ago and I’m standing there looking at; I’ll build it in pine. If the build it in curly maple well then…I’ll build it in pine. Can’t foot the maple, never even held any.

  16. Can’t wait for this project series, Paul! Of course, I must, but I shall wait on pins and nails.
    For those sourcing the trestle hinges from eBay, be aware that they may be sold individually, and not in pairs. I mention this as a warning for those preparing to build multiple ladders for Christmas projects.

  17. Living in the upper peninsula of Michigan I am blessed with knowing a couple of one man saw mills from whom I can buy very nice air dried lumber, including clear white pine. This white pine is quite lovely to work with. The only southern yellow pine I have come across was from disassembling a shipping crate. It was fun to make some lovely boxes from it. The oak I can buy from local lumber yards is kiln dried way to fast and will often have small gaps in it. I enjoyed your article very much.

  18. Paul Thank you for the enlighting aspects toward pine wood,I am new to wood working, specially without using electrical tools.
    In Mèxico it a predominant wood for almost all pourposes, are pines, to my experience are resinous and also not too resinous, much info maybe is available of our pine woods in regard to those in Michoacan and Chihuahua but are not easily available.
    Again thanks for tour master teaching!

  19. In the Midwest of the US I can easily get flat, clear pine boards at either Lowes or Menards big box stores. These “boards” are an aisle or two away from the cheaper “lumber” (as Lowes labels them).

  20. Hi Paul, First I want to thank you for you have taught me! And about pine. My goodness that’s all I could afford and I still use it today for most projects. I went to poplar because it is only slightly more expensive and paints nicely when I chose that finish. But pine. You all must know that wonderful scent you get when you are working it and I get mine now from a man in Stuart Fl who sells beautiful pine and other woods. Trash wood? No such thing. It’s like when I attempt to discard cutoffs, some would call them Trash, they stick to my hand until I place them in a container.

  21. The trestle hinges are now selling at £19 EACH by Amazon UK !
    Not available on ebay.
    Anyone knows where I can buy the 6 inch. trestle hinges
    at the original price of £10 for a pair , prior to Mr. Sellers’
    announcement of the step ladder project?

    • They are now selling on Amazon for $74
      Ironmongery World
      Trestle Paste Board Joint Hinges Black 150mm by Ironmongery World
      Be the first to review this item
      Price: $73.94 + $4.99 shipping
      and that seems to be the price for a single hinge and we would need two. So $148 for just the hinges. $10 in june and $74 Five months later, Very impressive.

      • Not at all. Still £5.45 here. $9.00. I can’t help it if US suppliers jump all over the price to raise it after a blog or video I do but even if you shipped from UK it would not be anywhere near that price. Look here:

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