Introduction: Tractor Stools
For thousands of years, farmers walked behind their draft animals, subject to same exhaustion as the beasts themselves. Sometime in the 1850s, horse-drawn ploughs began to feature cast-iron seats molded to meld with the humblest part of a farmer's anatomy. Eventually, mechanized equipment and padded seats took over, and much of the old equipment was culled for scrap. As a result, cast iron farm implement seats (the proper term used by collectors) are somewhat rare these days, and can command a good price. For more on the history of tractor seat design, check out my blog here.
Somewhat of a flea market aficionado, I hunted down these two tractor seats at antique markets in rural Iowa while on a road trip. At $30 bucks each, they were more than I usually like to pay for a guerilla project, but that seems to fall in within the fair market value. The rest of the materials were salvaged for free -- some scrap 2x8, a few bits of plywood, and a handful of bolts. Paying homage to the mid-century masters that came before me, I wove together some remnants of agrarian America into these stout bar stools.
Broad-shouldered and helmet-headed, they prop me up at breakfast and anchor me for happy hour.
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You will need these materials (per stool):
Cast iron or steel tractor seat
1 5' scrap of 2x8
approx. 2 square feet of plywood
Handful of #6 x 1-1/4" long wood screws (Spax work well here)
Handful of #8 x 2" drywall screws
Rusty metal primer spray paint
Enamel spray paint, color of your choice
1 1/2" x 3" carriage bolt
4 #8 x 3" pan head screws
Handful of 1/2" rubber washers
Handful of #8 cut washers
100 and 150-grit sandpaper
You will need these tools:
1/4 sheet or orbital sander
12" and 24" bar clamps
Step 1: Seat Restoration
You can find old tractor seats on eBay, in antique stores, flea markets, and hung like rusting skeletons on barn walls. Keep your eyes peeled, be willing to negotiate, and pick up a seat as cheap as you can.
Mine were quite corroded. To restore them, first strip the seats of an extra parts -- bolts and extraneous fittings. Then, sand off the worst of the rust with 150 grit sandpaper. Follow with steel wool until the surfaces are smooth, stripped of paint, and rust-free. Clean the metal of all rust and dust with a rag and denatured alcohol. Thoroughly coat with rusty metal primer, let dry, then hit with a few enamel coats of your favorite color. I laid on some clear coat over top for additional scratch protection.
If you like the old, half-painted, semi-rusty look, just strip off any obvious corrosion with sandpaper and denatured alcohol, then wax or clear-coat over the distressed surface.
Step 2: Legs!
This stool is built for a 42" (standing bar) height counter; once the seat is added to the leg frame, it sits about 31" high. If you have a standard residential height counter (approx. 36"), you'll want a shorter stool. A good rule of thumb is to aim for a 10"-12" differential between the top surface of the bar seat and the top surface of the bar. Secondly, my stools ended up a bit more tippy than I would like; the narrow base makes them compact and sleek looking, but the tractor seats make the structure top-heavy. I would miter them more extremely -- about 15 degrees -- if I did it over again. With those caveats in mind, here's how I made the legs for this version:
Start the legs by cutting two blanks out of 2x8 at 29", mitered in parallel at 10 degrees. Lacking a chop saw, I did this with a circular saw and a protractor. I clamped a piece of scrap plywood 1-7/16" off of the cut line (measure your own saw's baseplate for accuracy here), then ran the baseplate of the saw against it for a straight cut. While slightly more time-consuming, it is an accurate workaround when you have limited tools.
Measure in 1-3/4" along each miter, from opposite corners, then connect the marks and cut along the diagonal, splitting the blank into two wedge-shaped pieces. Repeat for the second blank. At the wide end of each leg, measure 3-3/4" over from the factory edge, then pull a square line down from the miter. Cut along the line. The resultant cut should be about 10" long and perpendicular to the 10 degree mitered ends of the legs.
Set the saw depth to 3/4". Make a series of parallel cuts on the 10" cut edge, as shown in the pictures, and knock out the waste with a hammer. Clean up the notches with a chisel.
Step 3: Top Hub
The top hub, constructed out of plywood, is kind of overbuilt. However, its strength prevents the need for extensive bracing at the base of the legs, making for a cleaner look.
Set the circular saw to a bevel of 30 degrees. Cut a strip of 3/4" plywood, beveled on both sides, with the bevels in opposition to one another. The strip should be about 6" wide from long point of the bevel to long point of the other bevel. Cut this strip into 5" chunks, ending up with three rectangles, 5" by 6", beveled on the two short sides. Glue and screw (use 2" drywall screws) these plates into the notches in the legs, centering them side-to-side. Pre-drill to prevent splitting.
Draw out an equilateral triangle on a piece of 3/4" plywood with 10" sides. Measure down each side from each point 2", then connect the lines, truncating the points on the triangle. Cut out the resultant asymmetrical hexagon with a circular saw.
Step 4: Assembly
Clamp the top plate to a table or workbench with a good bit of one corner overhanging the edge. Glue and clamp one leg to the top plate as shown, centering the width of the leg on one of the short sides of the top plate. Screw the top plate into the leg with a drywall screw. Use the #6 wood screws (Spax works best to prevent splitting) to secure the top plate to the plywood plate embedded in the leg. Repeat for the other three legs, until they are all secured, with approximately 1-1/2" gaps between the edges of the plywood plates.
Cut a strip of plywood with opposing 30 degree bevels, 1-1/2" wide from long point to long point of the bevels. Cut that strip into 5" pieces. Secure these pieces into the gaps with glue and screws.
Attach a clamp to each leg of the stool as shown to keep it from rocking around during routing. You can stand on the clamps for extra stability. Use a flush trim bit and a router to trim away the excess plywood in the top plate, ending up with a star-shaped top. At this point, add a foot rest 10" up from the base of the legs if you like; it aids getting in and out of the stool, though it is not structurally necessary. I made mine with a few scraps of plywood. A pipe, dowel, or piece of galvanized conduit would also look nice.
Clean up the legs with sandpaper. Ease edges. I finished with a water-based polyurethane tinted with a little bit of latex paint, which ended up with a whitewash effect. Pickling stain achieves the same end; a whitewash is a nice unifying finish that blends together dissimilar colors of scrap woods.
Drill a hole in the center of the top plate and secure the tractor seat with a carriage bolt, using a stack of rubber washers to hold the seat off of the base a little bit. I also added four longer screws through smaller mounting holes in the seat; every seat is different, so follow the pattern of your particular tractor seat.
Belly up to your counter and enjoy a drink after all that hard work . . .
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