Introduction: Recreating the Esherick Music Stand

About: Engineer by trade, amateur woodworker and author in the off-hours. Most commonly, I build flag boxes for retiring military members and occasionally gifts and furniture when the opportunities arise. Outside of …

I’m all about a good challenge when it comes to new and exciting woodworking projects. Although most of my work has been in making flag boxes, another popular subject has been the venerable music stand. Speaking again as an unrepentant band geek, I’ve had a good eye for building stands that are not only aesthetically pleasing, but functional as well.

I was approached by a local orchestra member to recreate a piece in the Yale University Art Gallery, a music stand by the artist Wharton Esherick. The simple grace of the original was inspiring in its own right and the artist being a native of PA (also guilty) meant I had to give it a shot.

Let's take a look:

Ooh... this looks rough.

The buyer wanted to give it a few needed upgrades, however. My version would need to be played by an upright bassist (instead of seated), add a rest to hold pencils, and be able to be folded for transport.

To build your own will require a bit of knowledge of shaping and maneuvering your materials. The legs (basically tusks) are no small feat and the continuous tapers of the various components can be a challenge. That said, I recommend having:

- Table saw

- Band saw

- Disc sander and/or spindle sander

- Router, full set of roundover bits recommended

- Plane/chisel/spokeshave

- Festool Domino/Biscuit joiner or pocket hole set

- 8/4x10” lumber for legs

- 1/4” brass pivot rod, 1/8x1/4” brass square stock

- Patience (of course)

*Final pictures courtesy of my better half @

Step 1: Planning

As you can imagine, it is extremely important to have a plan going into something this big. Start with an existing music stand, set it at the height and pitch you require, and get a couple pictures. I used my early prototype but any folding or Manhasset stand will work fine. I found that I needed a height of 46” to the rest and a pitch around 20-25 degrees to comfortably view the music (my angle cube came in handy here).

Before cutting any parts, draw up a plan (mine was built in Publisher, which is an easy system for building scaled drawings). Both of my views (the legs and the top) are included as attachments here.

The first real action is to make a pattern for the legs. Set out a ¼” sheet of plywood and use a heavy tape measure to build a beam compass. Mounting a pencil at the end, keep the pivot just above the floor line and trace an arc roughly the height you’re looking for. Keeping the pivot above the floor will give your stand the impression of being pushed forward like the original; I ended up with a pivot of about 80”.

To make the taper, I went with a sweep from 2” at the top to 3/4” at the bottom. Mark both of those to the inside of the first arc and adjust the compass as needed to connect them.

In addition to the legs, I made a pattern of the side of the music rest so I could get an idea of where everything would fall once assembled. This also let me attach the patterns together and adjust the placement to get the look I wanted. At this point, I also added a 1x3” stretcher that I would use to mount a shelf and the hook to catch the back leg once it was deployed. Mark that now, at a height that would be comfortable to reach while in use.

Once you are happy with the pattern, cut it on the bandsaw, keeping the edges as smooth as possible.

Step 2: Tusks, Part 1

Table legs are easy, right? Square upright posts screwed in place… not so much here. These guys are bent in one dimension, tapered in two, continuously rounded over along the length, two will be splayed and attached by an arbitrary stretcher and the last one needs to pivot...

No sense backing out now.

Use your pattern to mark all 3 legs beside each other on a single board, 2x10x42” at a minimum. Cut them on the bandsaw outside the line and use a disc sander to get the sizes the same. Stacking them up and comparing can also help with this. Do the same for the inside with a spindle sander if you have one. If you don’t, drag them along the edge of the disc or use the spokeshave.

The tops of the outer legs are tapered to match the supports on the music rest. Looking at the pictures from the gallery, I noted that they were splayed at 10 degrees. I clamped the pair together and made a mark to cut them on the miter saw.

Step 3: The Music Rest - Lower

Before going farther with the legs, we’ll need to attack the top so we have something to anchor them to. I used a block of 1 ¼” thick walnut for the back, and a 1/2” thick piece for the lower pencil rest. These will need to be cut and assembled before moving on to attach the legs.

Use a bull nose bit in a router table to cut the pencil slot and use your joiner of choice to attach the lower rest to the thicker back. Let this dry completely and we’ll use it to dry-fit the legs.

As a later addition, I had planned to add a bracket to the sides which would cap the assembly and provide a place for the musician to rest a bow. After creating a few prototypes, I decided that I didn't like the look as it seemed to distract from the rest of the piece. The lines didn't match up and from what I could tell, the top did not need the additional support.

Instead, we'll add a pair of pegs sized between cup hooks and shaker pegs. A simple dowel would also work but if you have access to a lathe, you can make your own. Load up a 3/4x3/4" blank and turn it to the general shape you'd like, leaving a flare and 3/8" tenon at the bottom. I also tapered the tenon to ensure a tight fit in the stand. Use a set of calipers to make the pair match and sand them like the rest of the stand.

The mounting holes are easy enough, but a guide of some kind can help. I used a guide for drilling dowel pegs, which gave me a good placement near the edge. Adjust the hole as needed, then glue the pegs into

Step 4: Tusks, Part 2

Alright, we now have the legs splayed and roughed out in one dimension. Using your pattern, mark the location of the legs on the lower rest (sides and center). You’ll now need to attach these together.

Depending on your skillset and equipment, you could use dowels, mortise/tenons, or pocket holes. I’d shy away from biscuits since these joints will need to take a little bit of force. For mine, I made a 10-degree wedge and clamped it in front of the joint, then plowed a 12x140mm domino into it. Very carefully I repeated this process on the leg, letting the fence balance on the inside edge of the miter made earlier.

In order to improve alignment, I stepped down to an 8mm cutter, increased the offset and added a 50mm domino closer to the front.

For the taper, mark the blanks at the feet, leaving your ½ or ¾” foot pad, and use another blank to trace from nothing at the top to the mark at the bottom. Head back to the bandsaw to slice the waste away. Once complete, use the disc sander or a jack plane to smooth the sides out.

Dry fit the two legs, stand the assembly upright and use a sliding bevel to check that both sides have the same pitch. Clamp a board to use as the stretcher in place, checking it with a level, and mark the top and bottom on the legs, as well as the back of the board.

Next we need to round over the edges of the tusks; we’ll go for somewhere between round and squircle (Zune folk, represent!). To make this a little easier, start with some roundover bits and make a rough mark across all 3 legs where each one can be used. I ended up with a gradient of 5/16 at the bottom, 3/8 next, followed by ¾ and the 1 ¼ at the top (from a chairmaking set). Once this is complete, use a spokeshave to blend the transitions together and further define the shape. I stayed away from both the stretcher joints as well as the spot on the rear where I planned to add the catch.

Follow the spokeshave with either hand or power sanding. I found that a soft pad on a random orbit sander is a big help with smoothing the tapers.

Step 5: The Pivots

Before gluing anything together, we need to finalize the mechanism to let the stand pivot. I wanted the middle leg to swivel on a brass rod in the back, then catch a hook on the shelf when deployed. We’ll first work on the middle leg.

Mark out a ‘T’ shape in the back of the rest, about 2” wide that will fit a tab the same width as the leg. Cap it with 3/4x3/4 extrusions where we can mount two small, square blocks. Bore a 17/64” hole through the blocks as well as the leg, which will allow a ¼” rod to spin freely. Pre-drill a pair of screw holes from the bottom and attach the system in place. The rear leg should now pivot without resistance.

For the front legs, the stretcher needed to be thick enough to accept a domino but also allow for rotation of the shelf. To solve this, cut a sheer notch a few inches in, essentially turning it into a ¾” dowel. We’ll make some shackles to fit over these when we make the shelf.

Step 6: The Upper Music Rest

The upper music rest is equally as challenging as the lower sections. Looking at the pattern, we have a 2-3” deep rest, two straight sides, an arched top, three rounded supports, and two horizontal supports which are clipped.

Starting from the outside, cut the rest on the bottom, then the two sides and top using your pattern. Use your joiner of choice to attach them together (if you use mortises, good on you but remember to add the length to the sides). I used a pair of 5mm dominoes at each joint which seemed to work well and keep things aligned. Keep everything square for now.

For the inner supports, mill three 1/2x1/2” sticks, and cut half-lap joints at the top and bottom to mount them in place (again, following the pattern. These will also need to be rounded over, but not the full length as we don’t want to ruin the lap joints nor the contact area with the horizontal supports.

Mark the areas where the pieces should remain square and use a small roundover bit in a router table to take care of most of the work. We’ll finish it with a file and chisel once everything is assembled.

Glue and clamp the outside together and when everything is square, add the vertical supports.

Round over the fronts of the horizontal supports and smooth the corners by hand or with a sander. When the frame is dry, glue them to the flat areas of the vertical supports.

For the main music rest, I wanted to add a cove to add interest and catch more pencils/music but didn't feel the router or table saw trick would do. Instead, I used an antique profile plane and a fence to make a shallow depression.

When the assembly is dry, use a roundover bit in a router to run over all the edges and follow with a fine rasp and sander on the bends and joints as needed. I also found it useful to wrap a thin strand of sandpaper around the spokes and gently shape the joints so everything flows together.

With the top assembled, mark the joint to attach it to the lower rest in whatever method you prefer. Again, I used small, stacked Dominos along the length to get a high surface area that would resist the forces placed upon it. Don’t glue the top and bottom together just yet.

Step 7: Tusk Assembly

With all of the preliminary work complete on the music rests, we can now do some assembly on the lower sections. Check the stretcher for its fit and when you are satisfied, apply your joint making process of choice to attach it to the legs. Again I chose Dominos but mortises or capped screws from the outside would work just as well.

Once you are happy with the look of the lower rest, front legs and stretcher, glue everything up. I used a pair of horizontal pipe clamps to hold the stretcher in place and keep the pitch of the legs where I wanted, then added two more vertically between the lower rest and the stretcher to pull the longer Dominos all the way together. Check that everything is square and let the assembly dry completely before placing any stress on the joints.

Step 8: Standing It Upright and Making the Shelf

Once the front assembly is dry, attach the rear leg, dry fit the top and stand it up. Take one more look at the pitch and measure the space between the stretcher and the rear leg. This will give you the measurement for the shelf.

The shelf on the original as well as mine was made as a triangle with circles in the corners and the connecting sides flared out. I drew a mock-up of this in Publisher and then marked half of it straight on a 5/4” board. A compass with a 2” radius took care of the points and a piece of brass bar bent in a clamp gave me the flare for the sides. Cut the shape on the bandsaw and smooth it out on the disc sander as needed. From here, I resawed the half-shelf by hand and glued it together along the center line before running it lightly through a planer. This makes for a thinner shelf that doesn’t make the piece overly heavy, it keeps each side mirroring each other, and it allows for the grain to match as well.

To finish up the shelf, I added a gentle roundover profile on the edge and sanded it smooth.

Next, we’ll attach the shelf to the stretcher. To do this, we’ll make two small shackles to ride in the notches we cut earlier. Cut both, round over the outside edges and remove the waste from the inside so that it’ll swing around the ¾” dowel on the stretcher.

From the bottom, pre-drill a pair of pilot holes deep enough so you can insert a self-tapping screw through and attach the shackles to the shelf. To prevent the screw from going through, I went very slow, by hand, with a self-tapping screw and did not over-tighten anything.

There’s always a catch. In order to have the shelf hit the rear leg, hold itself up, and keep the rear leg from slipping out, we’ll need to make a hook to interact between them.

I drew a sweep by hand to match the legs and turned it into a 1/2x1/2” square catch that would be glued to the underside of the shelf and slip into a mortise in the rear leg. Once the catch is roughed out, mark where it will hit on the rear leg and use a drill and mortising chisel to carve out a mortise for it to catch. The top will be sloped but the bottom will need to hook down and under the surrounding material.

Even this wasn’t enough to hold the leg up so I added a small block with a notch on the inside and mounted it over the mortise to grab the catch.

For the catch, carve away the underside of the leading edge to create a small hook. This will be extremely delicate so to keep from snapping it off, split the tip and epoxy a blade of the brass stock in the center for strength. If you can get close with a hack saw, a file can be used to bring it into the final shape.

Once the glue around the brass catch is dry, test fit the assembly, and round over all the edges, leaving a flat area at the top so it can be glued to the underside of the shelf. Once it’s cleaned up, use a deep handscrew clamp to glue to the shelf. Countersink a small screw through the catch for added strength.

Step 9: Assembly

Home stretch now! Glue the upper music rest down to the leg assembly and as before, allow it to fully cure before moving. If you have any joints with glue showing, clean it up and do any final sanding you need.

From here, everything needs to be broken down for finishing as we don’t want globs of stain to be stuck in the moving parts. Apply stain and polyurethane as desired.

Step 10: Finished!

And that's all there is to it! Wasn't that easy?

Maybe not quite, but I'm sure it'll get many hours of use by a special musician in your life.

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