The Best Legs

Southern_Table_w_pencil_drIt’s taking longer for me to complete a project than it use to. Before, I would run through a project cycle in a couple of weeks. Today, with my other job nicking my shop time, I’m lucky to complete a project in a couple of months. Spending too long on a piece makes me slower and tends to drag down my interest, so I decided to begin a second project. While the time to completion on one project pushes farther out, I’m able to maintain interest and enthusiasm by switching between the two ongoing projects.

The second project I began this week is the above pictured writing table found at Colonial Williamsburg – my first exposure to it was in the book “Southern Furniture 1680 – 1830” (Harry N. Abrams, Inc.). I’m not sure why I’m so captured by southern furniture. I expect it’s due to the simplicity of the designs.

Grain Choices

This project build begins with the legs. As I pulled lumber off the rack, I thought about what makes legs look the best. My first thought is that it depends on the wood. I’m building this table with mahogany, and its feathered grain does not show a strong difference between flat-cut and quartersawn woods, especially in pieces that are 1 9/16″ wide. On the other hand, maple does show a strong difference when comparing the two cut types. So what do you look for? The photo above shows the three ways most lumber is cut, and how each would appear in a leg found on this table. When you see this, I hope it’s obvious which cut is better choice. It’s rift cut. In rift-cut lumber, all four faces of the legs closely match in grain appearance.

WrongCab - WrongIf you build using rift-cut stock, tapered legs look best, whether you’re cutting a two-sided taper or are tapering all four sides. An even bigger difference is found if this same philosophy is applied to cabriole legs, but you also need to align your grain in the right orientation with legs found on Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture. Here’s what I mean. If you align your cabriole leg so the foot is across the grain, as shown above and to the left, you get rings or circles at the knee of your leg. These circles are not appealing, but the issue is more than aesthetics. That circle pattern indicates a weakness as you slide down to just above the ankle. That’s where your leg can break as the grain crosses the narrow cut of the leg.

RightCab - RightIf you orient the foot so it’s with the grain, as shown to the left, you get a much stronger and more pleasing end result. Notice there is no ring at the knee. The grain runs pretty much up and down the entire leg. That means there is no weak point at or above the ankle. This leg should not fracture during its life because the weight is carried through the leg as it follows the grain.

These are simplistic examples, but it should be clear that you need to watch the grain direction of your legs. If possible choose rift-cut lumber, and if you’re working up a set of cabrioles, make sure to point your toe with the grain. I know that it’s not always easy to follow these guidelines. If you find that you have a couple of legs cut using the best grain and a couple that aren’t, use the better legs at the front of your project. Ever hear the saying, “Put your best foot forward?”

Build Something Great!

Glen

5 Comments

Filed under Back to Basics, Design, Shop Tips

5 responses to “The Best Legs

  1. John Weber

    Thanks Glen. I just made my first cabriole legs. The second time I can do it right. I think I did it backwards.

  2. Jeremy

    Thank you.

  3. Glen, good info on selecting wood and grain orientation for legs. previously, I’ve just looked for the straightest grain I had. I’ll pay more attention to orientation in the future. Thanks, Tom

  4. Charles Wilson

    Right now I am juggling between three active projects, with an additional one in the concept/design phase. Fortunately there are no schedule restraints, so I can work at my own pace and not neglect my grandchildren.

  5. I got in a bit of an argument with a local sawyer over quarter and rift sawn grain direction. Can someone tell me the maximum angle of the grain in quartersawn? I thought it was somewhere in the neghborhood of 30-35 degrees but he said it is anything up to 45 degrees, everything beyond is flat, and rift is a myth. We had this bit of argument when I explained to him that I like 45 degree grain orientation for table legs so that the grain is almost identical in all 4 sides of the leg, instead of quarter on 2 sides and flat on 2. I get a lot of these legs from the areas quartersawing would generate small boards. I gave up when he got pissed off and explained he gave lectures on the subject and I, obviously, did not. By the way, he gives talks on flat sawing everything and then cutting out the quartersawn figure on the few boards that get it to sell as quartersawn.

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