Starting from the Ground Up
The fabrication of this highboy’s four cabriole legs demands a considerable investment of time. If you’re a first-timer, please don’t be disheartened if, after a week of hard work, you’re still working on them.
Begin by squaring up your leg stock. The blanks should finish out at a minimum of 2-7⁄8″ on a side with a length of 36-3⁄8″. This length includes the finished length of the leg (35-3⁄8″), plus one additional inch which is necessary if you decide to turn the foot on the lathe as I do. Once the leg has been squared up, trace your leg pattern on one face of your blank. Then place the pattern on a face adjacent to the one on which the pattern is marked, making sure the back corner of the post at the top of the leg meets the back corner of the post on the previously marked face.
Once the cabriole shapes have been marked on two adjacent faces, mark the locations of the various mortises each post will require. Remember that no two posts have exactly the same mortise arrangement. There is a right and left front post and a right and left back post, with each of these four requiring a different mortise layout.
Next, chop each of the mortises. While this can be done after the legs have been shaped, it is much easier to do when the stock is square in cross section. I used a Forstner bit in my drill press to rough in these mortises. I then squared them up with a paring chisel.
Careful work on the band saw will save you time when you later move to hand tools to fair the surfaces of the cabriole legs. (I would recommend that you not use a skip-tooth blade because you want the surfaces to be reasonably smooth.) Plan your cuts so that the pieces will fall from the band saw in large sections, because you’re going to need them when you make the next set of cuts.
After making all the cuts on the first face, tape the cut-offs back into place. This way you’ll have a square blank to maneuver under the band saw blade when you rotate that blank 90 degrees. (You can discard the very small pieces from under the foot.)
Lay the pattern back into place on the adjacent face, and re-mark any areas that have been concealed by the tape. Then begin sawing the adjacent face. You may need to re-tape some of the pieces as you make the second set of cuts — it’s essential that you maintain a square blank throughout the sawing process.
There are two ways to shape the round foot and the round pad beneath the foot. You can lay out the foot using a compass to delineate the pad on the end grain at the bottom of the leg and then — using the circle as a reference — shape the pad and foot with carving tools and rasps. This is an effective approach, although it is time-consuming.
I prefer to shape the foot and pad on the lathe because it’s quicker and produces feet and pads that are truly round. I should point out, however, that this is not a technique that should be attempted by anyone who lacks experience in lathe work, because it requires you to work against an asymmetrically mounted and unbalanced form in the lathe.
To perform this work on the lathe, you must mount the centered top of the post against the drive center of the lathe and the centered bottom of the pad below the foot against the tailstock of the lathe. Place a tool-rest into position and manually turn the part through several rotations to ensure that this eccentric form misses the rest all the way around. Then — very cautiously — begin to turn the pad and foot with a roughing gouge and scraping tools. I have found that this turning process works best if you periodically remove some of the excess material above the heel of the foot with a drawknife as the foot emerges.
When the pad and foot have been shaped, you’re ready to create the finished shape of your cabriole leg. I find this process to be among the most pleasurable of woodshop experiences, in part because it allows me an extended opportunity to put a variety of hand tools through their paces. I typically do this work with the leg still mounted in the lathe, although it can also be done with the leg mounted between V-blocks in a bench vise.
I shape the post at the top of the leg with a block plane, finishing the bottom section of the post (just above the knee) with a wide paring chisel and a scraper. The shaping of the leg itself requires a variety of hand tools: a block plane for the convex work and a drawknife and/or spokeshave for the concave work. Use rasps, card scrapers and sandpaper to clean up any areas of torn-out grain.
If you study Queen Anne legs on period originals, you’ll see that this form is articulated in many different ways. Some makers kept hard lines where the sides of the leg meet the front of the leg. Others softened these intersections, and some, in fact, rounded them. I tend to keep these intersections quite crisp up high beneath the knee, softening them as the lines descend to the floor.