In this story I make Queen Anne style cabriole legs out of walnut. The legs were part of a recent jewelry chest commission.
This is not a beginner project and assumes some basic joinery and hand tool knowledge.
Choose Good Leg Stock
The first step is to determine the overall leg dimensions. Cabriole legs come in all sizes: from short and squat to tall and thin. Most often, you’ll start with 10/4” -16/4” stock.
Rough cut the stock to length. Leave the blanks 1/4” over size in thickness and about 4” longer than the finished leg. You’ll cut off two transition knee blocks from the extra length at the top. The blocks transition the leg to the apron.
Thick stock can have a lot of internal tension from drying. It’s best to let the rough cut leg blanks rest for a few days before final shaping. Be sure the air can get at all four faces of the blank. I just stand them up in a corner of the shop.
Joint and plane the rested blanks to final thickness For the jewelry chest in this story, I used a 2-3/4” x 2-3/4” x 24” leg blank cut from 12/4” stock.
Make A Template
Rip the template stock from 1/4” MDF or plywood. The template should be the same width as the leg (2-3/4” for this project) and about 4” longer than the finished leg length (28”).
Layout the Template
The template layout combines exact measurements and freehand drawing.
Start with a square to mark off some basic elements of the leg.
Measure up 24” from the bottom and square a line for the top of the leg. The first element down from the top is the block. The block height needs to be tall enough to accommodate the apron it’s joined to and wide enough to remain strong after the mortises are cut into it. Our leg will join to a 4” apron. Measure down 4” from the top of the leg and square a line for the block height. Measure in from the back edge 1-3/4” and square a line for the block thickness. A thickness of 1-3/4” will leave plenty of stock for the mortises.
On the other end of the template lay out the pad diameter and thickness. Generally the pad will be 3/16” to 3/8” inch thick and the diameter should be about half the width of the blank, in our case 1- 3/8” diameter. If you know the piece will rest on carpet go with the 3/8” pad; on a hardwood floor, 1/4” inch is plenty. Square lines for the pad.
The next element up the leg is the toe. Square a line for the toe height, generally 3/4” to 1” up from the bottom. The toe on this leg is 1” up from the bottom. Square a line for the toe.
Square the ankle line at 3 times the toe height, in our case 3” up from the bottom. Draw another line across about 1” above this line. This represents the narrowest part of the ankle.
Now we move back up the leg to the knee. Square another line across the template that is three times the height of the toe, or 3”, below the bottom of the block. This is where the front of the knee will be. Draw a 45° line from the bottom of the block to the outside edge of the template. This is the approximate angle of the top of the knee where it meets the block. You don’t want this to be too flat or it will look heavy and also catch dust. (Yes, housekeeping matters in leg design.)
Make an “X” over the unused part of the template to help you ignore it. The extra length helps position the template and it’s where I drill a hole to hang it on my wall. If you keep making cabriole legs, you’ll end up with a substantial template collection hanging from your shop wall.
Draw the Curves Freehand
Now it’s time to freehand draw the curves. This is where the rubber meets the road. Take your time. Shoot for nice graceful arcs and don’t be afraid to erase and redo. I find it helpful to make the lines very fat using the edge of the pencil lead. Then I erase what I don’t want. Not unlike rasping.
The back and front lines of the leg have slight curves. A common mistake is to make these lines straight. Check your curve with a straightedge. There should be a slight curve to the front and back edges of the leg.
The narrow ankle portion should be approximately 2/5 of the overall width of the leg template: in this case about 1-1/8”.
Don’t worry if your lines aren’t perfect. It’s the overall shape you’re after. There will be an opportunity to smooth and shape the template after it is cut.
Cut and Smooth the Template
When you’re happy with your sketched leg, cut out the template using the bandsaw. Be sure to leave the line for final sanding and shaping.
Layout and Cut Leg Profiles
Mark the front corner of each blank so the grain orientation is the same for each leg. Note the diagonal flow of the end grain. This is the rift sawn grain pattern you’re looking for in a leg blank.
Cut the legs to shape
A 1/4” or 3/8” blade works best for navigating the curves.
Draw Modeling Lines
Turn the leg upside down and compass a 1-3/8” circle on the bottom of the rough-cut footpad.
Shape the Leg
Start the shaping at the footpad. First, undercut the four corners with a hand saw. Cut just shy of the pad circle.
A machinist vise retrofitted with wood jaws is a great way to hold the leg firmly in position without damaging the stock.
Chamfer the Corners
Chamfer the four corners with a spoke shave and a rasp. Shave all four corners down to the outside modeling lines. You’ll need a rasp for the tighter areas where the spoke shave can’t reach. The result is a rough octagonal shaped cross-section to your leg.
For ease of handling, clamp the leg end-to-end in a pipe or bar clamp. Then clamp the pipe clamp in a vise. This will hold the leg steady for shaping and allows you to easily reposition the blank as you go.
Take your time and check your progress frequently as you go. You’ll see the leg gradually take shape.
Shape the Foot
Use a rasp to shape the foot once the corners have been chamfered. Here’s where hand/eye coordination is your best guide. Shoot for an evenly rounded foot with graceful transitions to the ankle.
Round the Chamfers
Smooth the Leg
Use a rasp to finish shaping and smoothing the leg. A high quality cabinetmaker’s rasp is shaped to smooth both broad flat areas and tight inside curves. It’s a must have tool for making a cabriole leg and makes all the difference in the world.
It’s a good idea to periodically take the leg out of the clamp and stand it up on your bench. Look it over carefully to see if there are areas that need a little more shaping.
Sand smooth once the final shape is achieved.
Cut the knee block stock in half to yield two transition blocks per leg. Using the top of the leg blank for the knee block insures a good grain and color match. After the legs and aprons are joined, hold the square block in place under the apron and adjoining the knee block on the leg.
Trace the outline where the block joins the leg and free hand the ogee shape along the bottom edge. Cut the rough outline on the bandsaw. Glue the knee block in place. Use a rasp and sandpaper to smooth the blocks into the legs and aprons.
Your legs are done! You can use this technique to craft legs of any size and proportion.
Remember to practice on scrap. I always check a new template design by modeling a practice leg. There’s nothing like a full-scale 3-dimensional model to help judge leg proportions and shape.
225mm (9″) Auriou Cabinetmaker’s Rasp, 62W30.16; $109
Lee Valley & Veritas