Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Making a Cabriole Leg With Only Hand Tools

It sure would be nice to have a bandsaw.  Even nicer to have space enough for a bandsaw.  But we make due.

I was reading in volume II of Lost Art Press' "The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years" about cabriole legs.  This is something that I've thought about trying for a long time.  So try I did. This is not for any larger project or anything - just strictly to see if it's possible with my current skills and tools.

I prepared a piece of poplar 2" square and just over 16" long.  Made a template from cardboard by laying out a grid and roughing in a shape.
Leg blank and template
The template was cut with scissors and laid on the leg blank to copy the shape on two adjacent sides.
Copying the shape on the blank
Marking the shape and waste areas
It's important that you get the adjacent face marked properly - it would be easy to mark it backwards so that the leg would turn out to be like something Picasso might do.  The "knees" of each side should be touching each other.

For the straight section at the top of the leg, I used a marking gauge to define the lines and sawed to the lines with a 10" rip backsaw.  Then, lacking the bandsaw, I used the fret saw to saw the shaped areas.
Curved parts cut away
It's tough to saw to the lines front and back with this saw.  I was off the lines and sometimes over the lines, but got it done.  Fortunately this poplar cuts fairly easily.

Cutting the waste out from one face removes most of the template lines from the adjacent face, so You have to replace them.  But there's a catch.  When the template is placed in curved areas, it does not give the same lines as it did when the face was flat.
Template placed on curved face
When you press the template in here, ...
... it shortens up the template so it doesn't sit in the right place at top
So I just drew in a little of the template at bottom, readjusted the template to draw a little at top and fudged the in between parts.
Readjusting the template to get the proper lines at top
Hayward gives a great description of how to deal with this in one of the cabriole leg articles.  I chose to be less rigorous as this was just a practice exercise.

Anyway, cutting out the second face is helped by keeping the off-cuts from the first face.  They can be used as aids in clamping in the vise.
Ready to saw second face to shape, using
off-cuts to help secure the piece in the vise
Forgot to get a picture of the leg after these cuts, but it really starts looking like something after using only the saw.

I decided to make the pad on the bottom of the foot next.  When I laid out the shapes on the leg blank, a circle was laid out on the bottom of the leg blank.  The extents of the circle were marked in the directions parallel to the faces and then the 1/8" depth was sawed.  This was followed by chisel work to round out the pad.
Round pad - you can still see the sawed lines at extents of circle
From there it was a lot of chiseling on the foot to get close to shape.  I used the clamp-in-a-vise method for work holding.
Shaping the foot
The Hayward article says that the cross sectional shape of the leg should be round at the foot and pad (in fact, most cabriole legs are turned on a lathe first to shape the pad and foot) and round up to the smallest part of the "ankle".  Midway up the leg it is a rounded square and up by the knee, it is mostly square with rounded over edges, a bit more rounded in the front corner.

The spokeshave was used to smooth some rough saw marks and start the rounding.
Spokeshave used to round over corners
Also used rasps and files to get into place the spokeshave couldn't go, but got no pictures.  Later it was scrapers to smooth some of the marks left over from the spokeshave, rasps and files.
Scraping away some minor facets
I made what Sellers calls a "chair devil" a few years ago and this really helps scrape some areas.  The chair devil has one end concave and one end convex.
Using the chair devil to smooth the underside of the foot.
A closer view - this tool really helped here
One of the key things when making a cabriole leg is to look at it from different points of view as you go.  This helps guide where you remove more material and try to make it symmetric.

Finally, here is the leg after some sanding.
The finished leg
Standing, viewed from left
Viewed from right

Here's the bottom, showing fairly round foot and pad.
Foot and pad viewed from bottom
And the foot viewed from above looks fairly round.
Foot viewed from above
Finally, the perimeter of the foot at its widest part should be level with the ground.  This is definitely not perfect, but for a first attempt I'll take it.
Front view of foot
The whole thing probably took about 5-6 hours, including some butt-scratching and short breaks.  I think the "ankle" is too thin to support any significant weight.  If I do this again in a real piece, I'll make the ankle thicker, especially if it's from a soft wood like poplar.

I didn't try to make the "ears" that blend the leg in with rails of the piece they are part of.  That would be another challenge.  This was a great skill builder exercise.  For anyone out there thinking they can't do a cabriole leg (with or without a bandsaw), I say "yes you can!"


  1. Pretty impressive, Matt! Encouraging, too. It still amazes me what can be accomplished with a small set of hand tools.

    1. Hey, thanks Derek. It really is amazing what can be done with a limited set of tools. I think it's all about good layout and having a lot of patience (and time).

  2. Incredible.
    Cabriole legs look so elegant. I am impressed that you made the leg just as an exercise. I would never have thought about doing that.

    1. Thanks Jonas. I agree: "elegant" is the right word for it. It helped that I had a leg blank that needed minimal prep before starting. And the fact it was poplar and not a more expensive wood made it more palatable.

  3. Awesome! I think we are capable of much more than we think. You did a fantastic job with this. Very impressive.

    1. Thanks a lot Greg. Can't wait to see what else is possible that I wouldn't have thought possible a few years ago. Ha!

  4. After Nana's dining chair, always pushing your skills further. Congratulations.

    1. Thanks Sylvain. That's what it is all about. Lifetime learning and pushing yourself.

  5. Awesome is rigth, and i can only echo what Sylvain said...

    1. Thanks, Bob. I forgot to mention that it was a really fun exercise, too.

  6. Hi Matt,
    I actually found your blog post. As chance will I'm actually thinking and reading about cabriole legs because I've got a future project in mind. I'm trying to find out how to do without a bandsaw and if I should do that.
    Now it's pretty clear. Your post is very encouraging to just give it a try.
    Thanks for the inspiration.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Stefan. It's interesting what we can accomplish if we just give it a try. Probably one of the biggest things holding people back is the lack of willingness to try. I will look forward to seeing yours.