Chris Schwarz's Blog

How to get Flat-footed

One of my favorite advertisements shows a guy with a handsaw staring at a chair that has legs that are about 4″ long. In his efforts to stop the chair from wobbling, he kept cutting down the legs until they would look about right if they were attached to an opossum.

(The ad is a complete failure, however, because I cannot for the life of me remember what they were selling.)

In any case, I was taught years ago a method of leveling legs that hasn’t let me down. Today I had to level the legs of the next “I Can Do That” project I built for the April 2010 issue of Popular Woodworking. It’s a rustic Swedish bench from the Skansen living history museum in Stockholm.

Step 1: Level your work surface. You need a flat and level surface to true up the legs of a chair or bench. At my shop at home I’ve leveled my table saw (which also helps keep its sliding cutoff table working well). Here I’m leveling Megan’s workbench with builders’ shims and a long level. Check along the length and the width of your surface. Megan is out sick today so I annexed her workbench. Neener neener, Megan.

Step 2: Level the top of your project. Place the project on the work surface and get the top of it level , if you want it level. Many chairs lean backwards. If you want the chair to lean backwards, level the front two legs to the work surface and shim under the feet until the chair is level side-to-side and slopes backwards as you desire. In this case, I wanted the top level. So I shimmed under the feet until the top of the bench was level across its width and length.

Step 3: Shim the feet. I use builders’ shims if there’s just a little wobble. Big wobbles require blocks and/or big shims.

Step 4: Set your scriber. Now open your compass so it matches the largest gap between the feet and your work surface. Note: You can also cut a block of wood to this same width and achieve the same result.

Step 5: Scribe around the feet. Run the compass around your feet, scribing the finished length all around. If you are using a block of wood instead of a compass, use that block of wood like a ruler all around the legs.

Step 6: Saw or plane away the waste. If I have a lot of material to remove, I’ll saw to the lines. I prefer to saw the legs whenever possible. If I have only a little material to remove I’ll use a block plane. If planing, I’ll first bevel the foot all around down to the pencil line. Then I’ll remove the middle of each foot with the block plane (skewing and a little mineral spirits help make this easier).

Step 7: Check your work. Use a straightedge or ruler to confirm that the feet are in the plane you desire. When they are, turn the project back over and test your work with your butt, which is very accurate (I have Starrett-brand buttocks!).

The total elapsed shop time for this operation is usually about 15 minutes.

I’m sure there are other ways to do this (I’ve seen some ridiculous methods in magazines, including ours). If you have a better way to do this, let us know.

- Christopher Schwarz

25 thoughts on “How to get Flat-footed

  1. Christopher Schwarz

    Marcus,

    Gluing up a table or a frame chair is one thing – it’s fairly easy to control the legs. This bench is made more like a Windsor chair.

    I have found that gluing up a Windsor-style assembly where the legs are tenoned and wedged in a seat with all four legs at compound angles (and the rear compound angles are different than the front angles) requires a better (and faster) solution than cutting and test-fitting.

    If you have a way of dealing with these sorts of situations that is faster than this, I know some professional chairmakers who will take your class. ;)

    Chris

  2. PAUL (But I'm Much Better Now)

    Before yall laff,my method saves planing/sawing 3 or more legs.

    Also in a perfect world,with perfectly level floors and surfaces.In kalifornia, with the Quakes nothin stays level!

  3. Marcus

    Chris, don’t be silly. You don’t have buttocks, unless you’ve recently purchased a Starret add-on. I wasn’t aware they made them. ;)

    I just glue up my item with the legs resting on the reference surface and usually it ends up fine but I’ll keep this in mind.

  4. James Watriss

    I just eat another cheeseburger. Sooner or later, and this is the joy of wood, the chair, or bench, or whatever, will flex, and all the feet will be on the ground.

    : )

    Lovin’ It,

    J

  5. Dan Pope

    Chris
    Isn’t this basically the same process previously described for leveling the feet of the Sawbench? I recently constructed the Sawbench and companion Sawhorse and used the process described to level the feet and it worked great.
    Dan Pope
    Conroe, TX

  6. Christopher Schwarz

    David,

    Sorry if it’s confusing.

    I hope the following adds some clarity.

    If you set your compass so it represents the widest gap under the feet, then the pencil will touch the feet at every other point around there perimeter.

    So you scribe a line around all four (or six or whatever) feet. Then you remove all the wood below those scribe lines.

    What you are essentially doing is photocopying the reference surface onto the feet at the point where you have to remove the least amount of wood possible.

    Does this help? Next time I should do a video.

    Chris

  7. David T

    Chris, your step number 5 is slightly confusing, you say to scribe around the feet- but I think we need clarification , which feet to cut after measuring the shim height ?. Is it the opposite on the same side, opposite corners etc ? That is where the confusion lies, I believe.

  8. dave brown

    I shim where needed to stop any rocking, then mark and trim the offending legs.

    Vs your method, I save a few steps (and minutes) as I don’t check for level — that’s not crucial to my non-Starrett butt-o-meter.

  9. Christopher Schwarz

    It was a short-lived hack. We’re tightening up our security (again). I think we’re changing the password to "Julienned Opossums" or something.

    Chris

  10. Christopher Schwarz

    I knew that would raise some hackles.

    I did it that way because it looked best – on the front edge especially. I would have rather the cupping bear on the exterior edges, but the top didn’t look good that way.

    And anyway, if it ever delaminates, it’s hide glue, so I can try again…..

    Chris

  11. Martin

    Chris,

    What compass are you using? It looks like it has a flat edge to register on the tabletop, which is nice. I’ve been using blocks of wood with a screw driven part of the way through as a cluge.

    Martin

COMMENT