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. Danny

    When I have a slight mismatch (rocking) I put course paper down and scrub the high leg down across the paper, rather than the other way around (always got it misshappen that way). This works for stools that have 3/4"x4" feet as well as 1" round.

  2. Roger da Costa

    Talking about feet

    I want to share with you the most embarassing moment in my wodworking life.

    When I was 15, long time ago…, I was studying for a diploma in woodworking and wood technology in Mozambique.

    One day "the master" told me he had a very important and delicate job for me. In the center of the one room school library were two beautifull and long chanfuta [doussie] hardwood tables, that edge to edge ocupied most of the room. One of them was about two inches taller than the other. With the help of thre coleagues I turned the taller table upside down measured, remeasured, and sawed each leg to the marked line.

    When I finished called "the master" but when I, with the help of the same 3 coleagues, turned the table right side up, I saw that this time the table that I cut was now a couple of inches lower than the other.

    In the end, I added a piece of the same wood to each leg and nobody noticed the patch.

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