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Turning Table Legs

By Alan Lacer

Turning four table legs that match
may sound impossible, but it’s not.
With these tried and true tips, and a little
practice, you can successfully turn
even the largest legs. And these same
techniques apply when you’re copying
a broken chair spindle or producing a
set of balusters.Here’s what we’ll show you:

  • Safer ways to mount large stock.
    (This reduces some of the intimidation
    if you’re new to turning on this
  • How to work pommels (areas left
  • How to mark the blank for key details
    and diameters.
  • How to accurately and quickly size
  • How to repeat the same shape from
    one leg to another.

Before you start turning table legs,
here are some insights on making
multiples that I’ve picked up over
the years:

  • Perfection can be very boring and
    needlessly tedious when making matching
    parts! I used to obsess about making
    an exact copy.Now I settle for similarity.
    If you get the layout right and the
    diameters and shape close, you’ll do
    fine. As duplicated pieces get further
    apart (such as with table legs), approximate
    diameters and shapes start looking
    identical to the eye. Plus, slight variations
    add warmth and a human
    element that machine-made parts lack.
  • Learn to trust your eye.After making
    the first leg to your satisfaction,
    place it immediately behind the next blank on the lathe. Learn to look at
    the upper horizons of the prototype leg
    and blank and not the wood itself.
    This helps you to really “see” and duplicate
    the form (see photo above).
  • Make at least one prototype before
    you commit to four legs. Even if you
    have an accurate drawing to scale, the
    transition from two dimensions to three
    will surprise you.
  • As you make the prototype leg,
    remove it often from the lathe and view
    it in an upright position, as it will be
    viewed mounted on the table.The transition
    from horizontal viewing to vertical
    is also astonishing, and may lead
    you to changes in design.


Wood to turn

You’ll need four pieces of 3-1/2 in.
by 3-1/2 30-in. squared stock
cut exactly to the same length.
(Note:We used two pieces of 8/4
ash, glued and squared on the jointer.)
Having squared stock is critical
when leaving pommels on the
finished piece. Cutting all the
blanks the same length greatly
simplifies leveling the table.


Tools and supplies

  • A spur or modified dead center
    (highly recommended if you are a
    novice turner) for the headstock
    side, and a live center for the tailstock
  • An outside calipers, at least 4-in.
    capacity. (I keep a number of pairs
    sized and labeled for the different
    diameters. For a project of this
    kind even three pairs would suffice
    to speed the process along.)
  • A double-posted 24-in. tool rest. (This is optional, but very convenient
    if you plan to do longer spindle work on a regular basis.This
    rest also requires an additional tool rest base or banjo.)
  • Turning tools: a roughing gouge (any size); a 1/2-in.detailing gouge
    ground to a fingernail shape;
    a 1/2 in. or larger skew chisel; and a parting tool (any size).
  • A square and a pencil.
  • Layout board materials: 6 in. wide by 28 in. long 3/4-in. poplar,
    1-in. brads or finish nails, a hammer and a nippers.
  • Sandpaper; four sheets each of the following grits: 100, 120, 150,
    180, and 220.

Tip: Driving with a dead center

Although normally used in the tailstock, the dead center is a good alternative to a spur center for driving the work at the headstock. By controlling the pressure on the tailstock handwheel, you can determine the amount of slippage in driving the work—a real benefit in case of a catch or if you are intimidated by a large spinning square. You also can remove and accurately remount the leg several times, which is important for viewing the leg vertically during the design process.

To use the dead center for driving, file the shoulder of the dead center to a sharp edge. You can cut several shallow scallops along this edge to increase its grip on the wood. This shaping is easily done with a rotary tool and a small stone or a chainsaw file. Prior to mounting turning stock on the lathe, drive the center into the headstock side of the blank with a deadblow mallet to make an indentation.



(Note: Product availability and costs are subject to change since original publication date.)


This story originally appeared in American Woodworker October 2000, issue #82.

Purchase this back issue.

Click any image to view a larger version.

1. Lay out the pommel (area to remain square) with a square and pencil. Only one line is necessary at the shoulder of the pommel because the spinning wood will show the line clearly.

2. Cut 1/8 in. to the right of the layout line with a parting tool. Make sure the edge is keen; the handle is low; take only light cuts; and widen the cut as you go deeper to prevent binding. Cut to the left until you reach the layout line.

3. Turn the area to the right of the pommel to a cylinder. If you’re making rounded shoulders, turn the corners of the pommel with a
1/2-in. detail gouge. The line to the left of the shoulder indicates the top of the rounded portion.

4. You can also use a skew chisel to do both square-shouldered or rounded pommels. The long point (toe) of the skew is down and leading the cut. Skews leave the best surface, but require more skill and practice to use.

5. Use a layout board with cut pins to accurately lay out the placement of elements below the pommel. Securely place the board on the tool rest and push it into the cylinder below the pommel.

6. The pins are simply brads or finish nails driven into the edge of a 3/4-in.-thick board at the critical points and clipped off about 1/4 in. from the surface. On longer work it’s often easier to manipulate the layout board by making it in two or three sections.

7. Use a calipers and parting tool to size critical diameters. The calipers must have rounded edges and make contact only on the side opposite the cutting tool. There must be no gap between the wood and tool rest. Hold the parting tool handle low, tucked under your forearm.

8. Round the ends of the outside calipers with a fine mill file or rotary tool before using on the spinning wood. I finish off the process with 220-grit sandpaper. The goal is to eliminate any sharp edges or corners that might catch on the wood.

9. Cut details with the detailing gouge. For long, gradual curves, cylinders or straight tapers, use the roughing gouge. After turning the pommel, work from the headstock toward the tailstock until the leg is finished. Control the shape by watching the upper horizon of the piece rather than the tool tip.

10. Use the skew chisel (long-point down) to add shadow lines, crispness and emphasis to beads, shoulders, fillets and other details. Be sure to check the leg by removing it from the lathe and examining it in a vertical position. Complete the leg with final sanding.

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