In Shop Blog, Techniques

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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

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Showing 25 comments
  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Jonathan

    "Use a straightedge or ruler to confirm that the feet are in the plane you desire."…

    8. Finally, put it on your un-even floor and stick a matchbook under the short leg.


  • Dan

    Thanks for the clarifying step 5, that was very helpful.

  • Keith Mealy

    This is exactly the way that Drew Langsner taught me in his ladderback chair class back in the early ’80s.

  • Christopher Schwarz


    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. 😉


  • 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!

  • PAUL (But I'm Much Better Now)


    I found this to be big problem, so I cut one leg 1/16" short and include shim with the table!

  • 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.

  • 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,


  • Dan Pope

    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

  • Thanks Chris. In the past I have tried several meathods and yours seems to work best with the least amount of work, anger, frustration, sledge hammer treatments, etc. I like the tool you used to scribe around the legs. Could you let us know what kind it is and where we could find one? Keep up the good work.

    Steve Hilton
    Prescott, Arkansas

  • Christopher Schwarz


    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.


  • 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.

  • Lewis

    Chris, will there still be a way to receive the information that will be sent out via tweet for those of us who do not tweet?

  • Bespoke Joinery Designer

    Dave, I use the same method as you. But I might give this one a try too now. Interesting idea to stop wobbling by only having 3 legs, but if they’re all of different length there could still be a wobble!


  • John Cashman

    You shouldn’t Julienne your possum. Try the Slap Chop instead.

  • 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.

  • 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.


  • PkColl

    I noticed earlier that your blog said it had been hacked…

    Hope it didn’t cause serious problems…

  • Christopher Schwarz


    It’s the FastCap AccuScribe Pro.

    I like it because it’s a great compass and a scribe for fitting cabinets. Plus it has a pencil sharpener! And makes Julienne French fries!


  • 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…..


  • Martin


    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.


  • James

    I find an easier way to level my projects is to build them all with only three legs. 😉

  • Stephen Shepherd


    I have a question about the grain orientation (cup) of the top two boards on the seat. Why are the rings opposite each other rather in the same direction?


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