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AW Extra 10/17/13 - Turning Table Legs


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 scale.)

■ How to work pommels (areas left square).

■ How to mark the blank for key details and diameters.

■ How to accurately and quickly size diameters.

■ 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.

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.


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 side.

■ 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.

Click any image to view a larger version.

First, turn a prototype leg. Place your prototype leg directly behind the blank for each final leg. By sighting along the upper horizons of both pieces, you’ll simplify the process of repeating specific shapes.

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 squareshouldered 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.



Note: Product availability and prices are subject to change.

Dead center, #2 Morse taper, #1146-439; 24-in. Double-posted tool rest (for bases that hold 1-in. stems and lathes with 12-in. swing), #1146-694.

Tool rest base (banjo) to use with 24-in. rest. Check with suppliers of your brand of lathe.

(Packard Woodworks sells a tool rest base for lathes with a 1-1/2-in. gap in ways, and a 12-in. swing-on lathe, Item #1146-707.)

Packard Woodworks,, 800-683-8876.

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

October 2000, issue #82

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