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
■ 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
■ 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 in.by 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.
Click any image to view a larger version.
First, turn a
the blank for
each final leg.
along the upper
the process of
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
shoulders, turn the
corners of the
pommel with a
1/2-in. detail gouge.
The line to the left of
indicates the top of
the rounded portion.
4. You can also use a skew chisel to
do both squareshouldered
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
place the board on
the tool rest and
push it into the
cylinder below the
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
longer work it’s often
easier to manipulate
the layout board by
making it in two or
7. Use a calipers and
parting tool to size
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
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,
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
the leg with final