Cabriole Legs-How do They do That?

Photo 1. Cabriole legs have such a graceful classy appearance.

Cabriole legs from design to completion.
I’ve always wanted to make cabriole legs, with their graceful curves and classic design (Photo 1). But, more importantly how could I come up with a really cool design? What about a pattern to make a template? This article will offer an answer to these questions.

Making the Curves. Sketching the curves for a cabriole leg by hand to obtain a smooth and graceful curve is hard to do. It depends how patient you are and how many erasers you have in your home. Achieving graceful curves is easy with thin strips of wood or even an old broken band saw blade.That’s nothing new. I must confess that I have labored in search of the ‘perfect’ curve many times.Then the lights came on: ‘bend a stick’! But how do I hold the stick and bend it in several directions and draw the final line with only two hands? I know most of us work alone–sometimes that’s a good thing. So here is how I overcame a ‘two handy cap’.

Photo 2. Lauan plywood is a great for the cabriole leg template.

Take a piece of 1/4″ lauan as the pattern stock and lay it on top of a piece of scrap 1/2″plywood. Lay out the leg stock dimensions on the lauan (Photo 2). I chose 4x4x29 inches for the legs, with a 6″ band for the base of the table. All of the design must fall within those dimensions.

Use a 1/4″ x 1/4″ x 36″ piece of straight grained wood, such as maple or cherry, as a flexible guide stick. I used a piece cut from PVC exterior house-trim, which is very flexible. It’s important that the piece you use is flexible enough to form the curves. You may have to make it less than 1/4″ thick to get the flexibility you need.

Photo 3. Start the back side curve at the top of the leg where it meets the 6" band. Use 2 brads at the starting point.

Use brads on either side of the stick to anchor the stick, nailing them through the lauan pattern into the scrap plywood backing. Start at the intersection of the back of the leg where the first curve of the leg will meet the corner block of the leg (Photo 3). Notice, it worked best to start the first bend somewhere in space beyond the intersection to create a smooth curve.

Photo 4. Place a brad at the center of each desired bend point.

Then make the first bend and place a brad at the desired center of the bend point (Photo 4).

Photo 5. Keep in mind where the guide stick leaves the bottom of the design.

Work the guide stick around until the desired curves are found and secure with brads and draw a line (Photo 5).

Photo 6. Use a dark marker to trace the design.

The last point at the bottom of the pattern will determine the size of the foot print of the leg (Photo 6). Repeat the process for the outline of the front of the leg.
I should point out that the size of the corner blocks need to be determined as part of the initial layout. For this example, 2-3/4″ worked for me (Photo 7).

Photo 8

Again, the curve had to start somewhere in space beyond the starting point, to create a smooth curve (Photo 8).

Photo 9

Also remember that this is when the taper of the leg will be determined. When you are happy, pull the brads, and cut out the pattern. Or, if you don’t like the design, just change it (Photo 9).

Photo 10. Lay the pattern on the leg stock.

Now it’s time for the layout (Photo 10). This can make or break the leg, so be careful! Decide on the face of each leg. This stock has exposed vertical glue joint lines and grain patterns because it was made of several 1 x 4s glued together.

Photo 11. Determine the front of the leg based on grain and glue lines.

I decided that these lines would look best facing the front (Photo 11). There will be horizontal lines on the parallel sides because of the cuts that will be made across the boards. They will be disappointingly obvious after the leg is finished.

Photo 12. Position legs relative to the final position and mark the location of the mortises.

It will help the lay out if the leg blanks are positioned as they will be on the table. Do this by standing them up on your workbench. Next, mark the tops of each blank: front/back, right/left (or something you can remember) and which sides will require the mortises (Photo 12). It is easier to correct a layout on painter’s tape than during final glue up.
Note that the ‘bulge’ in the front of the leg must face the ‘bulge’ on the perpendicular side (Photo 13). Just remember ‘bulge’ must face ‘bulge’ and the ‘bulges’ don’t get the mortises.

Photo 14. Detailed layout of the corner blocks and mortises is essential to avoid milling errors.

Finally, lay out the mortises on the corners of the leg stock (Photo 14).

Photo 15. Mortise setup after the corner block was cut to size. Use the waste as a support for the stock.

Mortises can be done before or after the legs are cut out (Photo 15).

Photo 16. I would recommend milling the mortises before cutting the corner blocks to size.

Milling mortises before cutting the legs is easier (Photo 16).

Photo 17. Tape leg stock together before making the perpendicular cut.

Cutting the Legs. Cutting out the legs;this is the exciting part. Making strange cuts on two perpendicular sides of a block of wood and watching something beautiful, with a completely different shape emerge, is as exciting as the first perfectly made, hand cut dove tail.I prefer to start the cuts from the bottom up. There are two methods to cutting the leg stock:

1) Cut one side of the leg stock and save the waste. The waste is used to provide a flat, stable base for the perpendicular cut. Attach the waste with painters tape and turn the stock over 90 degrees to make the second cut (Photo 17).

Photo 18. Stop the cut about 1/4

2) Stop about 1/4″ from the end of the cut, turn the saw off, and back the stock out of the blade (Photo 18). Then turn the stock 90 degrees and make the second cut.

Photo 19. Use a guide fence to position the stock to cut to corner blocks to size. In this picture I cut the corner post before cutting to mortise.

The final cut is the corner block of each leg. Use a guide fence to remove the waste. Again, I chose a corner dimension of 2-3/4 inches. Be careful not to extend the cut into the curve of the leg (Photo 19).
You should finish up with something like this (Photo 20).

Photo 21. There are several tools that can be used in smoothing the leg.

Shape the Legs. Use a combination of scrapers, files, rasps, sand paper, and orbiting sanders to smooth the legs. This is the sculpting part. (I always like to commune with our pioneer ancestor pattern makers.) I found even an old paint scraper, sharpened many times, works well (Photo 21). A word of caution with scrapers: because of the curves and changing grain directions, always use a light touch and pay attention to the grain direction. Chatter marks will appear when scraping against the grain. Just like petting a cat’s fur against the grain, scratch marks will appear. I also discovered that mounting a 6″ sanding disc on a 5″ orbiting sander worked well on the inside curve. The 1/2″ over hang created a softer bend at the end of the sanding disc.


Photo 22. Smooth the bevel by filing. Start from the corner post side and "roll" up into the curve to avoid file marks in the corner post.

The legs pictured here have a blunt/bull nose transition to the corner blocks. To accomplish this, draw a line about 1/4″ back into the curve and carefully chisel a 45-degree piece out of the curve. Then use a rasp or file to soften the bull noise (Photo 22). Always start at the base of the corner block. During the back and forth filing motion, ‘roll’ or ‘lay’ the file in the direction of the curve to create a smooth bull nose shape.
When the sawdust settles, the legs should look something like this. The table with two legs is what I call an office side board. It mounts on the wall (Photo 23).

Photo 24. The finished cabriole leg makes quite a design statement.

I made six legs all together. The other four will be used on an office desk to match the sideboard. The finished sideboard leg is pictured here (Photo 24).
The Finished Piece. This was a very fun and rewarding project. Now we ALL can make cabriole legs. Not only that, but from our own unique designs.

Best wishes, Jake

Photos By Author

Jerry “Jake” Seabaugh is a registered member of the WWGOA. See more of Jake’s woodwork at his website, Saw Dust by Jake.

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