Cut Leg Flutes Without a Chisel

A well turned leg can make an ordinary leg extraordinary. To put the icing on the cake, just add flutes. Flutes are a decorative element that’s been around for thousands of years. Think of all those fluted columns scattered about ancient Greek and Roman ruins. The fact that fluting is still used today is a testimony to the visual interest it adds to a column or leg.

Cut Leg Flutes

Photo 1. Fluting adds visual interest to turned legs on this mahogany game table.

Traditionally, flutes are cut by hand with a fluting chisel. In the hands of a skilled carver, the results can be outstanding. Unfortunately, some of us have limited carving skill; one slip of the chisel and an entire leg becomes firewood. A friend who builds traditional furniture came to my rescue when I needed to flute the legs on a mahogany game table I was building (Photo 1). He taught me a technique that utilizes a simple shop made jig and an old file to scrape rather than carve the flutes. What I like about this system is that it guarantees straight, evenly spaced flutes. I find scraping goes faster than my ability to carve and that’s an added benefit. Scraping also prevents tear-out and leaves a surface that requires minimal sanding. You still need to employ chisel work to clean up and define the beginning and end of each flute, but the chances for messing up the whole leg with a slip of the chisel are greatly reduced.

Cut Leg Flutes

Photo 2. The flutes on the legs were cut using the lathe's indexing system, an old file and a simple, shop made jig. The indexing preciselyspaces the flutes and the jig guarantees straight,even depth flutes. A fluting gouge is used to finish the beginning and end of each flute.

The legs for the game table are 3″ x 3″ square with a long fluted section on the lower section (Photo 2). With a complex leg like this, I always start out turning and fluting a practice piece. Typically, I’ll glue up a couple of 2 x 4’s to make the blank. This gives me a chance to refine the design and develop a strategy for the tools and techniques I’ll use to turn the leg. It also gives me a chance to double check the size and spacing of the flutes I will make on the final legs.

Cut Leg Flutes

Photo 3. Build the plywood guide box to fit snuggly over your lathe bed. Make the sides tall enough to extend about 3" above the leg blank on the lathe. Secure the box to your bed with C-clamps.

The first thing you’ll need is a simple guide box (Photo 3). Build the box from stiff plywood. Size the base to fit over your lathe bed.

Cut Leg Flutes

Photo 4. The sled is nothing more than a 2 x 4 cut to fit tightly between the sides of the guide box. The bottom is roughed out to fit over the leg profile. The deep gouge in front is cut to clear the bead at the bottom of the leg. Grind the flute profile on the end of an old file. Drill a hole slightly smaller than the width of the file. Tap the file through the hole with a hammer to set the flute depth.

Construct a sled from a length of ordinary 2 x 4 (Photo 4). The beauty of this technique is the use of an old file as a scraper. Once you have the size and spacing of your flutes figured out, grind the profile on the end of an old file. Use a burnisher to roll a hook on the file in the same way you would a bowl scraper.Turn the legs and sand smooth.

Cut Leg Flutes

Photo 5. Here's the fluting system in action. The sled can be pushed or pulled along the leg. Stop and start blocks define the flute length. Apply slight downward pressure on the sled to engage the scraper point. Take repeated strokes until the sled bottoms out on the leg and the scraper no longer cuts.

Secure the guide box to your lathe with clamps (my lathe has wooden ways that allows me to use screws instead of clamps). Use your lathe’s indexing system to lock the leg blank on place. Set start and stop blocks to define the flute length. Drop the 2 x 4 sled on top of the leg at the start block and scrape in one continuous motion from top to bottom (Photo 5). Repeat until the scraper no longer cuts which tells you the flute is fully cut. Then, release the indexing pin and rotate the leg to the next position. Repeat the process until all the legs are fluted.

Cut Leg Flutes

Photo 6. Use a fluting chisel to define the beginning and end of each flute.

Use a standard fluting chisel to define the beginning and end of each flute (Photo 6).

Cut Leg Flutes

Photo 7. Sand the flutes with a dowel wrapped in sandpaper. A few strokes are all it takes if your scraper was sharp.

All that now remains is a little light sanding (Photo 7) and you’re legs are done. Happy fluting.

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