Making Cabriole Legs

I'm making a queen annes desk-on-frame out of cherry and would like input regarding the carbiole legs.  Once cut out, I shapped the legs using a rasp and a mill file.  I know they didn't have "sand paper" in the day to smooth the leg, and I can get the leg fairly smooth with a mill file and card scraper (using the file for the curves, and the scrapper for the flat surfaces).  Can anyone tell me what the period techniques were for smoothing the legs?  Has anyone seen file markings, etc. on peroid pieces?




Well-known member
They did have glasspaper in the day, but I don't think it was used widely.
What you see is rasp and file marks and scraper "tracks", as I call them. If the guy was good and knew how to sharpen a scraper, you won't see anything at all.
They also rubbed the wood with burnishers to polish the surface.
You're on the right track with files. I use a mill bastard file to smooth surfaces and it works great. What you don't want to do is leave a bunch of facets to make it look " handmade". Good hand work looks perfect.-Al

Adam Cherubini

Well-known member
I've not made alot of these.  I poured over several chairs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and they were later than QA.  On those chairs, I saw no file or rasp marks on lower legs.  Certainly none on the feet or knuckles.  File or rasp marks do appear on chair backs.  Areas behind the knees appear to have been cut quickly with a tight gouge.  Didn't see file marks there.

If I were to guess about period techniques, especially those of London or Philadelphia chairmakers (and these may very well be different from New England chair makers) I would guess they made great use of gouges, and possibly draw knives or spoke shaves.  So based on what I saw, edge tools looked like they trumped abrading tools.

Based on my limited experience, as great as scrapers and files are, none equal a sharp gouge for speed or the surface left behind.  Facets on Philadelphia balls are fairly common.  Didn't see facets on legs.  Could be that scrapers were used there or wear and refinishings removed original facets. 

Generally, i get the sense that New England builders sought smoother more reflective carved surfaces. i think this was an esthetic/artisitic choice.  Perhaps for esthetic reasons or perhaps for economic reasons, London and Philadelphia sculptural elements seem to be a little punchier, faceted, sometimes with punched (stippled) "grounds" and generally have a greater distinction between reflective surfaces and non-reflective surfaces (which I think is a baroque concept which may even include a chiaroscuro sensibility).

I don't mean to overly exhalt what we and our woodworking ancestors do/did, but I think this specific issue (how to shape a cab leg) really crosses the art/craft line.  While I'm typically happy with the "Rude Mechanick" label (and tee shirt), one really has to own all this art history stuff to be successful with this specific sort of work.

I just did a bunch of these and I ended up sanding in the end for my most recent set. I was using some really soft poplar and the end grain areas at the tops of the knees, on the knee blocks and the tops of the feet had very little structural integrity and I was getting very bad tearout when scraping. However, on harder woods like cherry, walnut and mahogany, where the end grain cooperates more, it's hard to beat a scraper for speed and finish.

I'll typically go from rough shape to finished shape with spokeshave, rasp and file and then finish the entire leg with the scrapers. I find having two edges sharpened to different aggressiveness to be a big help. The more aggressive hook for initial scraping and the finer hook for final smoothing. I use a very light touch with the finish scraper, usualy one handed with no bend in it and just glide it over the areas that need the last little bit of work. Burnishing with shavings after scraping helps on these harder woods too.

For areas that are less seen, like the backs of the knees or the bottoms of the knee blocks, I will often use a gouge as Adam suggested to pare the concave surfaces rather than scrape or file. Usually you need to do very little smoothing to these areas after paring with a sharp gouge. I also don't typically finish smooth areas that aren't seen in the finished piece, like the bottoms of the knee blocks. I usually leave these areas fairly rough.


Well-known member
I can't really say with any certainty what period builders used, but probably the final shape/style of leg you are going for will give you lots of clues. I use a round sole spokeshave for probably 90 percent of the actual"work", I really like it better for both the flattish(just below to just above knee) surfaces, and the roundish( towards the ankle and round ). After the knee blocks are glued on, I like an incannel gouge to pare the end grain surfaces(this is really about all I use an incannel gouge for, and one with some extra heft is nice for paring that end grain). From there a scraper will finish it all in short order.

Jack Plane

Well-known member
I have little experience of New England furniture and can really only comment on English furniture of the period, but Plate 4:71, p. 179 of Early Georgian Furniture 1715-1740 by Adam Bowett clearly shows extensive use of the rasp behind the knee of a cabriole leg.