Perhaps the most alluring aspects of Arts and Crafts furniture is working with quarter sawn white oak and the unique ray fleck patterns it presents. A particular challenge of featuring the distinctive ray fleck patterns is presented by the leg-a table leg, Morris chair leg, or side board leg-and how to make oak’s ray fleck pattern visible on all four sides.
In this post I’ll show you how I make Arts and Crafts legs from four pieces of quarter sawn white oak. Like my other technique posts, I’ll highlight the process, in addition to mentioning my favorite step-by-step techniques along the way. My hope is that you will choose the step-by-step techniques that make sense for you based on your experience, tool inventory, skills, and project goals. The aim of this process is to produce Arts and Crafts legs that appear as if they’ve come from a single piece of wood, but with ray fleck pattern on all four sides.
To understand why this is such a challenge we should first, understand the nature of wood. The ray fleck pattern is produced when the wood is quarter sawn from the log-which produces a ray fleck pattern on the board’s radial faces. Thus a solid oak leg will only display the ray fleck pattern on two, opposite sides of the leg. So to display the ray fleck on all four sides, we must somehow show the radial face on all four sides of the leg. During the Arts & Crafts era’s heyday this was done either by constructing a leg using four pieces of stock; or by taking a solid leg and veneering a radial-face cut of veneer to the solid leg’s tangential faces.
I use a four-step process involving a locking miter joint to construct my legs. I begin by milling the leg stock; then I add joinery to the edges; assemble the legs; and finally, prepare them to accept joinery. Normally, for my bedside and end tables these legs are 1 ” square with a ” square hollow core. However, you can make them almost any size depending on the design of your project-I’ve made them as big as 3″ square for beds.
MILL STOCK I start by selecting wood for my legs. In addition to wanting to show the ray fleck pattern on all four sides of the leg, I like to mill each leg’s pieces from the same board, so the grain pattern appears to flow around the leg. So step one for me is to select boards that will yield four sides of a leg, and mark them so I’ll be able to reassemble them in the correct order once the joints have been cut.
Next, I mill up the leg pieces. In my furniture building I always mill with power tools; but you’re welcome to do this by hand. Critical to a tight fitting locking miter joints is to have all the stock as close to the same size as possible. So I thickness plane all the lumber at the same time; and I also use the planer to gang-mill all the parts to the final width. Remember to mill a couple pieces from poplar to use when setting up your locking miter bit.
I begin milling by flattening one face of each board on the jointer, and then run each board through the planer to thickness all the boards to “. Next I move to the table saw and rip all the boards to approximately 3/16” over final width. Finally, I’ll go back to the planer and plane all the pieces to the final width.
ADD EDGE JOINERY When the milling is complete I lay out each leg and mark them to indicate whether it will get a horizontal or vertical locking miter cut.
As I mentioned earlier, I use a locking miter joint cut with a shaper on my legs, but there are certainly other joinery possibilities. A simple miter joint can be applied to all the edges; a slight variations of this, is the joint used on L. & J.G. Stickley’s legs. Gustav Stickley was known to use solid legs with two veneer faces.
The locking miter itself can be cut with a shaper, router table or table saw. Router table techniques are discussed both in my American Woodworker (AW #141 April/May 2009) article and Patrick Nelson’s Fine Woodworking Article (FWW #121 December 1996).
I couldn’t find an article that discusses the table saw method, but I did find a diagram of the 6 cut process. It’s a bit time consuming, but if you don’t have a shaper or router table; it’s a viable option. One word of caution for the table saw method, make sure you use a blade equipped with flat top ground teeth.
Finally there are at least two ways to cut the locking miter configuration. There’s the traditional version with each board getting a vertical and horizontal pass on the cutter; and then there’s a method were two pieces get vertical cuts on their edges, and two pieces get horizontal cuts on their edges. The ladder version comes in handy if you don’t have a lot of clamps.
In my technique, step one is setting up the shaper to cut the locking miter joints. I’ll discuss this in-depth in a future Tip post. Once this is complete I set up my power feeder and hold-down to process all the horizontal cuts first.
After completing the horizontal cuts, I reconfigure the power feeder and hold-down to process the vertical cuts. Because the horizontally cut edge is orientated up for the vertical cuts, it prevents the power feeder from getting sufficient traction on the leg stock for a vertical cut. To solve this problem, I employ a spacer that presents a flat edge to the power feeder. This spacer is made from one of the poplar set-up pieces that has only been horizontally cut. The only set-up modification I make to the spacer is to take a couple passes on the jointer, larger face down to reduce its thickness. This ensures that when applied to the stock being vertically cut, the stock, and not the spacer, registers against the shaper fence. After running the pieces through the vertical cut, I’m ready to proceed and assemble the legs.
I use Old Browne Glue, which is a hide glue made by furniture conservator and marquetry expert Patrick Edwards. I like its open time (approx an hour); but the big advantage for this process is that it cleans up easily with cold water and a scrapper, even after it’s set up. As you’ll see in the image of my clamping strategy there’s not a lot of room to clean-up glue squeeze out, so the fact that I can do this after the glue has set up is practically a requirement.
When applying the glue I use a glue brush to ensure I have thoroughly removed any excess glue. If there is an abundance of excess glue, the glue channels unique to locking miter joints and the length of the legs prevents it from completely squeezing out, and could thus prevent the joint from closing up.
I apply clamps approximately every 2″ inches, perpendicular to one another, with light to medium clamping pressure.
Once the legs have been assembled, all that’s left is to install the cores and cut them to final length.
PREPARE LEG TO ACCEPT JOINERY
With the legs assembled we’re just about done. Next, we’ll install the cores, and than cross cut them to final length. The purpose of the cores is to create a solid leg at the points where you will be cutting jointery into the leg–so their specific length and location will be dependent on your project’s design. I like to sneak up on the size of core using my drum sander.
This is necessary because there may be residual hide glue in the core cavity that prevents a core milled to the precise size of the opening from sliding home to its location. Thus the final size will probably be smaller than the core opening. For this reason, I use a two-part epoxy for its gap filling properties, to install the cores. With the cores in place they are trimmed flush when the legs are cross cut to final length. If all this seems like a bit too much to go through or you don’t have the resources, there is a solid wood option. Legs cut from 8/4 stock, with the end grain orientated at 45 to all faces, will present a uniform (sans a bold ray fleck pattern) appearance on all four sides.
The Legs are now ready to move forward and be integrated into your project. When I built my end tables, my next steps would be to layout and cut the mortises on the legs.