Skinning The Cat

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Tricks for Making Perfect Classical Bracket Feet

By Jack Hutchison

Woodworker’s Club of Houston

We’ve all heard the expression, "Necessity is the mother of invention." If that is true, then laziness has certainly got to be the father. I know how to use hand tools, but I definitely prefer power tools, when they can get the job done correctly, and save some time. Eighteenth century craftsmen were strictly hand tool users, but they sure had the technique down pat and their designs are magnificent. Maybe I’m basically lazy, but I want those results nevertheless, right along with that classic craftsman look.

I really love the look of 18th century furniture with its graceful lines, and classic construction using mortise and tenon joints, dovetails, crown and cove moldings, and graceful cyma curve bracket feet. This stuff just radiates grace, and the love of the craft.

I’ve had the urge to build a drop leaf desk for a while now and I’ve been accumulating journal articles and photos of various designs in order to determine the absolutely correct piece to build. My daughter pointed out a very nice Governor Winthrop Drop Leaf Desk in one of the houses in Old Salem, NC while we were touring the village. Old Salem is one of those carefully maintained colonial towns of the Williamsburg genre. Very nice and worth visiting. Anyway, I asked her if she would like one similar to that magnificent piece. She just smiled, and I knew I had a project lined up for using up some of my precious walnut stash.

Several woodworking journal authors describe their methods of making Chippendale style bracket feet. Some of the methods are good, some so good. There is always room for improvement, so, I’ve taken the best approaches described and embellished them even further to achieve great results with minimal effort, aka "skinning the cat."

First, you need to draw up the bracket foot profile full scale, then cut out and glue the paper profile to a piece of ¼" hardboard or plywood to use as a template. Band saw to the line and sands the template smooth. Don’t take any shortcuts here. Save the template cutout, as you will need it for shaping the stock later. Sand the cutout smooth as well.

Most bracket feet are 4 ½" to 5 ½" high and have moldings attached to the top of the finished foot. Typically, the cyma cure is concave by 3/8" with a ¼" offset at the base which is sometimes carved. To mill the concave portion on your 8/4 stock, raise the saw blade on your table saw to 3/8 inches, then find the angle that allows the saw blade to just clear half the width of your foot height. For a 4 ½" high foot set the width of the cove to be 2 ¼". I use a parallelogram to determine the angle of the fence at this point, but you can also use a paper template. After determining the angle for cutting the cove, clamp a fence to the table top in front of the blade on that angle previously determined, with a ¼" offset. Lower the blade below the table and set your straight, flat stock adjacent to the fence, then clamp anther fence on the backside for safety purposes. Remove the stock, turn on the saw and raise the blade 1/6" and slowly pass the stock over the blade on a bias, using push blocks for safety. Repeat the cove cutting process by increasing the blade height in approximately 1/16" increments until the full 3/8" height is attained. The concave cove cut of the cyma curve is now complete.

To shape the remaining convex portion of the cyma curve on the bracket foot, use a ¾" round over bit to hog off the stock on the top convex portion of the curve. Then use a block plane to round over and smooth the stock to conform to your template cutout you saved earlier. When the planed profile fits the curve you are done with the hand planeing operation. Sand all surfaces smooth with a random orbit sander, and a piece of sandpaper wrapped around a large diameter piece of dowel (broom handle size.)

Trace your bracket foot template pattern on the backside of the milled stock. Be sure to orient the template to produce mirror images. You will need four pieces for the front feet and two for the back. Crosscut the stock to finished length for each piece of the bracket foot, then set your table saw at 45 degrees, clamp the short lengths to your miter gage and saw the 45 degree miter angles on the mating front bracket feet only. Match the grain. Back bracket feet are flat on the rear side to allow the piece of furniture to set flush against a wall.

Next, set your rip fence so that the mitered edge of each front piece butts against the fence. Clamp the front brackets onto the miter gauge and saw a 1/8" kerf approximately 3/8" deep for a spline joint to be inserted later.

Band saw the profile drawn on the back side of the stock to the line, then use an oscillating spindle sander to smooth the bottom concave curves, and a 1" belt sander to smooth the convex curves.

Apply glue to the mitered faces, insert a spline milled to perfectly fit the spline mortise, and press the mitered front brackets together. For the back brackets, cut a gusset to attach to the back brackets in a vertical position and glue up using a #20 biscuit, and clamp in place. If you don’t have a biscuit cutter, then mill a slot in the mating pieces on your table saw for a spline joint. After the glue sets, you can proceed with final sanding for perfect bracket feet, made easy.

After all, laziness is the father of invention.

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