Leg work…..

Doric Classic Order, Drawing by George Walker

I’ve been looking at a lot of pictures of furniture legs and how they are proportioned. One thing that comes to mind is that a lot of designs include some sort of taper. If you look at a classic order you will notice that the column reduces in diameter as it rises up to the capital. The lower third of the column remains a constant diameter and then begins to taper inward. Actually it curves in very gradually, the term for this is known as entasis. This reduction in diameter probably echoes the natural tapering in tree trunks first used in primitive construction. Usually the column is 1/6 smaller at the top than at the base. Furniture legs however, often taper in the opposite direction getting smaller towards the floor. This taper mimics nature also. Think about how your legs are proportioned.

Anatomy Sketch by Leonardo

Our limbs are thicker near our torso and taper down to our ankles. Straight legs are fine on a workbench,  but to my eye pull the life out of a chair or table design. I sat down and looked at the proportions behind  a number of period chairs, tables, sideboards, and one desk. They had quite a variety of heights but the proportions tended to fall into a fairly narrow window. I drew up this graphic to illustrate. It shows a table leg that tapers from the apron down to the floor. Which looks most pleasing to your eye?

Here’s how much each leg is actually reduced:

A – Straight

 B – Reduced by a sixth

C – Reduced by a fifth

D – Reduced by a fourth

E – Reduced by third

F – Reduced by half

G – Reduced by ¾

Here is what I found looking at actual examples. There was one example with straight legs and one with the reduced by 3/4. The straight leg looked dead and the stiletto leg actually looked structurally compromised. Most others actually fell into a narrow band. They reduced by 1/3, ½, or they were reduced slightly less than one half. By that I mean they were 2” at the top and 1&1/8” at bottom. This may be helpful to keep in mind when designing legs regardless whether they are turned or square in cross section. As always, take this knowledge and look at built work. File away in your mind what appeals to you as well as what doesn’t.

George Walker

Advertisements

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
This entry was posted in Design Basics, proportions. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Leg work…..

  1. Chuck Nickerson says:

    Leg shape as a topic can be quite complex. I once heard furnituremaker Darrell Peart talk for a few minutes on leg shape. He offered that leg shape can be a conscious design choice to emphasize (or de-emphasize) a table’s connection to the floor. At one extreme, ball-and-claw feet have the table gripping the floor to stayed anchored. Legs greatly thinned toward the floor are de-empasizing the connection. Designers have found several ways to negotiate the middle ground, some quite clever. For instance, Shakers often tapered legs but only on the inside edges. This preserved the piece’s external retangular form.

  2. Christopher Schwarz says:

    George,

    I like the leg that has been reduced by one-half. That is what I am used to building and seeing. I’ve also made them between one-half and “stiletto” and they look good to me.

    This reminds me (in a good way) of the surveys that asked people to pick the rectangle shapes that were most pleasing to them. Their choices were surprisingly bell-curvish.

    Great post!

    Chris

  3. Daniel G says:

    The test might be a bit misleading, as we rarely build legs suspended in isolation… a sketch of a leg without any taper is obviously going to be less visually interesting next to one with a taper, but a straight leg is often precisely what’s needed when building a piece that relies on other interesting features, in which case a taper might be less appealing.

    That said, the da Vinci sketch leads to the question of whether the most appealing leg taper in furntiture design is a direct consequence of our concept of the most appealing leg taper in human anatomy…

    • Daniel G says:

      Out of curiousity, I took some rough measurements and estimated the taper of the human leg in the sketch, and it’s very close to one half… whether that’s an ‘ideal’ human leg, I’m not so sure.

    • walkerg says:

      Daniel G

      Wasn’t really thinking this as a test. At least not in the sense that there is a right answer. I agree you can find many examples with straight legs that work. It’s really about learning how to see and becoming aware of why something works or doesn’t.

      George

  4. Jim Tolpin says:

    Interesting that we do seem to like the human-like proportion of a leg thicker at the top than the bottom…sort of like a tree if you include the branches…but the complete opposite of the pyramid form which implies to the eye (and to our physical sense of reality) great stability. So its not up to the legs, apparently, to give the sense of stability–its in the overall form…

    • walkerg says:

      Jim,

      Great point that it’s the form not nessisarily the legs that implies stability. You can however add a band of veneeer, or a small bead near the bottom, think of it as the pedestal on the classic order. Just that small detail will reinforce that stability by breaking up the facade vertically and provide a beginning.

      George

  5. akfurn says:

    Does this not reinforce the unconscious connection people make with furniture? Proportions in classical furniture tend to relate or even mimic the ratios found in the human structure. That’s why the majority would choose a leg that tapers by 1/2 as pleasing.

    This just goes to show how important every detail is and how crucial it is to have all parts harmonize within the whole.

    Very insightful, George. Thanks for writing it.

    • walkerg says:

      akfurn,

      You are right on about how traditional design relies heavily on proportions from the ideal human form. The classic orders themselves have that connection also. I’ll be diving into that in future posts.

      George

Comments are closed.