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.
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.