How to Make Bench or Table Legs (Without a Lathe!)
Overview: I had been wanting to make a sitting bench for quite awhile but, lacking a lathe, I had no good way to go about making cylindrical legs. While attending a local estate sale I happened upon a draw knife in pretty good condition. Five dollars later I was the happy owner. A draw knife can be used to shape wood in some pretty unique ways. After playing around with mine, I realized I could do a decent job turning a square piece into a cylinder. With this in mind, I decided to finally make a go at my bench project. You can read more about it here but I thought it might be useful to explain how I went about shaping the legs in a little more detail. Enjoy!
Step 1: Rough Cutting
The first thing to do is cut rough sticks of the pieces you plan to work with. In my case, this was four pieces of curly maple, each about 2.5” x 2.5” x 25”. It would be wise to make them a few inches longer than necessary and just cut them down to size at the end. An optional step would be to cut the corners off of the sticks, turning them into an octagon. This can be accomplished by either tilting your bandsaw table or using a table saw jig.
Step 2: Make a Diameter Reference Tool
Before you go and start shaving away, you need to make a little tool to help provide a reference as you work. Simply find a piece of scrap and drill a hole in it of the diameter that you want your legs to be. In my case, I was going to taper them so I drilled two holes, a 1.5” diameter hole that would be the reference for the top of the leg and a 2.0” diameter hole for the bottom of the leg.
Step 3: Mark Out Dimensions
Looking at the end of your piece, use a combination square to mark out the dead center. Repeat for the other end. Now mark out four compass points on each end that would lie on the circumference of your desired diameter. What??? An example: You want your leg to be 2 inches in diameter. After marking out the center spot, make a mark 1 inch directly above and a mark directly below it. Repeat for each side.
Now take the scrap wood we drilled our hole in and align it over the end of your work piece. Depending on the size and geometry of things you may be able to clamp it, I simply held it in place. Get the piece lined up so that the very edges of your guide hole are lining up with the marks you just made. Using a sharp pencil, trace out the perimeter of your circle. In the bottom image on the right you can see how I marked the wrong diameter the first time (Obvious Tip I Stupidly Ignored: Always label up and down on your pieces)
Optional Step: If you want a taper, like I did, you should take the time to mark out where on the leg you want the taper to occur. In my case, I wanted the leg to be straight for ~3 inches (the tenon that would fit into the bench) and then expand from there. So I made a mark at 3 inches to provide a reference for myself.
Step 4: Clamping
So hopefully when you look at the end of your piece you see a circle like I have in the pictures. I found the best way to start shaving the piece was to clamp it in the front vise and then sit a clamp under it (attached to the table) that would support it in case it started to rotate. You may need to do something different though depending upon your set up. A cool tool to have would be a shaving horse. Basically a combination of a bench and vise, look it up. One day I might try to build one.
Step 5: Shaving with Draw Knife
Time to start shaving. Take your time and work carefully as a well sharpened draw knife can remove a lot of material quickly. There is an optimal angle to hold the draw knife at which you get a feel for after awhile. Just take long smooth strokes and try not to let the blade wander. Every 12-16 strokes I would rotate the piece, this would help ensure I was evenly removing material around the leg. Also, be diligent about measuring the leg (vernier calipers are very handy) to get an idea of where you are at. When you need to taper things, carefully remove a little more material by starting with a shorter stroke.
Step 6: The Spokeshave (Optional)
The draw knife is great but due to the volume of material it removes the surface can be rather textured. This is fine and definitely gives it that hand hewn look; however, that wasn’t what I was going for here. To fine tune things, I picked up a spokeshave. If you aren’t familiar with the tool, it is essentially a type of plane that was historically used to shape wagon wheel spokes, chair legs, arrows, etc.
Note: If you pick one up on the cheap, make sure to sharpen the blade.
What I liked was that I could dial in the blade to remove a desired thickness, just like a conventional hand plane. This let me really smooth out the legs and get nice, clean lines. Be aware, these two steps (5 and 6) will take some time…
Step 7: Sanding
All that is left at this point is to give the piece a good sanding to prep for final assembly. If you are tenoning it into something, give it a test fit and fine tune things with the spokeshave if necessary. Use your sanding weapon of choice and take care not to sand a flat surface into your leg. I started at 100 grit and worked my way up to 400.
Step 8: Brag or Bonfire
This step depends on how well your piece turned out. If it is gorgeous, go brag to all of your friends about how real woodworkers don’t use lathes. If it came out terrible, there is never a bad time to have a bonfire.