Episode #43: Dressing Table Part 1 – Ball & Claw Foot Layout

So I’m finally starting on the dressing table I alluded to some time ago. I’m not finished with the entertainment center yet, or the joint stool, but why would that stop me from starting yet another project :). Actually, I started this project back in November of 2010 when I did the ball & claw carving demo for the CJWA. I’m finally getting back to it after a 15 month hiatus. I hope I can remember how to carve these things ;).

Due to the complexity and time it takes me to carve ball & claw feet, I’m going to be breaking up the carving into several episodes. Keep in mind as you watch that I am far from an expert at these. I’ve probably carved a few dozen, which is nothing compared to masters who’ve done hundreds. I learned these by reading, watching a video or two, and just carving. I’ve never had any formal instruction, but I think I do an OK job. The methods I use are an amalgamation of techniques from lots of different cavers. The methods I use are by no means the only way, nor are they necessarily the best way, and they may not even be the correct way, depending upon who you ask. But they work for me. They may not be museum quality, but they’re perfectly acceptable for a piece of furniture for my own house.

If this style of furniture interests you, I encourage you to seek out and study lots of period examples, read everything you can, watch videos, take a class if you can, but most importantly, get some practice wood (basswood makes good practice leg blanks) and actually do it. It’s not as hard as it looks, but you have to try it to learn it. I burned at least two before I carved a passable example. So just make a few basswood legs and get carving. After the first two or three, you’ll likely be making legs that are perfectly fine for a piece of furniture for your house. Most of all, have fun! After all, that’s the reason we do this stuff!



9 thoughts on “Episode #43: Dressing Table Part 1 – Ball & Claw Foot Layout

  1. Bob,

    This is really looking a gift horse in the mouth, but you wouldn’t want to post a template like you did for the tea table, would you? If not, any reason not to use the tea table template and just extend the foot downward, leaving it square of course?

    Based on my preferences and your comment, I am going to make the first one a pure practice piece in alder. My thought is to start with a block about a foot long and just rough in the ankle and below. Good idea?

    Finally, I expect that I may have to acquire some gouges or something to do this. Could you tell me what special carving tools, if any, are required so I can acquire them?

    Thanks Bob.

    • Andy,
      See if this works. I attached a file link to the post above. It’s a rough drawing of the project that I’m sure will change before the project is done, but the legs obviously won’t since they’re already done :). I made the leg pattern from this drawing.

      For practice stock alder might work. I’ve never carved it before though so I don’t know how stringy it is. I’ve found most soft woods kind of stringy and hard to carve. Basswood would be a good choice if the alder proves too stringy to carve well. Poplar would probably be OK to practice on too. No need to make an entire leg for practice carving. A one foot block like you suggest will work fine. Just leave a long enough extension to be able to hold it in the vise. Alternatively you could clamp the stock between the jaws of a bar or pipe clamp and then hold the clamp in the bench vise.

      As for gouges, you really don’t need many. I talk about the tools I use and recommend in the next installment before I start carving the ball. Basically, a 3/8-1/2″ bench chisel can do a lot of the work. You might also find a 1/2″ #3 and a 1/2″ #5 helpful for part of the ball rounding and blending, and you’ll need a 3/8″ to 1/2″ #9 for the web. You can probably make do with just those few. I use more in the videos, but that’s because I have more. I didn’t have them all when I did my first B&C though. I did my first couple sets with a bench chisel, 1/2″ #3, 1/2″ #5 and 1/4″ #7. These numbers are all following the Sheffield/London numbering system by the way (I use Henry Taylor carving tools). For brands like Pfeil or Two Cherries that follow the Swiss system, you’ll probably want to go one sweep smaller (i.e. #2, #4, #8), though the same sweeps in the Swiss system will probably work too. There’s a lot of freedom and eyeballing in this stuff. It’s not precision joinery, so a lot of different gouge sweeps and sizes will work. Just get something in the neighborhood of 1/2″ wide in a flat sweep, medium sweep and deep sweep and that should cover you. The actual number of the sweep isn’t all that important.

  2. So, you drew two small arcs to form a continuous curve on the upper half of the “ball” area, on the two back sides of the foot. If I heard correctly this is a carving limit boundary. I noticed that it could not be drawn with a compass since it’s not a uniform radius. My question is, would a French curve be helpful in drawing these to opposing arcs?

    Thanks Bob

    • Honestly, the compass wasn’t even necessary. Going back and re-examining the pattern after filming that segment I realized that all I did was set the compass to swing an arc with a radius equal to the distance from the midpoint line to the top of the ball line. I swung this arc between the two inner vertiacl guide lines and that was it. The line actually did not continue in a full half circle. I just stopped it where it intersected the two inner side lines.

      Truthfully though, this arc can be very unprecise and just sketched in like I did for the second face. It is all going to get carved away later anyway and you will have to visually adjust the outer curve of the ball while carving anyway. The arc is just a very rough guide for initial carving of these faces into a cylinder shape before taking them to a fully round sphere. I realize that this may make no sense yet since I haven’t posted the first real carving video yet, but I promise it will make sense when you see the segment on carving the ball.

      So now that I’ve made a short story long, the short answer is no, you really don’t need the French curve because you don’t need to be precise with this arc. Just roughly sketch it in like I did on the second face, or just swing an arc between the vertical lines with a radius equal to the distance between the midpoint and the top of the ball like I did on the pattern (because I was being a little bit anal on the pattern) if you really want to make a nice arc. It really doesn’t matter either way because it will all be carved away and adjusted later.

  3. I look forward to this new series. Thanks for taking the time to make your videos and blog.

  4. Is there some Rosetta Stone that allows scaling for cabriole legs on different pieces with different footing? For instance, using a b&c foot on a chest vs the dressing table?

    I found your ratios on the Porringer very helpful. I just wonder if they result from some larger formula or just from observations of similar pieces, in which case there would be simply observed dimensions for the various piece/foot combinations.

    I know the classical orders are involved, but I don’t know how to apply them. Is there a source in print or will this be trial and error.

    I’m asking because I want to practice the b&c on a short but proper cabriole in the same species as the piece itself. And even if I do use basswood for practice, I’d rather use less while getting in some real cabriole practice at the same time.

    Thanks again for sharing with us. I love your work.

    • No, there really is no rule for scaling the foot, but that’s probably because we don’t see a whole lot of variation in scale. While there are different styles and proportions that are used, the overall size is generally close to the same regardless of the piece. Rarely do we see a B&C piece that didn’t employ a leg blank (and subsequently a foot blank) that was in the range of 2-5/8″ to 2-7/8″ square. A smaller, more diminutive piece like a tea table might use a blank closer to the 2-5/8″ measurement while a large highboy might use a leg blank closer to 2-7/8″ square. Very rarely do we see pieces with B&C feet outside of this fairly narrow range. When we look at older pieces from the period (e.g. early Queen Anne), before the B&C became popular, there was much more variation in leg dimensions. I’ve seen Queen Anne pieces with ankles as thin as 5/8″. But later in the period when the B&C came into vogue, the legs took on a heavier stance and seem to be more “standardized”, for lack of a better term. Of course there wasn’t a standard, but things just seem to fall within that relatively narrow range of leg blank sizes when we’re looking at B&C legs. It could simply be that the form just doesn’t look right when made much larger or smaller than that range, or possibly because sawn lumber thickness became more standardized, who knows. But while there are examples of B&C feet that are smaller and larger than the range stated above, most examples seem to fall within that range. The best thing I can suggest is to observe pieces similar to what you’d like to make in person if you can, and if that’s not posible, learn to scale pieces from photographs. If you’re designing your own from scratch and it’s not a strict copy of an existing piece, just start with a leg blank that is in the neighborhood of 2-3/4″ square and build your leg within the confines of that stock. Most of the time, starting with a blank about 2-3/4″ square will give you a well proportioned B&C.

  5. I’m not an artis but with good guide lines I can do very good work. To get started I bought a very basic set of mediun size phiel gouges. The first B&C video I watched the craftsman used a 25mm (1″) #5 to start with to rough out the Ball. So I bought one. The sharp edges got in the way so I reground a 2 3/4 radius to the edge. It worked quite well but I thought a narrower #5 wood be handy so I bought one. the radius of the pheil 12 mm and 25 mm #5 arn’t the same. The smaller #5’s have a smaller radius than the larger ones. This could get “Expensive”! So I started paying more attention and making lists. I found no video artisen uses even closely the same tools to make a 2 3/4 B&C. and all are reluctant to share thier templates. I’ll buy any vidio that promises me a “good template” and I won’t have to buy all new tools.

    • This is common in carving. Everyone does things differently and there are many tools that can all get you to the same place. With B&C, you need very few carving tools. You will find that much of the work can be done with nothing more than a 3/8″-5/8″ straight bench chisel. You certainly don’t need more than 3 or 4 gouges.

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