Table-Leg Design Issues

A discussion of table leg thickness and related considerations when designing in the Arts and Crafts style. March 13, 2007

I have decided on a design for a client's desk/table. It will be in the Greene and Greene design, 1" thick top (maybe 1 -1/16"), with breadboard ends, two drawers in the apron (on one side). The aprons will be about 4.5" -5" wide.

I will be gluing up the legs, but I can't decide on the thickness. 2", 2-1/4, 2- 1/2"? The overall table will be 5' long, 3' wide, 30" high, legs connected by aprons. No other leg supports, as the client wants open space under the table/desk). I don't have time to make a mockup to decide on leg thickness. Any thoughts?

Tapering is not in the G&G tradition and I think it would weaken the look and stability. I am lame about design. The client came up with the 5'x3' table size, and I am sure there is a golden mean rule about that, too.

I picked up beautiful 5/4 walnut for this project. The accents will be either holly or maple, with an inlayed fleur-de-lis either on one of the breadboards or hidden in a drawer.

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor F:
If this were my table I would make the legs either 2 1/2 or 2 3/4".

From contributor T:
I build Arts & Crafts furniture in several different styles, including Greene & Greene. G&G furniture is, by far, the most demanding of the A&C styles. And designing to emulate what most people think of as G&G style (pieces designed between 1905 and 1910, likely for the Blacker and Gamble houses) is easy to overdo or to get "close, but no cigar."

I'd suggest a couple of resources that you can order from Amazon and have in your hands quickly. First, get Darrell Peart's new book, "Greene & Greene: Design Elements for the Workshop." It will prove invaluable. Especially helpful are the X-rays of actual G&G pieces, showing construction details in detail. Measurements and scale drawings are included as well, and should also be very helpful. Second, get hold of Makinson's "Greene & Greene: Furniture and Related Designs." It is available as a single title, or as a single volume bound with "G&G Architecture as a Fine Art." You'll get the proportions you need for any element of the desk/table from one or the other.

From the original questioner:
I ordered the Peart book, by your recommendation. In the meantime... any suggestions about leg thickness? This way I can get a jump on planing and ripping.

From contributor D:
Start at 3 and work your way down until you like what you see.

From contributor V:
I have built several of this same size. I went with 2 1/4, but I think something to consider in making the decision is the surroundings and decor where the desk will be, such as man or woman, casual, elegant or formal atmosphere, are the other furnishings light, heavy or massive.

From contributor P:
You might also want to think carefully about that apron thickness - mock it up for the client and have them sit at it so that they can try out 24" of legroom. You might consider having the apron get thinner directly under the center of the desk for more legroom.

From contributor T:
Contributor P is right, and you can likely accomplish this by using the G&G Cloud Lift on the apron, or by applying the G&G curved Asian brackets at each side to add visual weight while letting you make the apron narrow enough to sit comfortably.

Bear in mind a couple of other things about G&G designs. 1. The "cloud lift" and Asian brackets never appeared in the same design. 2. The G&G designs were created and executed a century ago, and people were much smaller in stature. Contributor P's concern is important in that your client is likely much taller than any client of the Greene's.

Finally, I'd echo the 2 1/2" suggested width (front face) for the legs as a general direction... but that will depend on the design elements/details you intend to apply to the legs.

From the original questioner:
I didn't quite give the whole story. This is a piece for a guy who has transformed his barn into an office space - high end. I built a full bar for him, with highly figured quartersawn white oak, and a frame and panel ceiling above the bar area. He has three desks for employees. He wants this table to sit between two roll-top desks for a new employee. He "just wants a table." I said, let me do something "more than a table." He had 4/4 walnut in storage, so I figured I could build legs from that... miter 4 pieces to form the legs. I bought 5/4 walnut for the top and aprons. I thought I would add the G&G look to make it interesting (to me), and get away from the plain breadboard top, etc. He has no clue about G&G... it's really for my joy.

I am stuck with the 4/4 to build the legs. I saw in FWW that one fellow face jointed two 4/4 to get roughly 1-3/4 thick, then did a face width of 2-1/2 for a G&G look. I like that look, but feel that since he won't let me use a foot stretcher, the table would be kind of weak - that's why the thicker legs. Plus, didn't know how the face gluing would look (glue line).

So, in conclusion. The G&G is not to do a repro, but to have some fun with the pegs/cloud-lift/breadboard details. The legs, well... still on the drawing board. If I had the cash, I would have gone out and gotten some 10/4, but I am stuck with the 4/4 (from his property).

From contributor T:
If you're using the Greene & Green style simply as inspiration, and need to work with the material from the client's property, why not approach the legs as you've described but make the glue line(s) vanish using a contrasting inlay bridging it? Since you'll be gluing long grain to long grain of the same species to build up the leg thickness you need, and since you'll be using contemporary adhesives, movement that would threaten the inlay should be minimal. This would also let you play with how the grain appears on either side of the inlay, perhaps even creating a bookmatched pattern that would turn a liability into a design feature. Consider this further grist for the mill. Regardless, the project (and client) sound like a neat opportunity.

From the original questioner:
Are you suggesting just gluing the two 4/4 together, thus producing a 1-1/2x 2-1/2 leg? Then inlay a light line of maple (which I will be using for the details on the rest of the piece) in the glue line? Do you think that the 1-1/2" thick leg will be substantial enough without the use of lower stretchers? I could glue three 4/4 together, thus 2-1/4 x 2-1/2. I just didn't want to make the piece too busy with all the pegs, breadboad, and now inlays, but I will consider that seriously.

Yeah, the client is a dream. Never asks prices. I have restored a few pieces for him, handed him the bill, no questions asked. On the bar, I just bought 10 sets of hinges and catches and handles for $500. He didn't wink - those were the ones he wanted!

From contributor T:
Yes, that's what I would suggest. Strength shouldn't be a serious issue, but for visual weight I'd be inclined toward the three-piece glue-up, and play with the inlay. There's no reason it needs to be strictly limited to the glue lines. Certainly CS. Green played with inlay a number of times (at least as often as he played with carved and shaped surfaces). Some of his designs were Asian-inspired heading toward Art Nouveau... which included lots of long lines.

Don't you love it when the creative juices really start flowing? I find that a great client like yours often inspires pushing the envelope and delivering something that is really great fun.

From the original questioner:
Since I will laminate three 4/4" walnut boards together, face to face to face, does it make any difference how I orient the boards? Or can I go for aesthetics alone? I will be using, I guess, regular Titebond glue. If you have an opinion about the grain/ring orientation, please explain why.

From the original questioner:
I am so frustrated. I am scrapping the whole laminating idea. I ripped wood tonight... Some bowed, and I am fearful that sandwiching them will eventually fail. The wood wants to return to its natural bow. Now I have about 12 pieces of walnut 3" wide x 32" long. Plus, the side grain did not look good sandwiched - too many variations, even with an inlay.

I have two options, the way I see it:
1. Buy some 10/4, eat the cost, explain it to the client (who, although generous, will not be happy about his wood not being used), orů
2. Sandwich 3/4 maple between the two walnut 4/4, possibly slightly recessed, 1/16- 1/8". I have maple in the shop, but will this be too busy? Will the walnut and maple mate well when glued? Should I use Titebond/epoxy/etc.?

From contributor T:
Others will likely weigh in on this, but my suspicion is that the stock is gaining moisture as Spring comes on, and doing so unevenly. That would certainly produce the bow you described if you're resawing. From my experience, the stock simply needs to rest and reacclimatize to the relative humidity in the shop. That will require a week or two, and the bow will likely correct itself.

That doesn't, of course, address the fact that you don't like the grain you're seeing. Unfortunately, as I've tried to envision laminations with maple captured between layers of walnut, all I can picture is a turkey sandwich on dark rye. The inlay I suggested, being much narrower, would produce a pleasing contrast in color and variation in dimension. With maple sandwiched into the walnut, and all the stock the same dimensions, I'm afraid it would look much too busy.

With regard to gluing, Titebond should be fine. Again, since you're gluing long grain to long grain, and will have a great deal of glue surface, and since the legs are not especially wide on the cross-grain dimension, I doubt that you've any significant risk of a glue failure.

One other option to consider in order to use the customer-furnished stock and eliminate the laminations would be to build a tall, narrow box for each leg by machining locked mitre joints vertically for each corner. This is a method often used to put the ray fleck pattern of quartersawn white oak on all four sides of a leg for a Morris chair and other A&C pieces. You'd certainly get ample strength, a good deal of dimensional stability, and could use the 4/4 walnut for the legs whatever dimensions you chose for them. Legs built in that fashion also tend to resist warping/twisting over time.