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Slant Top Desk Build - French Feet

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Blog entry by MPython posted 04-07-2020 09:01 PM 731 reads 1 time favorited 4 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I’ve been working on a slant top desk for a while now. It was inspired by an antique walnut slant top desk my college landlady owned that had belonged to her grandfather when he was president of my college in Kentucky. I fell in love with the desk over 50 years ago and have dreamed of owning a similar one all these years. I finally decided to build it. The hang up for me, aside from it being a very substantial woodworking project, is the fact that it has French feet. We own a Kentucky five drawer chest in cherry with French feet, and I have always marveled at how they were constructed. I searched hi and low for years but never found a good description of the process, so I had all but given up on the desk – and anything else with French feet.

One day several years ago, I mentioned my interest in the design and my disappointment at not finding satisfactory how-to instructions to a woodworking friend. My friend happens to be a wonderful woodworker, much more accomplished than I am. He said, “I know how to do that. Come spend a weekend with me and I’ll teach you.” I did, and decided immediately to undertake the desk. I’ve come a long way and today I completed my first French foot. In light of the dearth of information on the process, I thought I’d do this fairly extensive Blog entry to help any other lost souls in the LJ woodworking community who have been looking for help with French feet.

The process has several parts, the first of which involves cutting a deep kerf in the leg member (in my case, the case sides) leaving a very thin (approximately 3/32”) veneer remaining on the outside of the leg member. Into the kerf a curved wedge is glued and clamped to form the foot’s lateral flair. Cutting the kerf in the bottom end of a 42’ x 22’ solid panel was a tense operation.

I had previously cut the housed dovetail channels for the drawers dividers, the writing surface and the desk bottom in the sides, but I decided to wait until I had cut this kerf to complete the bottom scroll. I rough-cut the scroll with a jigsaw and refined it with an oscillating drum sander.

The next step is to prepare the curved wedge and glue it in place. It is important to make sure the small end of the wedge is precisely the same thickness as the saw kerf to (1) get good glue contact between the leg and the wedge, and (2) to avoid splitting the leg/panel with an oversized wedge, once it is glued onto place.

To keep the wedge from splitting the panel during the glue-up, I clamped a stout block across the leg at the end of the kerf.

I used the cut-off from the wedge as a clamping caul to insure good, even clamping pressure on the wedge. I placed waxed paper between the caul and the workpiece to make sure I didn’t glue the caul to the leg, brushed on the glue, pushed the wedge into place, applied the clamps and let it sit overnight.

When the clamps came off the next morning, I was happy with the results.

A little work with a sharp draw knife and a block plane and this part of the operation was done.

At this point the foot construction was put on hold while the interior structure of the desk was completed. I glued in place drawer dividers, runners, the writing surface and the bottom. It was time to revisit the feet. I should mention here that, if I do this again, I will add some temporary protection for the exposed edges of the feet. They are vulnerable to getting banged, chipped and otherwise beat up while the rest of the webbing is completed. I would probably screw two thin blocks to the front edge of the feet/side panel to absorb this abuse. The screw holes would be covered, as we will see later.

The wedging operation described above provides the lateral flair for the French foot. To accomplish the front flair, a piece is glued to the front edge of the unfinished foot and shaped to match the lateral flair. First, however, the apron must be finished because the added piece abuts the apron and must be precisely fitted to provide a clean front surface.

The apron is in several parts. First, a horizontal piece with mitered ends is glued to the bottom. Next, two vertical pieces are glued to the inside edges of the side panels and mitered to fit the horizontal piece. Early on, I routed mortises in the bottom insides of the side panels. The vertical pieces have a long tenon cut to fit into these mortises. I also took the precaution of adding a biscuit at the miter joint between the horizontal piece and the two vertical pieces. This structure forms the desk’s bottom apron. The biscuit and the mortise and tenon joints reinforce the apron and prevent it from being easily kicked in during everyday use. All of this is glued into place and left to cure overnight.

When the clamps came off the next day, I traced the bottom scroll onto the apron using the BB plywood template that is seen in the previous photos. I traced it with a heavy white pencil so it would show up on the walnut and leave a wide line. I jigsawed out the pattern following the outside edge of the line. This left the cut about 1/8” to 3/16” proud of the template.

Next, I carefully clamped the template into place and routed the final profile with a bearing guided bit to get a clean, finished edge.

A 1/4” facing is glued to all of the front edges of the desk. It serves two purposes. First, it hides all of the joinery for the drawer dividers, etc. In light of my sloppy work, I count this a blessing! Second, it provides the means to integrate the final applied piece that forms the frontal curve of the foot into the rest of the structure. The facing begins with the apron. A 1/4” piece, mitered at the ends, is applied to the previously completed apron structure and the apron profile is routed onto it using a bearing guided bit.

Next, the foot overlay (facing) is applied. A slightly oversized board is selected and carefully four squared. The profile of the lateral foot flair is traced onto the edge of the board (I traced the profile onto a piece of 1/8” BB plywood and band sawed it for a template). Next the profile is cut on the band saw.

Next, the top corner is carefully mitered to match the apron miter. Marking the miter is tricky. The overlay board must be positioned to cover the entire apron miter and to allow enough material for the rest of the foot. This its why you need to start with an oversized board to allow some wiggle room. I shot the miters on both the apron facing and the foot overlay on my 45 degree shooting board to make sure they fit perfectly. This joint is very obvious on the front of the finished piece, so it is important to nail the fit.

Next the shape of the foot is marked onto the overlay piece and band sawed out. When this piece is glued on, the shape of the foot will be refined using a block plane and scrapers. Consequently, cutting close to the line will save some work later. Also, the top edge will have to mate with the apron facing and side panel edge facings (to be applied later), so the thin end of the applied piece needs to end up at 1/4” thickness.

The piece is glued into place with much care given to keeping the mitered edges of the apron and the overlay snugly together. Clamping this curvaceous piece proved to be a challenge. I have no particular advice except to say that the tighter I cranked down on the clamps the more the piece moved. I ended up using just enough pressure to keep it in place. I used hide glue, so I think this will be sufficient for a reasonably strong joint.

Left to cure overnight, the clamps came off the next morning. Once again, some work with a block plane and scrapers refined the foot to complete its form.

I’m pretty happy with this outcome. I have one more to go and then I can start on the drawers. Hope you find this helpful. I’ll post photos of both feet with the desk upright when I finish the other foot.

Everybody stay safe and healthy!

ADDENDUM

Finished photos:

Thanks for taking the time to read this. If you’re ever in mind to build a piece with French feet, I hope you remember this blog and find it helpful. There’s not much else available on the topic.



4 comments so far

View theoldfart's profile

theoldfart

11496 posts in 3188 days


#1 posted 04-07-2020 11:44 PM

Outstanding explanation Python. I would have been scratching my head for a couple of lifetimes trying to figure that foot out. Thank you for posting.

-- "With every tool obtained, there is another that is needed" DonW ( Kevin )

View Sylvain's profile

Sylvain

1031 posts in 3236 days


#2 posted 04-08-2020 07:54 AM

very interesting.
did you use warmth to ease the curving of the “veneer”?

-- Sylvain, Brussels, Belgium, Europe - The more I learn, the more there is to learn

View MPython's profile

MPython

240 posts in 549 days


#3 posted 04-08-2020 11:58 AM

Sylvain, heat was not necessary to facilitate the bending of the veneer face. Heat would probably be helpful, or even necessary, if the veneer face was thick, but mine was about 2.5 to 3mm thick and bent very easily under clamp pressure. This may give you a better idea of the thickness of the veneer face. In the photo below the thin plywood inserted into the kerf is 3mm (1/8 inch) thick.

View Arlin Eastman's profile

Arlin Eastman

4340 posts in 3298 days


#4 posted 04-11-2020 12:50 AM

Nicely done!

-- It is always the right time, to do the right thing.

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