Carving the Spanish Foot with simple bench tools – a pictorial

Posted October 13, 2016 by D.B. Laney
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As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Spanish Foot (vernacular) must surely have been a godsend to furniture makers.  Its manufacture requires very few specialized tools.  The only carving tools I’m using are a “90 degree V tool” and an 8 sweep 16mm gouge.  (You can forgo the fluting and get by with a sharp bench chisel and knife.)  Even rural craftsmen could present something to clients that mimicked the styles popular at court.

Bill Brown suggested that a brief tutorial on carving the Spanish Foot with a minimum of handtools might be a good idea and, I agree.  So what follows is a simple pictorial presentation of just that.  If the pictures don’t tell the story, just ask me and I’ll “‘splain it” in English.  BTW, for those who have to “price things out”, this was an hour’s worth of work.

The Spanish Foot

Posted October 12, 2016 by D.B. Laney
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First, I’d like to thank John Kissel.  On a recent trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, John took a number of photos in the period furniture area that he was kind enough to share with me.  John and I briefly discussed the wide variation in “Spanish Foot” designs.  I think the shot below says it all.


One might ask, “why is it called a Spanish foot?”  My answer is, I’m not sure.  I can only surmise that this was one of many decorative post terminations used by Continental craftsman during the Baroque period. This style was heavily influenced by Spanish Baroque artisans and approved by Holy Mother Church.  (Interestingly enough Spain also gave us the Inquisition, at about the same time.)  The Spanish foot seems to have followed aristocratic Catholics around Europe then made it’s was to England in the furniture that we now refer to as Jacobean (the Stuart period) which ended (stylistically) with William and Mary.  I’m hoping that my friend, Jack Plane will “weigh in” and provide a little more background.  Again, if you’re not visiting Jack’s blog on a regular basis, you’re cheating yourself.

Here’s a look at a number of Spanish feet.  Basically, they all begin as right or obtuse trapezoids.  From that point, it’s all a matter of imagination.

From the craftsman’s point of view, the good news is that the Spanish foot is much easier to produce than it looks.  It requires the use of very few tools.  In fact, a simple (yet very satisfying) version can be manufactured with a handsaw, a couple of bench chisels and (perhaps) a file (or $200 rasp, if you’ve got one).

The Spanish foot is not for everyone.  It seems that you either love it or hate.  But it’s quick and unique and may have some contemporary applications.  Or maybe I just have a fetish!

Bannister back chair – front assembly – makin’ parts

Posted October 6, 2016 by D.B. Laney
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Before starting on the actual front posts, I turned a model of the post and carved a model of the Spanish foot.  This insured that things were going to go together as planned and it allowed me to “warm up”.  At seventy, contending with some nerve damage, I need all the “warming up”, I can get.

While the Spanish foot looks difficult to carve, it’s really pretty straightforward.  The basic shape is cut on a band saw, using the same layout method employed when making cabriole legs.  It requires very few tools to carve.  BTW, there is NO standard Spanish foot!  Flutes, ridges or any combination of the two have all been mixed and matched to create a wide variety of individualized designs.  That said, remember that structural integrity is critical.


Here’s the rough carving.  I’ll leave the tool marks in the fluted areas, but the convex surfaces will be cleaned up a bit with a fine riffler and a little light sanding.


The main stretcher on any bannister back chair is always an attention getter.  These eye catching features take the notion of decoration way over the top!  You could club someone into submission with this monster!  Another point of interest worthy of note is the wide variation in color of the three pieces below.  They are all local black walnut.  The stretcher is older growth that was stored in a barn for years.  It is much finer grained and has an obvious reddish hue.  The posts are turned from younger, faster growing stock and are “bluish”, or “purply”, as some of us like to call it.  These color differences in walnut are usually determined by the mineral content of the soil in which the tree has grown.  But the atmosphere of the building in which lumber has been stored (especially long term) can also have an effect.  A piece of American White Oak may be “passed off” as English Brown after 15-20 years of storage in the loft above a working stock shed.

In any event, I’ll have to make a decision as to whether or not I try to balance of the color differences with staining or simply let the varying hues “age together”.


Bannister back chair – dry fit back assembly

Posted September 29, 2016 by D.B. Laney
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Today was fit up day.  The good news is that everything seemed to fit pretty well.  Assembly required only a little gentle tapping.  The rear seat rail is of white oak.  Reason being?  It was laying under the lathe.


The rear of the crest rail is straightforward.  Piercings are “heavily” beveled.  The “flower” at the top is developed on the back.  A closer look at the balusters will show a lamb’s tongue on the lower pommel.    I’d like to say that this was a critical design consideration.  But the truth is that I inadvertently bumped the pommel with the tip of a skew as I was moving the tool rest.  Lesson:  don’t move the tool rest while the stock is turning.  Lesson:  Turn an accident into a design detail….


Tomorrow starts the front assembly.  Whew, this fast paced production is wearing me out!

Bannister back chair – Progress – When is it enough?

Posted September 27, 2016 by D.B. Laney
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A question that craftsmen have asked themselves, for time eternal, is when have I done enough.   Obviously, when you’re working for a client the answer is, simple, when he or she is satisfied.  But when you’re doing something for yourself, not being driven by a profit motive, but guided by your passion for the craft, the question can be much more difficult to answer.  However, I concluded long ago that I will never reach perfection.  I try to hold myself to a fairly demanding standard.  But, I’m comfortable having that little talk with myself in which I say, “good enough.”  I’ve also learned another important lesson.  I simply mention to folks that everything looks better if you step back about ten feet.  I have no doubt that I’ll do a little more cleanup, but I’m calling the crest rail carving “good enough.”  I’ll be finishing the chair with five or six coats of “watery (1/2# cut)” shellac.  It will make the carving “pop”, really POP!


Right now, there’s nothing but a wash of turpentine on the carving, just to bring out the color.  It also makes those little areas that need touching up very apparent.  Umhhh…maybe I’m not quite done with it.


Bannister back chair – roughing the crest rail

Posted September 23, 2016 by D.B. Laney
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I love to carve.  But, I certainly wouldn’t call myself a carver.  Most of my carving has been limited to architectural details and small work on furniture.  At first look, the baroque acanthus crest rail on this project was more than a little daunting.  But the more I studied the photos, I became aware that it was actually pretty straightforward.  The are three (maybe four) basic elevations, each designed to “pull details forward”.

The first task was to cut out the “piercings”.  I was going to do this with a coping saw, but Les offered his scroll saw.  Not too reluctantly, I accepted his offer.

Then the actual “roughing in” began.  This process allows me to come to an understanding of where the elevations are, where I need to make transitions, etc.  The good news is, that if I make a little mistake, I can always go a bit deeper when doing the finish work (thank goodness).


I didn’t have a photo of the back of the crest rail.  Fortunately, the construction details are to be found in the excellent tome offered by the Metropolitan Museum of Art,

BTW, This book is available for viewing, in its entirety, on the Metropolitan Museum of Art Website.  It’s an incredible resource.  It ain’t cheap, but it’s an excellent reference book for anyone building (or simply interested in) period furniture.

The top “bell flower” will be mirrored on the back side.  As in the original, the piercings will be given a broad bevel, just to give the back a little interest.  After all, not everyone can set next to the wall.

The project is going reasonably well.  For once, I might actually complete something on time.  But, you never know what might come up.


Bannister back chair project

Posted September 18, 2016 by D.B. Laney
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I’m happy to say that the Bannister Back chair project has made its way into the work schedule, finally!   It will involve a lot of turning and carving.  So it should be fun, as well as challenging.  The first step is to build the back assembly, which will become the datum for all other measurement.

The “balusters” are split turnings.  I elected to simply screw the stock together as opposed to gluing and splitting.  Using a cup live center and a multi-tooth spur allows centering right on the joint line.



Next, I prepped the rear legs for turning.  I created a roller path for the steady rest just above the point at which the leg angles.  It’s important to find the true center at the roller path.  The counter weight was attached.  These were attached with screws into the waste section of the stile.  The duct tape was an extra safety precaution.  It proved to be unnecessary, but it made me feel a little more secure.  Safe turning speed is determined by the maximum diameter.  However, minimizing vibration created by the counterweight may require a further reduction in rpm.  As I have a step pulley lathe, I was forced to turn at about 680 rpm.  This is very slow.  Patience is the order of the day.



When I want to minimize undercut at the pommel, I’ll run a line of chalk down the center of all four surfaces.   This helps me gauge when I’ve reached the maximum true round dimension.




After completing the balusters and posts, I turned the finials and rear stretcher.  Stock for the crest and lower rail was planed.  The bead/ogee detail on the lower rail was created using moulding planes.


Tasks for the upcoming week will include mortising the rails, tenoning the balusters and… carving the crest rail.  Should be an interesting few days.


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