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Building a piece inspired by Seymour

The book “The Furniture Masterworks of John and Thomas Seymour” written by Robert D. Massey Jr., and published by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., has inspired me to attempt to build something similar in nature to two of their works. My design utilizes a combination of the features of the night cabinets shown in entries 28 and 30. The dimensions will be 32" high x 22" wide x 14" deep.

These cabinets, made between 1797 and 1807, feature reeded tapered legs, a single drawer, a tambour door and multiple inlays. Tapered reeded legs were a common feature of Seymour’s Sheraton Federal-style furniture. The book contains detailed descriptions of how they constructed their pieces, along with 155 beautiful colored plates showing examples in museums and collectors’ homes.

Method and leg style
The fluted section in the turned tapered legs, so common in Louis XVI furniture, is very easy to make. A core bit in a router needs only to be guided along a line parallel to the centerline of the leg. This automatically produces a tapered cove from top to bottom that matches the leg’s taper, because the depth of cut will decrease from top to bottom along the length of the cut.

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Reeds are more difficult. Reeds made using a router have their edges cut at a constant depth. And because the radius of the bit is fixed, the surface where the leg is thicker at the top of the taper comes out with a flat outer surface, whereas the cross section of the reed at the bottom is almost like a Gothic arch. But these deficiencies are easily corrected.

Taper design and fabrication
Because of these factors, the taper must be designed so the flat of the top is not too wide and a small amount of flat is left at the bottom. In addition, there must be clearance at both ends of the taper for entrance and exit of the bit. This is accomplished at the bottom by using separate turnings for the bulbous turned feet that are topped with a spindle and bead. At the top of the taper, a shoulder equal to the bit’s depth of cut is made. This shoulder is below a bulb or swell, above which is a cove. The cove is below a 1/4" bead, a spindle and two closely spaced 1/4" beads at the very top of the leg.

Below, I describe something I believe to be very unique and which is very accurate and efficient for making reeded legs. The router bit I use is a point cut round over 1/8" radius x 1/4" shank (No. 139-0402 from Eagle America).

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The top of the legs are first turned with the features described above and the tapers are as well, but not to their final dimension.

A router sled support system is then mounted on the lathe as shown in Figure 1, but without the router or its two long guide rails. The plywood support system is then tilted to match the desired taper. A wood block, which spans the gap at the top of the support, is used as a sanding block to taper all the legs identically.

The support is then removed and a 1/2" diameter spindle (dowel) is turned at the top of the legs to match the hole in the case’s leg blocks. The support system is then remounted and two chucks replace the spur drive and center in the tailstock. The tailstock chuck holds a pin with enough length to enable the router to exit the bottom of the taper after each cut without hitting the chuck.

The guide rails are then mounted on the support, the router slid onto the rails and the center of the router bit carefully aligned with the center of the chucks by adjusting the position of the support. This ensures the router bit will pass exactly along the centerline of the taper. And since the router is mounted on rails, there is no chance of misalignment during the cutting.

Fabricating the reeds
The leg is held by the 1/2" spindle at the leg’s top, placed in the headstock’s chuck, and the pin in the tailstock’s chuck is centered in the bottom of the taper. Locking the indexing head prevents rotation. The depth of cut is adjusted so the pointed end of the bit is just barely clearing the swelling above the top shoulder of the taper.

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The base plate of the small router rides on the leg, and, because the router is mounted on a ball-bearing guide sled, it can move up and down freely. Since 12 reeds are required for each leg, the indexing head on the headstock is advanced 30 degrees after each cut.

After all the cuts are done on a leg (Figure 2), hand sanding rounds off the flat along the length of each reed and a carving gouge is used to round over the top of the reed at the shoulder. All four legs now have tapered reeds that match the taper in the leg. A drill bit is placed in the tail stock chuck and a hole is drilled in the bottom of the taper. Four feet are then turned, with a spindle turned in the tops to fit this hole. The legs are now finished, as shown in Figure 3.

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue.

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