Splayed Foot Construction

I have been chastised for dismissing splayed feet so hurriedly in Bracket Foot Construction, so hopefully the following will placate those individuals who justifiably felt cheated.

I am somewhat ambivalent about splayed feet (also known in some quarters as ‘French’ feet): They first appeared in the late eighteenth-century, on which basis I almost feel I should have a soft spot for them, but they always look to me as if they are straining perilously under the weight of grossly overladen drawers.

Fig. 1. Circa 1780 chest of drawers with splayed feet. (Richard Gardner)

Seeing a chest or bookcase with splayed feet, I am always reminded of a sorry incident that occurred many years ago on a sunny summer’s afternoon. I had been invited to a friend’s for tea and as we sat on their terrace, my friend’s neighbour appeared out of nowhere. She was cordially invited to join us and another seat – one of those cast aluminium reproductions of nineteenth-century cast iron garden seats – was brought over to the table. The neighbour was a substantial woman, the size of whose derrière indicated, to me at least, that two seats or perhaps a sturdy bench might have been a more sapient offering.

For a full hour and a half, I sat and watched the woman gulping cups of tea and inhaling scones and cake, the whole while, sinking slowly from view behind the fruit and flower arrangement in the centre of the table. Her predicament eventually dawned on her when mastication was impeded by her gradually rising knees. A muffled cry from behind her now tightly clenched teeth pre-empted a brief and utterly futile struggle before she slumped inelegantly onto the crazy paving – still clutching a fist full of scone. The woman – cloaked in embarrassment… and jam… and cream – beat a hasty retreat.

For those still reading and concerned for the prospects of the poor mangled seat, I can tell you – with its legs now bearing an uncanny resemblance to the head of a Manx Loaghtan – it hangs like a trophy on my friends’ garden wall, directly facing the front window of the neighbour’s cottage.

Splayed foot construction

As with the more common bracket-footed furniture, the carcases of splay-footed pieces can be of solid or veneered construction. The feet may be modified extensions of the carcase sides, or they may take the form of separate bracket feet, veneered to flow smoothly into the carcase. All four feet may be splayed (fig. 1) or, as with the majority of bow-fronted chests, just the front two feet are splayed (fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Circa 1800 chest of drawers with splayed (front) feet. (Christie’s)

With solid carcases, a saw cut is made parallel to the face of the foot extension, thus forming an attached veneer. A pre-shaped wedge is then glued and inserted beneath the veneer and cramped.

Veneered carcases present the opportunity to glue the wedges onto the outer faces of the (usually pine) feet which are then shaped and faired into the carcase prior to laying the veneer. The wedge in the rear foot in figure 3 is just discernible.

Fig. 3. Wedge-splayed rear foot on a circa 1790 bureau bookcase. (Millington Adams)

The forward faces of the front feet are either extensions of the apron (with added wedges as per the sides of the feet) or are shaped in one piece, joined to the apron and subsequently veneered. In such event, shrinkage in the feet can occasionally telegraph through the veneer (fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Damaged veneer due to movement in splayed foot. (Christie’s)

In examples where the apron veneer is oriented horizontally, the veneer is mitred where it meets the (normally) vertical veneer on the feet. How the mitre is executed can contribute greatly to the overall appearance of the piece. On best quality work, the vertical strips of veneer that are applied to the front edges of the carcase sides (to conceal the drawer divider joinery) are extended to encompass the fronts of the feet (fig. 3).

Hapless siting of the mitres (and veneer orientation) can detract from the appearance of a piece: To maintain the flow of the (unusually) horizontal veneer on the front of the carcase and foot, the mitre in the veneer on the front of the chest in figure 5 might have been visually more agreeable had it originated from the corner of the drawer opening as in figures 2 & 3.

Fig. 5. Awkward handling of veneer junction. (Christie’s)

Blurring the lines

It will be obvious to most that including feet in the carcase sides requires significantly more wood to accomplish than simply tacking separate bracket feet onto a box-like carcase.

In Bracket Foot Construction, I wrote “Bracket feet are those feet which are separately applied to case furniture and include flat, ogee and serpentine feet, but not (normally) splayed feet“. Bracket feet had been in vogue for sixty years before George Hepplewhite penned his first splayed foot design and extending the carcase sides to include the feet would have met with certain resistance in some quarters. Whether stubborn, frugal or inventive, some cabinetmakers managed to blend the two styles by attaching splayed bracket feet to their carcases and disguising the joints with inlaid lines (fig. 6) and mouldings (figs. 7 & 8).

Fig. 6. Line inlaid juncture between carcase and feet. (Christie’s)

Fig. 7. Gillows satinwood secretaire, c.1785. (Christie’s)

Fig. 8. Gillows china display cabinet, c.1795. (Christie’s)

Jack Plane

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About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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One Response to Splayed Foot Construction

  1. yaakov says:

    Good post. Very interesting.

    Like

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