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What are Cabriole Legs?

By Heather Phillips
Updated May 16, 2024
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Cabriole legs are furniture legs that feature a graceful double-curved shape. The top part of the cabriole leg bows out into a convex curve, while the bottom part bows in to form a concave curve. The curves occur in the same vertical plane and join at what is called the knee. The knee is sometimes ornamented with a carved wood design, which can be something simple such as a shell, or a more detailed design such as carved acanthus leaves.

The origin of cabriole legs dates to the time of ancient Chinese and Greek furniture makers. However, the name cabriole, as applied to this kind of furniture leg, is a fairly recent development, dating from its use in the 1700s in the French Rococo style period. The word cabriole is derived from the French word cabrioler, meaning to leap like a goat. The shape of the furniture leg looks very much like the structure of a goat's rear leg.

Cabriole legs can end in various ways. If they date from the Queen Anne period, they will usually end in a delicate pad or paw shape. If the leg is made in the Chippendale style, they will typically end in a ball and claw. Sometimes they just end in a ball.

The popularity of the cabriole leg persists in furniture design today. This type of leg can give a graceful appearance to a piece of furniture. Despite their delicate appearance, cabriole legs are well-balanced and can support relatively large pieces of furniture.

Various fastening methods have been and are used to attach the cabriole leg to the furniture it supports. Dovetailing was the primary earlier method of attaching the legs, but using dowels has become more popular in recent times. The legs can also be attached using a mortise and tenon joint, and screws also are a popular method of attaching the legs.

Because cabriole legs have a double reversing curve in their design, they are not as easy to make as straighter styles of furniture legs. They must be made from one solid piece of wood. The construction of the leg starts by making a template out of cardboard or a similar material. Sometimes a lathe is used to help with shaping, but because of the opposing curves, a band saw is typically used. After the general shape is cut from the wood, other hand tools such as spokeshaves, scrapers and various grits of sandpaper are used to give the leg its final form.

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