Woodworking Report: Making a Shave Horse

Something unusual happened two times in the past week- I got some time to do some actual woodworking. These days most of my free time is spent with our kids (my son just turned one year old yesterday!), or working on tool stuff for my business. It’s been more than a year since I had any real shop time. The last two Fridays I found myself with a few hours of unexpected free time and had some fun butchering some wood.

Something unusual happened twice in the past week- I got some time to do some actual woodworking. These days most of my free time is spent with our kids (my son just turned one year old yesterday!), or working on tool stuff for my business. It’s been more than a year since I had any real shop time. The last two Fridays I found myself with a few hours of unexpected free time and had some fun butchering some wood.

Last Friday I took the day off of work to attend the Lie-Nielsen hand tool event at the CT Valley School of Woodworking. It was a fun time and I got to see a lot of nice tools and me. The highlight of the show for me was watching Peter Follansbee work. I’ve been a fan of his work, and his blog for a while. I find it fascinating how he starts with a log and ends up with one of his beautiful 17th century style carved boxes.  I left the show a bit early and returned home with an hour to spare before I had to get the kids from school. I decided to pick up a project I started almost three years ago..

Back in 2008 I took a tumble down the steep slope of “traditional” woodworking, for lack of a better term. I’m talking specifically about traditional hand-tool only, “start with a log, wind up with a chair” type woodworking. Roy Underhill type stuff. In fact, it was my discovery of some old VHS copies of Roy’s first season of the Woodwright’s shop that gave me my first shove towards the slope. That, and the fact that I’d been doing a lot of work out in the woodlot splitting firewood and cutting lumber, and learning a lot about the properties of wood, learning to respect it for what it is, not like a humongous raw material like plastic or metal. Watching those early videos of a very young Roy fell a tree, make some basic tools, then craft some basic furniture and other items really inspired me. I wish these videos were more widely available- they are really amazing.

One of the most basic tools and an absolute requirement for this type of woodworking is a shave horse. A shave horse allows you to fully realize the potential of the drawknife and spokeshave. In Roy’s program and book he makes a shave horse from scratch, starting with a log, riving it into boards, then making a basic bench and all of the required fixtures and hardware. In 2008 I set out to do the same thing. I found a beautiful white oak on my woodlot that would be perfect for the project. It was approx. 14in DBH and dead straight, perfect for riving. I cut a six foot section and hauled it out of the woods by hand, flipping it  end-over-end all the way to the road since I can’t bring my truck back there.. That’s a 200lb log, by the way. Once I got it home I got as far as riving out the boards for the bench and legs, then my free time disappeared.. kids, work, business, all became higher priorities than working on this.

The log I started with
The log I started with
Riving a board from half of the log
Riving a board from half of the log

Fast-forward to last week and my first hour of free time in a long time. I was happy to find that the oak had faired well. It was quite dry and had only slight weather damage to the sapwood. the first step was to create the bench. I had a nice 2in. thick fairly straight board to work with as the bench seat. I cut a 24in, long board from one riven board and split that into four rough blanks for legs. I worked the blanks down to roughly round shapes with my hewing hatchet. Next I bored holes for the legs using a 1 1/4in. T-handle auger. The legs are joined to the top with wedged through tenons. The legs are splayed both side to side and front to back to make the bench stable in both directions. The splay angles of the legs were eyeballed-the exact angle is less important that trying to make sure that all four legs were splayed at the same angle, otherwise it would look funny. The T-handle auger is a powerful tool when it is properly tuned. This one cut through that 2in. dry white oak with ease.

Boring holes for the legs with a T-handle auger
Boring holes for the legs with a T-handle auger, trying to match the splay angles
Once the holes were bored for the legs I trimmed  the legs to roughly match the holes I bored. The tenons were slightly tapered and oval in shape. It is important to make sure that any wedging action the tenons exert is focused along the grain, not across, otherwise the top could split when the legs are hammered home. All four legs were set in place, their tenons slightly protruding from the top.

Tenons slightly proud of the bench top
Tenons slightly proud of the bench top
That was all I had time for that day. Today I had my lunch hour free- I work from my home office so lunch hours are usually spent doing household chores or tool stuff. Today there were no tools to pack, no errands to run, and the lawn didn’t need mowing. I spent my hour (well, hour and a quarter, it is Friday after all!) working on my shave horse. I started by trimming all of the tenons flush, then cutting some wedges. I opened a slot in the top of each tenon and hammered the wedge home. The wedges are also set so that they exert pressure along the grain, not across to reduce the risk of the top splitting. After the wedges were set firmly I cut them off, then gave the whole top a once-over with a coarse set wooden jack plane.
Setting an oak wedge in the tennon
Setting an oak wedge in the tennon
The result is an incredibly stable bench. The four legs are miraculously even and the bench sits flat and stable. The legs are skinny, barely 2in. thick,  but they are surprisingly strong. I can stand on the bench and jump up and down, but there is no rocking or flexing at all.
The finished bench- a stable, strong base for my shave horse
The finished bench- a stable, strong base for my shave horse
After that I started working on the table, which makes up the bottom part of the clamping fixture, and the riser which elevates the table at an angle to match the natural motion of the user’s arms when using a drawknife.
Table and riser roughed out and in place
Table and riser roughed out and in place
With those pieces complete, but not attached, I started working on the dumbhead. The dumbhead is the top part of the clamping mechanism, the part that moves and traps the work between it and the table. The dumbhead is made from part of the remaining half log.  The half log is cut to the proper length, then the dumbhead’s shoulders are cut with a handsaw, then the neck split out with a froe.
Roughing out the dumbhead
Roughing out the dumbhead
Along the way, in the true spirit of Roy Underhill, I managed to open up my finger on my handsaw. The day ended on a positive note, however, when I discovered that our local (and only) brewery, Calvary Brewing, just released a new batch of IPA. I am happy to report that after a couple of these my finger feels fine, as does everything else.
In the true spirit of St. Roy
In the true spirit of St. Roy
So, that’s as far as I got today on my lunch break. I hope to find some more time to work on the shave horse in the coming weeks. I may even finish it this year. I’ve learned a lot while working on this project. I’ve learned that seemingly coarse tools like hewing hatchets and drawknives are capable of amazingly precise and fine work. I’ve also learned that Roy makes this all look much, much easier on video than it is in real life.

Thanks for reading. I hope you have a nice Memorial Day weekend.

Josh

7 thoughts on “Woodworking Report: Making a Shave Horse”

  1. Josh – glad to see that shave horse taking shape – and that the IPA appeared just in the nick of time! (I probably should buy stock in Neosporin – that stuff works, absent any stitches).

  2. Hi Josh,

    You run a wonderful business and apparently are a very busy dad. I’m glad to hear that you do take a small fraction of time for yourself. It can clear the head and keep you in touch with reality. (Well, so does the beer.) The bench looks great. Hope to see some projects made from it.

    Regards,

    Gerald

  3. Josh,
    Thanks for the travel log of your adventures in woodworking. From your photos it looks like you have some great mentors watching over as you transform a tree. I would never leave my driveway if looked like yous ;-). I can just see myself sitting in a Adirondack and sipping a bew.
    Anyway, nice work on the shave horse, keep up the great work. I hope to see more pictures soon.

    Happy sawdusting,
    Marie

  4. That is a great start both on a shaving horse and the story of yor start into handtooldom.
    For me it was reading Diary of an Early American Boy by Eric Sloan.

  5. Great job on the shave horse. And it’s awesome that you are doing it this way, starting from a log. I made one a while back with construction grade yellow pine but I’d really like to do one this way some day.

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