Shaving Horses and Portable Woodworking

For bow makers and other wood crafters…A shaving horse is an invaluable tool if you create or work with odd-shaped objects that are otherwise difficult to clamp or need to constantly move around.

This simple horse was created in a morning from a large oak branch blown down in a storm and a couple spars from recent clearing.

I don’t know how I would get half my projects done without one.  A horse, in combination with a small bench or two of the same height can act as a complete workshop that is reasonably portable and adaptable.  Carpenters, furniture makers, coopers, shoemakers, jewelers, and carvers all have their specific designs and no one type will be the best at everything.  Some need to be very adjustable, while others have a very fixed purpose.  With a little patience, planning, and luck a great horse can be built for cheap or free with just a very few tools.


A Cooper’s Horse.

I’ve collected few images of shaving horse (a.k.a. work horses) images and show some I created over the years.  If you are looking for inspiration or information on designing one for yourself, these should give an adequate starting point.  I wish I had photos of my very first horse but unfortunately, it existed at a time when I seem to have taken very few photos of my own projects and the internet wasn’t much of a place for sharing this sort of thing.


Click the image to learn what this peasant is making.

In the old days of pre-internet (some of you may recall this with me) there was very little information floating around about these simple but nifty devices.  People like Roy Underhill (The Woodwright’s Shop) and Drew Langsner (Country Woodcraft) had them.  I recall seeing them rotting in yards in the Ozarks or slowly decaying in the back of family barns as a kid. While researching them later, the one consistency I discovered was the complete lack of consistency on their size, shape, height, length, or actual use.  Obviously, every bodger, tinker, and shingle maker had his own ideas and was probably limited by material availability. This ancient tool is as unique as each builder.


“Goodman identifies the (above) relief as a cobbler making a wooden last sitting astride a small bench (‘horse’). The workpiece is held firmly on a sort of anvil by means of a strap passing down through the bench top, and held taut with his left foot. (Photo: Goodman 1964, p. 184, Museo di Civilta Romana, E.U.R., Rome. Reproduced without permission citing fair use).”

While my first horse was designed primarily around dimensional lumber found in my shop an it’s ability to fit cross-ways in a truck bed (F-150) with ease, it was perfectly functional for what I needed; primarily for shaping bows but also for carving things like spear throwers and tool handles.  Experience and use taught me the good and bad points about this model and the result has been these  better and later designs…

0106This was a good horse designed for the bowyer. Hickory arm and head, poplar cross-stretchers and a long, adjustable-tilt table to accommodate a wide variety of bow stave thicknesses.

0699Another of similar design. The base is the same but is has a square head and wider treadle to use easily with either or both feet.

0658A horse in use.  This is how they are best seen.  I actually stopped tillering for a moment to take an “action” photo in the old shop.

0321Here is another action shot fixing the tiller on someone’s bow at Winter Count several years ago. I wouldn’t normally have a giant, heavy stave leaning on the horse but the photographer insisted on it for some reason. I was just hoping it wouldn’t bean me with a very sharp draw-knife in my hand (hence my switch to the rasp for the photo).


This is not my herd but that of a fellow bowyer.

Here are a few others I encountered at a bow making class in the Midwest several years ago. I liked the simplicity of these made for teaching new bowyers at the Bois d’Arc Rendezvous hosted by FirstEarth. You could make one of these with nothing but a few well-chosen scraps and a few bolts.

And my personal favorite…

Design was kept as short as possible for transport. The cross bolt where the arm hinges is a salvaged bolt from an old truck spare tire holder.

This design was kept as short as possible for transport while still being practical. The cross bolt where the arm hinges is a salvaged from an old truck spare tire holder.

Higher, more ergonomic table.

A higher, more ergonomic table and a large treadle area make this one more practical for me.

Finally, the horse above has been my more-or-less permanent workstation for the last few years and has traveled many miles around the western U.S.  Used in conjunction with a small saw bench (built Winter 2015), I have a very complete work setup that packs into the bed of the tiny Toyota pick-up.


Click the image for more information about this project.

With all the gentrification of woodworking that has grown out of some fine blogs and books of the past few years I think it’s important to remember the roots.

Bench hook and tools. The holdfasts store in the legs so that they are always handy.

Not everyone needs to own every tool, jig, or gizmo… nor should we want to.

Few amateurs can have an enormous, dedicated work space surrounding a one-ton French-style Roubo split-top workbench, nor will he need one.  Once you figure out what you want to create, then the tools can follow as needed.  Sometimes, the big projects can be goals for the future.

The sawbench in operation with a few years, many projects, and a lot of miles on it.

If you are in need of a sturdy place to work, a portable setup that includes a saw bench and a shave horse will really improve your life.











A Workbench from Pompeii

Daedalus and Pasiphae discussing the pantomime cow. Wall mural from Pompeii, 1st century A.D.

The art and artifacts from Pompeii have been much on my mind since the major new excavations have been published the past couple years.  I was looking at this wall mural and noticed the very Roman workbench in the lower left, complete with bench dogs while the young carpenter whacks away with hammer and chisel.

Detail from Daedalus and Pasiphae.

At his feet lies his bow drill and what may be a small adze of some sort.  I have no idea what he’s working on here but it might be germane to the larger legend of Queen Pasiphae of Greek myth (here meeting with Daedalus the artificer who is constructing special hobby cow for her to ride in for special activities).

Of course, I wish there were more details of the carpenter but this looks very much like one of my benches or one of a million others built since Pompeii was buried; a heavy plank, four friction-fitted legs, and placed at a comfortable sitting height.  Standing all day is for suckers.

If you don’t know this story it is a Roman interpretation of a Greek literal interpretation of a Minoan myth about the daughter of the Sun and Ocean who became queen of Minos and did some very weird things.  I suggest you look for it elsewhere in order to keep this page PG-13.

Saw Bench Update

A little more done on the saw bench this weekend.  It is clearly going to serve as my go-to portable workstation.  I have several jigs in mind to add as regular features but, for now, I’ve started by making a brand new bench hook.

The bench's small size will allow it to pack easily into the truck, even holding items in the tills.

The bench’s small size will allow it to pack easily into the truck, even holding items in the tills.

I brought it out into the driveway this afternoon to get a few photographs before it’s all scuffed up and broken in.

The holdfasts are stored out of the way by drilling a couple holes in the legs.  I placed them down low enough that I can rotate them up to hold a board should the need ever arise.

The holdfasts are stored out-of-the-way by drilling a couple of holes in the legs. I placed them  low enough that I can rotate them up to hold a board should the need ever arise.

I know this cannot replace a proper bench but I am very pleased right now.  This will serve many functions, not the least of which is for bow and arrow making and as a leather work bench.

The holdfasts in place, holding nothing in particular.

The holdfasts in place, holding nothing in particular.


This, in conjunction with the shave horse and folding x-leg table (below), will need to serve as my portable workshop for the foreseeable future I’m afraid.


DSC_0251 (2)

Connection from leg assembly to the top.


As for connecting the top, I used lag bolts with fender washers to provide a secure connection that could also be easily removed when the top is worn out.

This, in conjunction with the shave horse and folding x-leg table (below), will need to serve as my portable workshop for the foreseeable future I’m afraid.

The little table has many miles on it now and doesn't look this pretty at all.  I'm actually in the midst of refinishing it and will post pictures sometime soon.

The little table has many miles on it now and doesn’t look this pretty at all. I’m actually in the midst of refinishing it and will post pictures sometime soon.

Bench hook on the bench.

Bench hook on the bench.

This bench hook is oak, glued with Titebond 2, and pegged with Osage orange dowels for added strength.  The dowels aren’t visible in the fence as they are half-blind and stop just short of the surface.  A bench hook, shooting board, mitre box, and other small jigs make great use of scrap that might otherwise end up in the wood stove.

A final luxury to finish up this project; I’ve ordered a couple brass bench dogs (pups) and a bench (planing) stop from Lee Valley.

Weekend Sawbench

A Saw horse or a full-size workbench, for Hobbits?

Baumeister_-_Holzschnitt_von_Jost_Amman_-_1536.svgLiving where I do, without a proper workshop, I have moved to a more portable setup.  Along with this, I have pared down by letting go a number of cumbersome tools.  However, a flat, solid surface is sorely missed.


A less messy version of my current shop.

I find myself working on the seat of the shave-horse or on top of saw horses quite a bit with my small table-saw serving as a layout table (when the project is small enough).  And yes, I do miss the full-size table saw for ripping long boards.


Here’s a recent photo of me in my make-shift workshop.

A little over a year ago I began scheming for a small, pre-industrial-style setup.  Something an itinerant carpenter or bodger would be likely to use.  It needed to be easy to move and store but provide a solid clamping and layout surface.  I wanted it at the same height as my shave-horse so that they will work in concert for large projects.  So, when my friend Mick gave me a thick, rough-sawn maple board last summer, I decided it was to become the top of a new saw bench.

First, before the mail comes flooding in;

there is no perfect formula for a saw bench!  For thoughts about height, look here: “A Proper Saw Horse.”

There are some wrong and right things to do, but all in all, there are as many combinations as there are woodworkers.  Much depends on what you make and how you work.  I am 6’1″ and after much changing and experimentation, I use 22″ tall benches for hand work.

“Off-side” of the saw bench under construction.


For what it’s worth, here is the bench I came up with last weekend.  It maybe grew a little too much, trying to more than a saw horse, but still not a Roubo.


Roubo’s bench.

Materials: All of the materials for this project, other than lag bolts and a few stainless steel screws, came from the scrap pile; all recycled lumber except the top which came from Mick.  Legs and bracing are constructed from oak while the till bottom is dimensional pine from an old shelf.  The legs are splayed at 12 degrees in both dimensions.  Dog holes for stops and holdfasts will be added soon.  The little vise was a last minute addition as it’s never a bad thing to have too many ways to hold things.  This increased the project price to just over $20 US.


A work in progress, but coming together.

Had I considered the vise sooner I probably would have positioned the legs to place it closer to the left end but this will due.  The little hardware till on the top will hold those wily drill bits and pesky chisels looking for an escape as well as corralling screws, pencils, and marking knife.  More work will be done, and I’m considering a second till near the bottom of the legs to store the shooting board and bench hook as well as a safe place to set a saw while working outdoors.

Comments and criticisms are certainly welcome and more information about this project will be forthcoming in the near future.