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.

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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.

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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.

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“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).

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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.

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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.

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Making a Self-Bow

A pictorial step-by-step of the bow-making process. 

This quick look isn’t intended to replace the one-on-one learning of a real teacher or to cover all aspects of the art that come from years of practice.  Expect both success and failure and don’t let either one dominate your learning.  Education is a process, not an instance.

splitting stave

Felled stave that has aged a couple years in the dark and relative dryness of the barn.

Splitting the seasoned Osage orange (Bois d’Arc) stave is shown above.  Not visible here are short hickory wedges that are jammed into the growing crack to keep the stave from snapping shut.  With some woods the staves will simply pop apart but it seems that, more often than not, the splitter must overcome the tenacity of the fibrous wood.  Power sawing is definitely a possibility but requires more tools, more energy, and does not show the irregularities as well.  Splitting puts you in touch with the soul of the wood.

 

split open

Laid open, it is time to examine for undiscovered twists, knots, and other irregularities.

 

Splitting can be a tough process. As can be seen in the photo above, I use an axe, froe, and hammer.  I’m awful when it comes t remembering to stop and take photographs.  After cleaning up and heading to the next phase, I had to re-stage this photo and forgot to put the wedges back in.

de-barking

Stripping down to reveal the beauty underneath.

Some species of white woods debark quite easily and the bow can be made directly from the outer growth rings.  Not so with Osage orange. The whiter new wood is visible in the stave above as the outer rings are worked down to a single thick growth ring.  This process is easiest with a sharp draw knife working downward.  Your weight can be used to pull through the bark.  Gravity is your friend.

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Revealing the different look, color, and texture of the growth rings.

Above is a close-up of working down to a single growth ring. With Osage, there is a white, porous, vesicular layer between hard wood rings. This is just visible here as the white wood.  It should be worked down to a single, dark and dense layer; preferably a thick, slow-growth year ring.

 

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Sighting down the clean stave.

Not perfectly straight, but then it would hardly be Osage otherwise.  I can work with this. It’s time to imagine a perfectly straight line down the back of the bow.  This will be your starting point when laying it out.

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Another look at growth rings revealed.

The growth rings are quite visible in this low, raking light. The smooth area nearest the viewer is down to the desired ring.  This will be the “back” of the bow, meaning the side facing away from the shooter.  Crossing the rings could cause the limb to “lift” and crack as the rings are stressed and pulled apart.

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Shaping and thinning.

This is nearing its final shape. This is a different stave from the one shown above but gets the point across.  I’ve documented the next part of the process elsewhere but will recap soon.

If you want to make a bow, dive in, don’t be afraid.  Get a piece of wood and go to it.

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Shaving Horse

Reposted from 2008; what a different life it seems now.

Here is one of my favorite old shave horses. It is made from a plank chainsawed from an enormous pin-oak limb that came down during a storm years ago.

It weighs quite a bit but the weight means more stability when using it as a work bench. All my other horses have had an adjustable table but this one is set to a good angle strictly for working bows.

There are plenty of depictions in old art and many made specifically for every occupation in Diderot’s Encyclopedia from the 18th century.  I made my plans for this one based on several I measured over the years and made lots of adjustments to my first one to get the right “fit”.  My second and third attempts got better and better.  Total cost estimate: about $5.00 for bolt and a few screws.

~GTC

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.

shaving-horse

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.

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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.

roubogermanbench

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.

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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.

Looking Back at the Horse

Tools and work benches always create lots of discussion and bring out opinions.  I am re-posting a couple pictures that feature my bodger horse as it has created a few new comments.  This horse has been slightly modified over the years but is essentially the same as when it was made 5 or 6 years ago.  For most of what I do, this tool is just about perfect.  Comments are always welcome.

h1When I built this one, I had a full-size, long-bed truck.  Now, driving a smaller vehicle, I am considering re-engineering the whole thing to break down for packing.  If I stayed in one place regularly, this wouldn’t be a problem but I use it for teaching and demonstrations and is a little gangly to pack as is.  She traveled over 4000 miles with me this summer to a reenactment/demonstration and helped me teach a small woodworking class for a week.

h2Even though this one is just fine and went together quickly, the next time I build one I intend to fancy it up with some fancy joinery.

DSC_0126A work horse like this becomes the center of the portable workshop and can serve many purposes.

bodger15As I make modifications, I will update on this page as information on shaving horses is limited, even in the age of the internet.

 

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A New Horse

Here is a couple of photos of the new horse.  It is made up of mostly recycled and scrap wood.  If I am lucky enough to find time from work, I intend to put it to work on some bow staves and spoons later this fall.

The horse is made of pine and fir dimensional lumber. The working portions are red oak, white oak, hickory, and popular.  The large bolts are salvaged from an old Ford spare tire holder.

More Work Horses

Here are more shaving (work) horses. I wish I had photos of my first horse. I liked it well enough but I made it short to fit cross-ways in a narrow truck. These are some better and later models…

0106

A shiny new horse. Hickory arm and head, poplar cross-stretchers. Adjustable tilt table.

0699

Another new horse. Square head and wider treadle to use easily with either or both feet.

0658

Stopped tillering to take an “action” photo in the old shop.

0321

Another action shot fixing the tiller on someone else’s bow at Winter Count. I wouldn’t normally have a stave leaning on the horse but the photographer insisted. I was just hoping it wouldn’t bean me with a very sharp draw-knife in my hand (hence the rasp).

0053

Not my herd. I liked the simplicity of these made for a class at the Bois d’Arc Rendezvous. You could probably make one of these with nothing but well chosen scraps.

Shaving Horse Plan

Here is an old set of plans I made for myself a long time ago. These are meant for dimensional lumber. This plan is for a short horse. If you are tall or don’t mind the extra length to transport, an extra 6 inches is a good idea. You can see from the other horses that this more of a guideline than an actual recipe.
The hard to figure part is the length of the arm, the head, leg height, and other parts specific to your body and what you generally make. I’ll measure more and put up something better when I can.

Shaving Horse

One of my favorite old shave horses. It is made from a plank chainsawed from an enormous pin-oak limb that came down during a storm years ago.

It weighs quite a bit but the weight means more stability when using it as a work bench. All my other horses have had an adjustable table but this one is set to a good angle strictly for working bows.

There are plenty of depictions in old art and many made specifically for every occupation in Diderot’s Encyclopedia from the 18th century.  I made my plans for this one based on several I measured over the years and made lots of adjustments to my first one to get the right “fit”.  My second and third attempts got better and better.