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.

bench

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-1966-roman-horse-rheims

“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).

0053

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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Another Bucksaw on the Loose

I am stunned to hear from several recent misguided enthusiasts to the gentle art of wilderness skills that their new hobby costs them so much money… I guess even our low-tech approach to life can be marketed and sold to the right customer with our ingrained need for newer, quicker, and “approved” gear. Let’s hope this ailment isn’t catching.

Making something for one’s self is, in itself, an act of rebellion in these troubled times so I thought I would share what I’ve been up to in the idle hours these past few days.

After someone sweet-talked me out of my last (and personal) bucksaw I was in need of a replacement. I lucked upon some beautiful walnut last year and set some aside to make a few saws. Straight-grained, strong, and beautiful, this 5/4 sawn chunk was ripe for carving into something nice. I spent far too much time in finish and detail on this one but a beautiful tool is much nicer to use than an ugly one and curves appeal more than straight lines to this gentleman.

There isn’t much need for a lengthy instructable for this design but notice that the straight grain was respected in all dimensions and runs the length of each arm. As for hardware, it was my intention to inset square nuts into the handles and connect the blade with round-head machine screws. However, looking through my hardware on hand, that would have required a trip to a store, so for now, we use carriage bolts and wing nuts.

The devil is truly in the details and it is a joy to carve such fine wood with sharp tools. The entirety is polished with Lundmark carnauba wax as it brings out the color and grain while providing excellent protection against water.

The Hardest Part of Learning to Sharpen

Wise words. Learning to really properly sharpen an edge tool by hand is an epiphany and makes wood and leatherworking a real joy.

The Literary Workshop Blog

The other day, I was teaching a friend to sharpen his plane iron, and it got me thinking about sharpening.  Of all the skills I have learned while working wood, sharpening has been the most life-changing. It started with chisels and plane irons, but then I began sharpening my kitchen knives and pocketknives.  I had no idea that steel could get so sharp!  It used to be that dull tools were merely inconvenient, but now I find a dull knife a heartbreaking disappointment.

I say this because I want to share a recent article on sharpening by Chris Schwarz, former editor at Popular Woodworking Magazine and current head of Lost Art Press.  In it, Schwarz reflects (well, more like pontificates) on how few woodworkers actually know how to sharpen an edge tool.  Even the some of the professionals who write for the big-name magazines often lack basic sharpening skills.  He…

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“The Travelling Tinker” by John Burr

The Travelling Tinker

The Travelling Tinker

A painting by the Scottish artist John Burr (1831-1893).  Tinkers were originally tinsmiths or “tinners”.  One of many itinerant jobs pursued by a class of casual laborers.  These were mostly skilled and specialized crafts like basket making, shoe repair, leather work, and metal work but many poorer workers were migrant farm labor picking hops and tending the market gardens during the peak harvest.  The fellow in the image above appears to be a fairly well-off repairman mending a seam in a pot.  This from a time when new items were a rare purchase.

I love deciphering images like this for the details of domestic life.  Unlike most photos, there is real intention in what the artist chose to include or not in the painting.  The house is clearly a poor one but a freshly killed chicken hangs from a nail on the wall by some dry roots.  A handmade broom leans against the wall next to a basket that has the tradesman’s coat lying across it.  The oldest daughter tends the infant while the mother stands by the laundry basin with a toddler behind.  All the children look on while the novel worker plies his trade in a waistcoat and hobnail walking shoes.

Wandering Minstral

A Wandering Minstral

A Wandering Minstrel

Here is a painting by the Scottish artist John Burr (1831-1893) of an itinerant fiddler playing for a family in a Scottish lane probably trying to make enough money to eat or maybe even receive some food for his entertainment.  I can’t help but think the father looking out has a skeptical look; possibly wondering what this will cost in the end.

Music and storytelling were a very different commodity in an age of widespread illiteracy and 24 hour media.  It’s hard to even imagine a time when all music was handmade and intimate and not an item to be mass marketed.

The World is Your Workshop

In Britain and Ireland, the Romany Gypsys and the Traveller community are often associated with low-skilled work such as scrap dealers, horse traders, musical entertainers, or more nefarious activities outside the societal norms.  However, there were plenty of skilled craftsmen and craftswomen providing goods and services to people around the country.

Below is an image of a couple, working together making footstools outside their vardo while another couple looks on from the comfort of their wagon.

Gypsy carpenters making small and large stools for market. From an early 20th century postcard.  Source: Romany and Traveller Family History Society.

Other Gypsy families were blacksmiths, basket weavers, or similar occupations that could be taken on the road, required little stock or overhead, and could be performed independently or with a minimum of family help.

Gypsy Basket Weavers on Skyros. Source: http://from-hand-to-hand.org/.

There is more to wandering people than the romantic or demonized images we carry.  People are just people after all.

Gypsy Blacksmith. Source.

Gypsies France 1930s-1960s

Encampment on a pitch somewhere in France, early mid-20th century.

The Handy Neck Knife

In the spirit of the internet Bushcraft trend of pulling out our tools and comparing I decided to join in the fun.   This is the patch / neck knife I purchased back around 1986 when I first started getting primitive.

A poor photo of the walnut sheath.

I went with wood as I was wearing this almost constantly whle working a backwoods program for the Scouts. I decided it might just impale me through the sternum or neck if I took a bad fall so the wooden block sheath was the solution.

Human hand for scale.

This one was made by a bladesmith from an antique crosscut saw and has a beautiful tiger-striped maple handle. This is probably its third sheath but it’s the one I’ve stuck with since around 2001. It’s been camping and on thousands of miles of field projects, not always around my neck but almost always close-by in my pack. For some reason, our society thinks you’re a little weird if you wear a knife around your neck all the time.

The Chart of Hand Tools

I rarely (I mean almost never) go out of my way to endorse a product of any kind but while considering the upcoming holidays I came across this link I saved a while back.  I think it would be perfect for the workshop and is a work of art in its own right.

I can imagine it over my new workspace or even hanging on the wall in the den to be pondered while dreaming of building something worthwhile.  It’s called the Chart of Hand Tools from the Pop Chart Lab, “printed using 100 lb archival recycled stock certified by The Forest Stewardship Council, this poster is pressed on an offset lithographic press in Flatlands, Brooklyn.”  Sounds good so far and I love how they are actually grouped in logical sets by basic function.  That satisfies the analyst in me.

HandTools

Click the image for a larger version or the link to get yours today (or to send me one!).

Here’s some information from Pop Chart Lab’s website:

With over 300 meticulously illustrated tools this chart celebrates the tinkerers and the doers: those who build, repair, and create. Breaking down all manner of hand tools by their basic function, this sprawling print covers the most basic, such as the humble yet mighty hammer, to the most highly specialized, such as the 24 types of files depicted here. A hand-crafted compendium of ingenious and essential devices, this chart is a complete cut-list of the tools that empower makers and artisans. —And the chart is printed with brass and aluminum metallic inks to give it a shop-ready sheen.

Size 24″ x 36″

Each print is signed and numbered by the artists, and comes packaged in a Pop Chart Lab Test Tube. 

At $37 U.S. it seems like a great addition to any Maker’s house.  I hope my own Santa Claus or Krampus drops one off at the shop this winter.  I better start being good for the Yule-tide season.

Motor Car Tool Kit ca. 1907

I keep a couple tool rolls for specialty fixes but I really like this setup from over a century ago.  I think I need to make and “essentials” kit like this for general travel to keep the tings I truly need in need place and handy.  It might be a little heavy for the rambler on foot but could be invaluable on the cycle or in the truck.

1907Tools-107

From The Army and Navy Co-operative Society Store, London 1907.

I think I would need to make an image of each tool in its place as I have found in my other bespoke tool kit that the loops and pockets all start to look alike when there are too many empty ones at once.  The only potential problem with tool rolls is that they can get thick and bulky in a hurry if you aren’t careful with what you put in them.

Fire Hose Tool Roll

Duluth Trading Company’s tool roll available for about $50 US.

I find that tool rolls aren’t that valuable when working from the home shop as they take up a lot of surface but are a very handy way to travel and stay organized on the road.  I use four tool rolls myself currently, one for holding large brace bits, one for wrenches (mainly for working on the scooter or truck), one for chisels, and one for carving tools.

With a little forethought, I think a traveler’s kit like this could be very useful.

Fishing Reel

I’ve been working on a new hand reel to keep in my pack with my travel fishing kit.  I didn’t have much of a plan when I started so I drilled out a couple of one-inch holes a little further apart than the width of my hand and started from there.  The wood came from the scrap pile and is a very solid chunk of walnut.  I’m a little concerned about the possibility of cracking but this piece is old, well-aged, and extremely solid so I suspect it will be okay in the end.  It will be heavily waxed to waterproof the wood and I’m working on making and trying a few silk leaders.  Anyone with experience with hand-made fishing gear have any thoughts on this?

The hand reel and the primary tools used.

These little projects are a nice way to spend the evening in a productive way.  After looking at so many artifacts over my career it becomes apparent that our ancestors often created works of art and beauty that truly come from within maker and their influences throughout their lives.

When you make for yourself, your tools and possessions become a reflection of who you are, not where you shop.