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.

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).

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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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Thumb Stick

A little show and tell this rainy winter morning.

Mule deer fork with rings of walnut and hickory.

I’ve been carrying this walking stick in one form or another since 2001. What does that mean? I just can’t leave well enough alone, that’s what.  It was a straight knobbed staff before attaching the stag horn but I decided it would be more useful and aesthetically pleasing with the fork on top.

A quick polish with walnut oil this morning.

The fork is not only good for resting the thumb but works well for creating shelter and provides a bit of heft should it be needed for persuasion.

The cancelous tissue is fairly light in this one as the buck had an unfortunate highway encounter with a truck. That’s how I found it.

This stick has long been a comfort on walks where stray dogs, javalinas, or other beasties may be encountered. I remember that it took me weeks of wandering around the high country, looking to find the right diameter, length, and character in a sturdy oak, in this case Quercus gambelii or Gambel oak). I don’t kill trees lightly, especially in marginal environments, as they are slow to grow and benefit the earth so much.

It’s always difficult to photograph walking sticks and longbows.

The foot of this one is capped in heavy copper to prolong life of the wood. It’s good to save those bits of hardware for re-purposing.

Terrible “selfie” of the previous hickory staff that this antler was mounted on. I can’t leave well enough alone so I changed it.

And just for fun, here is a nifty Sketchbook drawing of some uses for the traditional Scout Staff from and artist who goes by “Ishkotekay.”

Click for full size image.

Winter Count is Coming

I’m happy to say that I will be heading to the annual primitive skills gathering known as Winter Count down in the Sonoran Desert. Thankfully, it has moved to a more remote location further into the desert and far away from the Phoenix sprawl.


I will be teaching a course that I have been doing for some time now; Constructing the Ancient Frame Saw. I say “ancient” because this style saw goes back to the very beginning of metal working. It is a way to create an extreme amount of tension, and thereby stiffness, on a very small piece of metal; saving on a very precious resource.

Even though this, in essence, can be thought of as a one-off craft project. I hope that people will take time to learn the skills and take away more knowledge than a simple material good.


I think it might be easy, at first glance, to think of a project like this as a cheap way to get something that you might not be able to afford otherwise; and that is fine. However, learning basic skills like layout, simple joinery, and the use of hand tools are transferable skills that can be used for a myriad of other projects; from constructing a spear-thrower to timber frame building.

There is even plenty of opportunity to add one’s own style and artistic flare to the project.

Learning to operate even a few simple hand tools, edges and wedges in this case, connect your brain to your body in a way that pushing buttons and looking at screens could never do.

Working directly with a raw material like wood, with its own unique properties, connects us to a deeper understanding of the wider world.

Maybe I’ll see you there someday.

Wisdom of Dan Beard

On Loneliness

“When you feel you are sleeping on the breast of your mother, the earth, while your father, the sky, with his millions of eyes is watching over you, and that you are surrounded by your brother, the plants, the wilderness is no longer lonesome even to the solitary traveler.”

~Dan Beard

Gourd Bottom Bags and More

Stacey has been adding her art to the shop lately so I wanted to give her a bit of a promotion here on the blog.  Among other things, she produces meticulous and beautiful art, beaded bags, earrings, and fiber arts.  Here are her latest additions to the shop.

The smaller bag on the left is jute and the larger is hemp, both with braintanned buckskin trim stitched into a gourd bottom.  The darker color is a homemade American walnut dye.

Here is a small sampling of what she makes below.  I’m sure she will be adding more in the coming weeks.  Consider checking them out on Etsy and “favoriting” our shop.

Crochet felted Icelandic wool hand bags.

Brain tanned buckskin medicine bag.

Buckskin neck bag.

Why Woodcraft?

Northern England in the age of coal.

For brick and mortar breed filth and crime,
With a pulse of evil that throbs and beats;
And men are withered before their prime
By the curse paved in with the lanes and streets.

And lungs are poisoned and shoulders bowed,
In the smothering reek of mill and mine;
And death stalks in on the struggling crowd—
But he shuns the shadow of oak and pine.

—Nessmuk (George Washington Sears)

Preface to Woodcraft

The Impartiality of Nature – from “Woodcraft and Camping”

Nessmuk – George Washington Sears

“…there are some who plunge into an unbroken forest with a feeling of fresh, free, invigorating delight… These know that nature is stern, hard, immovable and terrible in unrelenting cruelty. When wintry winds are out and the mercury far below zero, she will allow her most ardent lover to freeze on her snowy breast without waving a leaf in pity, or offering him a match; and scores of her devotees may starve to death in as many different languages before she will offer a loaf of bread. She does not deal in matches and loafs; rather in thunderbolts and granite mountains. And the ashes of her camp-fires bury proud cities. But, like any tyrant, she yields to force, and gives the more, the more she is beaten. She may starve or freeze the poet, the scholar, the scientist; all the same, she has in store food, fuel and shelter, which the skillful, self-reliant woodsman can wring from her savage hands with axe and rifle.”

~ George Washington Sears