One thing I hear from people about a lot is the shaving horse I made, based on one designed by my friend John Alexander. It’s discussed on Alexander’s website www.greenwoodworking.com – in my intro on that site, I mention that the shaving horse is an old tool, but how old, and where the English version came from are still open questions. We illustrated one from the sixteenth century in that article, from De Re Metallica, (1556) a German text concerning mining, of all things.
This week, J. Alexander kindly lent me a copy of Das Hausbuch der Mendelschen Zwolfbruderstiftung zu Nurnberg, where there is a slightly earlier German shaving horse, (1485) this time used by a cooper, as would be expected. So, although this painting is lacking some small details (no legs for this shaving horse, for instance) it is clearly a “dumbhead” style shaving horse -easily recognized today.
But, my work is concerned with reproducing seventeenth-century joined and turned furniture. Sometimes, I use a drawknife. So, the question arises, what did the English use in the seventeenth century for drawknife work? Joseph Moxon, writing in the 1670s and 80s, describes using a drawknife while bracing the stock against your breast, and shoving the other end against part of the workbench.
“¶ 5. Of the Draw-knife, and its Use
The Draw-knife described Plate 8E is seldom used about House-building, but for the making of some sorts of Household-stuff; as the Legs of Crickets, the Rounds of Ladders, the Rails to lay Cheese or Bacon on, &c. When they use it, they set on end of their Work against their Breast, and the other end against the Work-bench, or some hollow Angle that may keep it from slipping, and so pressing the Work a little hard with their Breast against the Bench, to keep it steddy in its Position, they with the Handles of the Draw-knife in both their Hands, enter the edge of the Draw-knife into the Work, and draw Chips almost the length of their Work, and so smoothen it quickly.”
That could be done, but it must have been uncomfortable.
Randle Holme’s Academy of Armory (1688) has a “paring ladder” – a sort of brake:
“… the paring Ladder, or Coopers Ladder, with a pareing Staff in it: By the help of this all Barrel Staves or Boards are held fast and safe while the Work-man is paring or shaving them fit for his purpose.”
The same device is depicted a little less than three hundred years later in J. Geraint Jenkins’ Traditional Country Craftsmen (1965) showing a hoop-maker using something similar to shave his stock. Jenkins called it an upright horse. It seems his left leg applies the pressure that holds the stock against the “paring staff” both of which are held under a cross piece at the top. there’s no date for the photograph, the presumption is c. 1920s-40s. [illustration from J. Geraint Jenkins, Traditional Country Craftsmen (London, Boston & Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965,1978) figure 23.]
But, where the English style shaving horse came from is still to be discovered. I still like mine, it’s a little weary by now. I’d guess it’s about 15-20 years old. I use it less than I used to, it’s just that most of my work is planed at the bench, rather than shaved these days. But it still holds up all right. I simplified Alexander’s design, by eliminating metal fastners and fixings, and I used pine for the bench and work surface.
This detail photograph shows how the work surface is hinged. A block that is essentially the same as the poppets on a wooden lathe receives a wooden pin through its head. This pin also pierces the end of the work surface. A bevel on the bottom corner of the work surface facilitates the hinge motion.