shaving horses

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 – 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.

Ҧ 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.


17 thoughts on “shaving horses

  1. Got this note today, belongs here, went elsewhere. From (formerly John – now Jennie) Alexander:

    You made your version of the JA shaving horse entirely of wood-a good improvement. Yours is safer on edge tools. Avoid metal on workbenches and other shop equipment wherever possible. Metal seems to magically attract tool cutting edges-particularly drawknives. Impressed, I now use wood throughout my shaving horse and feel more comfortable. Some greenwoodworkers complain that they will need a lathe to make the long crosspin but it can be carefully drawknifed. One suggestion for your horse-round off the top outer edge of the work surface’s pivot block. With the block sunk entirely beneath the work surface, long work pieces will not be interfered with.


  2. Dear both JA and PF,
    an Englishman making an English Shaving Horse sends great and warm thanks for all information and guidance shared so willingly…….

    ….. I am attempting to keep my horse all wood but of course feel compelled to ask the question, which came first the round pins or the horse………. I will have to resort to the trusty Black and Decker workmate to make mine…….. you both have a devoted fan in the UK (I am sure there are many already!)…….

    PS and Jennie I wonder if you could guide some more on making the conical / tapered reamer……?

  3. So many ways to achieve the same result. With no knowledge just an analytical mind perhaps the answer(s) to the origins of the English Shaving Horse lie in either the bodger tradition or was a response to the needs of naval ships carpenters. Both needing a holding tool that was easy to use, mostly working with short timbers and needed to be portable(bodger) or stowable (on a ship). the metallurgy illustration is the dumbhead type and it wouldn’t take much to adapt that to a lighter construction which would need 2 arms on the vice for rigidity ???

  4. I really like your blog.. very nice colors & theme.
    Did you make this website yourself or did
    you hire someone to do it for you? Plz reply as I’m looking to construct my own blog and would like to find out where u got this from. appreciate it

  5. Hi,
    A newly published book ‘Guide du travail Manuel du Bois’ by Bernard Bertrand deals with shave horses and drawknives. In French but well illustrated. I met author recently who said he may bring out a version in English next year. Price 35€

  6. I looked everywhere trying to find a good source for plans for a shaving horse. Every single place that I found online wants unreasonable amounts of money for items that they probably got for free. I don’t have much money and am semiretired, living on a fixed income. It’s frustrating because I can’t afford much and people’s greed is driving them to charge higher and higher prices for items and products that cost them nothing or next or even close to nothing.

    I am frustrated after almost a year of searching, looking for a place where I could download free plans so that I could build a shaving horse of my own. So, I’m done… I’m fed up and sick of you greedy bastards.

    • Hi noyb, here’s plans (and detailed instructions) from Veritas tools for an English type that doubles as a simple work bench.

      Click to access 05L1901AI.pdf

      If you’d rather the dumb-head type get a hold of Roy Underhill’s first book “The Woodwright’s Shop” which is probably still available from the North Carolina University Press His can be built from some rough lumber or a section of log with the only item needing to be purchased, a bolt to swivel the dumb-head on.

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