paring ladder, not shaving horse

Two years ago, I started this blog with a post about shaving horses, and the lack of 17th-century evidence for them. Here is that post:

In it, I showed Randle Holme’s “paring ladder” and also a photograph from early 20th-century England showing the same device for drawknife work.

Today I stopped down in the museum’s English village to see the carpenters there, here is a repro early 17th-century house they are working on:

new old house


There’s lots to see in it, but I was there for one thing – my friend Michael French said he would showe me how he uses the paring ladder they have made…

paring ladder

I think they said this is the second one they’ve made; you can see it’s two uprights, joined by three rungs. Sticking between two rungs is a thin riven board of oak, this is the work surface.  Below you see Michael with a small stick of sassafrass pinched between the work surface and the rung – his hip bears against the bottom end of the work surface, and that is enough pressure to keep the workpiece (the sassafrass) in place. The top of the ladder is leaning against a timber in the house that is under construction… the uprights are about 8′ long.  They are sassafass, and I bet the rungs are white oak, but I didn’t even check.

shaving stock on paring ladder


Here is a detail of a notch cut in the back side, upper end of the work surface. This reduces the chance that the work surface will slip down and out…

work surface detail


 I was impressed by how quickly Michael could shift the stock; and with some practice it would be quite handy to use…he said you could also just lean it against a building, rather than this timber inside here. I imagine it could also be made as a free-standing tripod too. Everybody who uses it has a slightly different approach, but the whole crew spoke highly of it…

shifting the stock


Its feet are wide apart so there’s room in there for the workman; depending on what sort of stock you use, you might adjust the spacing near the top of the ladder. These guys are making clapboards and wattle with it, so some narrow and some wide stuff…

paring ladder in use


a nice apparatus, I tried it for a minute, and I would like to work on it again. It’s quick. Maybe I’ll rive some more basket stock and try it out… thanks to Michael, Rick McKee, Tom Gerhardt & Justin Keegan et al for working this device up, and putting it through its paces… I hope to sneak more of their work onto this blog. I think you’d like it…

12 thoughts on “paring ladder, not shaving horse

  1. Hello Peter,

    I’ve seen similar devices here in England, My grandfather used to shave wood down on one. Its known as a knee vice and constructed in a similar way to the paring ladder you show above, except the posts of the knee vices I’ve seen and used had earthfast posts and a longer board (long enough that pressure can be applied with the knee. Their also called Suffolk shaving horse or ladder brake.
    There a good illustration and brief description in “Traditional Woodland Crafts” by Raymond Tabor isbn: 0713475005
    A related device used to be found in the south of England which were weighted in some way.

  2. Thank you Peter for posting this, it gives (again) more insight in how things were done ‘in the old days’.

    On occasion I use my aluminum ladder to put sticks between the laddersteps if I want them to dry after painting.

    I will give shaving a try using my aluminum ladder (though I think the steps are positioned too close together).

  3. Thanks for those great photos and explanations, Peter. I didn’t take any photos of the paring ladder while I was there, but I remember it well. Looks like the thatching has come a long way too.

  4. Peter,

    I am very interested in making shakes for a shed I am building, do you know anything about how I could make shakes? would it be possible to use a small log splitter?

    I’m studying building design and i am totally in love with wooden objects so I’d love to one day design houses with shakes as cladding or roofing or use timber internally etc.(preferably using timber available in Tasmania) Your blog is amazing by the way and I especially love the photos you posted of your friends ladder(what an amazing building).

    Hope you are well!
    Allison Lowe

  5. I was researching shaving horses, but it looks like a paring ladder is more what I want. I understand the top 2 rungs of the ladder, but what is the lowest one for?

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