shaving horses again

If  you read Chris Schwarz’ recent post about a possible 17th-century image of a shaving horse

Here’s how it came about. When talking with the EAIA crowd last week at Plimoth, part of what I discussed was our research over the years. Way back when, Plimoth had many shaving horses in the 1627 village. I first visited there in 1989 or so, and it looked like they all rode in on them.

germanic horse
…stuck a feather in his cap…

germanic horse tiny legs

anglo horse

By the time I got to working there (1994) they were gone. All gone. They had done some re-evaluation of the research behind that, and came up empty with 17th-century references. The best-known early images are the 15th-century German ones from the Mendel Hausbuch, etc.  (these portraits are now online, Chris Schwarz recently posted the link to them, here it is again:


There is a well-known 16th century one, also German, from a book on mining, De Re Metallica. (the only time you will see the word “Metallica” on my blog) – I think 1566 is the date, or thereabouts.

de-re-metallica shaving horse 1556

18th-century versions are well represented; Roubo, (copied here from one of Roy Underhill’s books) and Hulot…maybe even Plummier. Hulot as I recall isn’t properly a horse/vise arrangement, but a low bench with a notch to brace the far end of the workpiece against, and the near end bumps into a breast bib. ( I can’t find my picture of that right now…)



For the 17th century, what do we have? Moxon’s uncomfortable description of how to use a drawknife:

“…When they use it, they set one end of their Work against their Breast, and the other end against their 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 their work, and draw Chips almost the length of their Work, and so smoothen it quickly. ”


Years later, I found an Essex County, Massachusetts court record that mentions an accident in which a ship’s mate injures himself while shaving or drawing hoops.

“Unice Maverick, aged about forty‑three years, deposed that riding to Boston with her son Timothy Roberts, they met with Richard Hollingworth upon the road, who inquired for a man to go to sea with him. Her son told him he would go and thereupon Hollingsworth shipped him at 35s per month. The voyage was to Barbados, thence to Virginea, thence to England and home to New England, and in case he received any of his wages in England, then he was to be allowed part of his wages for his payment there. He was upon the voyage about eleven months. She further testified that Hollingsworth only desired him to carry his adze with him, which he yielded to, but utterly refused to be shipped cooper. Sworn in court.

 Moses Maverick, aged about sixty years, deposed that upon Hollingsworth’s return from Barbados, he met him at Boston and told him he was sorry for what had befallen Timothy Roberts on his voyage…

  John Cromwell, aged about thirty‑five years, deposed that on the voyage “one morning Timothy Roberts comeing Auft upon the house Mr Hollingsworth asked him why he did not draw the hoops or shaue some hoops. Timothy told him he could not the vessel did roule soe. Mr Hollingsworth spoke Angerly to him and bid him make a horke or a galloss or some such like word he spake and timothy went forward againe and a little while after came Auft upon the house crying and sed O lord I am undone I have cutt my kne.” Sworn, 24:4:1671″

So the boy tore open his knee. If only he had a “horke or galloss or some such word” – so not only do we have what might be a weird case of transcription, but even the man making the deposition says “some such word” – so not a term known to him. Ahh, well.

Randle Holme discussed a wooden rig for coopers to shave stock with, the paring ladder.

1688 or so:

Randle Holme, 1688
Randle Holme, 1688

Early 20th century:

Jenkins, Traditional Country Craftsmen
Jenkins, Traditional Country Craftsmen

a couple of years ago, Plimoth

shaving stock on paring ladder
shaving stock on paring ladder


I know of one documentary reference from the 18th century, there must be many more. “a coopers horse” is listed in a 1773 inventory from New York. No drawknife interestingly. I saw this in New World Dutch Studies: Dutch Arts and Culture in Colonial America, 1609-1776 (Albany Institute of Art, 1987)

Nineteenth century is beyond me, but there are images and documentary references. This one’s from Nancy Goyne Evans’ book Windsor Chair Making in America: From Craft Shop to Consumer

German, 1830-50
German, 1830-50

So there’s the background. Jeff Burks came up with a possible 1690s French one, but it might be 1720s too. So if anybody can find it, Jeff can. We’ll see.

Then, when did the English style come in? The only images I know of this one historically are photographs, not very old then! Here’s Daniel years ago using mine…

Daniel shaving white cedar
Daniel shaving white cedar


22 thoughts on “shaving horses again

  1. Hi, Peter. Thanks for sharing this information.

    You might be interested in one variation of the shaving horse that my friend Junior. Strasil developed. Junior suffers chronic back trouble; his solution is brilliant. If you have a few minutes, take a look on my blog and read about the Strasihorse:

    If you wish to keep a better copy of the image for your records, I will be glad to contact Junior to request it.

  2. I have long thought the shaving horse is way overdone in recent recreations. Here are two examples: If you watch guys today using a pole lathe they are roughing their stock on a shaving horse. However, in old turner prints from the 14th to 17th century, what we see again and again is a hatchet and stump.

    At Winterthur, there is a nice Pennsylvania Dutch schnitzelbank right in the middle of the Dominy tool collection. But there was no shaving horse with the collection. Here they have a real block knife, three benches, two lathes, Dominy furniture, and they feature a fake. I hope they have taken it away. If you have a workbench and a lathe, the utility of a shaving horse is greatly diminished.

    • English chair ‘bodgers’ who worked in the woods of the Chilterns in Buckinghamshire used both axe and block to rough shape the chair leg blank, followed by shavehorse and draw knife before placing on the pole lathe. Each step was needed to refine the billet into a finished chair leg. This trade continued to the mid 20th century, so photographs of workers can confirm the use of both stages of ‘roughing out’..

  3. As always, great info and good pics.

    It amazes me how history is constantly being refined by observation and revelation.

    Thanks Again!

    For 1000’s of year 1st century woodworking have been wrongly depicted as men standing at a Western bench with western tools.

  4. Thank you Peter – I had never heard of a shaving ladder – what an incredibly useful tool, and no reason you couldn’t just use an actual ladder if you had one leaning against the shop.

    Lots of reasons you don’t see the “stump and hatchet” used as much as it should be – difficulty in finding good well shaped affordable hatchets, for one thing – perceived danger for another. (Just ask Jerry Garcia about that one.) With a shaving horse you can get pretty close to lathe quality smoothness if you work at it, and for “rustic” chairmaking it’s all you want. The lathe is a big step up for any shop, traditional or modern. And shaving horses are perfect for making tool handles and working stock down to quite small sizes that won’t work with a ladder (stool rungs, for instance.)

    • I love this stuff. To my eye, not my hands, the shaving ladder would be useless with smaller items. I’m sure that a lot of things that were done in the past were not recorded.

  5. I tend to agree with Mr. Mickley here. A fundamental question in archaeology is – How much of what we unearth today is truly representative of life in the past? Or, to put it another way, just because we don’t find something, does it mean it didn’t exist? Archaeologists generally fall into two camps here. One side firmly believes in the archaeological record and that we can truly reconstruct past cultures, especially with multiple sources of data. The other side is a little more conservative, and believes that what we are seeing is merely a tiny fraction of what once existed, cautioning against too much speculation. (This argument is amplified when discussing prehistoric populations that lacked written records.) When I was in the field I gravitated toward the former, though that may have been my youthful exuberance as much as anything.

    Did shaving horses exist in 17th century New England? Almost certainly they did, but Plimoth was likely correct in removing them from their reconstructed village. If shaving horses were prevalent during these times, I think we would see more images and references to them. But that’s just one perspective. A more cautious archaeologist would suggest that maybe we’re just looking in the wrong place!

    Great post, Peter.


  6. Moses Maverick was the father-in-law of one of the third-generation Normans. Maverick married Isaac Allerton’s daughter. Did you ever post pictures of that black box from Marblehead H. S.?

  7. I tend to think its case of a tool that was so common, it was of no consequence.

    Usually things that are newer or more novel tend to show up in the history of art….or by artists trying to depict real life, as was trending from the 16th century onward.

    The most pressing point (which is rhetorical) is this:

    >>Show me all images of Plimoth between 1620 and 1700. ;)

    And show me that a writer describes everything he sees ….

    That which is so common as to be overlooked might be.

    I remember a question I posted in my woodworking group about circular blade sharpening tools…..I had never known how early they might have existed….turns out quite far back. And they probably existed all over the place but were so common for virtually ever craft that needed a sharp edge, they are omitted in lieu of the symbols of a craft that truly represent it.

  8. Interesting post, thanks for sharing.

    Such a common tool for 500 years would, you’d think, have a myriad of historic references but as others have commented, it may be a case of too common to be noticed, so to speak.
    I have two shave horses and here’s my second most rustic version using a design I think I invented. I don’t ever recall seeing the design anywhere so I can only assume it came out of my head…!

    Cheers, Paul.

  9. Great post, I particularly like the early 20th C photo. Looks like a person could build a Follansbee style riving break and add this gentlemans extension for shaving, looks like the board is more of a pole resting in a notch at the top too.
    However it gave me the thought that I could just go outside and find a tree with 2 branches close together in near vertical alignment, will give it a go soon.

  10. The 1566 engraving in Georgius Agricola’s book De Re Metallica is the earliest known image, but there are Roman steles showing a similar horse which appears to have a leather foot strap… I guess this tool was known in the Middle and even the Dark Ages, but being wood most unlikely that any examples will have survived….. Used in Europe by many different crafts – turners (bodgers), coopers, shingle makers, spoon carvers, handle makers….

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