The shaving horse is a tool used by a number of trades including coopers, wheelwrights shingle makers and chair makers as well as a common tool used around the farmstead. It is a bench on which the worker sits with an adjustable jaw that holds the work fast as it is being shaped. While the shaving horses main use is to hold work while it is being shaped with a drawknife or spokeshave, it can also hold work being planed, drilled or any application where you need both hands free to do the work. The tool is also called a ‘schnitzel bank’, a mule, dumbhead or a bodger’s bench, depending on the place of origin.
The design varies from maker to maker but there are two basic varieties: one with a center lever with a block to hold the work and one with two side levers and a center bar that secures the work. The two designs have their advantages, the single lever can hold wider work but the double lever holds the work more securely but is limited to the width of the bench. The double lever is easier to build than the single lever model. The single lever is the most common type but both have ancient traditions.
The bench and ramp (working surface) are the same for both models. The bench needs to be long enough to have an adequate room to sit and work in front of the ramp. At times you want to sit a little closer to the ramp to do fine work and at other times you want to sit further back to work longer pieces. The elevation of the ramp should be enough to allow you to work without your hands hitting the bench while holding a drawknife.
The shape of the seat should be comfortable with rounded over edges, as you will be straddling the bench as you work. If you make the bench out of a wide board you can cut inward curves in the wide board to accommodate your legs.
The length of the benches legs should be long enough for comfortable seating so that your feet are on the floor and you can easily reach the foot peddle. You want to be at a comfortable height. Some old benches are slightly sloping with the seat legs higher and the ramp end a little lower. If this tool is going to be used in a permanent location then it is a good idea to cut saw kerfs in the ends of the legs and use wedges (and glue) to secure the legs in the sockets in the underside of the bench. This can be blind wedging (fox wedging) or the holes can be drilled through the bench seat and the wedges attached from the top. If you need to frequently transport, move or store the shaving horse then the legs can just be friction fit into the sockets. This allows the legs to be easily removed.
The jaws on the single lever model can be made of a large piece of wood and cut and shaped to the desired profile. It can also be built up from smaller pieces and pegged together. The lever connecting the jaws to the foot peddle should be constructed of a stout wood such as white oak or hickory. The jaws can be constructed of a hardwood, which will take a lot of wear but may dent the work being held. Jaws of a softer wood will not wear as well but will also not mare the stuff being worked on the shaving horse. The jaws of the double lever model need to be strong enough to take the pressure exerted by the foot. I prefer jaws on the double lever to pivot so the work of any shape can be fully engaged against the ramp. Some examples of the double lever jaws have a V-shaped notch on one sharp edge to hold square stock as it is being worked. The jaws on the single lever need to be rounded on the front edge to be able to engage any shaped piece that is worked. The rounded edge also reduces dents and damage to the work pieces.
On the single lever model there is an elongated mortice cut in the ramp and bench behind the upright support. There are a series of holes drilled horizontally in the ramp to allow the lever and jaws to be positioned either closer or further from the front edge of the ramp. The lever also has a series of holes to allow the jaws to be adjusted for thinner or thicker work. A pivot pin is run through the appropriate hole in the ramp and through the necessary hole in the lever for the thickness of the work. The pin should be stout enough to take the pressure exerted when using this tool. The foot pedal is a large stout dowel that passes through the bottom of the lever. It should be long enough to extend out each side a sufficient distance to allow you to easily engage the pedal to exert the pressure and hold the work fast.
On the double lever model there are also holes drilled horizontally in the ramp and in both levers. This allows for the same sort of adjustments as to position of the lever and thickness of material. The pivot pin goes through the hole in one of the levers, through the ramp hole and engages the lever on the other side. The foot pedal is secured between the two levers and can extend out on each side to give additional foot room.
There are several methods to make the jaws open by themselves when pressure is released on the foot pedal. A wooden spring can be attached to the end of the bench and a string is attached to the tip of the bow and the top of the jaws. The string is adjusted until it pulls the jaws open with no pressure on the foot pedal. As the pedal is pushed to engage the work, the bow bends a bit putting tension on the string and as the foot pressure is released the jaws will open to allow the work to be repositioned.
Another method is to balance the design so that the jaws fall open automatically. This can be difficult as the jaws usually stick out ahead of the lever and by nature causes the jaws to close when there is no pressure on the pedal. This requires that you open the jaws before the work can be inserted rather than being open all the time. You can also put an extra weight on the foot pedal, which will cause the jaws to open with no foot pressure. By positioning the weight in front of the foot pedal to compensate for the center of gravity the jaws will open when pressure is released. The position of the counterweight depends on the design and center of gravity of the jaws, lever and foot peddle, and this can be done after this part of the bench is complete. This allows you to position the work without touching the jaws, which is an advantage when doing a lot of repetitive work on the shaving horse.
There is no greater pleasure than sitting astride a wooden bench you have constructed and working wood by hand. You can place the shaving horse outside and enjoy the weather and surroundings as you are shaping chair rungs, roughing out turning blanks, tapering shingles or just making pegs or dowels. If you have been doing any of these operations at the workbench in a vise, it will immediately become clear how much time you can save using this wonderful tool, besides you get to sit down and work.