The Modern History of the Wooden Spoke — Part II

This post is a continuation of the previous.  If you have not that one, you may want to begin with it, and then read this.  Mike 

I have described else where how John Kelsey (the founding editor of Fine Woodworking) putErnie Conover and me together, and how Ernie and I became lifelong friends.  In 1981 Ernie and I also started a school, and for the first time in history, we developed a regular schedule of Windsor chairmaking classes. In doing so, we faced the same problem I had working with Dale Nish.  Where do we find a supply of tools?  

Ernie provided the solution.  He would make them.  Ernie ran Conover Woodcraft, a company that already manufactured tools.  He would add chairmaker tools to his product line.  Like Leon Robbins a decade later, Ernie did it the right way.  Before going into production he found out from a tool user (me) what features each tool required to function well.  This method of tool development eliminates junk.  Ernie only had to tweak his prototypes to arrive at tools that were  as good as the ones the old guys worked with.    

Ernie sent me the first spoke shave off the production line.  I adjusted  it, and first pass it cut as well as my antique shave.  I retired my old shave, and for many years used the very first one Ernie had produced and given to me.  

Ernie’s shave was made of a very hard tropical wood known as Indian teak.  I’m sure that was just the wood’s commercial name and it was not really teak.   He reasoned that it would wear better than the traditional beech.   In time, even this wood would develop a dip in the sole from whittling spindles.  Ernie solved the problem in a later production run, by inletting a strip of brass into the sole.  He held the brass strip in place with epoxy.  

However, his method of securing the cutter, and adjusting it was the truly genius innovation that endures today.   Ernie inserted two pieces of round brass  into the stock.  Each brass insert had two holes, one larger than the other.   A threaded cutter tang passed through the larger hole, and  an off-the-shelf  brass battery nut was screwed to the top of the tang.  This secured the cutter in place.    

The smaller diameter hole in the brass insert was threaded and had an Allen screw fitted in it.  The Allen screw could be adjusted up and down to increase or decrease  its projection from the bottom of the brass insert.  The brass battery nuts pulled the cutter up securely against the Allen screws.  Thus, adjustment was very easy, very accurate, and secure.  It was clever development, and typical Ernie Conover. 

Ernie and I taught lots of classes together and he provided a lot of tools (especially spoke shaves) to our students.  Time passed.  Ernie put much of his talent and genius into developing a wood bed lathe that itself became a classic.  Eventually, Ernie sold Conover Woodcraft.  Someone else was now producing the lathe, and the spoke shave.   

About the same time, Susanna and I founded The Windsor Institute. Once again, our students needed tools.  For a spoke shave, I directed them to the company who had bought out Ernie.  Surprise, surprise.  As in 1980, I found myself surrounded by students who could not make their brand new  shaves work.  Some how, the tool had changed.  Not being  someone who used tools, and not knowing how a spoke shave worked, it was predictable that the new maker would botch a perfectly good design.  

When students put the tool to use, it quickly choked.  The cutter’s bezel and the wear (the upper surface of the inlet cut out of the stock) should diverge. This creates an increasingly wider passage, which allows the shaving to find its way out of the shave. Think of the shaving passing up from the bottom of a funnel and out the wider top.  On this botched shave, the two surfaces actually converged.  Thus, the shaving was pushed into gap that grew increasingly narrow.  Think of pushing the shaving down into a funnel.

 As in 1980, I once again began each class over hauling everyone’s spoke shave.  At the time, Dave Wachnicki was working with me as a chairmaking instructor.  He and I performed many of these surgeries each class.  Fixing shaves started Dave off on a quest to understand shaves, some what similar to the one that sent me off to understand Windsors. Dave began to examine spoke shaves (old and new) up close and in detail.  Eventually, he began to try his hand at making them.   

Around 1999, Dave went off on his own and started Dave’s Shaves.  The Windsor Institute provided him with a steady flow of customers, and he provided The Windsor Institute with a supply of very dependable spoke shaves.  While I missed working with Dave, I certainly I did not miss overhauling a bunch of shaves every Monday morning.  To this day, Dave’s shaves are the official shave of The Windsor Institute.  

Dave made his own wooden spoke shave bodies. However, he purchased his cutters from the guy who had bought out Ernie.  Thus, like Ernie’s before him, Dave relied on the same brass battery nut technique.  He also used the same distance between holes that Ernie had established 10 years earlier.  

Dave had replaced Ernie’s brass adjustment insert with a very clever and simple system.  He placed two Phillips head wood screws into the stock under the cutter.  Adjustment was made by simply advancing or backing out the screws.  It was as easy and sure as Ernie’s method, and less work.   

As a furniture maker turned toolmaker, Dave was real fussy about his tools’ appearance. Perfectly selected wood with a perfect finish became his trade mark.  While Dave’s shaves work every bit as well as the old ones, his are also works of art.  

The company that had bought out Ernie eventually went out of business.  With it, went Dave’s source of cutters.  He sought out Ron Hock,  and worked with Ron to develop a cutter patterned on the old Conovers.  Dave’s new source retained the threaded tang and the same distance between them.  However, as Dave developed both larger and smaller shaves, he needed blades of varying sizes.  He worked out these dimensions himself.  

Dave’s success in making shaves began to attract others who also began to produce and sell  these tools.  Jack Goosman was one of the first.   Starting in 1996 Jack took several classes with us and saw the tools we were using.  Jack tried his hand at dealing in antique tools, and brought his wares by each class to sell to students. I’ll confess to having bought my share from him.  Next, Jack decided to  produce new tools. His first effort was  a copy of a Stanley  85.  As with his antique tools, he experienced some success by bringing his shaves to classes and selling them to our students.  I still have the one he gave me.   

Jack was both under capitalized and unable to make his own parts. He jobbed out all the operations. This left him with little profit, and he eventually stopped making his shave.  However, he was the first in a string of people that having become aware of the market we had created for spoke shaves, sought to enter it.  

One result of these new entries was an increased buzz about wooden spoke shaves among mainstream woodworkers.  Awareness of this type of tool grew, as more woodworkers used it and found out effective it was.  The magazines too, learned about this heretofore forgotten tool and joined the chatter.  They published articles about shaves. They did tool reviews.  They included woodworker-made shaves in their sections of reader work.   

This increased noise about wooden spoke shaves in mainstream woodworking  attracted the attention of  larger, tool making companies.  Like sharks attracted to smaller fish feeding, they moved into the market.  Sensing the chance to cash in on the growing number of chairmakers being trained here, they tried their hand at developing wooden spoke shaves.  One company even developed a low angle spoke shave with a metal body.  The same company is now offering a kit for people who want to make their own wooden shave.  

In the next posting I plan to write about Gresham’s Law of  tools.  In it I will look into the future and make predictions for the wooden spoke shave.  For now,  it is important when you see these shaves to remember that there was a time when this tool was forgotten and unknown. It was brought back from oblivion and reestablished to provide a source for my

Windsor chairmaking students.  In 1981

Ernie Conover worked out a practical design that continues to dominate.  As I have noted previously, chairmakers who are new to the craft assume the tools and sources were always here.   Not so.  It all has its origins in the

Windsor chairmaking class that I developed in 1980 and continue to teach at The Windsor Institute. 

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