The Modern History of the Wooden Spoke Shave — Part I

My surgeon delayed my shoulder surgery until after the first of the year.  I don’t yet have a firm date.  In anticipation of a long recovery, I have prepared a multi-part series on steam bending that I had planned on having my son  post for me during this period.  I will still do that, but I cannot tell you for certain when the series will start. When it does begin, you will know I am out of circulation. Meanwhile, thank you to all the people who have had the same operation and who wrote to express their best wishes and encouragement.    

Telling the story of Leon Robbins working with me to develop the Crown Plane travisher and compass plane caused me to think about other chairmaking tools that used to be unknown, but are now readily available.  As I pointed out, all roads in Windsor chairmaking lead back to The Windsor Institute. However, people who are new to the craft, or have come to it in the past 15 years or so,  assume these tools have always been available.   

Not so.  There was a time when many chairmaking tools were not only unavailable, but few woodworkers had ever even heard of them.  After disappearing for a century or more, they are again being produced because of The Windsor Institute.  Over the years I actively sought people with the skill to make tools. I worked with them to develop their products. Then, The Institute provided a  ready market of customers to them.  This last point is important, because without the steady pool of customers created by our students, these tool makers would have failed financially.  

Below is the modern history of the wooden spoke shave.   When I first started making chairs and did not know much about tools, I used a drawknife for most work.  While very dependant on the draw knife, I could not help but be  intrigued by the New York City Chairmakers Society’s coat of arms from 1825.  I had found a copy of the banner in Thomas Ormsbee’s book   Early American Furniture Makers.  It bore a bit brace crossed with a wooden bodied spoke shave.   

I understood the importance of the brace to chairmakers, but the meaning of the spoke shave eluded me.  I mentioned the coat of arms to a friend who restored buildings and who was rediscovering 18th building techniques (as I was rediscovering Windsor chairmaking techniques.)  We both did a lot of poking around looking for and acquiring old tools. I remember his comment about shaves, “Every woodworker must have used them. What else could explain why I see them everywhere?” 

He had lit a light bulb for me. As soon as possible, I went out to some of my favorite haunts and purchased a likely wooden spoke shave.  I ignored the shaves with cast iron bodies, because I knew they were developed nearly a century after Windsor chairmaking had disappeared, and had never been used by chairmakers.   

(As an aside,  metal shaves are poor tools in comparison  to their wooden counterparts. Look at the cutter in a metal shave.  It is set at 45 degrees rather than at only several degrees.  This high cutting angle means it is really an odd ball plane, rather than a true shave.  Because of this  high angle cut, metal shaves will not pare well on end grain.  They chatter and make dust.   

Look too,  at the sole. It is only a fraction of the width of the sole on a wooden shave.  The narrow sole and high cutting angle both require more force, and make the tool harder to control.  On our tool list we specifically tell students to avoid a metal shave.  Some people ignore us.  When they observe  the difference between their results and that of their bench mates, they usually toss the metal one back into their tool box and take a wooden class shave down from the wall.) 

I tried the antique wooden shave I had bought  in my chairmaking.  Scales fell from my eyes.  No wonder chairmakers held this tool in such high esteem that they would choose to cross it with a bit brace on their coat of arms!  I immediately understood that for a chairmaker, a wooden spoke shave was a crucial  tool.  Also, I quickly learned that it was the nearest thing  to a woodworking magic wand.  With it, I could almost will away wood.  My hand became an extension of my eye.  I envisioned the result I wanted and it occurred.   Wood disappeared effortlessly leaving behind a surface far smoother than anything I had ever achieved previously. I recognized the spoke shave’s gentle track. It was the same track I saw on all the antique chairs I examined.  I had found my way home.   

I taught my first Windsor chairmaking class in 1980 at Brigham Young University.  In doing so I taught the very first Windsor chairmaking class in history.  The old guys didn’t teach classes, and in 1980, as a Windsor chairmaker, I was working pretty much all alone.  Dale Nish had invited me to be a presenter at the Woodworking West: State of the Art conference.  He also asked if I would stay an additional  week and teach.  I agreed and we set a limit of 20 students. He called a couple of weeks later to tell me the class was full.  He had so many others clamoring to get in on the experience,  that he was inviting me to stay an additional week and teach a second class.  

Dale asked me to provide a list of tools the students would need, and he would acquire them.  I perused a Woodcraft Supply catalog and sent Dale a list of stock numbers for their draw knife, scorp (inshave),  etc.  At the time the catalog also carried a wooden spoke shave made by (I believe) Marple.   I included it on the list, as well.  Dale bought a quantity of each tool, enough for a class of 20 students.  

None of the tools worked.  In fact, I concluded that they were not really tools, as the nature of a tool is to accomplish work.  These items performed very poorly, or not at all.  Ergo,  they were not tools,  just bad reproductions  that looked somewhat like my tools. I commented that “These items were completely useless.  They would not work wood, and were not heavy enough to use as a boat anchor.” 

This posting is about wooden spoke shaves.  So, let me focus on the problems with the pitiful device we were trying to use, and ignore the scorp, draw knife, etc. for another time.   Remember, I had selected these items from a catalog, and had only seen pictures of them.  Until this class at BYU, I had never used one, or even held one in my hands.   

I showed the students how to whittle spindles using my antique shave, and they set about to do the same.  Soon, I was overwhelmed by guys asking for help. Each time one tried to use a shave, it rolled toward the user and the cutter pulled loose.  For the first time, I actually examined one of the items (remember, I am not calling it a tool, as to be called a tool, it must work.)  The object’s sole was round, very much like that of the compass shave Dave Wachnicki makes.  The cutter’s tangs were square and loosely fitted into round holes.   

When a student tried to whittle with the devise by pulling it, it rolled forward on the round sole. The square tangs then pulled loose from the square holes.  I compared the object to my shave.  Mine had a flat sole.  The tangs, while square, were also tapered, larger in section at the bottom, and smaller at the top.  These tapered square tangs were fitted into holes that were themselves both square and tapered. This type of hole is known as “broached.” Thus, the tangs of my cutter, fit securely into their broached holes with  a self-locking friction fit.    

One by one, I performed meatball surgery on the so-called shaves.   I planed off the round sole and glued on a flat piece of wood.  I stuffed savings around the tangs to create some holding power.  Multiply the time I needed for this surgery by 20 students, and you can see that these items were a disaster.  I was frustrated and  Dale Nish wasn’t so pleased about the money he had spent to buy these useless implements.   

When I returned home I contacted Dick Dabrowski, a friend of mine who was at the time vice-president of Woodcraft Supply in Woburn, MA. Dick now owns Shaker Workshops and Cohassett Colonials.  I chided him for carrying that item in his catalog.  Dick explained that the stock had a round sole because the factory  had made it by turning it in a lathe! The object immediately disappeared from Woodcraft’s catalog, and to the best of my knowledge Marple soon dropped it from production.  

I had learned a painful, but important lesson.  A lot of hand tools look good in pictures, but are really just junk.  If they work at all, they only work poorly.  Why?  Most tools are produced by people who don’t use them, and who do not seek  input from people who do use them.  For example, Marple did not understand why turning a spoke shave body in a lathe and obtaining a round sole was a bad idea.  After all, the turned stock looked something like a spoke shave.  As a result of no user input during the design, many items you see for sale just look like tools.  They are not tools, because they fall outside the most important part of the definition of a tool – it must perform its intended job.  

I wish I could say that 27 years later the situation had gotten better, but I can’t.  A lot of hand tools are still junk, and you buy them at your peril.  If you do, you lose four  ways.  1.) You waste money.  2.) You can’t do good work.  3.) Your self esteem is damaged. You see hand tools at work in the magazines, and assume your poor results are your deficiency.  4.) You end up relying  on machines to do everything, no matter how inefficiently you are working.

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