Drawknife

drawknife_thumbThe drawknife is one of my favorite tools to use, at least when it’s sharp and the wood is green and soft. You can take long clean shavings from your work, the kind that give you goosebumps and make you pay reverence. For timber framing the drawknife has many uses. It’s most commonly associated with making pegs on the drawhorse. (You’ll make a lot of roundish pegs from square stock during the construction of a timber frame building.) But besides pegs, it’s also used to remove bark from trees, clean up waney edges, chamfer the edges on timbers, trim wood shingles, make handles for chisels… the drawknife has many uses. You’ll want to find a drawknife of good quality, that is comfortable to use, and matches the type of work you’ll be doing. This article shows you what to look for when buying a drawknife, how to restore and sharpen a drawknife, and how to use a drawknife.

Things to Look for When Buying a Drawknife

  • Pitting on the flat side. If there is minor pitting on the flat side of the drawknife you can sharpen them out.  If there is heavy pitting on the flat side, find another drawknife.  Pitting on the beveled side isn’t that important since the bevel is sharpened and surface pits will get sharpened out.  Pits on the back of the blade near the edge will effect the tools effectivness, that’s why we need to remove them.
  • A good solid handle.  Find a drawknife with handles that feel solid and don’t spin. The handle should be long enough to fit your entire hand, no short stubby handles.  Make sure there aren’t any cracks in the handle that might spread and cause the handle to break off. The handles should be flared out, just a bit, so you can hold the tool comfortably in your arms.  A drawknife with handles at 90 degrees to the blade will force your arms too close together and make it uncomfortable to use and hard to control.
  • Proper shape.  The drawknife should have a slight curve to the blade.  A curve in the sense that the sides of the drawknife are slightly higher than the middle of the blade. A curved blade slices through wood easier than a straight blade.
  • Proper bevel.  A drawknife should be sharpened on one side only, like a chisel.  If the drawknife has been sharpened on both sides (double-beveled), don’t buy it.  Find a new one.
  • Make sure the tang isn’t broken off.  Examine the bottom of the wood handle.  The metal part that goes through the handle is called the tang.  The metal tang is bent over the wood handle to secure it.  When a handle is replaced, the tang is straightened, the handle inserted, and the tang re-bent around the handle.  If you do this enough the tang will weaken and eventually break off.  If this happens you’ll be forced to shorten the handle.  A short handle is hard to hang on to.

    Clenched tang style handle.

    Clenched tang style handle.

How to Restore and Sharpen a Drawknife

    1. Sand the rust off.  Get some 80 grit sandpaper designed for metal (aluminum oxide) and sand all the orange surface rust off.  I like to get all the rust off before I start working on the edge.
    2. Flatten the back side.  You can use power sanders, water stones, oil stones, or sandpaper to grind the back to flatness.  I like to use  sandpaper because I have so much flexibility in terms of grit and application.  Use a sanding block that has a VERY flat surface and won’t indent.  A chunk of granite or marbel tile would be a good choice.  A piece of soft wood would be a bad choice.  Attach the lowest grit sandpaper you can find, I use 40 grit, to the sanding block using 3M 77 spray adhesive. Stop after you’ve ground out all the pits.  Brush the metal filings away from the sandpaper if it clogs.  Replace the sandpaper as necessary.  If you have moderate pits, you’ll go through several sandpaper changes.
      Sanding block made out of marble tile.

      Sanding block made out of marble tile.

      Rust pitting on the flat side of the drawknife.

      Rust pitting on the flat side of the drawknife.

    3. Polish the back.  Swap the 40 grit sandpaper on the sanding block out for a higher grit like 80 grit.  Rub the block in a circular motion on the back of the drawknife.  Keep the sanding block perfectly flat, we don’t want to accidentally rub a bevel into the back of the drawknife. Remove all the scratches left by the 40 grit sandpaper in step 2.  Switch to 220 grit, or thereabout, and polish all the scratches left by the 80 grit.  After 220 grit you can stop unless you’re OCD about tool sharpness.  You could go through several more progressions of higher grit sandpaper to polish the back to a mirror finish.  If you’re using a drawknife for fine finish carpentry, OK, but if you’re using this for pegs, logs, and timbers… stop at 220 grit.  Use a sharpie marker to mark the full length of the blade. The marker will tell you what parts you’ve covered with each grit.  Once you erase all the marks with one grit, move on to the next grit.  Repeat.
      Use a sharpie to mark the surface you're sharpening.

      Use a sharpie to mark the surface you’re sharpening.

      Using the sanding block to flatten the back.

  1. Sharpen the bevel.  Use an axe stone or sanding block to sharpen the bevel roughly 25-30 degrees.  I like to use a sanding blocks with progressively finer grits.  Use a few grits.  If you have pits, use the 40 grit until you’ve ground them out.  Then move on to 80, 220… as described in step 3.
  2. Make a case.  Do something to protect the edge when not in use… cardboard and rubber bands, wrap it in a towel, put tape on the edge, or make a fancy leather case.  You don’t want to cut yourself, and you don’t want to ruin your sharp edge.

How to Use a Drawknife

Although you can use a drawknife with the bevel facing up, you’ll get the most control with the bevel facing down.  Why?  Because with the bevel down you can easily pull the handles up to control the depth of the shaving.  With the bevel facing up, it’s easy to dig into the wood more than you were expecting.  Keeping the bevel down gives you more control.

Cutting at the proper angle will make it easier to cut and control.  Hold the drawknife at an angle as you pull it toward yourself.  You can also slide the blade from one side to the other as you pull.  The angle and sliding action are the key to smooth drawknife work.

Work your way to the line.  Don’t try to take huge slices of wood off your work.  As you get close to the line, take finer and finer shavings.  If you have to remove a lot of wood, try scoring the wood with deep cuts, then slice the chunks of wood off.

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