The shaving horse, or shavehorse, is a simple machine that is useful when woodworking with hand tools. The shavehorse is a bench with a built-in foot operated clamp. It allows you to quickly clamp and unclamp your work by pressing and releasing the foot pedal. It’s useful in making pegs for timber frame buildings, shaping tool handles, or anytime you’re using the drawshave and spokeshave. This article teaches you how to build a shavehorse.
The shaving horse pictured in this article uses plans from pages 26-27 of C. Keith Wilbur’s book “Home Building and Woodworking in Colonial America.” I strongly recommend you add this book to your personal library. It’s an excellent book for anyone interested in building using raw materials and hand tools. The plans in C. Keith Wilbur’s book are based on a shaving horse at the Hadley Farm Museum in Hadley, Mass.
You don’t have to follow the plans too closely. Use the plans as a guide, but don’t worry if your design varies from the one in the 3D drawing. This kind of building can be done by roughly cutting out the pieces you need and then scribe fitting them together. Scribe fitting means lining the two pieces up and cutting them to fit, instead of measuring and then cutting to fit. Scribe fitting your pieces together allows you to join roughly shaped pieces without taking too many measurements.
- Cut down a tree. You’ll need a log approximately 10′ long with a 12″ diameter heartwood. Using heartwood is important because some trees have a very soft sapwood layer surrounding the inner heartwood. The sapwood layer is soft and prone to rot and insect damage. You’ll want to remove this layer if the species you’re using has a big soft layer of sapwood. Any species will work as long as it’s strong enough to hold your weight and not break when you’re stomping on the foot pedal.
- Cut your parts. You’ll need to cut a bench, bridge, 4 legs, dumbhead, and foot-pedal assembly. Plan your cuts so you don’t run out of wood. Cut your bench with the chainsaw. Split your legs out with an axe or froe.
- Hog out the mortise for the dumbhead (the dumbhead is part that clamps your work, it’s made up of the dumbhead, the dumbhead shaft, and the foot-pedal). You can use a bit and brace, followed by some chisel work… or you could get out the chainsaw and make short work of it. Clean up the edges by using a large pairing chisel or slick. Repeat this process for the bridge so the two mortises line up vertically.
- Drill 2 holes for the risers to support the bridge. These holes can be drilled straight or at a slight angle if the bridge isn’t as wide as the bench and you’re worried about getting too close to the edge of the bridge.
- Drill the holes for the legs. Use a big bit if you have one. I used a 1″ bit and the bench is rock solid but at the time I wished I had a 1.5″ bit. The legs of the bench are splayed at 45 degrees from the line of the bench, and 30 degrees from vertical. It doesn’t matter if you use 30 degrees, 25 degrees, or 35 degrees… it’ll work. Just make sure all the legs use the same angle. Make a template out of cardboard to act as a guide as you bore the holes.
- Shape the legs for the shaving horse using your broad hatchet, drawknife, or spokeshave. Taper the end of each leg down to 1″ or whatever sized hole you drilled in the bench. An outside caliper will help you see how much more wood needs to be removed before attempt to test fit the leg.
- Pound the legs in with a mallet. If the shaving horse isn’t level use a saw or rasp to shorten the long legs and make it level.
- Pound in the riser pegs. I squared the top of my risers because I was worried they would be too close to the edge of the bridge. I made an adjustment and shaved off the sides of the risers making them rectangular tenons. Dry assemble the riser block and bridge. Scribe the tenon holes on the underside of the bridge where the riser pegs join the bridge. Scribe the mortise on the bridge to align with the mortise on the bench. The dumbhead shaft will slide through here and any misalignment will cause friction or rocking when clamping.
- Cut out the mortise for the dumbhead and riser holes. Drill out the majority of wood and finish squaring the sides with a chisel.
- Drill and peg the bridge, riser block, and bench together. Fit the bridge onto the riser pegs and riser block. Ensure the mortises for the dumbhead line up vertically and drill the holes to peg the bride, riser block, and bench together. You may need to clamp everything together. Peg the assembly together. Angle the pegs slightly toward each other; toenailed pegs resist pull out. Glue is optional.
- Make the dumbhead shaft. Cleave off a piece of straight grained wood. Cleaving is quicker than sawing and makes for a stronger piece of wood. Use the froe to accurately split off a piece. Apply pressure to the “fat” side of the split to adjust thickness of the split.
- Bore the pivot hole for the dumbhead shaft. You may want to drill a series of holes in the dumbhead shaft to accomodate different thicknesses of wood you want to clamp. Fit a wooden peg, lag bolt, or round piece of something smooth for the dumbhead to pivot on. Make sure to leave the pin a little long so you have something to grab onto when you want to move the pin location.
- Cut up a chunk of wood for the dumbhead. I used a chunk of ash that had a fairly flat side. I mortised it out and pinned it with some wooden dowels.
- Rough out a mortise in the foot-pedal to accept the dumbhead shaft. Add some pegs to hold it in place.
I must remind the reader that this is just one way to make a shaving horse. There are many designs that work. You could make your dumbhead and dumbhead shaft out of a single piece of wood to avoid having to fit and pin the dumbhead to the shaft. You could have two dumhead shafts that extend down each side of the bench and are joined at the dumbhead and foot-pedal; an elongated rectangle that pivots on the bridge pin. Use the plans in this article to get you started, but don’t let the plans restrict your design.