Green Woodworking: Making a Shave-Horse (2020)

Making Another Shave Horse, and some other things


Starting with a base, basically somewhere to sit and hang the other parts of the shave horse onto. As it's "lockdown" in April 2020, the best material I have for this consists of sections of 3" x 3" fence posts, screwed together. This may be a heavy horse!

Text in bold highlights tools / words associated with green woodworking (I may add a popup image or text later, maybe much later).
I've used the symbol " as a shorthand for inches, i.e. 3" = 3 inches.


splitting log

Splitting an ash log into quarters for the legs. It's about 8" in diameter, and was felled a few weeks ago. I don't have a froe, the traditional tool for splitting wood for making things, but a billhook (or bill hook) works quite well here. Also required is a beetle or mallet (right); this one is heavy duty, made from yew (thanks Steve!). The billhook was used to start the split, then wooden (oak) wedges were hit in to complete splitting. Easy in this case as there weren't any significant knots in the wood.


Shaping leg

Now to shape a leg using a shave horse I made earlier (seat kindly donated to me). The wood (termed a billet) is gripped by the leg operated vice (or vise, USA), and it is worked by an essential tool, a drawknife (or draw knife). This tool looks dangerous because you are pulling a theoretically very sharp tool towards yourself. The drawknife is probably relatively safe when being used (both hands out of the way on handles). Dangerous times can be when swapping tools, it's unsheathed in a toolbox, or when fitting safety guard etc.. Come to think of it almost everything about woodworking is hazardous!


leg tenon

Here a tenon is starting to be shaped. First the diameter is marked on the wood, in this case using a 1.375" drill bit. This leg is being made with a "shoulder" on which the weight of the seat rests. This takes far longer to work than a simple pole shape, but may be more durable. There may be an easier way of doing this (without power tools), but it works for me, after an hour or so! The "shoulder" position is scored around the leg at a slight angle to match the intended slightly splayed angle of the leg when fitted to the seat, (of the order of 5 degrees to vertical). Explaining this is almost as difficult as doing it!



After whittling away with a chisel, beetle and fine saw for quite a while the tenon has taken an approximate shape. The tenon has been left over-sized because it will shrink as the wood seasons, typically becoming ovaloid. Since the seat is already seasoned, its mortices won't change shape (ie reduce in size) in dry conditions. So It's necessary to leave the legs to season for a while before final adjustment so that the mortice and tenon joints will be fairly tight, but allow the legs to be removed for transport & storing of the horse.


2 legs

I've tried to reduce the weight of the legs a bit, slightly reminiscent of a very sturdy Shetland pony's leg shape I was hoping. That was before I ran out of energy!


vice frame

The vice frame is made of oak. It's seasoned (dry) except for the movable "jaw" (right of center in photo), which needs to dry for a while to get a good fit of the tenons. It is possible to use dowels in place of tenons, but there could still be a fitting problem if the parts don't have a similar moisture content. The joints don't need to be tight, because the jaw needs to be rotated or repositioned.


foot rest

The vice is of course operated by the user's legs putting pressure on the "foot rest" part (above). Here I've split a 2.5" diameter log and shaped tenons on one half to fit into the vice sides.

foot rest

The other half of the log (facing the operator) has notches to fit the vice sides, and I've used wire to tie it all together. With this arrangement most of the applied force is applied to the sides of the vice, and not to the joints. Of course it would be simpler to just use a cross piece fixed to the vice sides somehow.


Interlude (while waiting for saw horse tenons to season)

cord pulls  cord pulls

Got on with a couple of other projects using a pole lathe; for one thing I needed some cord pulls. This was a quarter of an approximately 5" diameter oak log, felled some months ago. The turning is going well as can be seen from the long, thin shavings, but it's easy for it to go wrong especially when using a skew chisel. (Note: the first half of this You Tube video shows what can go wrong when a chisel "catches" a spindle billet, and how to avoid that. It uses a powered lathe, but it's the same principle for a pole lathe).

chisel handles

Handles (15" and 18") for socketed chisels, turned from ash. The "cone" shapes on the left side have still to be worked to fit each chisel socket, but the wood needs to be seasoned before the final fitting is done. After 2-3 weeks these pieces have become oval in a fairly predictable manner, with the maximum-minimum diameters varying by about 5%. This is fine for most of the handle, but not for fitting to the chisel socket, so they'll be left to continue seasoning slowly before fitting. I have read that hardwood shrinks typically 5% along the radius of a log, and 10-15% along an arc; the difference explaining the change to ovaloid cross section as the wood dries. The shrinkage along the length of the log is apparently much less, at around 1%.

chisel 3

One of the finished handles, shaped to fit the chisel socket. Luckily in this case the socket was a near conical shape so a lathe could be used, If the socket cone shape was distorted or had high spots then some whittling would be needed, with frequent checking of fitting, and marking the orientation of handle to chisel is important.


saw horse

Trying to solve the problem of holding short lengths of wood while sawing, I adapted a saw horse which was made earlier in the year. It now has a removable "flat bed" made from half of a 2" diameter piece of oak. It's located by notches fitting to the saw horse sides, so that it doesn't slide around. Not essential, but green & bendy sticks can help hold the "bed" and wood to be cut in place.

...and back to the horse

seat with legs

A few weeks later, the legs have been fitted, seat has been shaped, vice frame complete, found some fairly flat board for the work surface. A bit more work and it should be ready to try out.


cs hole    cs hole   drill bits

I decided that two tapped rods with nuts were needed to hold the seat sections together more securely than just by using screws. A snag was that the existing screw holes couldn't be counter-sunk cleanly (as in centre photo), since there was no wood left for one of the drill bits (right photo) to locate their centre point in. In the old days I expect workers would have used wood to plug any pre-existing hole, but I used a wall plug. Utilising the top-most bit in photo with a brace the hole could be sunk to accomodate a nut and washer. The Forstner bit (3rd from top) also works well (with powered drill); both of these bits score the circumference of the hole and can produce a relatively "clean" cut.


in use

After some minor development the horse is now in use. A bit more cosmetic work is needed to infill the counter-sunk holes, and replace the clothes line holding the vice together at the top. The tenons are not tight on the vice jaw so that its position can be moved for different work piece diameters. The sides of the vice can also be moved to three positions located with hardwood pins.


rustic spoon

For the first "product" I shaped a re-creation of a possible stone-age utensil, although I suppose it would have been made from stone then, not field maple. OK, I admit it, I was trying to make a finely carved spoon/ladle, but didn't have enough time, energy and skill. At least the horse held together. The wood had a natural curve, and a wedge was very useful to help keep it gripped in the vice.



I thought I might as well mangle the other half of the small log, in the manner of stone age man working with blunt flint tools ...

rustic spoon 2

This time a sort of heavy duty ladle / spatula / dog's play-ball thrower appeared a couple of hours later.


pole vice

For working on poles the work-board can get in the way. A simple way of gripping the pole is to substitute a wooden block for the board, with a shallow groove on the top-front edge of the block. One or more grooves can be cut in the front edge of the seat to help prevent the pole sliding around.


pole vice

This is another way to hold a pole using a branch with a "Y" shaped fork, mounted so that it forms an approximate right angle to a gripped pole. There is a shallow countersink in the seat, with a 0.75" hole drilled to accomodate the Y piece tenon. This takes more time to make of course, but a pole can be held more securely than with a block. I expect there are other methods. Can you spot a modern method of holding the vice sides together?


boat pins

The shave horse has been used to prepare billets which are being formed into a type of pin on a pole lathe. A somewhere near round billet is left of centre in the photo, along with the main tools being used: a parting chisel, skew chisel, gouge, calipers and ruler. The wood has a moderate moisture content, and since the pins need to be a specific diameter (12mm) when the wood stabilises, they are being left oversized at about 22mm for now. After leaving some time for the wood to season the pins will be turned a second time so that distortions are removed, possibly to about 18mm. This process will be repeated until the final size is reached, or near-final size as it will vary with environmental conditions..


This photo shows a "pin", tool handle, and cord-pull nearing completion. It's is getting near the minimum diameter (~12mm) it's possible to work with on this lathe design. Obviously the wood can tend to flex making it difficult to smooth out, or it could break. It is possible to rig a support for the work piece, or possibly steady it by hand, if you've got one spare!


A week or two later, these are the pins and other items at their "final" size hopefully. The wood is a bit smoother than it appears in the photo due to the low resolution image (maybe you've heard that excuse before).


Other Green Woodworking Pages


The Association of Polelathe Turners & Greenwood Workers (website)
The Encyclopedia of Green Woodworking (book) - Ray Tabor, eco-logic books, 2000
Tools for Self Reliance UK (or in Wales TFSR Cymru) - High quality refurbished tools

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