Shavehorse Complete…ish

Well, it took all of a week, but I’ve finally completed the shavehorse. More or less. One of Peter Galbert’s bits of advice from The Chairmaker’s Notebook is this:

Don’t build your first shavehorse out of prized wood you’ve been saving. More likely than not, you will want to change or customize your horse, and an ugly one is much easier to alter or put out on the porch.

This isn’t my first shavehorse, but I took him at his word and used a knotty cypress board for most of the horse. It’s 100% functional as it is, but as Galbert astutely predicted, I’ve already come up with a few changes that I’d like to make. I’ll have to put some hours on this horse before I go mucking with it any more, though.

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Shavehorse, complete.

The ratcheting head works quite nicely, but I’m not yet convinced it was worth the hours that it consumed. For any would-be chairmakers out there, I would strongly recommend building a regular ol’ dumbhead to start off with. After you get comfortable with it, you can always retro-fit it with the ratcheting head if you want – and you’ll probably do a better job of it later on. I wish someone had given me that advice a week ago…

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The “smarthead”.

The seat was a treat to carve. I had no desire to cut up my prized 24″-wide, 2″-thick poplar slabs for a Windsor chair seat without first getting a good feel for the process on a lesser subject. This seat came from a 2″ x 13″ poplar board – not quite as dear. Perfect size for a shavehorse seat, though.

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I started off by flattening it with a couple of hand planes, then cutting out the profile with a jigsaw (use a sharp, thick blade, unless you want it to wander all over in the thick poplar…I was wishing I had room for my bandsaw in my shop as my jigsaw groaned). I sketched the profile I wanted on the edge of the slab and started hacking away with my adze. I just held it on the floor with my foot (clean shoes are a must, unless you want to dull your adze in a hurry). I need a better way to hold my seat blanks, but it worked fine for a quick job.

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Notice that I added a hose clamp to the adze. I noticed that the artificial sinew was starting to fray a bit and I wanted to nip it in the bud. Apparently I need some more robust cord for tying the head – but more than likely the hose clamp will simply remain. I’m not opposed to ugly tools that work.

There was no joy in adzing the poplar, I’m afraid. It was quite a bit more difficult to carve than the sassafras I tested it out in. I was wishing for some thick sassafras or white pine, but poplar will have to do, since it’s all I’ve got.

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Mercifully, the poplar seems to carve quite nicely with the inshave.

I was once again pleased with the performance of the inshave. I was able to refine the rough work of the adze with a surprising degree of control, and it left a nice surface to work with. I did notice, however, that my sharpening job needs improvement: I found out quickly which sections of the inshave were sharp and which were not, and I found myself favored the sections that were sharp.

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I followed up the inshave with the drawknife and spokeshave to round over the perimeter. I could have left the seat just like this, and it would have been quite comfortable. However, since I considered this task a practice run for Windsor(s) that I will build, I couldn’t help but follow up with the scraper.

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Look at those pathetic shavings. My scraper needs sharpening.

It was more difficult going straight from inshave to scraper than I would have imagined. The curves of the seat looked pretty uniform after the inshave, but the scraper proved that sentiment wrong. I found myself wishing for a travisher. Still too rich for my blood, I’m afraid, but eventually I’ll have to get one, I know.

Since I decided to proceed with the scraping, I pretty much had no choice but to finish up with sanding. Not my favorite task, so I sped it along with the random orbit sander and some 120-grit.

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I love it when oil meets wood.

I didn’t aim for a perfect surface, but it still turned out nice when I finally slathered some walnut oil on the seat. I do love the contrast between the creamy sapwood and the yellow-green heartwood. I wish the planks were 100% heartwood, though, because it seems to be so much more workable than the sapwood.

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Whatever the seat lacks in appearance, it makes up for in comfort. I definitely haven’t had a seat this comfortable in my shop before.

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Well, onward and upward! I did manage to sneak in a bit of work on the Windsor itself over the weekend…

How to Make a Handle for Your Elbow Adze

It feels a bit strange writing a “how-to” article for a task that I’ve completed exactly once in my life. I would prefer to link to an article written by an expert who’s made fifty of these things, but the internet seems curiously silent on this topic, so here we are.

An elbow adze gets its name from the shape of the handle. Unlike the more familiar western adze, with a straight handle fit into a metal socket, an elbow adze uses branch union for the handle, where the grain naturally follows an elbow shape.

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This primitive elbow adze has a simple blade lashed onto an elbow-shaped handle.
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The familiar Western Adze has a straight-grained handle that fits into a metal socket.

The elbow adze looks like a crude tool, but like any tool, it can be as refined as you make it to be – and even a tool that looks rustic is capable of very fine work if it’s well-made. So what’s the advantage of the elbow adze? More than anything, the advantage is the cost – forming the eye of a Western adze is no simple task, and adzes simply aren’t made on the same scale as a hammer, so it’s difficult for a manufacturer to make a half-decent tool while taking advantage of economies of scale. The plain fact is that nobody’s going to sell a million of these things. The best adzes today are still made by craftsmen, and their work doesn’t come cheap.

By removing the eye from the equation, you drastically reduce the amount of metalwork, but you complicate the handle-making process somewhat. That’s a win for us, though – we’re woodworkers; we can handle the woodwork (pun intended?)

So where to start? Well, I started at Kestrel Tool. They do sell complete adzes, but they also sell unhandled blades for a very reasonable price. You’ll also need a forked branch from a suitable hardwood. Choosing the right fork is a fun job, kind of like scouring the woods for the right crook for a spoon. The most important characteristic of the fork is the angle. You want something in the neighborhood of 60°.

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What you need to get started: A blade and a forked stick.

One thing that was impressed upon me as I scoured the web for information was that it’s not so critical that the handle is made from a traditional “tool handle” wood like hickory, white ash, white oak, or hard maple. All of those woods will make fine adze handles, of course, but this is a tool that will be used for slicing through wood, not banging into it like a sledge hammer. You also don’t have quite the same concentrated stress points like you do where the wood fits into the metal socket of a western adze. As a result, you can easily use a wood that isn’t quite as stiff and strong without a problem.

In the Pacific Northwest, where these adzes are still used for traditional carving (think totem poles), red alder is apparently one of the preferred tool handles, primarily due to the fact that the branch unions grow naturally at the proper angle. Red alder is similar to yellow-poplar in its strength characteristics. I would still be a little wary of using yellow-poplar, but I wouldn’t hesitate to use cherry, walnut, red maple, or red oak. I ended up finding a mulberry fork that looked just right, so I sawed out the fork, shaved off the bark, and left it to dry for a month.

Satisfied that the handle was dry enough to work, last night I set about finishing up the tool. I started by planing blade end of the fork down to the pith. There was probably about a 3/4″ thickness of wood left when I stopped. You’ll want to take some care to get the “flat” perpendicular to the handle, or else your blade will sit cattywampus.

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Carefully plane the “flat” where the blade sits. This is where the rubber meets the road wood meets the steel.

When I was satisfied that the handle was ready to test, I used a tip from Kestrel Tool and fixed the blade to the handle with a couple of hose clamps. It worked like a charm and held the blade tightly in place.

One of the firm principles of making proper elbow adze: The cutting edge of the blade should be at 90° to the spot on the handle where the index finger rests. This can be tweaked in a couple of ways. The blade can be pushed backward and forward slightly along the top of the blade, or the angle of the flat can be changed slightly to to dial in just the right configuration.

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A tip from Kestrel Tool: You can fix the blade temporarily in place with a couple of hose clamps.
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The cutting edge of the blade should be perfectly square to the point on the handle where your index finger will rest.

The adze looks about right, so now it’s time to put it to the test. I pulled out a scrap of sassafras started hacking away, holding the board on the floor between my feet. It was working well and pulling out some nice chips, so I roughed out an oval and tried to see how closely to the line I could cut.

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The adze pulled out chips easily in the soft sassafras…
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…and I found that I could cut closely to a line.

Satisfied with the way the tool was working, I was almost ready to lash the blade onto the handle. Before I did that, though, I decided to add a “shelf” to the top of the handle, behind the blade. Most adze handles have this part integral to the handle, but I found it much easier to adjust the position of the blade and ensure a tight fit if I was able to plane the flat, instead of sawing and rasping.

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I didn’t have any wood that would match the mulberry, so I went with a contrasting wood instead – bloodwood.
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I simply glued it in place with some cyanoacrylate and carved it to match the contour of the handle.
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One last detail before the lashing – carve out a hollow on the underside of the flat where the twine will be wrapped.

Finally, it was time for the lashing. This was the part that had me nervous, but it turned out to be the easiest step of all. I used “artificial sinew” – basically just some nylon or polyester cord that’s heavily waxed. It’s very strong, and the wax helps keep the lashing tight as you go. I’ll describe the steps briefly, but I think you should be able to figure it out from the pictures.

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1) Start by forming a loop on the back end of the blade.
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2) Now wrap the working end around the haft and over the loop.
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3) Keep wrapping, taking care to pull the cord tightly as you go (notice that I wised up and put the blade guard on the adze).
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4) Now we’re done wrapping. The cord is tight and the loops are pressed tightly together.
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5) Slide the working end through the loop you made in Step 1.
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6) Now pull the working end under the wrapping by pulling on the standing end from the loop in Step 1.
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7) Keep pulling until the intersection is in the middle of the wrapping, then pull both the working and and the standing end in opposite directions to form an “X” under the wrapping. Now just trim the ends, and you’re done.

That’s it! The wrapping took, maybe, 5 minutes from start to finish, and that was with me stopping to take pictures every so often. If you do a good job of it, your wrapping should last for years. Time will tell if I’ve done a good job, but the blade certainly seems as tight and immovable as I could hope for.

Now, I’m one tool closer to building that Windsor chair.

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The finished adze – rustic, but refined.