For more information on spokeshaves, see our beginner site Common Woodworking.
I am often concerned that when people discuss hand tools of different types someone declares that a particular make or type is the only one to get because of a particular quality that that tool might have. All too often and in the same breath they then dismiss other types in order to bolster their opinion or choice or purchase of that tool. Those of you who read my blog will see that through the years I have tried to counter adverse opinions on say the Stanley #4 plane because so many untruths have become accepted yet the basis for its being rejected is actually unfounded. Point in case is the declaration that the #4 Stanley plane with its thin iron chatters. If I give a #4 plane to someone to use I defy them to make the plane chatter. Some years ago an ‘expert’ woodworker declared that the #151 spokeshave couldn’t be made to work and probably would not be made to make a shaving. Of course that was far from true, but the problem was that 12,000 people and more read the erroneous article and the editor said it was too late to counter what was said.
Whereas I do know a well-made and well-set and sharpened wooden spokeshave performs exceptionally well, there are many aspects of woodworking that a #151 will do better. The reason for this is the simple fact that the blade of the 151 doesn’t form the sole of the spokeshave but passes through the sole in like manner to say a plane. In a wooden bodied spokeshave the thickness of the shaving is determined then by setting blade deeper than the wooden body so as to form a step-like presentation to the wood. In the very narrow field of chair bodging, generally making parts from green wood and even dry wood, this spokeshave is more ideal than the others. That doesn’t mean that the others will and do work well also, just that it works better. In essence this sets it apart from the 151 and others in that the 151 cutting action is very different. In the bedded angle of the #151 the iron is presented at a steep angle and protrudes through the sole so that the sole is continuous and level on both ‘fore and aft’ aspects of the cutting edge.
Of course the other dominant feature distinguishing these two spokeshave types is the bevel up aspect of the wooden bodied spokeshave (above)…
…and the bevel-down of the metal-bodied type of the #151.
Here are the three basic spokeshaves I am referring to in this blog.
As I say, for chairmaking, where a bodger might decry the #151 as inferior to the old wooden ones, the wooden spokeshave works best and is therefore declared superior. On the other hand, others might declare the Veritas superior to any other because of its tighter mouth opening and superior engineering and metal alloys and such.
Here is the Lee Valley’s Veritas model – a near perfect tool for some work
Indeed, I love these spokeshaves because of the above features, which are well thought through aspects of the design. You see each perceives and expounds from their small and even very narrow sphere of working wood and therefore declare the merits bests suited to their sphere. Fact is that these statements can be true only on a very limited level. Further fact is that they are all good, all indispensable, all highly developed and all provide uniquely different services in the field.
Here is the Stanley #151 spokeshave I use most commonly of all
Then for some reason the #151 in the minds of the uninitiated becomes some kind of clunker because of adverse press by writers, bloggers and magazines. Some time back I blogged that the UKs The Woodworker magazine writer wrote something very close to “it won’t make a shaving” and pits himself against a hundred thousand woodworkers that have owned and used a #151 for half a century and people stop buying what is a truly remarkable tool.
The #151 spokeshave emerged from the casting foundries of western makers to provide a lifetime tool that worked less well for chair bodging than it did woodworking joinery and furniture making. On the one hand the wooden spokeshave was indeed used mostly for making spikes, spindles and spokes of every different shape and size. Ladder rungs and chair slats, wagon spokes and spinning wheel components came from the long, with-the-grain cuts that peeled and pared the wood along the grain. With its different presentation, the #151 performed much different work in cutting coves and convexes with equal alacrity. Did that mean the wooden spokeshaves couldn’t do this? Not at all. Just that here there was a new alternative that worked and worked well.
Veritas came out with their version of the spokeshave with wooden handles for comfort and shock absorption, tighter mouths and finer adjusters. Superior in quality, the tool works well and especially so in those areas where really fine work is required. Will it take a heavy cut like the #151? No, not so readily and not without changes to the mouth, but that wouldn’t be practical because that would change its performance for finer work benefitting from a tighter mouth opening.
My conclusion is this. With spokeshaves there is no one size fits all although you could choose one of these and be happy making adjustments to make them suit the task each time you reach for it. Each of the types discussed will perform differently for different tasks. Bodging chair makers work primarily with long grain cuts and minimal crossgrain work and so like the wooden spokeshaves best because that’s what they do best. The #151 type spokeshave with its open mouth is a work horse of a tool and will tackle almost any and all work well and can be refined for fine work too. I like owning the Veritas spokeshaves for fine-tolerance work but have no hesitation pulling them out for almost anything I do.