A Spokeshave

Another most undervalued and underestimated tool

I often wonder if spokeshave is something of a misnomer, spoke, spindle, spike and so on serve only to tell of a small facet of what this tool capably makes. In the former world before the chair bodger’s demise it simplified the making of simple vernacular chair pieces ideally suited for woodland making and itinerant makers. In my world of making wood work it presents a massive range of options for shaping and shaving world masterpieces for a wide range of woodworking crafts including pattern making and the making of scientific instruments that were at one time widely dependent on wood for component parts. Of course we have fine furniture making, musical instrument making and much more beyond my finite imagination. I start with this to encourage all to relook at this , one of the humblest of planing and shaping tools who’s identity is mostly lost to its modern-day all-to-clever audience often ignorant that the tool ever existed.

The basic Stankey 151 is still made in Sheffield, England

Start with the truth. In the early beginnings of my woodworking I was handed a sharp, well set, flat-bottomed spokeshave with which to shape the sides to my wall shelf. The rich, red mahogany peeled shavings from the squared off edges like peels from a potato peeler. The edges were transformed beneath my hands from squares to rounds and of course, like many a boy before me, I fell in love!

A bevvy of spokeshave

A misunderstood and neglected tool. I’ve used spokeshaves most days of my life for one task or another. Since 1963 I have only seen others use them rarely; very rarely and never outside of my classes. I have always felt spokeshaves to be mostly misunderstood – misunderstood, underestimated, undervalued and lost to too many as far as its use and amazing versatility. As with many hand tools – saws, planes, chisels and so on – our first experience with them can be at best negative; and for a variety of reasons we might well pass them by. For the main part spokeshaves are very often picked up and put down in poor condition. I doubt that most people even know what they did let alone how to use them, set them up or restore them.

A home made spokeshave

It’s not even use that rendered them such, mostly it would be neglect and ignorance I think. Sharpness is almost an unknown to spokeshaves. I often find them used straight from the maker without any signs of ever having been actually sharpened beyond the ground 25-degree bevel. Thick rust, paint splurges, greasy gunge and oil is often typical too. That’s how many of mine have come to me. I think this picture of general neglect reflects too both the demise of interest in them and the lack of knowledge what they do. After two thirds of a century being bombarded by the power router that replaced the need for skill with a spokeshave to perform rounding tasks for things such as chair rails, rungs and legs. The reality set in that no one really needed the humble spokeshave in their work. The knowledge of working them by hand then working with spokeshaves too was mostly lost as ‘progress‘ passed the 1960s. In terms of percentages, the reduced use and need of spokeshaves in woodworking began when mass made chairs from woodland setting were transferred to manufacturing factories and then ultimately other countries on other continents. Eastern Europe, especially Romania, took on the mantle of being exporters of chairs to around the world. In the USA you could visit a raw furniture outlet and pick up a well-made Windsor for $50 a chair. Pint, stain or still in the white, most of us couldn’t buy the wood for that.

A combination of turnery with spokeshaved work

Of course they were not hand made. A mass-made chair made from 20 or more spindles take less than a few minutes to make using modern equipment. Seats can be shaped for comfort in a single pass of rotary cuts and sanders refine the work for spraying in seconds. Assembly with dextrous hands and a soft-faced hammer completes the job. I doubt that such a chair takes more than five minutes to completely complete and man power may be as little as two of those minutes. They can be solid oak, beech or maple and no hand tool beyond the assembly hammer touched any part of the work. This is the reason for the chair maker’s demise. And don’t think for a minute that such chairs, mass made and sold for such a little amount are in any way inferior to a hand made version. Take a look first at restaurant chairs and ask yourself how come they last so well. Every angle and joint line is usually perfect. The machines are set up for a million cuts per day and checked for synchrony by computers every few hours or even minutes automatically.

My design here is completely hand work and much beyond the joinery is spokeshave only

When we begin. A spokeshave can of course simply be mis-set, be that by too much or too little. Any over-extension of the blade leads to catastrophic gouging and skudding and the resulting washboard surface is made worse stroke by stroke. It’s all to do with leverage. The more the blade is out, the greater the penetration into the wood and the more the hand tilts the spokeshave forward to misregister the sole to the wood. Tilted forward thus, the forepart of the sole balks at the work and the spokeshave skips and jumps over the surface like a newborn lamb with shark’s teeth. As with any miscalculation it’s best to go back up the sum until you pick up the point where the mistake occurred. Reworking from there is simpler. Until thirty years ago, tools like the spokeshave and drawknife of the chair bodging era were all but gone.

Spokeshaves can look like this yet in 50 years they may never have been sharpened beyond the manufacturers grinding angle even once.

Whereas my view of woodworking differs to that of others, my main perspectives are shaped from my using tools like spokeshaves in the day to day of my daily life. Many of you followed me split sticks to shape into spindles either with a spokeshave or on the lathe for the shaker bench we made. I’ve shaved and shaped coves and cambers as well as compound curves on everything from coracles to oak wagon bows at the basic level and then used very ordinary spokeshaves to resolve complex the range of shaping tasks I’ve encountered periodically throughout my life as a furniture maker and woodworker and indeed in woodturning too. To begin describing the range of complex intricacies would be futile. Begin with violin necks and move on to moulds for shaping moulds fo forming leather cases for leather boxes. Look too to inlay veneers and sections of intarsia where a knife and a spokeshave can do amazing work and eliminate the need for mechanical sanding altogether.

I made sure that all my sons mastered the spokeshave as a first tool and bought them a spokeshave as their first tool when they were 3 years old.

Because the craft as a craft was dead, the tools too became redundant. When that happens and a few decades pass, knowledge of the tools too die with the former users. In the late 80s something of a revival came to the bodger’s craft as many a man and woman took to the woods and copses to build a chair. Walking back from the woods at the end if a week’s chair making gave them a satisfaction because they’d made a free chair from sticks and stems harvested during the week. There is of course something primordially written into our DNA to take the raw and transpose it into something as functional as a chair. What I speak of is not so much skilfully made by a master maker so much as the first steps for someone trying to discover a new outlet in a desire to understand how something can be taken and made from the raw. So too is true of the spoon maker, trap and cage maker, basket weaver and hurdle maker. When your job is working in a suit in an office or retail store it’s a rewarding thing to dress down and weave willow from a riverside into a functioning basket. Equally so a chair from woodland and a spoon from a stem of hazel. It’s in all us to make. Let’s not deny it!

Green wood or dry, wooden spokeshaves excel in shaping and shaving

Yes, it works well on greenwood stems for stools As I have shown with most hand tools commonly held in low esteem over the years, this has been mostly because of ignorance. The internet and videography was the game changer men of my age shunned as a teaching medium because they couldn’t adapt quickly enough. In my youth men passed on their skills to half a dozen others one on one at the bench. It was indeed a word of mouth training where a man shared and another listened. Skill was passed on and each of those men would have passed on their knowledge had it not been in the demise era of craftsmanship when trades like woodworking, dozens of trades of different types, became surplus to modern world demands. Whereas wheelwrights and coopers, trades such as that are indeed done and past as far as supplying modern day requirements, other craft trades such as the cabinet maker, carpenter and joiner also faced progressive redundancy too. Carpentry, joinery and cabinet making today are mostly assembly tasks. Doors come pre-hung and cabinets in cardboard boxes. I learned three decades past that when others underestimated the amateur woodworker as an emerging phenomenon far more powerful than in trade realms. The trades died with each generation trying against all odds to somehow turn the tide but yet ill-equipped because those verbal links of passing on skills were no longer. Why do I say that? Well, it’s to do with talking and listening to professionals – lecturers from colleges, teachers in schools and then men working in the trades of carpentry, joinery and furniture making.

17 Comments

  1. Conrad on 22 March 2019 at 7:49 pm

    Beautifully said Paul. You stir so many emotions in so many of us. I humbly follow your teachings and quietly find peace and purpose in making furniture for my home and my family. And it all thanks to you and your vision which resonates for so many..

  2. Mario Fusaro on 22 March 2019 at 9:30 pm

    I found 2 Stanley spokeshaves 20 years ago. A flat bottom and a curved bottom. Never could figure out how to get them to work but I didn’t sell them. A few years ago, I watched your video on spokeshaves, how to use them and sharpen them. Now I use them regularly although I use the flat one most. It’s almost therapeutic using them! I recently made sign posts for my daughter’s upcoming wedding. My future son-in-law watched as I made a point on 4 posts so they can be driven into the ground. It took about 15 minutes and he was amazed at how easy it was.

  3. John Ferrier on 23 March 2019 at 12:57 am

    Enjoyed this, and I thank you for your enlightening views on most everything wood. I have several commercial shaves, flat and concave irons, flat and rounded bottoms, and even an old Stanley # 60 with dual blades. I have also made a few shaves, using buy-out blades, bevels up, and bevels down, pull or push. There is a bit of technique to learn that will get the best results, and a few tricks for the more accomplished user. When sharpened and properly adjusted I can trim hardwood end grain and other detail with authority and confidence.

  4. Phill on 23 March 2019 at 1:32 am

    thanks for the vocabulary lesson – love learning new words. From the Music Man: “cash for the noggins and the piggins and the frikins. Cash for the hogshead, cask and demijohn.” — all words describing lost crafts.

    A Stanley 151 spokeshave came to me with a weld-repaired sole. I thought it was toast, but it turns out to be the one I reach for first. The guy who repaired it must’ve known it was special.

    Bodger bodger bodger — making chair legs with an axe and a draw knife and a spokeshave on an improvised shaving horse – at home in the forest. Imagine.

    • Adam on 26 March 2019 at 2:43 am

      Me too. Bodger, coracle and intarsia! Never heard of any of them (had to Google each one). Now I know 🙂

  5. Mike R. on 23 March 2019 at 12:18 pm

    I used to use my spoke shave more when I had fewer hand tools. As I have amassed a larger collection of tools over the years, i find that I have used my spokeshaves less. This has been my loss. Thanks for inspiring me to use this old friend more in the future, and keep it closer at hand. Thanks

  6. nemo on 23 March 2019 at 3:06 pm

    Was restoring a ballpeen hammer about an hour ago, it had a lot of rust and incorrectly installed handle. As I was whittling away with chisel and rasp to make the handle fit and my mind was wandering to your blog, it suddenly occurred to me – SPOKESHAVE! Slapped myself on the forehead for not thinking of the spokeshave before. Grabbed the #51 and suddenly the work went much smoother.

    First time using a spokeshave ‘in anger’. My brain simply hadn’t made the connection between the task at hand and the correct tool that was hanging within arm’s reach. Embellished the handle a bit, made it a bit more slender and elegant like my other ballpeen hammer. After that wanted to finish it up with the card scraper, noticed it was dull, sharpened it and to my own surprise, it worked right away. Was pretty pleased with myself. Some days things just go right.

    Next time I have to fit a tool handle I’m sure that my mind will make the connection with the spokeshave.

    • Paul Sellers on 23 March 2019 at 3:56 pm

      That’s funny, nemo, it’s the first tool I’d reach for! Sorry to rub salt in the wound!

  7. Joe on 24 March 2019 at 6:08 am

    Thanks Paul. You will be happy to know that my 7 year old loves to use the spoke shave. I give her off cute or some scrap 1x2s and she will happily spoke shave away.

    I set the depth. You were spot on about the skudding. I had this problem and couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I saw you use it so well and here I was struggling. Eventually I set the depth just a little shallower and the problem disappeared. I was very excited at that moment. I had finally cracked the code as it were.

  8. collin Gallagher on 24 March 2019 at 3:28 pm

    Is there much difference in the cut produced by the bevel down metal spoke shave vs the bevel up wooden?

    • Paul Sellers on 24 March 2019 at 5:25 pm

      Yes, there really is. it’s totally different experience and both have their place.

  9. James Fidler on 25 March 2019 at 11:21 am

    I only have the one spokeshave at this time. A Stanley #51. The first time I sharpened it and learned how to set it up I wondered how I ever worked without it!

    In the last couple of years I have discovered the joy of making my own tools. Thanks in part to your video on making a plane. A spokeshave or two are now on my short list to make.

  10. Jerry Arkema on 25 March 2019 at 4:32 pm

    Some how I missed the lathe for a shaker workbench. Is this available some where?

  11. Jeffrey Murray on 25 March 2019 at 5:30 pm

    My daughter got me a spokeshave kit a couple of years ago. It came with all of the hardware and I only had to provide the wood for the body. Once completed, I watched your video on how to set-up and use a spokeshave and it made it work perfectly. I have since dusted off my Stanley 51 and made it a user also. They both have become my go to tools for shaping.

  12. Robert Brunston on 26 March 2019 at 8:41 pm

    I first learned of spike shaves from you Paul and I have found them to be quite useful as I used to do the same job with a router. Without all the noise and dust and mess all over I an much happier and I find the spike shave quite fun to use. Thank you Paul.

  13. Paul Borden on 27 March 2019 at 1:39 am

    Thank you Paul. I took to greenwood working after reading John Alexander’s MAKE A CHAIR FROM A TREE: An Introduction to Greenwood Working in 1979. My first tools were a draw knife from my grandfather and a Stanley 151 spokeshave from my father. I have since replaced the draw knife, but the 151 along with two wooden spokeshaves are my go to tools for chair making and spoon carving.

  14. Mike Z. on 10 April 2019 at 11:42 pm

    Of all the tools I have learned to use over the last several years working the Paul Sellers method of hand tool woodworking, the two that have really changed my mind were the coping saw and the humble 151 style spokeshave. I have both now, as recommended by Mr. Sellers and both being modern, more quality brands than the older cheapies made in the US 50 or more years ago, they were an absolute revelation! I had both tools in the past but their quality was so poor they could only pass for TSO’s or rather Tool Shaped Objects – though they looked like tools, they were not! I recently noticed that the 151’s being sold here in the US are no longer manufactured in Mexico but now made in China, the quality is much better than they were the last 10 years at the very least. How long this may be is anybodies guess but they do seem to be an improvement. I have been learning how to carve and shape wood better with hand tools, these tasks are all much easier with a few of the basic quality tools, including a few files and rasps too. I save a fortune on sandpaper now and my work has improved incredibly thanks to Mr. Sellers and his methods!! Thanks so much for to Paul and his crew, you have no idea just how much you have changed my life for the better, and not just in woodworking areas either, so keep up the great work and I am still buying as many tools used as possible and bringing them back to life to be used for another decade or five at the very least.

Leave a Comment