Spokeshaves – Rounding, Coving and Curving Versatility!

The Q&As on spokeshaves

Tell me this. Which spokeshave should someone buy and is one spokeshave better than another?” Another, “Should I buy a round-bottomed one for concave work and a flat-bottomed one for convex?” And, “How would I know which way to put the blade in, bevel up or bevel down?” “Is there a difference between wooden and metal spokeshaves – can’t they perform the same tasks?” At first it may seem confusing: it’s not.

Add to this 90 plus more questions that people recently sent after we asked for any questions about spokeshaves and you start to see the kind of confusion that exists for anyone new to woodworking. Often questioners overlapped with the same or like-kind questions that I was able to help answer from my using and relying on them through the decades. It is easy to understand why people think that these are useless tools when in reality they are as reliable as any of the common woodworking hand tools we rely on.

You can buy brand new but unused old stock or a mix of parts to build your own from. All the ones above gave me one new one from the 1970s and from the other three I got two good ones and a spare body.

It’s extremely rare that new or secondhand spokeshaves arrive suitably sharp and in good shape; except perhaps for premium versions which you are paying for them to arrive sharp and well adjusted too, usually. This also follows the same pattern as planes and saws where after being abused and beaten to death on knots, nails and stones embedded in the underside edge of the bottom rails of doors they were left worn out, broken and unusable. Mostly this is because the owners would have no knowledge that they even needed sharpening or could be. By way of neglect and abuse it cannot get worse, but take heart, even those in very bad condition can almost always be restored and with only minimal effort at that.

I did feel as the filming went on that my love and appreciation for spokeshaves came through quite loudly. I love all of them of course, but I love them equally and although the round bottomed version is often somewhat over estimated in use for some inside curved work, it can be essential for tight concaves. Truth is that you can work any concave of a radius greater than say 4-6″ with a flat bottomed spokeshave. The round-bottomed works better on tight concaves and that is understandable when you understand the physical limitations, but the wooden round bottomed ones are the best for really tight curves for crafts like instrument making.

Metal or wood, both can be good so we will take a look.

A radical shift took place when the craftsman-made wooden-bodied tools acquiesced to the industrialism of metal casting. The wooden bodied spokeshave’s profile comprised a blade that formed the rear half of the sole, where the blade itself forms the actual sole at the back and the forepart is the wooden spokeshave body itself. The art of tilting the blade to engage the cutting edge to the wood soon becomes naturally intuitive. The round bottomed version in wood follows the same method of making but is distinguished by a change in profile at the forepart of the spokeshave where it has a bull-nosed fore-edge that enables the blade, which as mentioned also forms the sole, engages the leading edge of the cutting iron with the wood and thus shortens the sole. Both of these wooden bodied spokeshave types are indeed bevel-up spokeshaves. Engaging the cutting edge in the surface of the wood is according to tilt or the pitch you offer the spokeshave to the surface of the wood at. This tilt can also be used to adjust the depth of cut and thereby the fineness of the shavings. The wooden spokeshave is virtually frictionless and works especially well working along the grain.

But it’s not so much because one spokeshave is better than another or indeed any other, more because one type can often tackle a problem area better than another. some woodworkers working in a particular field of woodworking will indeed extol the virtue of the wooden one over the w=metal one but may not know that the metal one will work better in some circumstances than the wooden ones. This is often because, as with most green woodworkers, they have no experience with pattern making or furniture making in its broader spectrum of cabinetmaking and such. Some spokeshaves are limited performers, but they will often do better on certain wood types or with different grain configurations. I have almost given up on some area thinking abrasive might be the only way for me to go but then thought of a particular spokeshave, tried it and found it performed like  star player. It is also good to remember that the card scraper can refine areas that seem impossible with any other tool. Remember too that for particularly wild grain you can use the poor man’s York pitch which is to put a minute 10-15-degree bevel on the flat face of the cutting iron. This copes perfectly with say curly maple or grain with chatoyancy.

Getting what you pay for

Of course you will find so-called premium spokeshaves or even designer shaves developed for aesthetic appearance more than performance and not just function. Nothing wrong with buying those because often they work straight out of the packet. Some have thicker irons, tight throat openings, such like that. In my case I have ended up opening up the throat openings with a flat file because in most cases tight throats lead to greater risk of clogged shavings in the throat. Are premium spokeshaves worth the extra? I think that it depends on the extra. It’s not just cost, it can be extra weight, extra length and result in extra awkwardness. Is it specialised for a particular task, chair making for instance? It may be, but remember a 151 flat-soled will tackle the same work and if you have spent a little time fettling it it will almost always be a supreme performer. As said, the important thing to realise is that when a spokeshave performs well on one wood, it might not give the same results on another. Often we fail to think about the wood type and the type of grain we tackle along the length of a stroke. Additionally, we have the nature of the work we are tackling to consider too. Profiling square and rectangular wood to round or curved is an influence on performance. Coving, complex curving and then compound coves and cambers. These are all possible with a simple flat bottomed spokeshave regardless of the maker.

Repurposing a spokeshave

My fix for both flat- and round-bottomed #151 type spokeshaves takes a few minutes with a file and abrasive paper. Either type can perform brilliantly while performing in both convex and concave applications. On the round bottomed I added a narrow flat to the forepart of the sole as shown here. This simply shortens the length of the already short sole. This flattened portion does not in any way reduce the ability of the shave in concaved planing work. But what’s great is it allows convex and straight shaving too. On the flat-bottomed you remove half of the forepart by filing or abrading and reshape the fore-edge to a slight bullnose. Do the same to the rear part. This effectively reduces the length of the sole, a width of about 1″ or so, down to 3/4″ overall (including the throat distance). Doing this is a game-changer!

17 Comments

  1. Paul on 9 May 2019 at 8:29 am

    Hi Paul,

    Such a simple thing to do, reshaping the sole as you suggest. I watched the video, enjoyed it, then immediately took a file to a spare 151 to make the modification you suggested.

    I like it! I must have spent an hour just ‘playing’ with it, proving that simple experimentation and observation can deliver pleasing results.

    Best wishes and thank you!

  2. David R on 9 May 2019 at 9:32 am

    Paul,

    can you do a similar thing by filing a flat bottomed one round at the heel and nose? I assume flat bottom spokeshaves may be the majority in the wild so that could be an option for some, if feasible.

    – David

    • Steve on 9 May 2019 at 5:43 pm

      Hello David,

      In the very last 4 sentences he explains how to do this. I will be modifying my round bottom as well tonight.

      Cheers
      Steve

      • David R on 9 May 2019 at 10:08 pm

        Thanks, Steve, for pointing this out. I must have misread this to only refer to the round bottomed one.

        – David

        • Steve on 10 May 2019 at 12:30 am

          No problem. I had to read it a couple times, because they both now have a flat bottom and a curved part after modification, kind of confusing. Hopefulle I get time to try tonight. Good luck!

          • Gordon Jelley on 13 May 2019 at 7:29 pm

            Great insight as ever. Thank you



  3. Sylvain on 9 May 2019 at 9:37 am

    A few subtle differences between a workable spokeshave and a crapola spokeshave (Sylverl…) one are:

    1) a slightly conical hole for the set screw in the cap iron, combined with a “oval or raised head (US)/ raised countersunk head (UK)” set screw (the one to adjust with a screw driver not the knurled one).

    This prevent the cap iron loosening while retracting the blade.
    To circumvent this default on mine which had a flat head screw, I have made a recess in the cap iron for the flat-head set screw. (It is better done with a drill press and its vise.)

    2) Reduced play between the knurled adjuster and the corresponding threaded rods and/or some friction between the adjusters and the blade.

    This to prevent Knurled adjuster to rotate by their own.
    I have put some heat-shrinkable sheath (sold for electric/electronics usage) on the adjuster barrel which provide some friction between the blade and the barrel of the knurled adjusters.

    This with more classical fettling and sharpening made my spokeshave workable.

  4. Paul Gargaro on 9 May 2019 at 3:22 pm

    Can anyone tell me the difference between a Stanley 151 and 951 spokeshave?
    I’m looking to purchase my first spokeshave. Should I buy off the shelf or somehow find a used one. The off the shelf Stanleys seem to cost a bit less.
    Old Novice
    Paolo

  5. Ed on 10 May 2019 at 12:08 pm

    I have a shave that is a good example of working in some cases, but not others. It is a low angle, bevel up shave. It is excellent in end grain and many times has enabled such work that was impossible otherwise, but if you use it in long grain, it plucks up or digs in and you’d be better off with a sharp axe. It’s worse than that, actually, because it takes nice shavings in long grain until it doesn’t, at which point it rips out a hunk and makes you scream. Restrict it to where it works, though, and it is a wonderful tool.

  6. Steve on 10 May 2019 at 3:39 pm

    Ok, so I filed down my round bottom record 151, then ran it over some 400 paper on some granite. Its only maybe 1/2” of flat. GAMECHANGER! Previously I kind of felt like the circus guy on a unicycle riding on a tightrope, constantly asjusting. Now this flat area gives me a reference to keep to. Genius!!! Thanks so much.

  7. Joe on 10 May 2019 at 5:05 pm

    Thanks Paul. My dad lives 45 minutes away from me. I am two projects away from starting the vernacular tool chest you filmed several years ago so I can bring a set of my tools (so I know they are fettled and nice and sharp) to make some items my dad wants/needs for his home. The tip above will let me have one spoke-shave that does it all.

    Actually, I’m pretty excited about having this portable tool kit. Instead of my dad and I sitting around watching woodworking videos, we can actually be woodworking. I can now show off my 3 years of hand tool woodworking. Normally he only gets to see the finished product I’ve made. Also, I just love working in the basement woodshop that was first my grandfathers and then his. I have fond fond memories of being a little boy and hanging out with my grandfather in the late 60s/early 70s and watching grandpa work.

    PS
    You would love the basement. Starting in the 1930s by grandfather and then my dad, they were hobby woodworkers and bought many many tools of that era and earlier. They ended up becoming a bit more of collectors in the process (buying more tools than they needed). As such, there are a half dozen Stanley and other brand No 4s from the 20s-40s still in their original boxes. Some unused. Many other tools. It’s a nice time-capsule. I like working in that basement.

  8. Keith on 12 May 2019 at 7:55 am

    Nearly bought another stanley yesterday to experiment with changing its profile. Only £3. But decided that as I already had 2, I would resist. There were several on offer for £3, but most didn’t have adjuster screws. Also a good selection of metal ones, their soles had little wear.

  9. Sam F on 14 May 2019 at 6:59 pm

    Paul, you’ve mentioned giving spokeshaves to children as their first tool, and teaching classes to children.

    I have a 5-year-old, and love the idea of starting her on this path (which I have just discovered).

    Would you have any interest in doing a video or writing a post on some of the ways you have taught children to use tools and make things? As an educator myself, I would love to see your insights.

  10. Jeff Murray on 16 May 2019 at 10:13 pm

    My Stanley #151 has been collecting dust until just now. A 5 minute tune-up is all it took to make it a user. Thanks for the tips.

  11. Xaviour on 21 May 2019 at 7:47 am

    These are cool insights on pokeshaves for rookies like us. Will make a point of visiting this blog as I stock my workshop

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