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.
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.
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!