Why Spatulas and Three-legged Stools?

A spatula is a first project with shape. It’s an escape from straight lines and the guarantees of the machine so many machinists rely on. Whereas you could jump through the hoops to create jigs or just use a bandsaw for the bulk of the work, the experience you gain from coping cuts, sawing, chopping, shaving, rasping, filing and much more. It’s immeasurable.

I remember each of my boys learning to use the spokeshave even as young as three years old. The patience, the care, the enthusiastic approach to their early woodworking. It was the same with my grandsons too. Soon I may well have a first experience with my granddaughter. Who knows. I am teaching her to say spokeshave. The importance of the spokeshave has been ever more lost to the modern world of CNC routed stuff. Knowledge to program a computer can never translate into hand skill so with the work I am doing online we are restoring the spokeshave to its rightful position in the hierarchy of hand tools. It is one of the single most important woodworking tools we have and especially is this so in the shaping of wooden objects.

I remember when I was teaching children buy the dozen how significant this tool was to train children. Pardon the pun but it is one of the few hand tools they can handle at an early age. To see shavings rise through the throat with your eyes and nose fixed just inches away from the dynamism is incalculable. It’s a safe (with supervision) tool to use, with both hands on the handles, and it quickly gets results – it is a most inspiring tool. But it was the project that was most important. Of course it is not just the spokeshave we use on a spatula. The coping saw shapes too, and the chisel and tenon saw, the rasp and the file all shape wood alongside it too. Put all of these tools work together with shaping tools and you can shape the neck of a violin and a guitar after you learn to make a spatula. Did you know that? You can shape the hull of a kayak and canoe, the arches for aprons to tables, the legs of chairs and spindles and spokes for a wide range of other pieces. The spatula is the vehicle for early learning shaping with spokeshaves. Don’t underestimate its value in learning about grain direction too.

The problem today is not enough people know about it’s true value through the using of it. My involvement with teaching and training children, teenagers and young adults tells me just how significant this tool truly is. When others dismiss it to use their power router, they might also be dismissing having their children with them in the shop. I am not saying you can’t do both, just that it sends a mixed message if children are there. They will see the router as the more advanced and progressive method and not realise that it is the less skilled and most limited way. I think only one of my children ever saw me use a power router for a period. I am so glad I stopped.

25 Comments

  1. Tom Angle on 5 May 2019 at 7:35 pm

    I first used a spokes have in your class to make a spatula. At the time I did not know how nice it was to use spoke shave. Then there is the joy and relaxation of making a spatula and spoons. I find it relaxing because there are not may mistakes that cannot be over come. A mistakes just makes a smaller or different shaped one. The biggest thing I found gained from making the spatula was the learning grain direction. Thanks for the introduction to that tool. Most woodworkers never mention it.

    • Paul Sellers on 5 May 2019 at 8:35 pm

      I often wonder to myself how I could live without one. Other woodworkers I know, professionals I’m afraid, wonder what they would do with one. `some never used one in their lives.

      • Martha Downs on 5 May 2019 at 9:47 pm

        My work was based on machines for easily the first half of my career. I’m of that (US) generation that was taught this was the way to earn a living. What the concept meant to me, that I cold become more connected to the work I designed and produced as I learned my way around handtools, that’s really thanks to spokeshaves. Everything has changed for me with this tool.

  2. Phill on 5 May 2019 at 10:41 pm

    the 151 I use most of the time, was handed down to me by someone who thought enough of it to weld it back together when it somehow broke in two. The sole was re-ground to make the weld unnoticeable, but I see the repair and it makes me appreciate how valuable this little tool was to my predecessor (and is to me). I have other spokeshaves, but this one is my daily driver.

  3. Steve on 6 May 2019 at 5:45 am

    I’m afraid I’m somewhat backward. You see I started on Common Woodworking, but was taking a trip recently where my nephew really needed a serving tray. So I skipped ahead to the serving tray in Woodworking Masterclasses in order to get this done in time. (My goal is to still go back and make the spoon and spatula) I had to learn to sharpen and set my spokeshave, and actually had to buy a new rasp. I was kind of shocked at how it turned out. I was proud tellmy family that it was made completely with hand tools. I used to go to antique stores and look at 200 year old furniture wondering how they made curves and fancy edge work etc, before electricity and power tools. Its fun not only knowing how they did it, but being able to use the same methods that give it more character and depth.

  4. Borys on 6 May 2019 at 11:09 am

    “I am teaching her to say spokeshave”
    Fantastic 🙂

    • Paul Sellers on 6 May 2019 at 1:32 pm

      I’m losing the battle for first words though. She said Dada last week for the first time. I think her mum has the advantage of being with her every day.

      • Adam on 7 May 2019 at 2:23 am

        I stayed home for 6 months with each of my sons when they were born after my wife returned to work when they were aged 6 months – so from about 6/7 months until shortly after their first birthdays.

        Their first words were “dada”. That was wonderful to me, a little hard for their mum, but she was fine with it.

        Although, when they woke up during the night, it was “dada” they called out to, so I guess that was her payback!

      • Steve on 7 May 2019 at 5:47 am

        Maybe she was saying “dado” and it just happened to sound like dada. Have to think positive Paul!

        • Gav on 7 May 2019 at 1:59 pm

          Well.. my sons first word was car. That was pretty funny for a whole range of reasons. Mostly the reaction of my wife. He made good shortly after with all the prerequisites.

      • Borys on 8 May 2019 at 11:04 am

        You may lost a battle but I’m quite sure that you will win “the war” and in couple years we will be watching you and her in the workshop 🙂

  5. Ronald R Kowalewski on 6 May 2019 at 11:52 am

    Thanks to you my first year carpentry students begin with a cheeseboard and finish with 15’ canoe.

  6. Nathan on 6 May 2019 at 12:41 pm

    My son of 7 has recently been joining me in the workshop, he looks at the tools laid out on the bench and picks up a chisel, “ah, not that one buddy”, I say, here try this instead and hand him a file. He would like to use tools that are just a little sharper but thus far I haven’t known what to make with him.The Spatula!!Yes of course.
    Paul do you think at 7 the spokeshave the coping saw the rasp a gents saw maybe is safe for him to use, supervised of course.?
    I always look forward to your blogs, always a great read.
    P.s the curve in the spatula looks similar to the heel of a guitar neck.

    • Paul Sellers on 6 May 2019 at 1:05 pm

      Yes, they are fine. It’s not really age related so much as cognisance of danger awareness. Some children see it early on some don’t. Parents (not usually teachers) are often the best judge of this but unfortunately parents often hand over responsibility to teachers of whom the parents usually have no knowledge of with regards to the teachers cognisance of dangers so set the limits far too rigidly to protect themselves and the children and so reduce risk because of their own risk aversion in the negative sense. That’s understandable because a career is at stake should things go wrong as is the life and wellbeing of a child. Even parents are becoming more vulnerable to the authorities as authorities demand evermore ownership of children when it suits.

      • Nathan on 7 May 2019 at 4:48 am

        Thanks for your reply Paul. Yes I don’t want him to feel restricted. He has a fair level of cognisance I’d say, doesn’t always see the dangers.
        He hasn’t shown much interest in the visual arts but has been visiting me more and more of late and has voiced his interest in making things from wood. I’d like for him to enjoy first. It means I must break habits that I have learned from young. Still it is shaping up to be a journey in working together and learning limits and possibilities.
        I hear you about authorities having more to with what goes on with your child and it’s why I want to encourage working with his hands and learning the skills required, for me working wood is a salvation and akin to a spiritual path which I also see as a right path, a true path.
        The spatula will be a Mums day gift.

    • Douglas on 6 May 2019 at 4:11 pm

      Nathan,
      I’ve introduced the spatula with 3 of my 5 children (the 2 little ones are 3 and 1). My 8 year old was able to complete the project (supervised of course) with all the tools needed aside from the chisel, which I held with him and let him use the chisel hammer on the stop cuts. Other than the chisel, he is able to use the rest of the tools himself i.e. spokeshave, rasps, coping saw. My 6 year old on the other hand needed most of the help with the coping saw and I did not introduce the chisel yet. He was fine with the spokeshave and rasps.
      Hope that helps.

      • Nathan on 7 May 2019 at 4:51 am

        Yes that helps a lot Douglas, thank you.
        Yes I agree I may see what his instincts are with the chisel first and then make a snap decision to keep or exclude.
        It’s pretty special having your children work with you in things.
        Take care and all the best. 👍🏻

  7. Jeff M on 6 May 2019 at 1:11 pm

    i love the way the simplicity and safety of these techniques spread so well into the new generation! my little girl (3) loves to watch me in the shop, and with the hand tools i have less fear for her safety or her ears. i’ll be saving up projects like these for when i think she’s starting to be ready for them.

    by the way-she actually asks to watch men making things-with your videos being top of the list!

  8. nemo on 6 May 2019 at 3:25 pm

    The spokeshave is a useful tool. The first time I really used mine (as opposed to playing with it) was fairly recently, fitting and shaping a hammer handle. The work went very smoothly, I had good results and it was enjoyable to work with. It’s a tool for real 3D work, as opposed to the usual 2.5D work.

    Teaching your granddaughter to say ‘spokeshave’…. naughty! You remind me of my Latin teacher (the best teacher I’ve ever had) who taught his small children to sing Latin Sinterklaas-songs (a bit similar to your Santa Claus) before they learned the traditional Dutch ones. We had a good laugh about that in class, I remember, as he was teaching us the same songs. Many years later I was in a supermarket waiting in line behind him at the cash register. When I quietly started singing ‘sonitus fit ungularum, dulciter tectum quaetit. Equus Sancti Nicolaii, pedetemptim procedit. Leviter episcopum, portat in faustigium, ‘ etc. etc., he knew an old student of his was nearby, turned around and we had a very nice chat. Good memories. Hopefully your granddaughter will remember one of her first words, ‘spokeshave’, fondly too.

    As someone else mentioned, my tools that have been repaired by a previous owner (a welded #3 Handyman plane, a #80 cabinet scraper and a transitional plane) are the ones I like the most; It speaks of a life of the tools before I became the owner. It showed a previous owner cared about that tool, enough to bother to repair it.

    • Bert on 6 May 2019 at 9:56 pm

      Ah yes, Sinterklaassongs in Latin, brings back a memory, but I can’t recall them, like you can! I used one of my secondhand bought spokeshaves last weekend and it did the job wonderful….I was surprised to see the edge of the blade wasn’t even that sharp (grindermarkings), thought I sharpened it before it got a nail for hanging near my bench… so next time is going to be even more joyful!

  9. Christopher on 6 May 2019 at 3:26 pm

    Have to tell you I was startled when you started on this campaign to bring back the humble spokeshave. They have fallen out of favour? My shop has never been without them and you brought joy when speaking about the children using them safely as both my kids and grandkids were started using them. (Guess I do somethings right after all!) As this note of appreciation for your knowledge and skills is sent comes the thought of the day, (hopefully soon) when my 2 year old great grandson might add his fingerprints to my fathers spokeshave as that, to me, will be the perfect tool to begin his knowledge of safe, satisfying woodwork. Thanks Mister Sellers and keep up the great work.

  10. Peter Gaffney on 6 May 2019 at 3:58 pm

    After reading your book and watching your videos I got a 151 and then got one for my son. The first time he sharpened it and engraved his name in it were special moments but the first time he used it and felt the effortless cut as he rounded over an edge were magical for him. He had a “mysteries of the universe revealed” look on his face. He asked everyday for two weeks after that if we could go into the garage and do more woodworking. Useful tool in more than shaping wood.

  11. Charlie Schmidt on 6 May 2019 at 5:09 pm

    Paul,
    The “invented spelling” stage in very young writers is wonderful too, when children reveal all of the underlying phonology of English speech sounds that are lost on adults who are not linguists.

    Am building your bookshelves as my first project after building a proper Roubo workbench. Thanks for the advanced knowledge and your teaching; I’m set for life good sir!

  12. Dan Janke on 6 May 2019 at 9:43 pm

    The spokeshave is one of my favorite tools. I first learned to use them at the Windsor Institute with Mike Dunbar. I have since learned to make my own shaves.

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