Some of you might be saying, “What the heck’s a spokeshave?” The simplest way to explain it is to say that a spokeshave is a woodworking tool kind of like a plane. If you’re in the “not sure I can see it in my mind’s eye” camp — did you ever use a plane in wood shop in school? Or know a woodworker in the family who used one? Don’t worry, links follow and you can see what they look like for yourself. Wikipedia, of course, has an entry for it, though it’s not comprehensive: spokeshave It’s a fairly simple but fairly sophisticated way of holding a blade for accurately cutting wood.
There are basically four “flavours” of spokeshaves: flat, round, convex and concave. The flat and the round both have the same blade. If you picture holding a spokeshave by its two handles, the flat shave is, well, flat on the bottom (the sole). The sole of the round spokeshave is curved on the same axis as the handles. A convex shave has a rounded tip on the blade, while a concave shave not only has a circular “notch” out of the sole, but the blade also has a circular sharpened notch. All four of them are used for taking controlled, accurate cuts in wood. Flat shaves can work both flat and rounded forms (like an axe handle or a canoe paddle). Round shaves are often used to hollow out flat surfaces, like chair seats. Convex shaves hollow out more aggressively than round shaves (like the bottom of a wooden mixing bowl). Concave shaves make working small-radius round wood easier, but their blade shape makes them harder to sharpen. That’s the Reader’s Digest explanation.
I got interested in spokeshaves because I’ve been learning a lot about axes lately. You’re probably thinking, “Axe, right? Blade on a stick. Hew your way through the wilderness with it.” I guess that’s about the least accurate definition that still sort of applies. Yeah, for a long time that was how I looked at them. Let’s leave it at that. The fact is that an axe, like a scythe, a saw, a shovel, a hoe, or any tool designed to be powered by a human has both its concrete and abstract components. I’m going to deal with the concrete components here and save the abstract for later. Essentially, axes have to be sharp, and the handles have to be sized to fit the user. You can imagine what happens with a dull axe or any cutting tool. But a sharp blade ain’t much good if you can’t put it where you want it, accurately, with enough force to do what needs to be done — and without causing yourself needless overwork or raising lots of blisters. So it’s important to know how to do two things: take a store-bought axe handle and make it fit your hands; and make your own handles starting with a chunk of wood. (OK, not just any wood. If you’re looking for some reading about handle making and tuning, look on the Axe Connected Blog here. )
I’ll put more up about making handles later. For now, I’m dealing with a tool I’ve found to be very useful for tuning up a store-bought handle. You can use a hatchet (or a kukri like Peter Vido does) to notch and chop off the extra wood on the handle you buy. You can use a drawknife, too, or a set of woodworking rasps which is probably the slowest way to get the job done. You could use power equipment. One of those abstract concepts is that I like being the power source. It’s a lot quieter, I run on renewable energy, and I don’t need a gym membership. I like using a spokeshave. I can set the blade to take off a nice healthy shaving, or a gossamer-thin curl of wood that leaves behind a smooth surface that doesn’t even need sanding. On a lacquered handle, I can just skim off the lacquer layer if that’s what I want to do.
I’ve been buying some Link-Seymour handles lately. They’re made in the US and they’re usually fair quality hickory. I don’t think anybody’s making really good handles anymore. There are some better than others, though. Link, House, and a few others seem to be the pick of the litter. (And when you see the crap some companies put out for axe handles you’ll understand that when I say “litter” I ain’t talking about puppies.) My operating assumption is that any handle is going to need work to make it feel good in my hands. That means, of course, that my axe may not fit your hands, any more than any of my tools might fit your hands. That’s right on the borderline between concrete and abstract, so let’s just accept it and move on. For now, understand that the more you use any tool, the more you’ll get a feel for what’s “right” for you. You’ll play with it, you’ll mess it up and fix it, and eventually you’ll be able to set it up by feel to do the most efficient work you can do with it.
Always have to put a foundation under these discussions, don’t we? Now we’re into the meat of it! After thinking over the available choices in “flavour” of spokeshave, I decided that the flat shave was probably the most useful to me. I don’t need all the kinds, at the moment anyway. I guess if I ever want them I’ll find a way to get them. So the first thing I did was head out to a local tool store and buy the only spokeshave they had in stock. I’m not even going to name the store. They mean well, but they also make a lot of money selling power equipment that a lot of woodworkers buy. Nothing against power equipment, but my wants are complex and I want good hand tools. This shop offers some hand tools for those as use them, but it’s not their main line. But they’re local and I can see it and hold it before I buy it.
I was not reassured when I discovered that the blade in my new shave was upside down. Spokeshave blades are used “bevel down” and this was flipped over. Easy to fix. Then I looked at the gnarly grind marks on the blade and decided to flatten it on a sharpening stone. This is called “lapping” and the idea is to flatten the blade so it makes solid contact with the body of the shave. This prevents “chattering” or at least minimizes it. That was when I discovered the blade was bloody near U-shaped, according to the stone. But I persevered and got ‘er flat. Then I had to file the blade bed, and started to lap the cap iron that clamps the blade down to the bed. You can’t do much with pressed steel.
I actually used the darn thing, after putting all that work into it. It worked, but not very well. So that sucker got donated to the local Re-Store and I’m sure somebody who thought they were getting a hell of a deal on a spokeshave has thrown it into the weeds behind their shop. The only two good things I can say about it are: I didn’t pay much for it; and it taught me what to look for in a better-quality spokeshave.
About this time I decided to see what Lee Valley had on offer. Their spokeshaves are here. Lee Valley’s house brand is Veritas, and they’re made in Canada to a very high standard. Reading around on some of the woodworking blogs informed me that the Veritas was pretty well regarded in the craft world. Some people like a different design, such as the Boggs bronze shaves at Lie-Nielsen. The main difference is that the Veritas uses two thumbwheels to adjust the depth of cut, while the Boggs is adjusted by tapping on the blade with a light hammer (called a “plane hammer” because it’s also used to adjust plane blades). Personally, made in Canada and screw adjustable are big draws. I guess I spent enough time with lathes that adjusting something with a screw just seems more accurate than smacking it with a hammer. “Your mileage may vary” as they say.
My wife and I are both terrible mind-readers when it comes to gifts. Our way of dealing with that is to simply ask, “What would you like for Occasion X?” Oh, sure — we also find little things and pick them up as go-withs, but neither one of us wants to spend a lot of money on something that won’t get used. So when Penny asked what I wanted for the Winter Solstice, I pointed her at that Veritas flat spokeshave. I also suggested that she get me one with the A2 steel blade, and order a spare blade in PM-V11 steel for it. Bing, bang, boom; done and done. And that’s pretty much it for Spokeshave #3 for right now.
“Three? What the heck happened to #2?” Aha — can’t fool you, can I? On my way home from donating Spokeshave #1 to the Re-Store, I stopped off at Windsor Plywood just to see what they might have, now that I had a better idea of what was good and not. They’re more oriented toward the woodworker than just being a tool store. I should know by now that they’re a good go-to for decent quality stuff, but sometimes I forget and try somewhere else first. Lo and behold they had the classic Stanley #151 flat spokeshave. Stanley’s quality has suffered a lot from the days when they were your grandad’s top-drawer tool. (Or maybe the fine-tools market has gotten more high-toned. Probably some of both.)
At least I’d seen some blog posts here and there showing how to tune up a Stanley shave, and it is still a lot better made than the bargain bin model I bought first. The Stanley was about $20 so still not a budget-buster. In addition, I remembered having seen an A2 replacement blade made by Veritas to fit the Stanley shave. The order this is in ought to tell you that I knew I had the Veritas shave on the way, but I bought the Stanley anyway to play with it and tune it up. I occasionally get asked to loan a tool, or I take a tool into a rough dirty spot. Having two shaves, a good one and an OK one, frees me from the anxiety of losing a $100 shave out in the ginseng somewhere.
“Tuning up” the Stanley involved buying the Veritas A2 replacement blade, then lapping the part of the cap iron that clamps down on the blade. I scraped off some paint that was in the way, and that was basically it — but now I know that shave will do what I want.
Solstice morning I opened up that Veritas and scampered out to the shop to start working down a handle for a nice Sager double-bit head I picked up a couple of months ago. The nice thing about the blade on the Veritas is they’ve not only honed the bevel, but they’ve honed an extra micro-bevel on the edge for clean cutting and easier resharpening. The grain isn’t perfect on this handle, but the Veritas shave — set to take a fairly thin shaving — didn’t tear out too much when the grain changed along the length of the handle. You can push or pull a spokeshave, so just changing the direction of cut changed bad grain to good grain.
So I’ll close with a brief on just what, in my carefully considered opinion, makes a nice axe handle. For a single-bit or a hatchet, I like the handle to be thinned out side-to-side. If I hold the axe with the edge resting on the workbench and the handle sticking out horizontally, then the axe poll is “top,” the edge is “bottom.” Most handles are OK for my hands top-to-bottom, but ‘way too thick side-to-side. The bulk of that thinning can be done with a spokeshave, which I prefer to a drawknife. I thin handles down to between 3/4 and 7/8 inch. If you look at old handles, they were made that thin back in the days when people knew how to use axes, kept the blades sharp and took care of them. I also take out the swelling at the end of the handle. It’s supposed to give you a strong grip on the handle to keep the axe from flying out of your hands. I find it hard to grip accurately, so I thin it away and then cut a “hook” in the bottom of the handle right at the end. I believe the hook is more secure than the swelling. I’ve seen old axes with handles shaped that way, and to me it makes sense.
For a double bit, again I thin out the handle to 3/4 inch or so. Because the axe can be used two ways, though, I can’t hook the handle the way I do with a single bit. What I usually do is to take a rat-tail rasp and cut a groove all around the end of the handle, down to the thickness that remains once the swelling is shaved out. Then I shape the knob at the end of the handle kind of like the knob on a baseball bat (which is there for the same reason), and shave out the rest of the wood above the knob. I also thin out the prominent “shoulders” just under the axe head, which helps to balance the axe and makes the handle very comfortable to hold.
This isn’t the best picture of an axe because it was on a dark and snowy day when we had about four hours of good light, but you can see the shape of the handle:
That head, by the way, is a no-name I bought last summer in a junk shop. It’s very good steel and holds a good edge even when chopping frozen Douglas-fir:
I suspect the head is Swedish because it’s very thin. In any event, you can see I actually use the axes once I get them tuned up! That’s all for now — I’m going back out to the living room to enjoy looking at the top 4 feet of that tree, which has lights and beautiful decorations hung all over it.