For most greenwood workers a shavehorse is at the centre of their workshop. An ingeniously simple yet effective device for holding work it is used along with a drawknife to shave chair parts, blanks for the lathe, rake heads and any number of other items. With a little modification it can be used for besom broom, carving bowls and anything else that needs to be held securely while you work.
Its beauty is in its simplicity; William Coperthwaite in ‘A Handmade Life’ says it “can easily be made at home, by a novice, and will work the first time it’s used.” For anyone aspiring to work with green wood, a shavehorse is an ideal first project; your design can be as complicated or simple as your skills, tools, time and materials permit. The building process will include turning spindles for the swingle tree, drilling holes at compound angles and shaving the legs to fit, cleaving and axework are the foundation of working with greenwood and make it an apprenticeship in one item.
So it was disappointing that at the Bodger’s Ball a new design of shavehorse was unveiled which for me has little to do with greenwood working , bypasses this skill learning process and has none of the aesthetics or individuality of its predecessors. Made from lengths of 4×2 of tanalised softwood fastened together with coach screws it seems to jar with the whole ethos of working local unseasoned wood with traditional methods. It is also so ugly that I couldn’t bring myself to take a photo, instead I’ve included pictures of handmade shavehorse from around the web to show their diversity and to provide all the inspiration and plans you need to build one. Everyone’s horse is unique, a reflection of their needs and personality from the strictly utilitarian to those lavishly decorated with seats worthy of a Windsor chair.
The idea behind this new design is “to design a shaving horse that could be made using tools and materials that can be easily obtained in the modern world.” Perhaps this is intended to make it more accessible for those used to working with square timbers who are daunted by the prospect of cleaving components from a round log or who are unsure where to obtain the materials. However, to then go on and propose those same people then make a chair is questionable. Not only is their first foray into the craft now a much more complicated, high-value project but also requires a higher specification of timber. If you can’t find short lengths of wood of whatever species to construct your shavehorse, where will you acquire clean straight lengths of ash for the chair?
Quite apart from that I feel this removes some of the beauty of what it is to be a greenwood worker. We are almost unique in being able to walk into the woods with a simple bag of tools and then make the workshop in situ starting from mallets and wedges for splitting the timbers, through to shavehorses and pole lathes. Afterwards it can be dismantled and left to rot peacefully back into the undergrowth.
Of course, starting a new craft is always daunting and many people will see it as a chicken and egg scenario where you need a shavehorse in order to build one. There is some truth in that, though you can very easily do without. If you need the help then please, go on a workshop where you have the tools and instruction to get you on your way. You’ll have a lot of fun, learn a lot and go away with an incredibly useful device that you can be proud of. And not a coach screw in sight.