Why Do We Use Spokeshaves?

One of the tools people are surprised to see hanging in our workshops is the spokeshave. A very ancient tool, they were originally made in wood as wheelwrights’ tools, for shaping the “spokes” of a cartwheel. Similarly, they were commonly used by the Windsor chair makers of the 18th and 19th centuries for shaping stretchers and splats, while the spindles were turned on a lathe. The  early design consisted of a metal blade with a pair of tangs to which the wooden handles were attached, as with a drawknife.

These early wooden spokeshaves are delightful tools – the finer ones are usually made of boxwood, and all have their place in a cabinetmakers armoury … but for restorers? We’re not often shaping out new stretchers or splats, or quickly getting rid of lots of “waste” wood. But what we are doing is cleaning down small sections of fine cabinet timber where pieces have gone missing – say a section of Rosewood crossbanding, or a “finger” repair we have carefully laid into a mahogany top. The replacement piece is glued in oversize so that it can be cleaned down to the exact level of the surround WITHOUT touching the original patina. Not easy! Do you use a small block plane, which if very sharp will certainly flatten nicely … but won’t take account of the natural ripples in an old surface?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is the spokeshave. In the workshops here we use good quality old metal shaves made by Record [as with all woodworking tools we find the older they are the better made they are!]. The next point is that the blade has to be razor sharp, so that the tool can be worked carefully across the grain as well as with it … not easy to achieve. The blade is barely more than 2 inches long – how to hold that at the correct angle on the sharpening stone? The answer is this beechwood jig which I made over 35 years ago, and still use regularly – the blade slides in and is held securely while the edge is honed.

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