Last weekend a group of six of us went for a short course at the Coppicewood College in Cilgerran, Pembrokeshire. The course covered coppicing and greenwood craft. It was a fantastic experience, we all learnt so much and had a great time. A big thanks goes to Claire and David for such a well run course, they were incredibly knowledgeable and equally friendly! Over the course of the weekend we made two shavehorses for Global Gardens.
Shavehorses are historically documented at least as far back as 1556. They combine the functions of a vice and a workbench, freeing the hands for woodworking. The operator sits astride the shave-horse, enabling the feet to work the vice mechanism - consisting of a frame, pivoting on a pin usually running through the centrepiece of the shavehorse. The operator then uses a double handled blade (called a ‘drawknife’) to remove shavings from the wood forming the desired shape. A common use was for shaping pieces of wood ready for working with a lathe, although much finer work can also be achieved. The picture below shows the two shavehorses we made over the woodworking workshop weekend.
A herd of shavehorses?
We arrived at Coppicewood College for our first day of the course ready start at 1pm. Set in a beautiful woodland counting oak, willow and beach amongst the myriad species living there, the workshop and surrounding workspace nestled comfortably amongst the flora and fauna.
This session began with a tour of the woodland, winding our way past coppice-work at various stages and stacked wood drying. We learnt about the benefit of coppicing woodland which nurtures biodiversity and sustainable living. Of particular interest was learning that coppicing and tree species have evolved symbiotically.
Following the tour we were taught about the history and function of shavehorses, and in particular how we would be making ours. Brilliant!
This day closed after selecting a suitable log and then cutting, splitting and shaping them ready to become the legs of the shavehorses. Several hand tools and techniques were required for this.
The chosen one: the log that would become the legs
Using froes and beatalls (see below) we split sections of wood - six of these would be used to create the legs of the shavehorses - three for each one. The thinnest end of each leg we marked with a 1.5 inch ‘auger’ - which looks like a giant corkscrew for the world’s biggest bottle of wine - but is more like a large hand drill. This gave a guidline for how much to shave off the end of the leg so that it would fit in it’s corresponding hole in the main body. This type of joint is called a mortise and tenon - and dates back 7000 years!
(l-r): The leading edge of the froe is hammered into the end of the wood using the beatall;
Froes and beatalls used again to further divide the sections to become the legs.
The process of forming the connecting ends of the legs involved using existing shavehorses to secure the sections in place whilst we worked the wood with drawknifes. The poetic symmetry of using shavehorses to make shavehorses was not lost on us. More pragmatically, it gave us a very real and applied appreciation of what we were working towards. The legs were put aside to dry over the next two days before final assembly of the shavehorses.
(l-r) Initial shaping of the legs with hatchets; Using the shavehorse and drawknife to shape the connecting ends of the legs; The almost finished legs.
The first task was to split a beautiful log in half - each bisection would be used to form the main body of the shavehorses. Again using a froe and a much larger beatall we split the piece artfully. However large cracks along each section formed quickly as the wood audibly creaked apart. This was a shame, however a replacement piece of willow was subbed in and was again split and worked into shape with hatchets and hard work.
(from l-r clockwise) Carrying the yet-to-be main body of the shavehorses to the work area; Shaping the main body of the shavehorse; Splitting the log with the beatall and froe; the split wood.
While this was being done others in our group began work on the pivoting frame. This involved selecting splitting and shaping sections of wood which would form the vertical segments of the structures. Then holes were drilled through pairs of these sections simultaneously to ensure that the joints would match up. Working in pairs was required for this task as an observer guided the auger operator to drill at a level angle. We then chiseled mortices in these sections ready host the corresponding tenons of the crossbar which would, together with the footplate, form the frame.
(l-r) Vice and virtue; Using an auger to drill holes into the arms of the pivoting frame; Chiseling the mortice.
Time flew by and before we knew it it was time to down tools and call it a day. We were already looking forward to what the next day would bring us.
This was a busy day. Collectively we completed the shaping of the main sections of the shavehorses and finished the pivoting frames. We whittled and cut pegs which would be used to secure and reinforce the mortice and tenon joint which helps form the frame.
(l-r) Chiseling out the seat for the footplate; The almost complete pivoting frame.
Holes were drilled using the auger into the main sections for the legs to attach to and further holes through the middle of the main sections were tentatively drilled - through which a pin would be inserted attaching the pivoting frame to the body.
(l-r) Main section with legs attached. Things are starting to take shape…
The two pins were created by first hatcheting and then shavehorsing sections of wood before turning it on the foot powered lathe. A degree of timing and precision was needed to use the lathes well - learning to apply these through this work was gratifying. The process of transformation, from raw wood, through various stages of shaping, to the final, straight, smooth, pole was encapsulating.
Operating the foot driven lathe
Final assembly of the shavehorses brought us all together, admiring the fruits of our labor.
It was a truly incredible, unforgettable experience.