Sigh. Another one of the woodworking magazines has printed a picture of a chairmaker sitting at his shave horse. In doing so, they the magazine joined the long list of sources that continue to undermine the craft of chairmaking. How do we ever advance with such odds so stacked against us? A single misleading picture mailed to several hundred thousand readers has more negative impact than can be undone by 10 years of teaching classes.
When I run across a fellow practitioner of our craft I quietly assess the guy’s work and rank his abilities in my mind. The shave horse is one of the standards I rely on. For me it is a shibboleth. A shibboleth is something that separates two groups, and that one of those groups then uses to identify its members; sort of like a secret handshake. The shave horse divides chairmakers. The two groups are the guys that are serious and those who are quaint. Guess which group I belong to.
I do not use a shave horse. When asked why, I answer, “Why would I impose a pay cut on myself?” That is in effect the result of using this tool. It is so limiting that it slows down the chairmaker and costs him income. I prefer a vise. Using a vise I am standing, not sitting, and I am far more productive and efficient. I work far faster, using less energy.
Consider the two postures. Sitting at a shave horse you have the work secured immediately in front of you. The muscles available to operate the draw knife are predominantly in your shoulders. You are limited as to how you can use the tool. You can do very little slicing, which means you are also misusing your knife. Remember, the tip from the Staff Tip Sheet you received in sack back class? “A draw knife is a slicing tool, not a two handled hatchet.”
Using a vise, you are standing. You bring into play the muscle groups in your legs, butt, back, and shoulders. Leaning into the work and progressively shifting back on your ankles, your slice can be several feet long. That’s a major advantage when making a four to six foot long bow. Students have commented that when working I remind them of a ballet dancer or an aerobics instructor. (Either way, that’s a pretty good comparison for a guy that’s 65 years old.) Yes, using a vise the body’s motion is fluid, graceful, and almost effortless. Above all, it’s fast.
Suspended in air in front of me I can access about 300 degrees of the part’s circumference. I do minimal stopping to turn the piece. Students remember the myriad of more efficient grips I show them for using the knife. Those are possible because of my access to most of the part. I move my body and my grip, rather than the part.
That raises the question, with all its drawbacks, why would anyone use a shave horse? A lot of chair makers are into being quaint. I think it is a left over from the Hippies who got into woodworking in the 1970s. Sitting on a shave horse you look like you stepped out of a picturesque and bucolic past; or at least the commune. Editors don’t know better. They’re general woodworkers, with at most a passing knowledge of the various specialized crafts. Besides, a guy sitting at a shave horse does make a good picture; one that evokes a picturesque and bucolic past; or at least a 1970s commune. In other words, it’s a vicious circle. Chairmakers want to look quaint, the editors like quaint pictures. So many pictures of chairmakers sitting at a shave horse get published, our imaginations have been overwhelmed. In woodworkers’ minds the shave horse and chairmaking go together like a horse and carriage. (Wait a minute. That’s love and marriage.)
If you are an editor, please, please, please, stop publishing photos of guys on shave horse. If you are chairmaker that uses a shave horse; get off your butt and get to work.
If you are not receiving my monthly eLetter of essays about chairs and chairmaking — that are in addition to this blog — join our list by emailing me at email@example.com