Spokeshaves: Planing Without a Straight Face:
John Adamson traces the origins of a tool that’s found a use in every trade.
When, in 1915, the writer and Poet Laureate John Masefield was serving as a British Red Cross orderly in the Haute-Marne, he found himself making wooden crutches for the French wounded. ‘There is no lathe here,’ he wrote to his wife, ‘so we have to do it nearly all by hand. We get blocks of beech wood for the rests and long foursquare pieces of acacia for the handles, & then with a spokeshave, rasps & files we cut the blocks to shape & round out the handles.’
We cannot tell from his description whether Masefield and his fellow volunteer Bobby Phillimore were using a spokeshave in wood or metal (by World War I, both were widely available); all we can say is that they were using the tool for shaping and rounding so as to end up with serviceable crutch handles, with as comfortable a grip as they could make them. The crutches certainly served their purpose well, for the men,
wrote Masefield, ‘go hopping along on them, & calling them voitures de bras’.
The earliest known surviving wooden spokeshaves are two boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) examples found in the chest of tools bought by Joseph Seaton in 1796 for his 21-year-old son Benjamin and now in the Guildhall Museum in Rochester. Both spokeshaves have blades with the stamp of P. Law, almost certainly Philip Law, the Sheffield edge-tool maker. Although without maker’s mark, the wooden shaves themselves are in all likelihood commercial products too.
These were rudimentary tools, but heralded the ever more graceful versions of the following century with their elliptical cross-section ends forming the handles, the undersides cut away, giving the tools their winged appearance. In all these early wooden models, the iron is mounted lengthwise and held fast by friction. Two tapered square tangs at right angles to the cutting edge on the iron are driven into tapering holes in the shaped stock, most commonly of beech (Betula pendula) or boxwood. Fine adjustment is hard to achieve, for the thickness of the shaving is crudely determined by tapping the iron with a hammer to set the blade deeper than the body.
With the introduction of thumb screws the thickness of the shaving could be more finely tuned. Now the plane iron had two tapped holes and the metal screws in the stock could then adjust the iron. There were other refinements. Some flat-fronted spokeshaves were ‘plated’, in other words fitted with wear strips in brass or ivory. Spokeshaves of different patterns were made for various trades by makers such as William Marples & Sons of Sheffield: radius shaves and travishers for concave work in chair-making; bent shaves for coopers, as well as shaves for coach-makers and for many other purposes. Moulding pattern shaves were also devised, for instance for sashes or for curved or wreathed handrails.
Spokeshaves in cast metal were a late 19th-century innovation and with the introduction of a sole plate brought better cutting action and shaving precision. Although now in metal, the outline of the tool often retained its bird-on-the-wing aspect. Edward Preston & Sons in Birmingham created several patterns, some of which have been the inspiration behind designs of today, like the Lie-Nielsen small bronze spokeshave or the Lee Valley cast round spokeshave. On some Preston models a screw or thumb screw in the lever cap locked the iron, on others a fine vertical adjustment mechanism was provided operated by a thumb screw, and in some instances a lateral wing adjuster was also provided. Others came with fences for chamfering. Across the Atlantic, Stanley and other makers also began making an array of metal-bodied spokeshaves, both non-adjustable and adjustable.
A ‘playne’ by any other name
Spokeshaves have a long history for sure, but it is not known quite how long. Perhaps the earliest mention of the word is in a legal document of 1454 in which a ‘spoke shave’ and a ‘two-hand shave’ are listed in an inventory of the London wheeler Richard Crips. But there is little more than a clue here as to what either of these tools looked like. The ‘two-hand shave’ certainly matches the description of a simple draw or drawing knife, a blade with a handle set at right angles at each end. Separate mention of the term spokeshave does suggest that this was a tool somehow to be distinguished from the generic term ‘shave’.
This early appearance of the term ‘spokeshave’ predates by more than 50 years the next known reference, which is in John Stanbridge’s Vocabula, a compendium published in 1510 of words from the various trades given in Latin with their English translation. ‘Spokeshave’ or ‘playne’ is given as the translation of the Latin radula, rather than ‘scraping-iron’ or ‘scraper’ as the word would be translated today, but tantalisingly there is no gloss given in the book for this, so we cannot be sure that it is indeed the later paring tool bearing the name spokeshave with which we are familiar. The eminent woodworking-tool historian William Goodman suggested that the compiler of Vocabula might have thought the Latin term radula was reminiscent of ‘radius’ in the sense of the spokes of a wheel radiating from the hub and that this gave rise to the use of the word ‘spoke’ to designate a specific type of scraper or plane. This seems an intriguing idea, though perhaps a little far-fetched.
The great Sheffield collector Ken Hawley has pointed out that the word ‘spoke’ had a wider meaning than one of the bars of a carriage wheel: apparently it was used by early coopers to denote a wooden stave; it was also employed by the shoe-last maker to refer to the block of wood from which a last was shaped. These origins for the term seem more plausible, though by no means certain either.
Between the Vocabula of 1510 and the publication in 1816 of Joseph Smith’s Key (or to give its full title, Explanation or key, to the various manufactories of Sheffield, with engravings of each article), little documentary evidence has been found to date that catalogues, illustrates or even alludes to the spokeshave. There are references in Randle Holme’s Academy of Armoury (1688), one of them under cooper’s instruments; and the stock inventories of the tool-maker Christopher Gabriel from 1791 and 1800 feature spokeshaves in bulk, yet neither Joseph Moxon in his Mechanick Exercises, nor Félibien in his Principes de l’architecture, nor even Diderot and d’Alembert in their Encyclopédie, make any mention of the tool. The word ‘wastringue’ used today by the French to denote a spokeshave seems to have been first recorded only in the 19th century, its etymology uncertain. Interestingly, Joseph Smith reproduces in his Key an engraving of a spokeshave and iron (shown separately) on a page of cooper’s tools. On another page headed ‘Drawing Knives’ he shows an array of such knives for a variety of trades, and under a subheading ‘Shaves’ on the same page, illustrates three shaves with curved blades, two of which are two-handled and one one-handled.
Wheelwrights and cabinetmakers
We are thus brought to admit that our knowledge about the spokeshave’s origins and early use is still wanting. What we can surmise, nevertheless, is that the spokeshave probably grew out of the drawing knife and provided a more precise tool for finishing contour work. Such a tool would have been welcomed by furniture makers like Thomas Chippendale and Thomas Sheraton, especially for the inside and outside curves of cabriole chair legs, but we do not yet have any documentary evidence to confirm that.
It could simply be that what began as a specialised tool of the wheelwright became more generalised among other trades. Whether or not the spokeshave first developed within the wheelwright’s trade, it was certainly used by wheelers.
In his book The Wheelwright’s Shop (1923), George Sturt meticulously chronicled his time working in his family’s wheelwright business in Surrey in the years around the turn of the 20th century. He described the wheelwright’s draw-shave (or drawing knife) as a ‘stiff blade seven or eight inches long . . . fitted with a handle at each end for drawing towards you.’ When it came to the spokeshave, this was a ‘finishing tool for smoothing away any edges left by the draw-shave, after a timber has been sufficiently reduced in size’. This tool, Sturt wrote, ‘was characteristically useful in curved places like the front of spokes, where a smoothing-plane could not be used’.
By the middle of the 19th century, the spokeshave was well and truly established as a general tool. Charles Holtzapffel, in the second volume of his influential treatise Turning and Mechanical Manipulation published in 1846, spelt out some of the tool’s merits: ‘it cuts the most easily of all the planes,’ he declared, ‘and it closely assimilates to the penknife’. He went on to say: ‘The spokeshave works very easily in the direction of the grain, but it is only applicable to small and rounded surfaces and cannot be extended to suit large flat superficies.’
When the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was US consul in Liverpool he encouraged his young son Julian to learn woodwork from a Southport carpenter.
This the boy did, and as his ‘masterpiece’ he proudly made a model of a one-masted ship. ‘Mr Chubbock,’ he recorded in his reminiscences, ‘accordingly, gave me thorough lessons in the mysteries of the plane, the spokeshave, the gouge, and the chisel, and finally presented me with a block of white pine eighteen inches long and nine wide, and I set to work on my sloop.’
Tips for collecting spokeshaves
1. Wooden spokeshaves were handmade, so each is slightly different. Make sure that the iron is the one specifically made for the tool and is not a replacement that will never fit so well.
2. Wooden spokeshaves without thumb screws are hard to adjust, they rely on tapping the iron to the required position.
3. Late 19th- and early 20th-century metal-bodied spokeshaves are still in copious supply and thus not expensive.
4. The angle of the cutter cannot be adjusted. On early wooden spokeshaves it is low and the bevel is facing up.
5. Not to be confused either with two-handled cabinet scrapers or with two-handled routers.
6. Preston cast planes were nickel-plated; there is often loss of the plating.
7. More work in archives may yield further information about how the spokeshave has been used over the centuries.
8. A selection of spokeshaves may be seen at the Hawley Collection at Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield.
While there are plenty of antique spokeshaves to be found that are quite serviceable there are also a healthy number of contemporary makers producing new versions of these tools. Here’s a selection from three makers with some fascinating interpretations of the classic form.