Building a shaving horse designed for bowls and more
TEXT AND PHOTOS BY DAVID FISHER
I love to carve wooden bowls. To me, it is an ideal blend of traditional methods and endless design possibilities. I admire the merging curves and facets that blend into a pleasing whole and the feel of a hand-tooled surface that bears witness to each cut. These qualities result from the carver’s eye and intuition rather than measurement and regulation. The process of hewing an odd chunk of log into a graceful and useful vessel is satisfying and thought-provoking. Among its challenges is holding the bowl securely, an increasingly difficult feat as the bowl approaches its final form.
The most useful reference I found when learning to carve bowls was an article in the October 2000 issue of Woodwork magazine. It was a detailed tutorial in carving large bowls by Drew Langsner. With some minor changes, that is still the basic method I use to carve a bowl. The interior of the bowl is hollowed first, then the outer surface is hewn and refined. The refinement of the exterior was the source of some personal frustration.
Clamping the bowl upside-down to the workbench allows one to work on the exterior surface with gouges and other tools, but the surface of the bench itself can get in the way. Also, one cannot see the interior of the bowl or feel the wall thickness while it is clamped down. It certainly didn’t allow the use of my beloved drawknife. In search of a better solution, I looked at my shaving horse.
My traditional shaving horse is wonderful in its ability to hold a piece firmly while allowing the workpiece to be instantly repositioned, all from a seated position! It is perfect for slender chair parts but not for the curving bulk of a bowl. I began to wonder if the shaving horse design could be modified to squeeze the work from end to end rather than to hold it down to a work surface. I had never seen any reference to such a device, but why not try it?
The result was my bowl horse.
PLANS AND PATTERNS
The author’s current design evolved from the original version in the top photos, showing the earlier swing arm and dumbhead as well.
A replaceable board set into the rear stop allows the author to cut right up to the end of the workpiece.
The ability of the bowl horse to handle a variety of shapes and sizes is evident in these four bowls carved by the author.
I was delighted to find that while comfortably seated, I could apply foot pressure to hold a bowl solidly, yet instantly reposition it. With no workbench or clamps to interfere, there was complete access to the bowl from end to end. It was ideal for use with the drawknife, allowing me to quickly remove wood while offering sensitive control for shaving to the final surface.
I now use it for all sorts of things. Tool handles, chair legs, and rived boards are held securely from end to end with complete access to their surface. This becomes particularly helpful when dealing with short pieces or those with uncooperative grain. For example, by extending the upper surface of the far end of the workpiece just a bit above the edge of the dumbhead, the piece can be shaved from the far end along its entire length.
The first version I built, and still use, was chainsawn and hewn from a soft maple log. It has round legs driven into 2-1/2″ mortises. The trickiest part was forming the stopped channel through the log. The result is effective, solid, and, unfortunately, practically immobile.
Wanting a bowl horse to take to demonstrations or just outside, I designed a more portable version that can be made from dimensional lumber for little expense. I used yellow pine and hand tools, but other materials and methods would work just as well. The principle is more important than the dimensions, so you should feel free to adjust things according to your size and the size of your work. The construction is simple and straightforward, not requiring much explanation.
The front leg and near stop piece get sandwiched between the 2×8 bed boards and bolted through with 3/8″ × 5″ carriage bolts. The seat board requires four long rip cuts, which were a bit of a workout with a five-point rip saw but should be no problem with a tablesaw. Bore a 1-1/2″ hole at the base of the cuts to remove the central portion. Contour the seat where your legs extend over the front edges and cut the recesses for the rear legs before fastening it to the underside of the bed boards with screws. Install the rear leg assembly with screws. Another option for rear legs would be to thicken a portion of the seat from below and insert shaved or turned legs into round mortises in the seat, as in a Windsor chair.
The dumbhead assembly is simple. The foot board is secured to the swing arm with a 1/2″ bolt and a wooden pin beneath. The swing arm has two adjustment holes. In conjunction with the adjustment holes in the bed boards, this provides plenty of options for length of materials. The swing arm pivots on a steel eyebolt placed through the bed holes. My horse has 5/8″ holes because I happened to have a length of rod that size.
Some variations might include a specially shaped dumbhead or jaws lined with leather. The head drawn in this design is simply a block screwed to the upper portion of the swing arm. My home version uses a chunk of pine log mortised to slip over a tenon on top of the swing arm. A nail point protruding from each jaw may help to hold handles and other long slender pieces for shaping. Adaptations are relatively simple as the need arises.
I fasten sacrificial pine pieces to the near stop. These can be easily replaced after repeated encounters with the drawknife. I also apply pine strips to the bed so that they are 1/2″ above the surface. These create a lip that helps to prevent the bowl from pivoting when it is up on its side.
A final benefit to mention is safety. When working with a sharp tool in one hand, it is often the other hand that suffers. After much vigorous work on a piece, sitting at the bowl horse with both hands on the drawknife or spokeshave is relaxing, and I can concentrate instead on the fragrant shavings lifting away from the emerging bowl before me.
David Fisher teaches history and practices greenwood working in Greenville, Pennsylvania.