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Shaving Horse
© 2006

table rocker Here's the scenario: You have safely made it to your PROPERLY PRE-PLANNED AND PROVISIONED SHELTER. Unfortunately, the electricity for the power grid in your half of America is off-line for unknown reasons, and not expected back for days/months/years (you pick). Your shelter does not have any "amenities". Tables, chairs, bed frames, lawn furniture, etc. You have lots of trees around, but aren't sure how to make what you need.

Since you already had packed (in the bug out kit) tools that don't need electricity, you have a spoke shave, drawknife, and a brace/bit set, hand saw, hammer, etc. You may or may not have the plans for some "primitive" furniture. You have no shop area to build this stuff with. You left your 200-dollar bench vice back at your "old" residence. What to do?

The shaving horse is a tool with many, many uses. Its primary job is to HOLD THINGS. It holds round wood in a clamping area so it can be worked into square wood. It holds the square wood (and round wood) so you can drill holes in it. It holds small branches so you can peel the bark off, or put a taper on the end of a dowel. You'll find a hundred uses for it once you build it.

The shaving horse gets its clamping power from your legs. There is a foot "treadle" at the bottom of an arm that you push on, clamping the wood on top of the horse. The nice part about the horse is that it is totally adjustable to the user, and that's you. You can raise or lower the clamping area so the work area is at a comfortable spot for you, not "everybody." A man 6'6" tall will need a work area a lot higher than I will need. There are no rules...if it doesn't feel right, change it. Don't blindly follow measurements.

From experience, I can tell you that most shaving horses used for serious work, (like peeling rafters and purlins), need widely spaced and strong legs. You will be working with some big wood. When it bumps into the horse it will knock over a spindly-legged horse. I had to re-make my first horse (re-drill the legs) for this very reason. A well-made, strong shaving horse will last longer than you will. When I left Indiana in 1964, my horse was still in the "corral" (Dad's garage). When my parents moved to Florida, they gave it away. I never did name it. I swore at it a lot when I got splinters.

The first horse I'll show you I got from a website by Drew Langsner. His "Plans for a Swiss Shaving Horse" are a terrific place to start building a horse for yourself. Look at them, and then read on because I'll show you a couple of more options. When I first built mine, I think I used plans from Boy's Life, or Popular Mechanics Magazine, I'm not sure which. It looked a lot like this one.

LUMBER: The first shaving horses were made out of split oak logs. In fact, my first one used 1/2 of an oak log, about 12 inches wide and 7 feet long. The underside of the log still had the bark on it. (I later took it off because bugs liked to live under the bark, and it held water.) It was very heavy, but never got knocked over. Smoothing the seat to keep splinters out of my posterior areas took some doing with a jack plane and (I admit it) a belt sander. Covering it with leather would also work. I'm 5-10" tall so my horse was pretty close to the dimensions of Mr. Langsner's horse. You don't have to be a traditionalist, like me. If you have some scrap lumber lying around, use it. The seat should be at least a 2 x 10 or a 2 x 12 piece of lumber. A little weight is needed for a strong horse. However, it isn't necessary if you are only going to be working on small pieces of wood.

shaving horse


Same to you, fella. No, this is the piece on top that actually clamps down on the work. The "bridge" is the base of the clamp, and the movable "dumbhead" is the top half. Whatever wood you want is clamped between the two pieces. The strength of the clamp is only as good as the strength of your legs. The dumbhead needs to be a STRONG piece of wood. From experience, the larger, the better. A small, narrow or skinny dumbhead will have trouble holding a 6" log in place while you try to peel off the bark. I had to make a wider bridge for some of the work I did. With the arm in the center of the bridge, the usable surface clamping area was only about 4" wide. I used two pieces of 2 x 10 lumber and made one about 16" wide, giving me a clamping area (on each side of the arm) of about 7". This held all the bigger pieces I had to work on. On my first horse, I replaced the dumbhead (as seen in the plans) with a much larger and fatter piece of a log. It was really heavy. When I took my feet off of the treadle, it "thumped" over into the slot with a fairly loud bang. But, it really held my work in place. Then, I had another problem. I had a whole bunch of small stuff that just didn't fit right under the huge dumbhead I was using. So, I made a second one, smaller. Both were held in place with wedges so all I needed was two different wedges. It worked like a charm.

Over the years, as my military career kept me moving, I never had occasion to build another shaving horse. I'm building another one, as I write this article. I'll show you the finished product...last.

shaving horse
Photo by:  bodgerbord.
The traditional shaving horse shown here was hewn from an oak log. This solid workhorse is quite large and very heavy. When I was a boy working at the day camp in Indiana, I made one of these that looked very similar to this one. I found that when I was "horsing" around the heavier branches and logs that I needed to fit into the dumbhead clamping area, the extra weight of the bench kept it from being knocked over. Had I had a helper this may have not been a problem, but I didn't have a helper. The 4 legs are just tapered branches set into tapered holes drilled 2 at each end of a large split plank.

The hard part is cutting out the "slot" for the arm to swing through. Drill large holes and chisel it out with a wide flat chisel.

Since the wood sizes that you will be using are non-standard, you have to leave a wide opening for big wood, and still be able to clamp down on stuff less than 1/4" in diameter. This means the arm has got to have a big swing area to handle all types of wood.

The cutout for your knees when you are sitting on the bench is made so the bench doesn't chafe the skin off the inside of your knees. After about an hour of peeling bark off of limbs, you will find your sweaty legs (covered with shavings and sawdust) have blisters from unconsciously straining while pulling back on the draw knives.

Not shown here, but a handy item I added later on, was a open box at the back end of the horse (it could be made into a backrest for the horse). I have many different sizes of drawknives and spoke shaves, and I kept them in this box to prevent having to set them on the ground.

Don't set sharp tools on the ground here for two reasons: 1. They will quickly get covered with wood shavings, and possibly get lost...or worse, somebody barefoot will come along and slice open a toe when they accidentally kick a sharp blade. 2. Polished and honed knife blades rust quickly when laid on the bare ground. Rust dulls the blades.

When I made my first shaving horse, I really didn't think I would use it "all that much". But, as I got used to having it around, I found that it made a very handy clamp for other jobs, not even remotely related to a draw knife. I could drill holes in heavy wood by clamping it with my feet while drilling. (Even if you are "cheating" and using an electric drill.)

There are many advantages of making a portable shaving horse (like the author of the bodgerbord (photo) article claims). You can take it with you to a felled tree, and not have to drag the felled tree to you. But there's a trade off. Like I said, the light weight horse risks getting knocked over (it's frustrating) and you have to stop, pick it up, and start over. But, when you're done, you can tuck it under your arm and boogie back home. How about: MAKE TWO! One heavy (at home) and one light for travel.

The Shaving Horse
By Tom Rettie

The shaving horse is a simple foot-operated vice that allows you to hold a piece while having both hands free to work. A shaving horse is relatively easy to build and extremely useful to anyone who uses hand tools to shape spindles for turning, chair legs, barrel staves, shingles, and the like. It is traditionally used with a drawknife or spokeshave, but can be adapted for use with other tools. For example, by holding a rabbet plane in the dumbhead, you can shape thin stock by drawing it against the iron.

The precise origins of this tool may never be known, but by the 17th century, shaving horses are clearly used in chair-making, turning, coopering, and many other trades.

The traditional European form for a shaving horse (called the "Continental" style or "Dumbhead" style) has a post that pivots through the center of the bench and ends in the dumbhead (the head of the vice, with an "L" or "T" shape). It's easy to construct and has very few parts.

The precise origins of this tool may never be known, but by the 17th century, shaving horses are clearly used in chair-making, turning, coopering (barrel making), and many other trades.

shaving horse
Another classy design for a bridge and dumbhead.
primitive shaving horse
Primitive but functional.

shaving horse apholstered A Shaving Mule
New Upholstered Seat

This hybrid design combines elements from an English "bodger's" shaving horse and the "dumb-head" Zug Stuhl of Alpine Europe. The result is a hard working cross breed that many woodworkers like better than either traditional style.

Two parts I am concerned about are: The narrow space between the support arms of the "dumbhead" will limit the size of the work pieces that will fit inside; and the single front leg would be better off if it had a cross-piece attached to give it more stability, particularly with larger, more cumbersome branches.

If I was sure that I would only have work of a specific size and shape, then this would be a great little "mule".

The old Rogue Turtle is adding some details now that came from a pamphlet I picked up at a national park (It may have been at Glacier National Park) in about 1950 or so. It was published in 1945 and is now out of print. I paid a whopping 20 cents for this treasure of old-time knowledge. I'll share parts of it with you for free. (When have you gotten anything from Uncle Sam for 20 cents?) I apologize if it's hard to read.

This is the one and only copy I have. I found it among the papers of my parents' estate and there are some coffee stains, as well as age stains, on the pages. But the information is still good. The pages start at page 39. Pages 1 through 38 cover how to build a log cabin by hand. I'll probably publish these at a later date. This publication from the U.S. Forest Service (1945) and is a copy of the real thing. I own it and it is slowly falling apart.

You will note that the pages are getting dark; some are wrinkled and coffee-stained. You will also notice that this book does not refer to chain saws, even though there were such saws available in 1945...but they were only used by commercial lumbermen and not available to the general public.