• Roger Waterhouse

Only Tools and Horses

Every spring I cut down some branches whilst the sap is rising and make something for the garden - a gate, a stool, a rustic table - but most often hurdles for propping up plants. This is one such:

old hurdle

This last spring I did cut the branches, but never got around to making the hurdle because a crucial bit of my equipment was broken - the shaving horse. "The shaving horse ?", I hear you ask. Yes, the shaving horse which is neither a horse nor anything to do with the fashion for beards.

It's actually a type of vice, made and used by bodgers and other green woodworkers for centuries. It's called a horse because you sit astride it and press your feet down on a pedal to clamp the workpiece. It looks like this:

You sit on the right hand side, and pushing with your feet pivots the top jaw to grip the branch. You then use a pulling action with a draw knife to shape the branch. Usually you split the branch first with a froe, tidy it up with a side axe, and shape the half branch on the horse.

You can't buy shaving horses - you have to make your own. When I made mine I used some 300 year old oak that came out of Ashover Church belfry. It was hard as iron and very difficult to cut, but I meant it to last. When it came to joining the legs to the seat, instead of making a square tenon I turned the top of the legs (I am a turner after all) and drilled a hole through the seat to take the round tenon. It worked and I used the horse for a couple of years.

Then a dreadful thing happened. One of the legs broke at the point where the round tenon went into the seat. What I hadn't realised was that although the 300 year old oak was incredibly hard, it was also brittle.

When bodgers made shaving horses to use in the woods, they often had three legs to cope with uneven ground. Mine was to use in a workshop and four legs are more stable than three. So now I had a three legged horse that simply fell over.

I was reluctant to replace all the legs, so I did a repair. I got 1 1/4 inch iron bar and set it in the broken leg. I then forced this iron tenon through the seat. It worked ! Except the following year a second leg broke.

This year was year 3 of repairs, which is why my horse was out of action in the spring. However, it is now repaired (until year 4) so belatedly I made this year's hurdle:

Not exactly an art object, but I was satisfied that I had created it.

In case they interest you, here are pictures of the main tools I used (apart from the lathe):

This is the froe, like an axe used vertically for splitting the branch.

This is the draw knife used to shape the branch with a pulling action.

This is a side axe sharpened on one edge only, used to rough shape the branch before putting it in the horse.

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