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Spokeshaves and Similar Tools

By Thomas Lamond
Originally published in The Tool Shed, Number 99 (November 1997)
 

On numerous occasions I have found myself in a conversation where others have discovered that I am a collector. They may also be collectors and many willingly share the area in which they have an interest. Perhaps you've found yourself in a similar situation; the conversation gets to the point where someone asks, "What do you collect?" My reply includes some reference to "old tools."

After clarifying old tools as woodworking, leather working, and measuring tools, the conversation may lead to the use of the word spokeshave which, more often than not, results in the question, "What's a spokeshave?" My usual reply is a definition such as:

"A spokeshave is a tool that consists of a cutter, or blade, mounted between, and in line with, two handles. It has a small bottom so the cut can be regulated or controlled. Most spokeshaves can be either pulled or pushed and many are, or were, used for shaving wood."

Of course there are exceptions to that definition, but I have found that many tool-orientated individuals really haven't taken much time to really think about spokeshaves and the tools that are similar to spokeshaves. I would like to take this opportunity to share some information that may cause the reader to realize the diversification and scope of a tool category that many may have overlooked.

One may find it interesting to know what the name spokeshave actually refers to. Although a spokeshave was, and still can be, used to fashion spokes for wheels, rungs for ladders, and the like, such a task is far more efficiently accomplished with a lathe. The early wheelwrights who made spokes undoubtedly used such a tool, but the name actually evolved from the shoe trades.

Figure 1
Tom Lamond with part of his collection.

Leather shoes are built around a wooden form called a last. Each last has to be shaped like a foot and, like feet, two are required to make a pair. Lasts were used to fashion the shoes by wrapping the leather around them. In the course of doing so, the lasts were subjected to hammering and pounding, as the damp leather was molded around the form prior to being sewn. The last had to be made to withstand the repeated pounding so the wood used had to fit certain specifications. The wood had to be hard, free of defects, and capable of being made very smooth. The grain had to be running in the correct direction to reduce failure and breakage.

In order to meet the requirements, hardwood logs were selected, usually beech in Europe and maple in America. The logs were sawn to length and split into wedges. Those wedges were called "spokes."

The rough shaping of the spoke was done with an axe or hatchet. The resulting rough form was then refined to a large degree with a bench knife or stock knife. These knives were hooked to a bench at one end and manipulated via a T-handle at the other.

The arrangement provided for considerable leverage but not as much control for precise refinement as required. Additional shaping of the spokes involved the process of shaving with a tool that ultimately became known as a "spoke shave." If the lastmaker was proficient with a spokeshave he could reduce the amount of the final refinement that was done with a rasp, scraper, and, in later years, glass (abrasive) paper.

Figure 2
Some examples of tools falling within the category of spokeshaves and similar tools.

Depending on the use of the term, spokeshave has been written as either one or two words. The older usage more frequently involved two words. Contemporary use has resulted in a single word. Other names were also used for such tools. They included shoe shave, heel shave, and edge shave. These three terms are still usually presented as two words, but they can also be used as single words.

Eventually the association of spokeshaves with lastmaking became a thing of the past. This occurred around the 1870s to 1880s when lastmaking lathes became prevalent. Because spokeshaves were used for so many other things, their use had been adapted to many other applications. In many cases more specific names were used, but generally they did retain their general name. As time went on the portable electric router was introduced. That technology change impacted dramatically in the decline of the use of spokeshaves and similar tools.

Definitions distinguishing one type of shave from another serve to show the differences between the actual tools, but, quite possibly, the terminology may have been determined by the maker and/or the user. Patent titles also seem to bear this out:

spoke • shave, (spok) n: a cutting or planing tool consisting of a blade with a handle at either end, usually in line with the blade, and a narrow sole in front of, and sometimes also behind, the cutting edge: used for shaping, trimming, and/or smoothing a variety of materials, usually wood or leather.

shoe • shave, (shoo) n: a cutting tool similar to a spokeshave but used to shape leather for heels or fashion wood lasts on which shoes were formed.

heel • shave, (hel) n: a cutting tool similar to a spokeshave but primarily used to shape the heel after the layers of leather have been fastened together.

edge • shave, (ej) n: a cutting tool similar to a spokeshave but primarily used to trim the edge of a leather sole for a shoe or boot.

When considered collectively, shoe, heel, and edge shaves fall into the category that may be referred to as similar tools. That category is not limited to the shaves mentioned. It would be more complete when the list that follows is considered. Many of the tools on the list are collectively called spokeshaves, but they may also be described more specifically as noted. Applicable trade titles can be added to some names.

A Listing of Spokeshaves and Similar Tools:

  • Sole Shaves
  • Shoe Shaves
  • Heel Shaves
  • Leather Shaves
  • Keg Shaves
  • Coopers' Shaves
  • Molding Shaves
  • Sash Shaves
  • Beeders
  • Reeders
  • Panel Shaves
  • Rabbet Shaves
  • Patternmakers' Shaves
  • Combination Shaves
  • Quirk Routers
  • Carriagemakers' Shaves
  • Car Builders' Shaves
  • Stair Railers' Shaves
  • Handrail Shaves
  • Specialty Shaves
  • Shave-like Scrapers
  • Pull Shaves & Box Scrapers

The last entry, pull shaves & box scrapers, really doesn't fit the definition considering they do not have handles in line with the cutters, but many were made by shavemakers. Many also function with a shaving process rather than a scraping process, and I feel it's acceptable to include them in the overall scope of similar tools.

It should be noted that the list does not include the drawknife nor does it include some other terms that are considered incorrect when describing spokeshaves. (ex.: draw shave, shaver). Although some drawknives were actually patented as spoke shaves, and may even have been used to shape spokes into lasts, the lack of a bottom regulating surface excludes them from the general spokeshave definition. Drawknives, more appropriately, fall within their own category.

Historical references to the spoke shave actually don't date back very far. That may be because the term evolved from the lastmaking trades as the technology of shoe and boot making evolved. The earliest actual mention of the term may be found in what is now commonly called by an abbreviated name Smith's Key which was originally dated 1816. The full name of the publication is Explanation or Key, to the Various Manufactories of Sheffield, with Engravings of each Article, Designed for the Utility of Merchants, Wholesale Ironmongers, and Travellers.

Joseph Smith, the author of the "Key," included spokeshaves with the coopers' tools as well as the joiners' tools. In both lists he used the term spokeshaves (single word). In the "Coopers' Tools" section he uses the term coopers' shave irons to differentiate between spokeshave irons and those irons used in coopers' shaves. In the "Joiners' Tools" section he lists seven types of shaves: common, plated, screw iron, boxwood, boxwood w/screw iron, coopers', and coopers' inside. These listings strongly indicate that the spokeshave, in a number of recognizable versions, had achieved an identity as a specific category of tool by that time.

It should be remembered that the shaves listed were all wood-body shaves. The introduction of iron as a component of the body of shaves may have recently started by then, but not to an extent where it was mentioned along with the tools Smith included in his list.

The iron-body shave is believed to have been introduced in America sometime during the late 1820s or early 1830s. Quite possibly Hazard Knowles was instrumental in the introduction of such a shave, but as of this time that has not been substantiated by documentation or with any shaves so marked. The strongest evidence pointing to this conclusion are the spokeshaves representing the design and technological ideas Knowles introduced in his 1827 patent for an iron plane body.

The utilization of iron in the making of hand tool components seems to have greatly increased around the time Knowles introduced his iron-bodied plane but that didn't eliminate the development of wood-bodied tools, at least not for some time.

Spokeshaves with wood bodies, or wood stocks, continued to be developed for many decades after Knowles's ideas were introduced. One of the major problems encountered in shaves made of wood was the securing of the iron (cutter) and the subsequent adjusting of the thickness of cut. Numerous solutions for addressing both problems are evident in those wood-bodied shaves that have survived until today, yet the problem was still being addressed by inventors until after the turn of the century. Many of the solutions sought involved additional metal components along with the wood bodies. One of the last, if not the very last, true spokeshave patent that was issued addressed the problem of securing a tanged cutter quite similar to those used around the turn of the 18th century. The patentee, F.L. Mayer of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, patented a metal-bodied shave that included a tanged cutter. (See Figure 3.)

Figure 3
Figure 3. Copy of the graphics page from Patent No. 1,738,108 dated December 3, 1929. The focus of the invention was another solution to securing the cutter.

At the same time prospective patentees were trying to improve wood-body shaves, the metal-body shave was evolving. Apparently many ideas specifically related to shaves were investigated. Some led to patents while still others just led to manufacturing variations. As of this writing, 127 patents have been identified that apply either directly or indirectly to spokeshaves. Some of those patents specifically mention spokeshaves or similar shaves. For others the association has been established by markings that were included on the tools. Some of these patents were for ideas and designs for planes which were also applicable to spokeshaves and vice versa.

Some connections are somewhat nebulous and require a bit of detective work to determine such associations. One that comes to mind stemmed from a date that was included on an Elijah Holmes shave. The patent was issued for a vegetable slicer, but Holmes included the adjustment mechanism in a shave and protected himself by including the patent date on the thumbscrew.

The only other shave-related patents currently known to me are those that were issued in Great Britain. Surprisingly there are only seventeen such patents, nine of which were issued to Edward Preston or E. Preston & Sons. They fall within Class 61: Abridgement Class Hand Tools. Three others have been identified as British design patents, each of which was issued to E. Preston & Sons.

Although patents for spokeshaves that may have been granted by other countries are unknown to me, I wouldn't be surprised, if there are any, that they are in some way associated with those issued in the United States. This can be explained in two ways.

First, the patent regulations that prevailed in most countries, at the time spokeshave-related patents were being issued here, tended to be restrictive if a similar patent had already been published in another country. Communication access, being what it was at the time, restricted or prevented simultaneous filing. Patent review and issuance wasn't something that could be readily coordinated.

Of course this didn't seem to prevent many "Patent Agents" from charging patentees to process their patent ideas in other countries. It wouldn't surprise me to find that some of those agents were no more than con men who accepted fees knowing full well that any foreign patents would be disallowed.

Figure 4

Examples of spokeshaves and similar tools.
Top down:
Mosher's patent double shave,
Holly's spokeshave with wraparound lugs,
Union No. 111 chamfer shave,
Sargent with marked cutter (made by S. Smith & Sons),
Kendall & Voss Windsor beader (early style),
Lothrop's "Patent Applied For" single-handed shoe shave.
Right: Unmarked brass rabbet shave, vertical design.

 

The second explanation is related to where manufacturing technology was developing. The reinvention of cast steel by Benjamin Huntsman in England in the 1740s certainly had a significant impact on manufacturing and production technologies as well as edge tool technology. History notes that the Industrial Revolution started in England around 1760 and then spread to other areas, including the United States. By the later 1700s, industrial discoveries and advancements in the United States were progressing in their own right. One of the areas demonstrating significant growth was that of iron founding, which included the production of iron tools. It wasn't until around the 1840s that significant supplies of American-made cast steel became a reality, but by that time iron casting had advanced tremendously.

There is no question in my mind that the iron-bodied spokeshave and certain similar tools originated in the United States. By the 1880s the idea of the iron-bodied shave had been accepted by some English makers, notably Edward Preston. By the time they were bought out, E. Preston and E. Preston & Sons developed a number of new ideas in the realm of tools. Iron-bodied shaves, reeders, routers, and similar tools represented a significant part of that development.

That is not to say E. Preston did not offer wood-body shaves. In their 1909 catalog they offered seven styles of wood-body shaves with cutters in a variety of sizes ranging from 1" to 5". Those variations numbered 45 in total. In the same catalog they offered 12 metal spokeshaves most of which were similar to the designs offered by Stanley. Eleven other metal spokeshaves were also offered that either were registered or included Preston's patent adjustment. Eleven more tools were offered that fell in the areas of reeding tools, routers, chamfer shaves, or rabbet shaves. Thirty-four more ironbody molding shaves were also offered. That adds up to 68 metal-bodied shaves or similar tools (considering size variations). Still another couple of dozen were offered at other times. Some had different adjustment features, some were smooth handled, and some were more closely related to later Stanley design versions.

To date I have identified in the vicinity of 183 American patentees and/or makers of spokeshaves and/or similar tools and approximately a dozen makers from other countries. I hesitate to put a number on the shaves and similar tools I have yet to be able to attribute to an individual or a specific manufacturer. Many of these will probably remain unidentified except that a good proportion were made by blacksmiths, patternmakers, or founders.

Figure 5

More examples of spokeshaves.
Top down: Beech and brass handrail shave,
Ebony and brass shave with wedged cutter,
C.S. Osborne adjustable rosewood shave,
Bauer's patent shave (made by H.F. Osborne & Co.),
Spear's patent shave (tiger maple),
Spear's patent shave (rosewood),
Mathieson/Glasgow (boxwood),
W. Maples & Son/Sheffield (boxwood).

 

Perhaps, in time, more information will become available that will reveal who made these types of tools, where the makers were located, and when they were productive. In the meantime I call your attention to my new book, Manufactured and Patented Spokeshaves & Similar Tools ... Identification of the Artifacts and Profiles of the Patentees and Makers.

The book is about shaves and similar tools and the men who made them. I have arranged the information for others to consult for their own purposes: identification, technology, history, etc.

As always, I invite readers' comments and input. I would certainly like to hear about additional information, updates and/or corrections, and shaves not included. Since the book went to the printer I have collected a number of artifacts that could have been included along with many new bits of information, and I continue to seek more. But it was necessary to draw a line or stop including material so the project could go forward.

In time I may well consider a supplement to the book. I still have many questions that are unanswered and know there are considerably more shaves still to be discovered. If you're so inclined, get in touch. Share a thought or a piece of information or ask a question.