When I took my first woodworking course at the Heritage School of Woodworking in Texas, one of the hand tools on the “essential tools” list was a spokeshave. It was the only “essential tools” list I have seen that includes a spokeshave. Most woodworkers, I think, consider the spokeshave to be a marginal, optional tool–at best, a specialty tool with very limited uses.
Not me. My spokeshaves are essential tools in my tool chest, and they get used on nearly every project.
Kinds of Spokeshaves
A spokeshave is just a very short hand plane with handles on each side rather than front-and-back. There are essentially two different spokeshave designs, and many variations on each.
First, the “low-angle” spokeshave looks like this. This is, so far as I can tell, the older of the two designs, and the vintage ones are all made with wooden bodies. The modern one pictured above is made by Veritas and has an aluminum body.
The sole of this spokeshave is the blade itself. To use it, the spokeshave is rocked forward just a few degrees. Thus, the angle at which the cutting edge meets the wood is about 30 degrees.
This relatively low angle is ideal for cutting end-grain, but on long grain it can result in significant tear-out. The especially tight mouth helps control (but does not eliminate) this problem. You can barely see the mouth of the spokeshave above; it’s the thin, black line at the bottom of the shiny blade.
The second kind of spokeshave has a body made from metal, and the blade is held at 45 degrees to the sole of the tool, just like on a regular hand plane. The higher angle reduces tear-out, but it can be slightly harder to use on end-grain.
Many of them have thumbscrews to adjust the depth of cut. Others have no adjusters and are set with hammer taps (which isn’t as difficult as it sounds). Beginners usually find it easier to use one with thumbscrew adjusters.
Using a Spokeshave
From the name, you can probably guess that the spokeshave was originally developed for shaping the spokes of wooden wheels. (I assume that’s the case, anyway. Unless there’s a patent, the origins of hand tools are usually very obscure.) Indeed, spokeshaves excel at shaping gentle curves while following the grain of the wood, both of which are necessary for shaping wheel spokes.
Similarly, I use my spokeshaves for shaping the handles of wooden spoons, and for other curved work.
I also find the spokeshave useful for making small chamfers and relieving sharp corners, especially in places where end-grain is concerned.
In use, the spokeshave can be either pulled or pushed. My usual inclination is to pull it–all other things being equal–but it is best to become equally adept at both moves. Sometimes a quick reversal in the wood grain necessitates that I push the spokeshave on one part of the workpiece and pull it on another.
Holding a spokeshave seems intuitive: it has two handles, so you grip it in your fists like a bicycle handle, right?
Well, you can. But you should keep your thumbs resting on the body of the tool rather than wrapped around the handles. There are also a couple other grips to master. Some spokeshaves come with somewhat shorter handles and are designed for a three-finger grip. The thumbs and forefingers are wrapped around the body of the tool, and the other three fingers grip the handle. This grip ensures very precise control of the tool.
A spokeshave can also be used one-handed, as you would use a paring knife. This grip is especially good for shaving small, irregularly-shaped objects. You can use your thumb to pull the workpiece into the cut, but try not to shave your thumb.
Choosing a Spokeshave
One of the most popular old spokeshaves is the Stanley 151A, which has been imitated, copied, and cloned by a number of modern companies, such as Record, Kunz, and Anant. They all have the same basic features: a cast-iron body and a pair of thumbscrew depth adjusters.
The black one shown above is a vintage Stanley; the red one is a modern Anant. These spokeshaves can work reasonably well for shaping gentle curves as long as the blade is kept very sharp. However, I find them heavy and somewhat cumbersome to use.
Furthermore, the imitations of the old Stanley (including the modern version made by Stanley) are generally not as good. The adjusters are sloppy and rattle around. You can also see above that the mouth of the imitation is more open, resulting in greater tear-out on reversing grain. The soles are also fairly big, making it difficult to shave a tighter radius. But if you’re looking for an entry-level spokeshave and know how to sharpen a woodworking tool, then you might consider a vintage Stanley 151A.
But if you are going to use a spokeshave frequently, I recommend moving up the price-scale and looking for a precisely-machined tool. I love my Veritas spokeshaves, but there are a number of other good options out there, such as the ones made by Lie Nielsen, which are especially suited to smaller hands and/or the three-finger grip mentioned above. These tools are a pleasure to hold and a pleasure to use.