Chris Schwarz's Blog

A 500-year-old Shavehorse


There are some woodworkers who say that shavehorses weren’t used in chairmaking – according to the historical record. But shavehorses were definitely used in the mining industry.

Check out this 1556 illustration of a guy working at a shavehorse from the Latin text “Georgius Agricola: De Re Metallica.” The gentleman looks like he is not-so-merrily shaving away at a chair spindle. Not so.

The guy is making “bertte” – translated as “beards.” These are sticks of wood that are shaved so that all the shavings are still attached. They literally look like beards or a Christmas tree perhaps (after too much egg nog).

These bertte were important to the mining industry because they were used to light fires in the mines that would help make the rock crumble.

Thanks to Gerd Schlottig for the image and the text. He was in my workbench class at Dictum in Bavaria this summer. He holds the distinction of being able to eat an entire piece of bread slathered with a thick skin of marmite. If you have ever tasted a molecule of marmite, then you know that you should be showing respect.

— Christopher Schwarz

26 thoughts on “A 500-year-old Shavehorse

  1. garpet

    Chris, I am very interested in a workup or plans to a Shave Horse. Ever since I started watching Charles Brock’s new WebShow The Highland Woodworker and saw Brian Boggs and what little of his ShaveHorse I am intrigued to get the mechanics of a/some models and how they “vise” clamp wood quickly into place and change or unclamp/reclamp quickly! Could you advise me on direction and possible alternatives?? Thanks, Gary.

  2. shannonlove

    Scientific and technological history is one of my little hobbies.

    De Re Metallica is very interesting because it is virtually our sole source of information about medieval mining and metal working. Medieval scholars and writers were largely of the nobility and held all non-military practical knowledge and activity in contempt. As a result, they ignore the details of the technologies kept everyone alive. Prior to the 1600s, there is almost no documentation about any non-military technical matter. We know very, very little about the nuts and bolts of the medieval world

    It is akin to the way that current intellectuals hold business in contempt and never seriously study it despite pontificating about it endlessly. Just as we struggle to understand how most people in the medieval ages lived and worked I imagine that future generations of historians will struggle to figure out how most of us today (who work in business of one kind of the other) spent our lives.

    Elites rarely pay attention to what is truly important.

    1. Eofhan

      Bugged me enough to go read about it (Project Gutenberg). According to the forward in the definitive English translation, De Re Metallica was written in Latin, but first published in German. Coincidentally, that English translation was done by a Latin scholar named Lou Henry Hoover and her Mining-Engineer husband named Herbert. Yeah, then-future President Herbert Hoover. Go figure . . . :~)

  3. almartin

    “Bertte”…fuzz sticks, we call them. It’s one of the first things our Cub Scouts make when we do knife skills. Use them the same way (sans rock crumbling.)

  4. virgil

    Marmite is for girls. Try Vegemite. It’s a compulsory pantry item in every Australian kitchen. Think axle grease and salt, combined with the yeast of a thousand breweries. Helps put a rose in every cheek!

    Cheerio,
    Virg.

    PS What? Shave horses? Oh yes, that’s nice.

    1. Ausieswede1

      Can’t agree more, Vegemite is the right stuff, every Australian kid is brought up on it from birth!

      regards

      Ausieswede

      PS This was a discussion about Vegemite wasn’t it??

  5. zdillingerzdillinger

    I use my shavehorse for non-furniture work all the time. Most recently I used it, along with a drawknife, to make the 12″ long, 1 1/4″ thick oak pegs for my new timber frame shop. I started out by riving the rough billets, and then shaving them down. Initially I used my broad hatchet, but the shavehorse and drawknife was easier.

  6. RIVERCRUISER

    Have not and probably will never experience Marmite. However, my shaving horse (from plans by Drew Langsner) is very useful in ‘Rural’ chair making, boat building and other tasks where an item too long for the lathe is being fashioned. Great for making tool handles too!

  7. Harry

    Hey you guys, I have just had a freshly baked French Baguette with butter and lots of Marmite for lunch, and now I’m fit for work this afternoon. It might be an acquired taste, but I sure did acquire it for Marmite!
    You might also like to consider that it is made from a by-product of brewing beer – so get some proper respect gentlemen. For beginners, just put a very little on your bread.
    Harry in Nairobi

  8. Bernard Naish

    Shavehorse were definitely used in the rural industry to make furniture, hurdles, brooms, rakes etc. from coppiced wood in the forests as it was cut. A member of my family is featured in the Museum of Rural Craft at Reading University using one here in England. Furniture making like this vanished within months of factories making it were established. Come to that most cabinet makers would have been put out of business in a similar way.

    Marmite is a childhood food here usually eaten in small quantities on heavily buttered toast. Applied too thickly it is rather nasty.

  9. rwyoung

    Had New Zealand Marmite when there last November. Can’t say it is on the top of my list of edible bread coverings.

    Interesting thing is there were stories in the newspaper about the pending Marmite shortage due to the factory shutdown as a result of the 2011 earthquakes.

    I was told it was an honor to be able to sample the delicacy before it vanished from the shelves.

    They were wrong.

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