How to Use a Drawknife
I started my woodworking career 40 years ago shaving ladderback chairs based on the methods of Jennie Alexander as outlined in Make a Chair from a Tree. Green wood, split from straight-grained logs, aligns perfectly with drawknife work.
Drawknives used to be one of the most commonplace tools. They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes to suit many different tasks. Mast knives, for shaping boats’ masts, were often quite wide, from 12″-18″. For chairmaking and other furniture parts (tool handles, garden fencing, and basketry), I tend to stick to knives about 8″ wide.
People are often concerned about pulling a drawknife toward themselves, thinking of the risk of being cut. In use, it’s quite safe. With both hands on the knife and your knees out of the way, the muscles in your back act to stop the forward motion before reaching your torso.
You are more likely to have an accident when sharpening the drawknife, so use good work habits and special care. If I’m using a slipstone or other hand-held stone, I hold the knife’s cutting edge away from me, swiping the stone across the blade.
Drawknives come in many sizes and shapes. Bevel shape and handle placement affect how the knife performs. Some are best with the bevel up, others work best with the bevel down on the workpiece. The handles should be positioned so that your shoulders are not hunched up while shaving. Some folks adjust the bevels by grinding and honing, and even bend the handles’ tangs to change the geometry of their drawknives.
For me, the ideal method for drawknife work is using it in tandem with the shaving horse, a simple folk tool consisting of a long, low bench with a foot-operated clamping mechanism for holding the workpiece. Shaving horses come in an endless variety of configurations, but all share the same basic concept of using your feet to grip the workpiece at a comfortable position so you can shave it with both hands.
I use a curved blade drawknife for shaping at work, especially the slats for ladderback chairs. Its bevel is on the upper part of the blade, and the curve exaggerates a scooping cut, slicing through the grain easily. A dead-flat knife can dig in sometimes.
My main drawknife work is furniture parts, either preparing stock for turning, or shaving it to finished shape with the drawknife. My favorite drawknife is an 8″ American antique. Its handles droop down just the right amount for me, and there’s enough steel left in its edge to get me through the rest of my drawknifing days. The method is the same for either case. Using a billet of freshly riven wood, I grip one end in the shaving horse and “draw” the knife toward me. It’s not just a simple matter of pulling the knife directly to me. I slice through the cut by skewing the blade and leading the cut with my left hand.
This technique is not intuitive; it takes practice. The natural inclination is to hold the knife’s edge perpendicular to the stick you are shaving. Skewing it will make the cut both easier and smoother.
When aiming for round chair parts, I start with a square. Shave one face generally flat, flip the piece end for end to reach the part that was held under the shaving horse’s crossbar. Clean up that end. Next, turn the workpiece one quarter turn and shave the adjacent edge/face. From there, you can mark out the desired width, and repeat the steps to produce an even, generally square piece.
My shaving horse crossbar has a notch to hold these square parts with the corner up. This way I can shave off the corners to produce octagonal stock. If it’s going to be turned, then I’m done at this point. If I’m shaving it round, then I continue to blend the octagonal facets even more until the stock is rounded.
Spoon carving is an ancient and functional art form that requires little wood and just a few tools. Discover the basics as well as instructor Jarrod Stone Dahl’s expert tips to get you started in The Art of Spoon Carving.