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knockdown shave horse

This small-space friendly design is perfect for apartment woodworkers.

Skill Level: Intermediate
Time: 6 hrs.
Cost: $100

I’m based in Brooklyn, where finding space to work is one of the greater challenges. Many woodworkers make-do with small shared workshops or even their apartments. With this in mind, I approached Joel Moskowitz at Tools for Working Wood with the idea to teach a knockdown shave horse class. He said, “Great, come up with a design!” We agreed the design should have the stability and strength of traditional shave horses, paired with the option to be broken down.

The resulting design uses affordable materials, is buildable in a short period of time, and is easily disassembled and stored. Tools for Working Wood offers a hardware kit (including full plans), and I teach the class several times a year. The building of the bench itself requires minimal machinery, and the finished product uses threaded inserts and bolts to allow the legs and clamp arm unit to be easily removed.

Cut the Shoulders

Once your lumber is cut to size, your first step is to create the shoulder your bench will rest on. The bench seat rests within shoulders on each leg, which gives the shave horse its stability. Pair off your legs 1 2 and label them. The bottom of each leg sits flat on the ground, splaying out and back from the bench seat. The top of your leg should be parallel with the bench. I find it helpful to label on the inside of all four legs; this allows me to quickly know my orientation when assembling.

Next, cut your shoulders. The first step is to make a depth cut on a sliding compound miter saw to establish the bottom of the shoulder. The miter saw gives a clean and identical surface on all four legs for the seat to rest on. You could also cut the shoulders by hand, but this is a much quicker method. Make a mark on the inside of each leg, 13/8″ down from the top.

At the miter saw, set up for the same compound 80° miter as was done for the legs. Set your depth to roughly half the thickness of your 2×4. You’ll want to place a sacrificial block against the fence—I use leftover scrap 2×4 material. When you place your leg in front of the block, the sliding compound miter saw will create a cut of consistent depth. Remember, you’re establishing the bottom of the shoulder so you want to cut on the inside of the line into the waste material.

Further Reading: Shaving Horse & Drawknife Basics

The legs should end up parallel with the top of the seat and splayed forward (or back). It’s good to double-check this on the bench. Once those cuts are made, mark the two pairs of legs.

I make a non-through cut, halfway through the thickness of the leg, on a sliding miter saw to establish the depth of the shoulder. This uses the same compound 80° angle as the top and bottom leg cuts. The sacrificial fence is there to make sure I’m able to cut the depth all the way through and limit blowout on the back of the cut.

When you’ve made all four depth cuts, you’ll head back to your workbench to finish your shoulders.

You want to scribe the outline of your shoulder, providing a guide for the handsaw to follow. First, scribe a 90° line on both sides of your depth cut. Place one leg in your vise. Scribe a line between the two 90° lines, creating an outline of the shoulder for your saw to follow. I find it best to cut out the shoulder incrementally, cutting first at an angle from one side, then perpendicular straight across the top, then at an angle from the other side. Take your time with this step; it’s important that you achieve a 90° angle for your seat to sit snugly in all four shoulder joints.

Lay out the rest of the shoulder. The legs should meet the bench board at a 90° angle.

Start by sawing at 45° to the 4 5 corner of your board. Remember, saw on the waste side of your line. Following your scribe, saw down to meet the depth cut established by the miter saw. Next, make a shallow cut straight across the end grain perpendicular to the leg, cutting just deep enough to establish the kerf to the other side of the leg. Rotate your leg and saw the other side at a 45° angle down to the shoulder depth cut. You should be left with a clean and straight outline for your shoulder—cut the remaining material away. After sawing, clean up any unevenness with a chisel to allow your bench seat to sit snugly in each shoulder.

A handsaw is the safest and quickest way to cut the rest of the shoulder.

I start the cut on an angle to establish a kerf, then readjust the leg in the vise to finish the cut.

Attach the Stretchers

Once you have your shoulders cut, it’s time to give your legs some structure and stability by attaching the stretchers. You’ll do this one pair at a time, utilizing a spacer that’s cut to match the width of the bench seat. Pick one pair to start and place the legs on your bench top with both shoulders facing each other. Clamp the spacer within both shoulders and orient them so the outside is facing up. You want the stretcher on the outside of the legs. This step can be difficult to visualize, so this is a good moment to reference the finished shave horse at the beginning of the article. Your leg pairs are angled both out and back from the bench seat for maximum stability.

Scribe a line 6 1/4″ up from the bottom of both legs. Align the bottom of the stretcher with your lines. Check that the stretcher is flush with the outside of the legs, and clamp in place. Pre-drill and attach four pan head screws, one in each corner of the stretcher. Repeat the process with the second pair, and set both leg units aside. You’ll find they can stand upright on their own, which always brings me a sense of satisfaction having built a well-balanced structure.

Attach the stretchers for each pair of legs, paying special attention to their orientation. A spacer, cut to the same width as the bench board, helps keep things aligned.

Drill for Pivot Pins

The bench design has three horizontal pivot points for the user to select based on the size of the project or personal preference. These three holes are drilled along both edges of the bench seat. Take your bench seat and choose the front and top, and place it bottomside down on your workbench. Scribe three lines centered on the material edge at 141/8″, 151/4″, and 163/8″ from the front of the seat. Do the same to both sides. The holes can be 2-3″ deep.

This can be done on the drill press or with a jig. My jig is made of 11/2″ x 13/4″ x 9″ long oak stock and 12″ x 6″ plywood. The oak is pre-drilled through the 11/2″ face with three 1/2″ diameter holes 11/8″ apart on center. The plywood is attached to the top of the oak block, will rest on top of the seat, and can be easily clamped in place. The jig helps drilling straight into the seat—be mindful that you’re positioned correctly as you drill.

I use a simple jig to drill the three pivot pin holes along the sides of the bench board. The jig is just a scrap of hardwood and a piece of plywood to guide the drill straight into the center of the bench board.

Attach the Legs

Stand your legs upright on your bench top with the leg toes roughly 48″ apart. Place the bench seat within the shoulders of the leg units. Both leg units should be angled out from the seat. I align the toe of the leg units with the edges of the seat. Next, install the threaded inserts. This can be a chore, but the inserts provide the ability to take apart, 8 10 9 8-10. Clamp your two sets of legs in place and drill for the threaded inserts. Do one insert at a time, first drilling through both the leg and the bench with an 1/8″ pilot bit. Then remove the leg and drill a 5/16″ hole through the leg and a 3/8″ hole for the insert into bench. Then repeat for the other leg attachment points. store away and reassemble the shave horse repeatedly.

Check that your bench seat sits snugly in all four shoulder joints, and that all four feet are resting on the ground. Install one insert per leg, one leg unit at a time. Drill a pilot hole with a 1/8″ bit through to the seat on both sides of your first leg unit. Once you have your pilot holes, take your bench seat out of the shoulders. Drill a 5/16″ hole through the pilot holes in your legs and a 3/8″ hole in both sides of the seat. Install the threaded insert into the 3/8″ seat hole; this can be done by hand with a hex key or with a drill. Set your bench seat back in your shoulders and thread and tighten the bolts with washers into the inserts. Repeat the same process on the other leg unit.

Clamp your two sets of legs in place and drill for the threaded inserts.

Then remove the leg and drill a 5/16″ hole through the leg and a 3/8″ hole for the insert into bench.

Then repeat for the other leg attachment points.

The Clamp Arm

The clamp arm unit has three vertical pivot point options and can be broken down completely via bolt and threaded inserts at all four joints. The two vertical clamp arms each receive three 1/2″ holes for the adjustable pivot pins, as well as two 1/4″ holes for the bolts on either end. The 1/2″ holes are centered on the material at 61/2″, 7 5/8″, and 83/4″ from the top end of the clamp arm. The 1/4″ holes are centered on the material 3/4″ in from both ends.

I recommend drilling the clamp arm holes on a drill press. In order for the clamp arm mechanism to swing with ease, the holes need to be drilled as perfectly as possible. This is a job for the drill press, but if you don’t have one, a jig like the one I built for drilling out the seat can be used. With your vertical clamp arms drilled out, install the threaded inserts (one insert in both ends of each 13/8″ dowel). Clamp the dowels vertically in your vise, drill a 3/8″ hole on center and install as you did for the legs. Place components aside.

The working board is attached to the bench with a pair of butt hinges. It’s made to move to accommodate different thicknesses of wood in the clamp, but folds flat against the bench when not in use.


Three 1/2″ holes in the middle of the clamp arms for dowels create an adjustable pivot point, and then threaded inserts in 1 3/8″ dowel lock the clamp together at the top and bottom.

Working Board & Arms

Attach the two 2″ butt hinges to the underside of your working board and the top of the front end of your seat. Placement for both is approximately 1″ from the working board edge. Once attached, lay the working board flat on bench seat. Now to attach the clamp arm unit around the bench seat, first, prepare your pivot pins; they may need some sanding since you want them to go in and out with ease. The pins can also be waxed to allow smooth pivoting. Slide two vertical clamp arms onto the pins, and bolt the dowels between the arms.

Attach a piece of leather to the angled board, and you’re ready for all kinds of workholding. And, the shave horse can be broken down and stowed or transported wherever your green woodworking adventures take you.

You can choose to finish your bench or leave it unfinished (as I’ve done). Before you put it to work, though, attach a square of leather to your working board. This provides a non-slip work surface. If you don’t have a square of leather handy, cork roll or even an old yoga mat can be used, and held in place with double stick tape. Happy shavings!

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine.

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