Roy Underhill’s Antique Shave Horse


As you would expect, Roy Underhill’s shop at the 19th-century mill he and his wife, Jane, call home, is chock-full of interesting vintage tools for all aspects of the woodworking trade.

This morning, he moved a 19th-century shave horse out to the shop’s back porch so I could get a good look at it and snap these photos. More than an appliance, this horse is a clever bit of engineering using some found materials, and it’s also a work of art.

It’s constructed of dogwood, oak and hickory, with a chestnut beam. The dumbhead and far legs are from crooks in a tree, and the foot-actuated clamp engages a wire attached to a thin wand that bends rather like a traditional recurve bow for archery to securely hold a workpiece under the head.

As you can see in several of the pictures here, Roy is sitting on a sawbench that is rather higher than what is likely the original working position. The legs are, Roy suspects, much shorter now than when the appliance was made, perhaps due to rot. So while the working position is now a bit odd (and I suspect somewhat uncomfortable after a short stretch), the device remains useable and, other than the leg height, in good working order.

Megan Fitzpatrick








10 thoughts on “Roy Underhill’s Antique Shave Horse

  1. jhp43hot1

    Hey Roy I truly loved your show and I learned a lot from you. Suggest you get rid of that stick in the middle of the horse, mount a nice comfortable seat in the hole, and turn the horse head 180 and work the stock toward the seat. The main point is to use your body weight to stabilize the horse by sitting on it. The previous assembler tried too hard to make it look like a hobby horse because he was told it was a horse. Really appreciate the entertainment and knowledge you have shared, thanks —-jim—-

    1. Megan FitzpatrickMegan Fitzpatrick Post author

      It’s a vintage tool; I don’t think a change is warranted (given that he has other shaving horses with the more typical setup)

  2. RGCopple

    Great shots – could build one based on these photos. No light-weight, with its size and the woods you mention. Not, I guess, built where space was an issue. Another guess – looks to me like the spring-wand connected to the horse’s head lifts the head off the work-piece or at least relieves some head-weight when foot pressure is released. Haven’t seen that feature previously.

  3. notjimothy

    OOPS Frozen !: The long length helps counter balance shaving tool pressure on the short end.

  4. notjimothy

    It’s a scrap box wonder! Most of the material came right out of the scrap box. Most times we wonder why we stuck that thing in the box in the first place. Roy probably has done a little tune up with it now and then. Like that wire instead of a piece of twine in the reset mechanism..

  5. Jim McCoy

    I bet the person who made this had a comfortable chair or stool they wanted to sit on while they worked. I made a Windsor style carved seat for my Brian Boggs inspired horse and it has made a tremendous difference in how long I can work comfortably. I think the beam length, with the proper height legs, would put the work at a comfortable angle for your arms. Two important considerations when you are working for long stretches, especially when you are older and the aches and pains come sooner and last longer. This is a really cool old design. Thanks for sharing it with us.


  6. frozen1

    What an oddity. To call it a shave horse is misleading – you sit on a horse not off it. There seems to be no reason to make the machine so long if you are not going to sit on it. I think some 18th century rube goldberg was at work here.

    1. gumpbelly

      Your assessment is entirely possible, or completely wrong? Makes me wish for time travel to go back and ask the guy who made it what he was thinking.

  7. Fraise

    sorry I quoted your strap line via cut and paste but it didn’t come out – she prefers using hand tools because they rarely make loud noises

  8. Fraise

    Hi Megan
    re I’ve realised this is what drives me to use hand tools – that and convenience. I use an electric router but that’s about it. I wonder if aversion to noise is what drives many of us.

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