A Horse That Helped Shape the West


Cree Vicar Dave - SASS Life #49907

There were many types of horses in the Old West, but the one that was instrumental in building our Country is the “Shaving Horse”.  A shaving horse is a clamping devise used by carpenters for untold centuries.  The tool looks like a bench with a swing arm (called a treadle) that holds a piece of wood in place.  To operate it the wood worker sits on one end and pushes on the bottom of the treadle with his foot causing the top to clamp desired stock in place.  The wood is than shaped to size.  A drawknife or spokeshave works well for shaving the wood.  One must be very careful when using cutting tools to keep all body parts out of harm’s way.

According to the information gathered from www.encarta.com who linked me to www.greenwoodworking.com, there are two traditional types of shaving horses.  The first was the Continental schnitzelbank or the dumbhead.  This type is seen in sketches from as far back as the 15th century.  It has an offset head to allow stock to be slid in and out under it from the side.  The second type is called the English bodgeris bench.  It appears to have come on the scene in the 19th century.  This style uses a yoke type mechanism to hold stock in place.  Some prefer the English to the dumbhead because it has the reputation of good centered gripping action as opposed to the off center style of the dumbhead.  I would venture a guess that some kind of shaving horse has been around since the carpentry trade came into being.  It is quite feasible that the Lord Jesus and his earthly dad used a type of shaving horse, as they both were carpenters.  (Mark 6:3 & Matthew 13:55)

Since the shaving horse has its place in the 1800’s I decided to build one for display at Sucker Creek our Cowboy Action Shooting™ town.  I chose the English style horse.  The bench was made out of an oak plank a full 2” x 8” x 55” long.  The print, shown by Encarta set the measurements at 2” x 6” x 52”.  Others call for up to 3” x 10” x to around 5 feet long.  As you can see, the size is not set in stone.  A 3/4" hole was drilled cross way on center through the plank horizontally around 38” from the workman’s seat end.  A 3/4" metal threaded rod was placed through the hole and later cut to size.  If you use planed wood from the lumberyard, you could attach the threaded rod up under the bench bottom to assure construction integrity.  The legs are 2” x 2” x around 19” to 20” long.  The tops were turned to 1-1/2” diameter.  Corresponding holes were drilled up from the bottom of the bench on an out pitched angle to promote stability.  Then legs were glued in place and tops smoothed off.  A good height for the bench is around 17” to 18” to the top. 

I made the treadle frame sides out of maple.  They are full 1” x 3” x 31” long.  A 7/8” hole was drilled through the 3” side up 15” from the bottom of each.  Then a piece of 3/4" copper pipe was inserted as a bushing for the metal threaded rod to ride on.  A 1” hole was drilled through up around 2” from the bottom of each for the foot bar.  A 1” wood dowel was used for the bar.  It was built up between the treadle sides to hold it in place.  The foot bar extends 5” to 6” outside the frame sides.  A 1” hole was drilled through up around 8” to 9” from the bottom and also around 2” from the top of each side.  Two 1” wood dowels (cut around 2 1/2” longer than the outside width of the treadle) were threaded on each end with a 1” wood threading die.  These I used for treadle cross ties which give it extra strength.  One-inch wood flat washers and one-inch wood nuts hold them in place.  Three quarter inch wood flat washers and wood nuts were made for the metal threaded rod.  White Oak or Ash works well for wood washers and nuts.  Hole saws were used to make the wood flat washers.  A wood threading tap & die set was used to thread the 1” nuts and dowels.  A 3/4-10 tap was used to cut threads in the wood nuts for the threaded rod.  I got the wood threading taps and dies from www.grizzly.com.  Next improvements were made on the horse.  First:  Instead of drilling one set of holes to install the yoke, I drilled a set of six holes of 1/2" diameter on 1-1/2” centers.  This allows the yoke (a piece of 2” x 3” x the inside width of the treadle) to be moved up or down as per the thickness of the work piece while maintaining the angle of the work surface board.  The yoke has a 90° V-notch cut in the center of one of the 2”sides.  The notch is around 1” deep; this accommodates working on wood spokes and such.  The yoke is held in place by two 1/2" by 3” lag screws.  A piece of leather or rubber placed on the yoke and/or work surface board helps to keep work from slipping when burnishing occurs.

The work surface board is 1” x 7” x 30” long.  It has 1” holes drilled on center through it on 2” centers in the far end.  A one-inch wood dowel inserted and glued in on the far end of the horse holds the board in place at various settings.  A piece of wood 2” deep by around 4” high by 8” wide elevates the board.  There are two 1/2" dowels glued into the 2” top side of this elevator with corresponding holes in the board.  A wood gusset was placed on its back side for stability.  A comfortable angle for the work surface board should have it pointing to about the height of the belly button.

The neat thing about this project is that it’s not just for looks.  This ole workhorse can stand at parade rest in the town square amid some wood chips and a faux drawknife, or if needed can be called up for active duty to help create other 19th century items.  Remember to always follow all safety and health rules when working on or displaying projects. 

Hope ta see ya on the trail,

God Bless,

Cree Vicar Dave