How to Make Wooden Tools

The author was able to replace a lot of costly and inferior implements when he taught himself to make wooden tools.

| May/June 1980

Breaking the handle off a brand-new tool — especially if the piece of equipment is one you just shelled out hard-earned cash for — can be an irritating experience. Sadly enough, the old plaint, "They just don't make 'em like they useta," applies to wooden products at least as well as — if not better than — it does to the bulk of today's mass-produced plastic and metal contraptions. It seems as if the subtleties of wood grain, texture, resiliency, and pliancy are well beyond the capabilities of "modern" mechanized manufacturing. It's no wonder, then, that quite a few folks are taking a couple of steps backward in time and learnin' to "whittle" out their own wooden tools and utensils. I, for one, have found that — whether I make a spatula or an axe handle — not only do I assure myself of top-notch quality by "doin' it myself," but I can save (or even earn) a few dollars while I'm at it. As a matter of fact, though I started shavin' just for the fun of it, my hobby ended up turning into a part-time profession. Yours could, too!

Now just because the wood-shaving craft goes back a ways, don't think it's some ancient art form shrouded in mystery. As you'll find out, this large-scale form of whittlin' is no more than the next logical step beyond timber chopping! With a little woodsy know-how, and a few basic tools, you'll be turning out "sculpture" in no time at all.

Wood Choice

The first and most important rule of thumb in selecting your shavin' wood is to choose freshly cut green specimens. Such sappy wood is far easier to slice than the dried variety, and doesn't tend to crack in the wrong direction. ( Stay away from lumberyards! Commercial lumber is almost always dried, frequently in a kiln, and may not have been sawed with the grain of the wood.)

Of course, the best (and least expensive) way to get your timber is to choose and chop it yourself. Such "foraged" lumber might come from your own woodlot or from the castoffs of power or telephone line clearing crews. But wherever you get your raw materials, be sure to pick a tree that's suited to the task you've assigned it: Don't whack down a 20"-diameter walnut tree to make an axe handle when a 7-8" hickory tree will probably (if the tree is straight enough and long enough) do the job.

The type of wood you select will depend largely upon what's growin' in your neck of the woods. You might consider using white oak for utensils and tools (since it's easy to work with and resistant to rot), and hickory for handles (because it combines strength and hardness without being brittle)... if such species are readily available to you.

Shavin' Tools

Your shopping list for shavin' implements will be limited to (beyond the backcountry essentials of an axe, wedge, and sledge) a froe, a froe mallet, a drawknife, and a spokeshave. A froe is a cleaving knife with a 12-15" cutting edge and a handle that protrudes from the back of the blade at a right angle. Its companion, the froe mallet, is formed from the heart of any one of a number of different hardwoods, and is used to "plant" the froe in the grain of the wood.

Once you've used the froe to cleave your wood into an appropriately sized block, you'll need a drawknife in order to do the shaping. The drawshave (as the tool is sometimes called) also has a 15" blade, usually gently curved, with handles set at the perpendicular . . . one to each end of the blade.

When the drawknife has done its job, you can finish shaping your wooden object with a spokeshave. Such smaller carvers come in a variety of cutting shapes (from straight to half-round), and employ, an adjustable blade depth (much like the! feature found on a safety razor).

But before you take this list and head for your local hardware store, be forewarned: The salesperson will probably give you a blank look. Like so many of the tools (and skills) that helped to shape this country, wood-shaving implements have been relegated to the dusty walls of old woodsheds. You'll have to patrol auctions, flea markets, and/or antique shops to equip yourself.

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