The shaving horse was (and still is) a tool used in the shaping of wood using hand tools. It is also sometimes called a shingle horse. It is a rudimentary type of vise
which allows the free use of both hands to the craftsman.
The history of the shaving horse goes back to 1556, though there are earlier references to devices which may also have been shaving horses dated circa 1485.
What a shaving horse does is provide a clamping device to hold a piece of wood stock while the craftsman shapes it. Usually shaving horses are used in conjunction with the draw knife or spokeshave. It is also useful when working wood with a rasp, plane, or other hand tool. In days of yore there were a large number of uses, providing aid in shaping spokes, barrel staves, furniture parts, hand tool handles, etc.
There are two styles of shaving horse. The oldest style is the Continental (or dumbhead) style, which consists of a work table which then has a vertical shaft extending through an opening in the surface. The vertical shaft was fastened to the table by a pin which allows the shaft to pivot. The shaft has a horizontal bar of wood fastened to the top (the dumbhead) and a corresponding horizontal bar on the bottom (the footpiece). The top bar is the clamping surface while the bottom bar allows the workman to use his feet to press forward, an action which allows the top bar to pivot and clamp a piece of wood to the table for shaping. Depending on the location of the shaft opening, a craftsman could operate the shaving horse in either a standing or sitting position. The top bar was 'L' shaped or 'T' shaped, depending on the maker's preference. There was also a ramp on the surface upon which the stock was laid for clamping, allowing a free range of movement to shape the stock. The ramp was adjustable by means of a series of pin holes, giving even more flexibility of usage.
The second and more common type was an English variant. This variant put in an appearance during the 18th or 19th century, exact dating unknown. Instead of a table a bench was utilized, while the vertical shaft through the center was replaced by a pair of vertical shafts, one along each side of the bench. This modification provided a more balanced clamping force to the stock being shaped than the single shaft design. The bench allowed the operator to sit astride the workbench in a position which resembled riding an actual horse. Custom modifications abounded as these tools were usually home made affairs. Sometimes operators would cut out portions along each side of the bench to allow free movement of their knees along the workbench. Others made it into a multi tasking bench which was longer, providing a larger work area for sawing or other operations.
Part of the advantage of the shaving horse was that it was very inexpensive to make. With a few hand tools and a few pieces of wood a workman could create a very serviceable tool. Almost any woodworking shop would include a shaving horse as a basic piece of equipment. All the parts of the shaving horse could be made of wood, though some used metal pins or nails for pivot pins and fasteners. The type of wood used to make the shaving horse was generally a very hard and straight-grained selection such as oak or hickory. Soft woods such as pine were not well suited for making a durable tool.
The shaving horse still has its place in traditional woodworking. It can be seen displayed in historical re-creations and hard at work on rural farms. As long as there are people who love to shape wood and who enjoy simplicity in their tools the shaving horse will have a home.
For those with an interest in seeing both plans for new and models of working shaving horses, fear not. The Internet abounds with information and plans to make your own. The plans range from very basic to more elaborate designs, but in all incarnations this is a very basic tool.