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Most tools seem to develop in families. There are resemblances from one generation to the next, and cousins are recognizably cousins. But the spokeshave is something of an exception.
The spokeshave is a distant relation of the drawknife, I suppose, in that it has a knifelike blade that is worked along a length of stock. But most spokeshave users don’t draw the tool toward themselves, like a drawknife; rather, they push the tool away from them. In truth, then, the spokeshave is more akin to a plane than to any other tool.
The spokeshave is used to smooth curves cut onto stock. It’s at its best when cleaning up cuts made by a band saw or jigsaw. For generations of woodworkers, however, the spokeshave was a multipurpose tool used for shaping the seats, backs, and legs of chairs and in cabinetwork.
Virtually all spokeshaves manufactured today are made entirely of metal, but not many generations ago the tool consisted of a wooden body with a steel blade. Gradually, metal surfaces were introduced at the points at which the wooden lip tended to wear out, but today the norm is an all-metal tool. The handles that flank the cutting edge on metal models usually are shaped like wings.
The cutter in a spokeshave may be either straight or rounded (both convex and concave configurations are sold). It’s fastened in a metal-bodied model with a thumbscrew; a pair of tension screws are used to adjust the setting. Nine or ten inches is a typical length for contemporary versions, though antique wooden-bodied spokeshaves are found both in smaller and in much larger sizes.
Antique wooden spokeshaves are frequently seen in shops and for sale from tool dealers. Their blades have a flat cutter with two perpendicular tongues (called “tangs”). The tapered tangs are set into the body of the tool. Unfortunately, since they are held in place by friction alone, setting a wooden spokeshave precisely is a bit tricky, requiring taps on the ends of the tangs or on the bottom of the blade to shift it this way and that. The blade may also require frequent resetting, as the tangs may no longer sit as tightly in their mortises as they once did. Buy one, if you wish, and admire its looks, but you may find you won’t be able to rely on it for a great deal of shaving.
Working the Spokeshave. Fasten a piece of scrap firmly in a vise, with an edge upward. With the workpiece firmly clamped, you are free to use both hands to control the spokeshave, as with planes and the router.
The design of the spokeshave is such that there are two wings or arms, one on either side of the cutting edge. Wrap your fingers around these handles and position your thumbs behind the tool. In metal models, there are indentations cast to fit the pads of your thumbs. Once you’ve found a comfortable grip, push the tool along the edge of the stock. The hand position allows for your wrists to rock the tool toward you or away from you in order to control the cutter angle.
A bit of practice and you’ll feel more at home with the motion. For rough shaping, the blade can be set to remove more stock than when doing finish work.
Sharpen a spokeshave in the same way as a plane iron, by grinding out large imperfections (if necessary) and then honing it on a sharpening stone.