by Kevin Walsh
The Noble Spokeshave
I suppose that most people who decide to build a boat in
their garage or backyard have at least some experience in wood-working
that would make the idea of constructing something as complex as a boat
somewhat less ludicrous than it appears to be. It's been my experience
that most people who know the difference between a jack plane and a
one-eyed jack learned such subtle distinctions from their father, or
grandfather, or favorite uncle, or some other flannel-clad, work-booted,
tobacco-chewing male role model.
It's just not all that weird to most folks if you have some skill in
making things out of wood to turn your attention to a boat of some kind.
This naturally excludes those of you who are even now furiously engaged in
building a plywood replica of the aircraft carrier Hornet in your living
rooms while your wives spend what money you have left over on high-priced
But what about those of us whose fathers enjoyed, say, watching TV? The
only hobby I ever observed my father indulge himself in was sitting down.
As the son of an accomplished Lazy Boy jockey, I grew up blissfully
unaware of the satisfaction to be derived from transforming the elegant,
delicate cellulose structures Nature spent perhaps billions of years
evolving, into a useless heap of undersized kindling.
When that peculiar schizophrenia known to wives throughout the world as,
"That idiot wants to build a boat in the garage" struck me, I was equally
struck by the fact that I knew nothing, and I mean NOTHING about boats,
boat building, building in general or in particular, tools of any kind,
power or otherwise, nothing.
We'll leave the analysis of why such a babe in the woods turned to the
construction of traditional sailing craft some other time, when I have the
time to make up a reason that doesn't sound stupid. Suffice it to say,
I've got it bad, and it ain't pretty.
As this strange passion engaged me, I eagerly consumed book after book on
the subject of building a boat. Over time, and many books I learned a
great deal. Aside from the obvious fact that for me to become good at
building boats I must grow a gnarly beard and a big, wiry head of hair,
wear L.L. Bean clothing and live in Maine, another incredibly important
insight occurred to me. The straight line in a boat is an exceedingly rare
thing. That in order to shape many of these demonstrably non-linear boat
parts, I would need something to remove wood from a concave surface,
something for which the pedestrian Stanley Plane, available at Home Depots
the world over, was singularly ill-suited.
Only you, gentle readers, you builders of Bolgers and whittlers of
Wharrams, only you can imagine the shock, the horror, the utter dismay
with which I was faced when first I found that I would need to acquire and
master the spokeshave.
And so, ever eager to put off actual, physical activity, I read some more.
I turned to that great Pantheon of procrastination and inactivity, the
Internet, and I discovered a curious and perhaps even a frightening thing.
I found that many, many people in this great nation of ours suffer from a
peculiar affliction known simply as Obsessive/Compulsive Spokeshaving.
For example, I found the web site of Dave Wachniki, owner of Dave's
who reproduces traditional spokeshaves. Dave has turned
what most would experience as a casual, somewhat utilitarian encounter
with a nice hand-tool into a gold-plated science. My confidence, already
at a low ebb, was nearly irretrievably shattered when I encountered this
blurb on his site:
"Get the most out of your Conover shave. The supertune includes a new
sole-to-cutter geometry, new brassing and a larger throat opening.
Re-contouring of the finger rests and sharpening the Conover cutter
completes the tuneup."
Needless to say, many questions bubbled into my fevered brain. Tune up a
spokeshave? Is this a simple plugs-and-points job, or does it involve
strings? Will I have to go back to school to brush up on my geometry to
operate this tool? Will my project suffer grievously if I stick with the
old brassing and smaller throat opening? And what, dear spirits, what is
brassing and where is the throat opening? Clearly, Dave is in at least the
next galaxy over from me when it comes to knowledge of cutting tools,
totally out of my league, so I continued my search.
After further investigation, I found a web site that restored my belief
that I could do this, that I could, if not master, at least become not so
dangerous to nearby dogs and children when handling a spokeshave. It turns
out that the spokeshave is an ancient implement, older even than Dick
Clark, if you can imagine such a thing. The web site of the Authentic
Artifacts Collector's Association:
goes a long way toward answer the question burning in
every man, woman and child's breast:
"How did ancient amerinds straighten their wooden arrow and spear shafts?
With a spokeshave!"
Naturally, questions like, "What the heck are amerinds, and what were they
doing making arrows and spears anyway," popped up, but I struggled to
remain focused on the issue at hand, and I successfully shook them off. As
I examined this site and it's accompanying handy reference on how to tell
an authentic ancient spokeshave from a field plow ding, my confidence
returned, even though the example spokeshaves on the site look much more
like the crusty gunk in my water pipes than a scraping tool intended for
the skilled hands of a fine spear craftsman.
So why did this make me feel better? Well, after all, if stone-aged cave
men could not only use spokeshaves, but assemble them from rocks and
sticks, why then I, a well-educated, computer-wielding, totally modern man
could do it. Thus armed with manly pride I proceeded to
www.amazon.com and purchased a shiny
new Stanley spokeshave (I know, I know, I used the Internet to actually do
something, forgive me.) Oh sure, I could have gone to John Gunterman's
to learn how to make my own spokeshave, but remember, I
don't know how to make anything yet, right?
I waited impatiently for many years for the spokeshave to arrive, and
three days later, it did. I anxiously tore the packaging apart, pulled out
the swaddling paper and there it was; a Stanley 12-951 Contractor Grade
spokeshave. I admit to feeling a little guilty, not being a contractor and
all yet presumptuously obtaining the Contractor Grade tool, but it felt
pretty good, too. Surely with the presumably much higher grade tool, my
work would be much improved, wouldn't it?
Clutching the thing to my chest, I ran to the garage, pulled out a piece
of scrap lumber, clamped it to the bench and poised the tool over the
surface of the wood and - proceeded to inflict wounds not seen since the
Great War upon this hapless, innocent piece of wood. Once the screams of
agony died away, I pondered what I had done.
Perhaps there is something to this tuning business after all? Maybe the
iron must be positioned properly, and the blade sharpened at the correct
bevel? The Internet had a lot to offer me there, too. This web site:
shows how to impart a bevel so fine to the iron that it is
"ScarySharp (tm)." So I think that maybe I'll give this ScarySharp
business a try and see how things go. If it works out, imagine the quality
of work that I might produce, given such a magnificently tuned instrument?
And if it doesn't, I can always type with my feet.