Drawknife Thoughts

I’ve mentioned and shown drawknives in use in many posts. I use them for bowls, shrink pots, big spoons, chairs, and all sorts of other things. I thought it was about time I shared a few specific thoughts about this versatile tool.

If you want the whole scoop on drawknives, read Curtis Buchanan’s article in Fine Woodworking #268 (May/June 2018) “Master the Drawknife” or Peter Galbert’s 40 page drawknife treatise in his book Chairmaker’s Notebook. There’s also a good article by Drew Langsner in FWW #25 (Nov/Dec 1980) called “The Drawknife.” I’ll add my two cents here based on my knives while trying to not muddy the water.

Top to bottom: D.R. Barton, Spannsage, Baldwin, Veritas

Above are four of the drawknives I use regularly. The top three are no longer in production, although you’ll find similar forms being made today by other folks. Since I have tried only a tiny fraction of the modern knives available today, I’ll focus on some of the characteristics that I would look for, regardless of age or brand.

I prefer drawknives with the handles up even with the cutting edge rather than those with wings that sweep the handles back toward the user and away from the edge. I think putting one’s hands more in line with the edge makes the tool more responsive to subtle movements of the wrists, which is what I want for carving. I also like handles that are oriented generally at 90 degrees to the blade, rather than splaying out. One reason is that this makes it more natural to keep my elbows tight to my body for more control. With the little Veritas drawknife with a 4″ blade, a little splay helps to keep one’s hands clear on such a short tool. The middle two have a slightly curved edge, a little belly, which may be somewhat helpful in some circumstances, but I’m just as happy with a straight edge.

I’ve probably been using the red handled one the most lately, but I used the larger one, the D.R. Barton, for shaving the arch onto the top of this walnut bowl blank this week. Although it has the same edge width (8″/200mm) as the red-handled Spannsage, the handles are further apart which provides better clearance on a large workpiece. Also, the Barton is more hefty, and if you get some momentum behind that mass, it can help when you’re hogging off lots of material. The red-handle Spannsage weighs in at 12 3/8 ounces (350 grams) while the Barton triples that, at 2 pounds (908 grams).

Thumbs Up: Notice in the photo above that my thumbs are up on along the top of the handles, even up onto the steel. The balance between the downward pressure of the thumbs in front and the thumb pad (thenar) in the back are important for controlling the depth of cut. So I would not grip the handles as in the photo below, as there would be a significant loss of control and sensitivity. It’s also important to me that the drawknife design allows my index fingers to curl over the top of the handles without discomfort.

There is commonly a lot of confusion about whether to use a drawknife bevel-up or bevel-down. The answer is: it depends. First, it depends on what type of cut you’re trying to make. For example, working with the drawknife bevel-down will allow you to make a concave cut much more effectively, since the back of the short bevel acts as a fulcrum to lift the edge as the cut proceeds. But some knives may work better bevel down for other cuts as well; the handles are a big factor in which way will work best for a given knife.

In the photo above, the four drawknives are all sitting bevel-up. You can see in #1 and #3 that the handles are oriented around 20 degrees below the plane of the back of the blade. This is comfortable for the wrists and shoulders. #2 is comfortable to use bevel-up too, maybe because the red handles are so short and below the plane of the blade.

In the next photo (above), the bevels have been oriented flat on the bench. While #1 and #3 could still be used in this orientation (bevel-down), it would be uncomfortable for long use. #4 has a better handle angle with the bevel down, which is indeed how I tend to use that little guy. And Red, he looks good like this in the photo, but is definitely more comfortable in use the other way, which just shows what oversimplification will do for you. With many drawknives, you can bend the handles to an orientation that pleases you.

And then there are the factors influenced by sharpening. If you’re using a drawknife bevel-up, a little subtle rounding (or dubbing, or secondary bevel) of the edge on the “flat” on the bottom provides necessary control. Without it, the edge may tend to dive overly-aggressively.

That can also allow you to make a concave cut, even with the bevel up, especially if the blade is relatively narrow as opposed to deep.

Still, you’re working with essentially a wide bevel made up by the entire depth of the blade, so if you push it too far you’ll start to get jumps and chatter. You can see those on the surface of the cut in the photo above as I’ve now flipped the knife around (bevel-down) and about to make the concavity more steep and, hopefully, more smooth. The short bevel allows me to rock through the cut more effectively.

That’s better. If I wanted to reserve a drawknife especially for making cuts like this even more smoothly, I could purposely create a slightly convex bevel on the knife. Of course, the tearout near the end of the log is due to climbing back up there against the grain. Don’t do that.

The same cut viewed from the side. Now I’ll finish with sharpening, since the worst drawknife is a dull one.

Here’s the core of my sharpening equipment. DMT dia-sharp stones (1×4, 2×6, and one 3×8). I bought most of those from Country Workshops, probably in the ’90s, and they’re still going strong. The 2×6 size is what I use most often, and if the XXfine came in a 2×6, I’d have that instead of that way-too-big 3×8. The white stone is an ultra-fine ceramic that I think was once part of a set offered by Wayne Barton. These stay flat and I can easily apply them to the tool rather than the other way around, which I often do. I sometimes use Arkansas stones too, which I like. I tried water stones briefly, but since so much of what I sharpen is curved (gouges, adzes, etc.) they dished severely and quickly, so I turned away from them. There are many other options available since I settled on this years ago, but I haven’t had the opportunity to try them.

Curtis, Peter, and Drew all discuss sharpening methods extensively in their writing. They detail methods for grinding, honing, and polishing. All of their methods make perfect sense. Like Curtis and Drew, Peter also shows how to hone the edge by taking the knife to a stationary stone raised up in a holder and he also sells a drawknife sharpening aid called the Drawsharp that gets universally rave reviews. I haven’t tried it, but it certainly would work well. So, while you should probably use those methods, I’ll show you what I do so you can shake your head.

I like to use water with just a little cleaner like Simple Green mixed in when I use diamond stones. I keep it in a recycled spray bottle and spray it onto the tool or the stone. You can see in that photo that I once hollow-ground this bevel. Subsequent honings have reduced the hollow grind more in the central area of the blade where the edge wears more and needs to be honed more. The flow of the edge has been maintained throughout, albeit with a little less belly.

For the honing, my body becomes the jig to hold the drawknife steady. I grip one handle in my left hand, cutting edge up, with the other handle pressed firmly into my chest. It helps if your chest has some give to it, like mine. My right hand grips the back end of a 2×6 stone with my index finger extended further up. If you’re smart enough to worry about your finger slipping off, you should wear one of those cut resistant carving gloves on your right hand.

Depending on how much renewal the edge needs, I’ll begin with my coarse or fine stone. I put the stone against the back edge of the bevel and rotate it forward until it lies flat against the bevel. I can feel and see this. With all of my joints locked except my right elbow, I slide the stone along the bevel…

…to the other end, and back, and so on…you can get moving pretty fast.

I flip the knife and do the same on the back side.

In between switching from bevel to back or vice versa, I check for a fine burr all along the cutting edge. This tells me that I have honed away all of the steel that needed to go away on the opposite side. I draw my thumb lightly from the back of the bevel toward the edge. Obviously, do not go the other direction or slide along the edge. That queasy feeling you get just thinking about it is the reason why. You can see where my thumb has rubbed away the sharpening swarth from the bevel. You’ll feel a faint burr where a thin edge of steel has been raised from the rubbing on the opposite side. Where you don’t feel it, keep rubbing on the opposite side.

I do the same process with each stone through my finest stone, to refine the scratch pattern and polish the edge. My goal is to finish with light passes with the finest stone to completely sever the burr away, but the strop assures that I’ve gotten it all. This strop has been working for me for 27 years. Leather on a wood paddle with extra fine polishing compound on it.

I start in this position with the strop flat on the bevel and move the strop forward as I proceed along the bevel.

Ending up something like this. The strop, inevitably, rounds the edge slightly, which, in the case of a drawknife, has benefits for control — just don’t take it too far.

Once you get that nice edge, protect it. It takes longer to repair a damaged edge than to make a sheath. There are lots of options. I made the one at the top from a piece of wood and leather straps. The second one is a length of water supply line; simply slit it lengthwise and tie it with a cord. Third is a crudely made riveted sheath made from an old leather belt. The forth one is a snappy leather one that came with the knife.

Enjoy using your drawknife. Happy carving!

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12 Responses to Drawknife Thoughts

  1. Gene Frye says:

    Hi Dave you have seen how I carve my spoon bowls and I have been thinking about going down to about a six inch drawknife. I believe that moving my hands closer together will give me more control and speed up the process with finer cut closer to the edge of the bowl, your thoughts ,narrow used knives are hard to come by. Gene

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    • Dave Fisher says:

      I think a small drawknife would work well for you, Gene. I’ve seen a number of them by current makers, and many of them call it a “carver’s drawknife.” Do a search under that and you’ll see some from Veritas, Swiiss Made, Flexcut, Barr, and many more. I’d suggest one with a narrow (not deep from edge to back) blade so that it can be a little more nimble when working concave areas.

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  2. mrobertweissmd says:

    Dave-Try a piece of vinyl siding “j channel” for a quick and easy drawknife protective cover- available at “home ctrs”; Greg Pennington, chairmaker, taught me that. It fits almost everything made as a drawknife, although occasionally some brand, esp those with a significant curve,  won’t fit in the groove. Thank you for the informative emails. Your work is phenomenal.- M Weiss

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  3. Eddie says:

    Ever really thought I needed a post on drawknives but I’m glad you took the time to do it. Learned plenty.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. duncanrossdavidson says:

    Thank you Dave. There’s a lot more than two cents here.
    Duncan

    Liked by 1 person

  5. John Wayne Rollo says:

    I was once told a draw knife was a useless crude Neanderthal tool, and no fine furniture or any other quality wood work was possible using one. I found it interesting that these guys were all professional craftsman and not one of them owned or to this day probably have a different opinion. I was drawn to them by pure fascination and by chance happened upon you on youtube. That set me in motion after discovering Drew and I built an ill designed shave horse. I probably broke it in the first hour, but the lesson and repair was done and off to the races, I was hooked. Personally I don’t think anyone can ever actually appreciate what is possible with a draw knife and spokeshave without a shave horse. The designs of drawknives, and spokeshaves are numerous and they used to be prolific and available but they’re not made in the number they once were. I actually never thought much about bevel up, down, skewing the cutting edge, curved, straight, big, thick, small, thin or whatever I just went at the work, flipping the tool this way and that, finding a sweet stroke, or angle and literally followed no rule or instructions because I didn’t even know there was any out there. Curtis Buchanan is really interesting and I had fun watching both him, Drew, and you, so to you and the crew you mentioned thank you for fostering interest, and putting me in action. I probably have more draw knifes than I can justify, but I happen to be headed to a high country cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains with my drawknives and crude tools packed for a job that I was specifically requested for this weekend. I would never have this knowledge if not for your teaching and the others that have contributed as well.
    Thanks for sharing.

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    • Dave Fisher says:

      As Curtis says: “The drawknife and shave horse go together like peanut butter and jelly.” I’m glad you tried one out yourself and have been hooked by the magic of the drawknife. Enjoy shaving in the mountains this weekend!

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  6. Joe says:

    Thanks David. Out of curiosity, do you sharpen your draw knives to the same grit as you do your other gouges, etc?

    Have you made any furniture? I’ve seen lots of your bowls and spoons over the years. Curious what your furniture crafting style might look like? I’d imagine one might influence the other but I could be completely wrong about this.

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    • Dave Fisher says:

      Yes, Joe, I go through the same finest stone and strop that I use for other carving tools. They’ll leave a cleanly cut surface behind. That said, I have a couple knives that I tend to use for roughing out if there is a lot of bark present or other issues. If those have a few minor nicks and such, I don’t worry about it.
      I’ve made lots of furniture, mainly for our own home and as gifts for family. Cabinets, beds, chests, tables, desks, benches, built-ins, etc. The style is typically influenced greatly by my wife’s wishes, but based on traditional forms with, I suppose, a lot of shaker and early American features. Much of it has been kicked around with kids and stuff over the years. I don’t even have photos of much of it. One recent example of furniture is the large cherry bench I built for our public library a couple years ago. And a drawknife came in handy on the big chamfers. Here’s a post about that bench: https://davidffisher.com/2020/12/31/library-bench/

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  7. JB says:

    German speaker here: A “Spannsäge” is a bow saw that can be tightened (as any H-shaped bow saw could be). Didn’t know that was a tool brand also! (Best I can tell they are now part of Schmitt & Co. which manufactures the 2 Cherries brand: https://www.kirschen.de/de/Startseite.html
    (Here are their draw knives: https://www.kirschen.de/de/Spezial_Zugmesser_p19.html)

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    • Dave Fisher says:

      That’s interesting! Now I understand the stickers/labels on a set of Spannsäge chisels that I have. They feature an image of a bow saw! They, like the other Spannsäge tools I have or have seen, say “Made in W. Germany,” so probably sometime in the 50s through the 80s. Two Cherries are good tools; I see from your link the one drawknife is similar to mine, but with slightly longer handles.
      Thanks for sharing that information.

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