Bowl Horse

This article first appeared in Woodwork Magazine (December 2008 #74).  My original plans are found at the bottom of the article.  By copying and pasting the plans image onto a Word document (for example), you can then enlarge it and print. Alternatively, here is a Word file of the plans edited by, then, Woodwork Magazine illustrator, Michael Bray who kindly sent it recently.  You are welcome to use them to build your horse.

A Horse of a Different Sort
 
Text and Photos by David Fisher


I love to carve wooden bowls.  To me, it is an ideal blend of traditional methods and endless design possibilities.  I admire the merging curves and facets that blend into a pleasing whole and the feel of a hand-tooled surface that bears witness to each cut. These qualities result from the carver’s eye and intuition rather than measurement and regulation.  The process of hewing an odd chunk of log into a graceful and useful vessel is satisfying and thought-provoking.  Among its challenges is holding the bowl securely.

This is not much of a problem in the early stages, when the form is relatively angular and chunky, but it becomes increasingly challenging as the bowl approaches its final form.  After hollowing the interior and roughly hewing the exterior, the outer surface and rim are ready to be shaped and refined.  At this point there are few, if any, straight lines or flat planes to facilitate clamping.

Creative clamping methods, involving bench dogs, wedges, clamps, holdfasts, straps, and sandbags can be effective, but none had provided me with the maneuverability and accessibility I was seeking. 

A traditional shaving horse is wonderful in its ability to hold a piece firmly while allowing the work piece to be instantly repositioned, all from a seated position!  It is perfect for slender chair parts but not for the curving bulk of a bowl.  I began to wonder if the shaving horse design could be modified to squeeze the work from end to end rather than to hold it down to a work surface  The result was my bowl horse.

I was delighted to find that while comfortably seated, I could apply foot pressure to hold a bowl solidly, yet instantly reposition it.  With no workbench or clamps to interfere, there was complete access to the bowl from end to end.  It was ideal for use with the drawknife, allowing me to quickly remove wood while offering sensitive control for shaving to the final surface. 

I now use it for all sorts of things.  Tool handles, chair legs, and rived boards are held securely from end to end with complete access to their surface.  This becomes particularly helpful when dealing with short pieces or those with uncooperative grain.  For example, by extending the upper surface of the far end of the work piece just a bit above the edge of the dumb head, the piece can be shaved from the far end along its entire length.

My original bowl horse in the workshop


The first version I built, and still use in the workshop, was chain sawed and hewn from a maple log.  It has round legs driven into 2 ½” mortises.  The trickiest part was forming the stopped channel through the log.  The result is effective, solid, and, unfortunately, practically immobile.

Wanting a bowl horse to take to demonstrations or just outside, I designed a more portable version that can be made from dimensional lumber for little expense.  I used yellow pine and hand tools, but other materials and methods would work just as well.  The principle is more important than the dimensions, so you should feel free to adjust things according to your size and the size of your work.  The construction is simple and straightforward, not requiring much explanation.

The front leg and near stop piece get sandwiched between the 2×8 bed boards and bolted through with 3/8”x 5” carriage bolts.  The seat board requires four long rip cuts, which were a bit of a workout with a five-point rip saw but should be no problem with a table saw.  Bore a 1 ½” hole at the base of the cuts to remove the central portion.  Contour the seat where your legs extend over the front edges and cut the recesses for the rear legs before fastening it to the underside of the bed boards with screws.  Install the rear leg assembly with screws. Another option for rear legs would be to thicken a portion of the seat from below and insert shaved or turned legs into round mortises in the seat, as in a windsor chair. 

The dumb head assembly is simple.  The footboard is secured to the swing arm with a ½” bolt and a wooden pin beneath.  The swing arm has two adjustment holes.  In conjunction with the adjustment holes in the bed boards, this provides plenty of options for length of materials.  The swing arm pivots on a length of ½” steel rod placed through the bed holes.  My horse has 5/8” holes because I happened to have a length of rod that size. 

Some variations might include a specially shaped dumb head or jaws lined with leather.  The head drawn in this design is simply a board screwed to the upper portion of the swing arm.  My home version uses a chunk of pine log mortised to slip over a tenon on top of the swing arm.  A nail point protruding from each jaw may help to hold handles and other long slender pieces for shaping.  Adaptations are relatively simple as the need arises.

I fasten sacrificial pine pieces to the near stop.  These can be easily replaced after repeated meetings with the drawknife.  I also apply pine strips to the bed so that they are half of an inch above the surface.  This creates a lip that helps to prevent the bowl from pivoting when it is up on its side. 

A final benefit to mention is safety.  When I am doing axe and adze work at demonstrations, observers often ask me if I still have all of my fingers.  To the odd disappointment of some, I do. When working with a sharp tool in one hand, it is usually the other hand that suffers.  After much vigorous work on a piece, sitting at the bowl horse with both hands on the drawknife or spoke shave is relaxing, and I can concentrate on the fragrant shavings lifting away from the emerging bowl before me.

Article and plans copyright David Fisher 2008