Since moving to a life in the countryside we've acquired a whole new set of skills and new knowledge and have become acquainted with tools that we had never before encountered in our city/town-dwelling lives. Chainsaws, strimmers, hedge cutters, a winch and a tractor are now the mainstays of our rural life, not forgetting the splitting axe, bill hook and rake.
If I had to name my favourite tools, my top three would include the draw knife – not only for its extreme efficiency at doing its job, but also for its elegance and beauty.
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The draw knife gets its name from the action of drawing the bladed tool towards you, also going by the names of drawing knife, draw shave, pulling knife and shaving knife.
While my own use of a draw knife has only been rudimentary and definitely very much unskilled, in the hands of a skilled woodsman the tool can be used not only for rough work but also for fine finish work, and has historically been used in a wide range of crafts – for example by coopers, wheelwrights, bow makers and shipwrights – for peeling bark, for the removal or surplus wood, and for rounding and chamfering.
Draw knives are often used with a shave horse – a sort of workbench that the worker sits astride like a horse. While we have a beautiful bowl horse (made by Stuart), it isn't quite adapted to be used as a shave horse so we tend to rely on the make-do method of leaning the logs up against something (depending on their length, varying from a wall, to other logs, to leaning them up against our legs, or even sitting astride the log itself if it's of monster size).
The draw knife essentially consists of a blade with a single bevel, set between two wooden handles. However, variations exists such as size of the blade, the angle of the handles, and whether the blade is straight sided or curved.
The handles of draw knives feature a strong tang (the portion of the blade that extends into the handle) to ensure a secure grip – an important consideration in a bladed tool designed to be pulled towards you. The length of the blade varies according to its use, but may be anywhere between 8cm and 40cm.
As with many hand-held tools, designs of draw knives can also vary according to region: British draw knives tend to have their handles at a right angle to the blade; French draw knife handles are also usually set at a right angle to the blade, but are very short; while the handles of Swedish and Japanese draw knives (as well as some German, Austrian and Swiss designs) extend straight out from the ends of the blade.
Our own draw knife was inherited from the previous owners of our house so we are unsure as to its provenance but it’s likely it is British.
Historical references to the draw knife include the monk Theophilus, who mentions its use in his book "On divers arts" (1122 AD), and examples of draw knives were found among the over 200 tools and blacksmith works in the Viking Mästermyr tool chest (1000 AD) found on the island of Gotland, Sweden. In Novgorod, Russia draw knives have been found dating from the 10th century onwards. The tools also feature in several of the illustrations of craftsmen in the Mendelschen and Landauer Hausbucher – books which chronicled the crafts and tools of the residents of the Mendelsche and Landauer Twelve Brothers Houses for needy (old, infirm) craftsmen from the early 15th century to the start of the 19th century.
In the illustration above, from 1642, a craftsman and resident of the Mendelschen Zwölfbrüderhausstiftungen is tying a band for a large barrel. A draw knife can be seen hanging on the wall behind him alongside a drill, a compass and a measuring stick. (More fascinating illustrations can be found on the Nuremberg City Library's website for the house books of the Mendelschen and Landauer Twelve Brothers House Foundations: https://hausbuecher.nuernberg.de.)
So draw knives have a long history, and in 2021 we are using ours as a simple and elegant solution to stripping (or peeling) the bark from logs (removing the bark helps to slow down the process of the wood rotting) and shaving posts down to the right size. We may not have mastered the skill of using the draw knife for rounding or chamfering, but it gets plenty of use for the more basic tasks, and always with great satisfaction.