The Limited Edition Shaving Horse
A Bit of History…
Straight from the (Shaving) Horse’s Mouth
A shaving horse that has stood the test of time.
A lmost anything can spark an idea, and some of the best designs come from the necessity of using what you have to create what you need.
Veteran chairmaker Brian Boggs understands this concept better than most, because the chair he was interested in creating 35 years ago required that he first build a shaving horse.
The first close shave
“When I was starting out with that shaving horse, I was 22 years old,” Brian remembers. “My first wife was pregnant with our first child, and I had just read John Alexander’s Make a Chair from a Tree and I wanted to make a chair.”
For the uninitiated, a shaving horse is a blend of work bench and vice that gives you the control and leverage needed to smooth pieces of wood with ease and consistency. It may look simple, but a well-built shaving horse is a precise piece of equipment customized for individual use.
Brian Boggs’ first shaving horse was not so precise. It was, in fact, some pieces of an old fence that he nailed together to approximate one he’d seen in a book on chair-making. The horse worked, but behaved more like a stubborn mule than the thoroughbreds Brian would eventually design.
After the shaving horse was ready, Brian visited a logger who lived near him to see if he could buy white oak logs like those John Alexander used in his book.
Logging the next chapter
The logger quickly let Brian know that straight grain white oak logs cost $2 per foot, making them several hundred dollars each—not the most economical way to launch into chairmaking.
Fortunately for Brian, the logger knew about making chairs the old way. He steered Brian to some hickory wood, which had been used to make furniture for centuries. He told Brian, “I got a couple little old hickory logs over here I can let you take. I’ll let you have them for $100 apiece. I’ll deliver them to you and you can pay for them when you make some money making chairs. How’s that?”
Apparently there wasn’t a big market for hickory at the time, because each of the smaller hickory logs Brian purchased were 16 feet long, making the mother log 32 feet long. “The original log was straight as a gun barrel, and 350–400 years old, because I counted the growth rings,” said Brian.
True to his word, the logger delivered the hickory to the Boggs’ backyard, and Brian spent the next several months working away on them.
“I would split out a chunk, and it was the wood that I still just dream about. Amazing material. I’d split out a 20-inch section of hickory and make 200 rungs before lunch; split, shaved, square, stacked to dry. I got real accustomed really quickly to repetitive work on the shaving horse, which acquainted me to the pros and cons of that kind of brutal physical work. As I got more skilled, I got better at managing my daily workload, but still was very present to the ergonomic experience of pulling every shaving off of those two hundred rungs bound by noon,” Brian said.
Grooming the current design
After a couple of years of this intense work, however, Brian was noticing some major limitations in the capabilities of his original shaving horse.
“It was crude, said Brian, “and I remember many times having the piece of wood that I was shaving slip out of the horse and jab me in the chest.”
After one memorable episode of being jabbed three times in a row, Brian knew he had to build a better shaving horse. Working with what he’d learned from his fence post model, Brian made adjustments that allowed him to maximize the use of leverage more efficiently.
“Even though that was my first real effort at improving a shaving horse, Scott Landis included it in his workbench book for innovative designs,” Brian said.
The horse design proved effective for many years, but Brian gradually began developing back problems that made him consider quitting chair-making altogether. “The pain was persistent and it took all of the fun out of my work. While I took a break from making chairs to let it heal, I decided to look at this nut again and see if I could crack it a little bit better.”
Customization is key
Brian began studying ergonomics of workplace design and seating. He looked at everything from office chairs to bus seats while considering the best orientation of elbows to forward-driven activities such as rowing, learning how the human body works when it’s pulling backwards.
“I started sketching the dynamics of using a shaving horse and discovered what was causing my back problems,” explained Brian. “It was the way that I had designed my horse. I made a new one that fit me better. Tilted the seat, improved the mechanism, simplified it. Got my work height at a more optimal level for my body type, and in the process, built a horse that looked a whole lot better than my old one and worked beautifully.”
By his own calculations, Brian has been on his “new” shaving horse at least 10 hours a week for the past 25 years. He’s had to replace some leather and some worn-out wooden parts, but it’s still going strong. It’s been featured in Fine Woodworking Magazine, Lie-Nielsen Tools and Roy Underhill’s workshop—and it’s been used vigorously by many employees of Brian Boggs Chairmakers.
“People need a shaving horse that fits them just like they need a shoe that fits them, so we build our horses according to dimensional information that we get from our clients,” Brian said.
There you have it; straight from the horse’s mouth. The shaving horse, that is.