By Abe Elias
Drawknives come in many styles and are a woodworker’s delight
Knives take on many shapes and sizes. As tools, their designs sometimes focus on specific tasks. In the case of the drawknife, it is designed for woodworking. I cannot tell you much about the tool’s origins but in its modern iteration it has not changed much for hundreds of years.
The design itself takes many different shapes for many different purposes. At times, it is not referred to as a drawknife but, at first glance, you can see the relationship and how a number of tools can be considered part of the same family. As with any tool, different cultures have different interpretations of how the tool should be designed. For this article we will examine the drawknife and its different forms, how it is used and simple tips for its safety and care.
WHAT is a DRAWKNIFE?
A drawknife is a single-beveled blade placed between two handles. The tool gets its name from how it is used. You simply grab both handles and draw the knife towards you bevel up. Controlling the angle that the blade enters the wood will control the depth of cut. A steep angle will get you a deeper, more aggressive cut but will also require more effort. Lowering the angle makes for a shallower cut and also gives you a finer finish as the material is removed less aggressively. Some designs have long handles on plane with the blade. Other designs have the handle tight in and below the plane of the blade. No matter where the handles are, the action is the same but the point of control changes.
HOW to USE a DRAWKNIFE
When working with narrow stock no more than 2 inches wide, it is easy enough to draw the knife straight back toward you. On wider stock it is better to skew the knife. Skewing the knife provides a leading edge and causes less resistance during the cut. When working with hardwoods you want to keep the cut light, as the dense grain provides more resistance and bogs the knife down.
Learning to use a drawknife properly is a bit like working a puzzle. The easiest way to make a cut is to work the facets of the material. For instance, say we are working on a piece that is square. To shape the piece to the required size it is easier to work the corners down, creating more corners until you get to your desired shape. By working the flats, you must use more energy and struggle to make a cut.
When first using a drawknife, the tendency is to use your arms to power the tool. Instead, use your back muscles, which are larger and less likely to fatigue quickly. Draw the knife back as if you were using the same muscle for rowing. If do it right, it should feel like your shoulder blades are trying to meet in the middle of your back. For safety’s sake, keep your elbows in tight. As you draw the knife back your elbows will hit your core acting as a safety stop, preventing you from slipping and cutting yourself.
A debarking knife is usually a larger style of drawknife used for extracting bark from logs. They are larger and heavier than their woodworking counterparts so that you can blast through the bark. It has been my experience that when working green wood, you need not keep the knife as sharp. In fact, it is a somewhat more helpful to keep the knife a bit dull when cutting green wood so as to avoid diving too deep into the wood itself. On seasoned logs because of the lack of sap between the bark and sap wood I find it better to have the knife a bit sharper.
Woodworking drawknives come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The two main types I have used are an English and German style. The English style has a blade that bares a slight arch and the handles are on the same plane as the blade. German-style knives have handles that sit lower than the blade and the blade tends to be straight. The knives’ handles can vary. Most of mine have a pear-like shape. There are other styles like a round knob style, which is a ball shape.
Specialty styles of knives include any drawknife that is shaped to obtain a specific result. A cooper’s knife is shaped to accommodate the making of barrel staves. I also have a handle-making knife. The handle-making knife is a tight arch designed to make handles for things like brooms or garden implements. The basic shape is a half circle, so instead of trying to round a piece off by angling a number of cuts, you get a piece of wood close to size and simply let the knife shape it.
A Scandinavian invention, the push knife is similar to a drawknife in that it has a blade attached by two handles on either side. Using a push knife is different in the way that you are expected to force the edge away from your body instead of pulling it toward you. Unlike a drawknife, the handles come straight out from the sides, which allows you to either push or pull the knife. I normally use the knife in the manner that gets the job done—meaning on occasion I will draw the knife toward me rather than push.
Technically, scorps are not drawknives. However, in terms of looks and use you can’t help but lump them in the same family. I have a chair maker’s scorp that is designed to hollow out the seats of chairs. On older chairs is a slight depression in the shape of a person’s butt. A chair maker’s scorp was used to produce the shape. The tool operates just like a drawknife except it has a shorter blade with a more pronounced arch.
CARE of a DRAWKNIFE
Like any other cutting tool, a drawknife must be sharpened. Perhaps the trickiest part of sharpening the knife is finding a way to brace it. I find dynamic sharpening (see accompanying image) the easiest way to sharpen a drawknife. I brace the knife and move the sharpening medium instead of the other way around. One way to brace the knife for sharpening is to put one handle in your armpit and hold the other handle in your off hand. Once the knife is braced this way, take a stone to it. Another way is to brace one handle on the bench, lean your chest on the other handle, and then begin sharpening. Keep in mind a drawknife must be sharp (except where noted previously) but since it is not necessarily a fine woodworking tool, don’t get carried away.
Last, keep it oiled. Even the newer ones are not made from new hi-tech steels. Most are from simple carbon stock and a light coat of oil goes a long way. Among others, Flexcut offers a contemporary drawknife.
WHAT the SOUL NEEDS
Long before there was solar power, fossil fuel power, steam power, etc., there was muscle power. Humans developed the world using tools with muscle and sweat. There is something satisfying about making something by hand. The feel of a good day’s work is sometimes what the soul needs. A drawknife not only gets the job done but also gives you an accomplishment to savor.