This article previously appeared in The Gristmill, Vol. 95 June 1999
Recent Updates for the Naming and Datings of Spokeshaves
Interpretative representation (in the style of the 1683 illustration, considerably enlarged from the reference available) of the spokeshave graphic depicted in Fig. “JJO” (110) in The Academy of Armory, or A Storehouse of Armory and Blazon by Randle Holme, published in London, England, in 1683.
Thomas C. Lamond © 1999
Despite the efforts of this writer prior to and during the preparation of the manuscript for Manufactured and Patented Spokeshaves & Similar Tools, published in 1997, no graphics dated prior to 1816 depicting a spokeshave were found. That is not to say that such pictorial references were believed not to exist. On the contrary, I believed that some graphic or illustration would eventually be revealed. It’s just that corroboration or validation of that belief was not made prior to publication.
Research, which to some degree paralleled that of R.A. Salaman, had indicated that the earliest pictorial record found in reference to the spokeshave was in Smith’s Key which was published in 1816. From the time I first read that date I questioned it, but my research just failed to reveal an earlier picture.
While discussing spokeshaves with Carl Bopp, noted authority on old tools, the question of an earlier reference was again raised. Carl declared that he would make every effort to find a reference with an earlier date. Carl’s diligence paid off and his search revealed not one, but two earlier pictorial references, both related to coopers.
One predates, the Smith’s Key reference by 12 years. Interestingly, the book containing the reference was originally presented as a children’s book and was first published in England in 1804 by Tabart & Company, under the title The Book of Trades, or The Library of the Useful Arts. The edition common in America was copied from the third English edition (1806) which included 23 copperplates as compared to 18 found in the first edition. The American version was republished by Jacob Johnson in Philadelphia in 1807. Subsequent republication of Part I was by Dover Publications, Inc. in 1976 under the title The Little Book of Early American Crafts and Trades.
The other reference that Carl uncovered had been discussed in a publication written by the late Raymond R. Townsend. The title, The Petite Gazette, Tid-Bits of Useful Knowledge for Tool Collectors, sums up what the gazette covered. Obviously a labor of love, The Petite Gazette was produced from 1979 until 1982. Seventeen volumes are known and were provided to a small group of tool enthusiasts at Mr. Townsend’s own expense.
The particular issue Carl cited, Volume II, No.6, was devoted to cooper’s tools. Reproduced graphics and excerpts from an early book were supplemented by “Remarks” provided by Mr. Townsend. The book, by Randle Holme, was entitled The Academy of Armory, or A Storehouse of Armory and Blazon. Published in London in 1683, it preceded Smith’s Key by 133 years. The reproduction of the graphics, denoted by the symbols “JJO” (110), includes what is without a doubt, a spokeshave. The text states that the two instruments (pictured) belonging to the cooper are the spoke-shave and the lat (lath) axe. The latter is much like a froe while.. .”The first, called a spoke-shave, is an iron with a sharp edge set in a piece of wood with two handles after the manner of a Plain, with this any round body is made smooth and round.”
The diagram suggests the general form of a spokeshave, but is somewhat more bulbous than more recent spokeshaves. The graphic included had changed from the original in that it had been photocopied a number of times, thus losing considerable detail. The drawing included above is an enlarged representation of what was depicted.
Considering these references to spokeshaves in connection to their use by coopers has brought to light more information on the derivation of the name. It has been previously determined that a spoke is a section of wood that is obtained when a length of log, destined to be used by a last-maker, is split radially through the center of the log section.
The split would normally run from outside to outside through the pith or center of the log. After the first separation, additional splits would be made from the pith to the outside. The resulting pieces of wood would be wedge shaped, their bulk being determined by the original diameter of the log and the angle between the splits.
The last-maker, or the person preparing the spoke for the last-maker, would logically remove the apex or point of the wedge along with the outer portions of the spoke that retained the bark. Debarking may have preceded the splitting, but the end result would be substantially the same; a piece of wood with a length longer than the width and/or thickness. This shape would lend itself readily to being shaped into a last in the form of a foot.
Coopers cutting a log into longer lengths and subsequently splitting the wedge shaped sections into pieces with considerable less thickness yielded what were also referred to as spokes. The splitting of the wedges by a cooper was accomplished with a curved froe with the curve positioned so it lay relatively parallel to the outside edge of the log section. By regulating the placement of the froe, the thickness of the pieces split off could be quite similar.
The relatively thin, long grained pieces, or spokes as they were called by early coopers, were then processed further, using “spokeshaves”, into what are now commonly referred to as staves.
Considering the similarity of uses for roughing out stock and the similarity of terminology for the tools used to process that stock helps to explain how the spokeshave got its name. The references from 1683 help provide a degree of continuity of terminology from earlier times to the present.
Even with these recently revealed early graphics, I would not be surprised to learn that the name goes back considerably earlier than 1510 (Goodman), the earliest known written reference. By then the name was established to the degree where the tools bearing the name spokeshave were included in writings. Perhaps the next step back in time will be in yet an earlier book or an inventory of belongings attributed to some craftsman as part of his estate.
Then again, maybe some painting done by a painter with an eye for detail will reveal even an earlier depiction of a spokeshave. After all, the word “spoke” is reported to be derived from an early Low Germanic language called Frisian. Frisian was a language of an ancient Teutonic tribe indigenous to northern Holland…Holland? Dutch or German painters? Could be there’s a painting out there that will show an early spokeshave.
- Goodman W.L., The History of Wood-working Tools, London, 1964.
- Lamond, Thomas C.; Manufactured and Patented Spokeshaves and Similar Tools; Lynbrook, NY, 1997.
- Smith, Joseph; Explanation or Key to the Various Manufactories of Sheffield; 1816, republished by The Early American Industries Association, 1975.
- Stockham, Peter (Edit.), The Little Book of Early American Crafts and Trades.; 1804, republished Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, NY, 1976.
- Townsend, Raymond R.; The Petite Gazette, Tid-Bits of Useful Knowledge for Tool Collectors; 1980, Vol. II, No.6 excerpts from Holme, Randle; The Academy of Armory, or A Storehouse of Armory and Blazon, London, 1683.)
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Photocopy of the spokeshaves depicted in Figures 483 and 484 found in Smith’s Key published in Sheffield, Eng. in 1816. Prior to the uncovering of the 1683 graphic, these were examples of the earliest known depictions of spokeshaves.