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Spokeshaves:-“What’s In A Name?”

Tom Lamond

It’s not that shaves weren ‘t used to shape spokes, without a doubt, they certainly were. What one who ponders spokeshaves (in addition to myself) may realize is that there are spokes and there are spokes. The most common to come to mind are those that hold the felloes of a wheel in a certain juxtaposition in relation to the hub of a wheel. An inquisitive person may ask if ladder rungs were also called spokes, and if so, perhaps that is where the term originated, realizing of course that man had ladders way before he had spoked wheels. If that were the case, perhaps spokeshaves would be called “rungshaves.”

Although rungs aren ‘t commonly called spokes, Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary (Unabridged, 1979) does include the terms spoke and rung in the definitions for rung and spoke respectively. That same dictionary, like many others, included in the definition something like …spokeshave… “so called because originally used to shape spokes but now used for trimming wood and smoothing rounded surfaces.”

A pertinent question is, where did the spokeshave get its name?. Probably from the image of the segments of the circle. These segments were once called spokes, especially when logs were split. Some time ago, such spokes were used to make lasts for shoe and bootmaking. The spoke was then roughed into shape with a block knife. Some were further refined with a drawknife but as the use of those tools was to shave spokes, they were referred to as “spoke shaves”.

Whether spoke shave (two words) was the first name for such a tool (after translation and such) or one that was formulated as the making of shoe lasts developed, will probably never be known. It is known that as early as 1816 such tools were depicted in Smith’s Key, but so too were coopers shaves. Salaman tells us in his Dictionary of Tools (1975) that the name was recorded as early as 1510. This suggests that the spokeshave is later to other tools. However I believe that it was developed much earlier.

Manufactured wooden spokeshaves started to be more readily available around the end of the seventeenth century. Only one hundred years later there were enough variations, many of which were made of metal, to fill a book. Add to those “similar tools” and even more wood and metal spokeshaves made up until the 1990s and the book becomes pretty thick. Of course the addition and interpretation of the term “similar tools” is somewhat subjective and, as mentioned, spokeshave (now one word) has become a general term. What can be safely said is that there are over a thousand models and/or designs that fit into the broad category. The majority were intended for processing wood while significant numbers were used to work leather. Some were even designed or adapted to process other materials such as bone and even chocolate and coconut meat. Curiously, some early patented American spokeshaves were referred to as drawknives, but technically a drawknife does not have a sole like a spokeshave.

“Manufactured and Patented Spokeshaves & Similar Tools”, Tom Lamond

Appeared 1998 – Toolshop Auctions Catalogue

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