Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 175, March 2020 Welcome to Highland Woodworking - Fine Tools & Education Learn more about Highland Woodworking View our current woodworking classes and seminars Woodworking articles and solutions Subscribe to Wood News
The Drawknife
By Andy Glenn
Berea, KY

Click on any picture to see a larger version.

Of all the hand tools, I think the drawknife can be the most intimidating - especially if you've never picked one up before. There's something about the simplicity of the tool that makes it appear so challenging. It's just a blade with two handles. There are no added controls, adjustments, knobs, buttons, batteries or lasers – it's just the blade and your skill that make it work.

The simple, unguarded blade means that you can take a thin shaving, or a deep cut, depending on your preference. You control the size of the cut – it's not determined by settings on the tool.

Wood choice makes a huge difference in the quality of the cut. Straight grain wood is the easiest and best. The knife naturally wants to follow the grain. The blade can dig into the wood when the grain runs out (though skewing a sharp knife does improve a cut that is working against the grain). Straight grain oaks and ash - ring porous woods - are preferable, as they cut easily and predictably.

The drawknife's partner is the shave horse. You want to get one. Or at least borrow one – my guess is that you'll never go back to using a workbench or modified setup once you spend a little time using one. You'll find them on Craigslist or you can quickly make one. The shave horse puts the work piece right above your lap and makes adjustment easy. I'm always excited when a project puts me at the shave horse.

Trying to explain all the drawknife uses and approaches and techniques is a little like writing about how to ride a bicycle. There is so much intuition and feel in the process that technical writing just doesn't capture it. So I'm going to forgo that approach to provide tips and suggestions. The best thing you can do is get started.

But where should you begin when considering the drawknife? My basic advice: just get one. Which one to obtain? I don't know – they all work (as long as the blade isn't too pitted with rust and it looks to be in good condition). I use a straight 10" blade. It's the first one I got my hands on. I grew comfortable using and tuning it, and now it's the one I always grab. Others don't feel "as right" when I use them. I would guess it'll be the same experience for you – you'll become attuned to the one you have. I will mention this: straight blades are a little easier to sharpen, relative to the curved blade knives.

I'd recommend going into a store to hold and handle the tool before purchasing one. They all feel a little different. A 10" blade may be to too large or heavy for you. The 8" blade may be right. 8" and 10" are the most common, and more versatile for furniture related work. There are larger or smaller ones, but those typically have a more specialized use. (One example of this: large drawknives that are made and used to de-bark a tree.) One brand may feel more comfortable to you than other. You'll only know after handling them and trying different models. In that way they're like hand planes – some people prefer the #3 bench plane, others swear by the #4-1/2. And just like any other cutting hand tool, the drawknife is at its best when the blade is razor sharp.

Which leads us to sharpening – everyone's favorite subject. You'll need to grow comfortable sharpening the drawknife because it's going to eventually dull. My recommendation as you get started for the first time: hollow grind it like you would a chisel or a plane iron. There are other approaches. Diving deeply into sharpening is a little much for this post, but there are great sharpening resources out there. I've added a few trusted sources at the end of this post. Find a method you like and go for it.

One sharpening tip: when holding the drawknife to hone, always hold the tool so the blade is away from your chest.

Then always push to the sharpening stone or strop. Get into this habit; it's a way to minimize the chance of unnecessary blood.

A sharp tool helps immensely when sitting upon the shave horse. It's easier to slice through the material with that freshly sharpened knife. Get it sharp and keep it that way by honing and tuning it between uses. It should be a rare occasion that it needs to return to the grinder.

Wet wood (wood from a freshly cut tree or log) is easier to shave, though you can slice through harder wood. First point of advice when shaving – take small shavings until you are comfortable with the tool. You should be able to take a long, controlled, smooth pull with the tool – not a short or halting cut. There's a rhythm to it. You'll keep your elbows close to your sides and rock your body back slightly as you work (It's not nearly as exaggerated as this, but imagine rowing an oar – it's not all arm work!). Making the cut should feel pretty easy, done without much effort. If you find it hard to pull the tool then you are probably trying to take too much material. Try a lighter shaving. You're pulling the sharp blade towards your body – always make sure you're under control. Taking smaller shavings helps with this.

Does your knife cut bevel-up or bevel-down? That's actually the wrong question to ask. It will cut either way – bevel-up or bevel-down – though one way may be best. It is probably easier and more comfortable to use the knife one way compared to the other. Notice how your wrists feel while using the drawknife. They should be straight while the tool cuts. This is more natural, comfortable and easy. While it's possible to cut with the tool upside-down, you will become physically fatigued and discouraged with the results. I've included a couple of images: one showing the knife cutting comfortably with the bevel down. In the other image I need to kink my wrists to make the tool cut – it's uncomfortable and not at all natural. My knife is always used bevel-down.

Skew the tool so that it slices. Have your dominant hand lead and slice across the full length of the blade as you pull the cut through the wood. I'm right hand dominant, so my cut begins on the right side of the blade, nearest my right hand, and the cut moves across the blade as I pull towards my trailing, left hand. Notice the cut starting on one side of the blade and finishing on the other.

You'll get a better cut by slicing and the blade will wear evenly and last longer than simply cutting in the middle each pass.

Basic draw knife skills are quickly attainable. You need to get a sharp knife, get a small amount of fresh wood and spend 20 minutes on the shave horse. Like the bicycle, it'll be awkward until it "feels" right. Then you've got it.

Here are a few of my trusted sources on the draw knife. They've written deeply on shave horse design, draw knife sharpening and use, and green woodworking.

  • Curtis Buchanan
  • Peter Galbert
  • Peter Follansbee
  • Drew Langsner
  • Tim Manney
  • Brian Boggs

View the different options for Drawknives available at Highland Woodworking by clicking here.

Andy Glenn is a woodworker and instructor in the Appalachian town of Berea, KY. He teaches classes with and helps run The Woodworking School at Pine Croft. His woodwork is available for viewing via andydglenn.com. You can email Andy at glenna@berea.edu.

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