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JOEL Joel's Blog

We Have No Idea What We Are Doing - Spokeshave Selection


We Have No Idea What We Are Doing - Spokeshave Selection 1
A friend of mine recently suggested that unless we really understand what woodworkers want, and make tools that fit the bill correctly, we really cannot call ourselves professional toolmakers. We are more like amateurs stumbling around in the dark.

It turns out history provides many refutations to this belief. In the picture above, are 6 different wooden spokeshaves ranging in size from 3" to 1" by three different makers. All the smaller ones are by Marples (not Joseph Marples but the William Marples division of Record) and are still unused after being purchased new from Buck and Ryan in London in the early 1970's.

1930 Tyzak Catalog
1930 Tyzak Catalog

My 1930 catalog from Tyzack, a tool retailer, lists 24 different wooden spokeshaves. All are flat-bottomed, although round bottom ones were also available (albeit not in this catalog). The catalog also doesn't list any shaves larger than 4". Most of the shaves listed are basic, much like the ones in the photo above, but Tyzak also stocked other models: ones with brass plating on the face for wear and others that were adjustable. In addition, the shaves were offered in boxwood or a less expensive option, beech. And this was just the tip of the iceberg.

Rd. Melhuish 1912
Rd. Melhuish 1912

The Rd. Melhuish retail catalog from about 1912 lists 35 different spokeshaves including ones with 5" and 6" blades.

Marples 1910 Wholesale catalog
Marples 1910 Wholesale catalog

Prices from the Marples 1910 Wholesale catalog
Prices from the Marples 1910 Wholesale catalog

The 1910 William Marples Wholesale Catalog has 110 different models of wooden spokeshave to choose from, which probably reflects the total breath of models manufactured.

From a retailer's perspective, of course keeping a million different versions of the same thing in stock is a nightmare. That's why retail catalogs have fewer options than the factory offered. Tyzak and Meluish really only show the popular sizes of the time.

Flash forward to now: Very few of the very small (1") or very large (5") shaves have survived, suggesting that they were not very popular. Larger shaves up to about 4" are very common today, but not so the tiny or giant shaves. If people (outside a few specific limited trades) actually found these sizes useful, many more would have survived.

In spite of the idea that tool makers are supposed to be experts, it's obvious that in real life toolmakers have no idea about which tools will actually sell. The sheer number of unloved and unpopular tools in these catalogs is impressive. It's probably true that a few people needed that tiny 1" shave. And I know a few of you out there, now that you know they once existed, are jonesing for one! But the reason why the 1-inchers were manufactured wasn't because some bright young thing at Marples decided that 1" spokeshaves were an untapped market. What almost certainly happened is that at some point in the company's history, some customer asked for one. Or even more probable: the company was searching around for new products to expand the wooden spokeshave line, and someone at the factory said, "We could make them smaller if you want," and suddenly a new product line sprouts and sells a few. If you are making tools by hand, even in a factory setting, it is usually not a big deal to make myriad sizes and designs. There aren't any expensive molds or fixtures for each size, so it is pretty easy to make lots of different designs. If nobody ordered a particular size again you just didn't make more.

Of the 110 varieties of spokeshave that Marples listed in 1910, and the 30 that Tyzak listed in 1930, only a half dozen models survive in any quantity. The tiny little shaves in the picture are very unusual and some of the freakier larger sizes of shaves are extinct.

The funny thing is is that this is exactly the way Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other tech companies work today. They come up with an idea, add the functionality to their website, and if people use it they are geniuses, if not they pull the plug and it all goes the way of google+. It really is hard to out think the customer. So we don't try.

We stock about 1000 different sizes of carving tools. Some, the ones in the middle of the range of straight tools, sell out quickky whenever we're lucky enough to get a shipment. Other styles and sizes, say a 1" V tool, have barely sold in the past decade. We keep this kind of tool around because (1) who knows, it might be a lucky day for us and our happy customer and (2) being comprehensive is easier than trying to out-guess the customer.

On the other hand, Tools for Working Wood is a small company. While we try to stock as many options as possible, we also don't carry to many overlapping brands. In the case of marking gauges we carry the best traditional wooden gauges by Joseph Marples, the best wheel gauge, the Titemark, and some tip top luxury gauges by Colen Clenton. All the gauges do the same thing, but they are all distinct. We don't carry other versions of the same thing, we don't have space for redundancy and we do try to stick with the high end.

Note: We do not currently stock any wooden spokeshaves but the spokeshave kit from Ron Hock is a lot of fun to make and the one I made works excellently.

We Have No Idea What We Are Doing - Spokeshave Selection 6
Spokeshave manufacture Marples 1910
Spokeshave manufacture Marples 1910

Note: Ken Hawley and Dennis Watts wrote a small book - really a booklet - on the making and manufacture of wooden spokeshaves. It's a quick but wonderful and deeply informative read if you can find a copy.
Join the conversation
10/09/2019 Rex Wenger
Great tool history. I have been tool collecting for over 70 years and goog tool history is hard to find.
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.