A draw knife is a woodworking tool that consists of two handles and a long thin blade between them. It is a traditional tool used to shape wood by shaving off multiple layers or making deep cuts.
The blade of a draw knife ranges in length and shape depending on its purpose. They typically range from 8-10” in length which is ideal for working on furniture. Longer options are useful for debarking trees while smaller blades are great for more detailed, specialized jobs like carving.
A draw knife can do much of the work that a shaper or router does. However, the manual option is cheaper, less noisy, and safer.
How to operate a draw knife
It is best to use draw knives in a seated position for stability and control. They are often used in tandem with a shaving horse.
The operator straddles the horse with the wood securely held in place. Ideally, its grains will run at right angles to the blade and parallel with the shaving horse.
The drawing knife is pulled or drawn towards the body, which is where its name comes from. The whole body can be used, including the legs, for extra power.
The idea is to gradually shave off layers rather than remove one large chunk of wood. To achieve this, the blade is often angled up slightly rather than using it flat on the wood.
Check out the video below to get a better understanding of using a draw knife.
As the blade bites in, the operator can raise or lower the handles to adjust the angle of the blade. This controls the cut depth and the amount of wood that gets removed.
For straight cuts, it is a good idea to work from the center out to the end rather than working the entire length. The piece of wood can then be reversed so that the fatter side can be trimmed to match the end that’s already been worked.
Uses for a draw knife
A draw knife is a versatile tool used in shaping wood. Its strength lies in removing large amounts of wood in a controlled fashion. But it’s also capable of planing off fine shavings.
- Chamfering edges.
- Remove the bulk of wood from furniture parts like chair legs, arms, back splats, and rockers.
- Debark trees for building a log cabin, hollowing out a canoe, or smaller projects.
- Create rough billets for finishing on a pole lathe.
- Removing imperfections or waney edges
- Making handles and fence posts.
- The blade can be rapidly levered into the wood with force to make a large cut, then “flicked off” to create a splice. This is known as splitting, an advanced skill that is good for quickly removing a lot of wood fast.
- Shape a perfectly curved handmade cricket bat.
- Remove large slices for flat-faceted work.
Understanding the blade
The blade of a draw knife is often a single bevel, rounded and smooth like a chisel. While the handles are typically at the blade level, they may also be placed below the level of the blade.
Straight draw knives are a sensible choice of blade for smooth, fine work.
Curved knives are super-useful for making deep cuts into wood. They also do a better job of getting into areas that a straight blade won’t reach.
If the tool is used with the bevel side up, then less stock will be removed. It is easier to work with wood this way and there’s less chance of making mistakes. Keep in mind this technique causes the blade to dull quicker, so more frequent maintenance will be needed.
Using a draw knife bevel side down is the more common option. It will take deeper cuts and the tool won’t need as much honing. Beginners should take extra care using this method as the blade tends to dive into the wood.
- Bevel facing down = aggressive cutting.
- Bevel facing up = gradual shearing.
Tip: If you enjoy learning about hand tools then be sure to read our guide to adzes. You may also want to learn about the carpenter’s axe or broad axe.
How to sharpen a drawknife
A draw knife is suitable for sharpening using power tools or by hand. It is best to avoid using machines if you’re getting started as it’s easy to damage the blade or take off too much material.
Place the knife on a flat surface like a bench and hold it securely with one hand. Using a medium grit stone, use circular motions down the edge of the blade. At a slight angle it shouldn’t take long to sharpen a knife that isn’t overly dull.
Very dull draw knives may require a bastard mill file to straighten the blade, then use sharpening stones. Start with a 120-240 rough stone then use a higher grit option to polish the edge for a razor-sharp finish.
Commonly asked questions
Draw knife vs. spokeshave – what’s the difference?
While both tools have a blade with handles on each side, a spokeshave has an adjustable blade. It is designed more like a hand plane for precise shaving and cutting. A drawknife removes wood much quicker but won’t provide the same finish unless you’re highly skilled.
What size draw knife is best?
A drawknife with a blade between 8-10” is suitable for general woodworking tasks. A larger 12” blade will help for bigger jobs like debarking large trees.
What should I look for when buying a draw knife?
Make sure the wood you’ll work with fits comfortable between the two handles. This will allow you to work faster and perform smoother, more accurate cuts. A large draw knife is overkill for small projects, and you’ll find them cumbersome.
Also check the handles are solid, split-free, and don’t wobble. Avoid draw knives with bad pitting on the blade and make sure the cutting edge still has metal left for sharpening.
Is a straight or curved draw knife better?
A straight draw knife is good for making nice smooth cuts while curved blades are best for deeper cuts and getting into inaccessible spots.
What material do draw knives cut?
The draw knife is well-suited to green wood as it allows fast removal of material with long clean shavings. The tool cuts faster with drier wood so caution is recommended.
Who manufactures draw knives?
Popular draw knife makers include Flexcut, Crown Tools, Barr, Gransfors Bruks, Robert Sorby, and Mora. Well-known vintage producers were Mathieson, Greaves, Sorby, and Marples.
5 Fast facts
- Alternative names for a draw knife include shaving knife, drawing knife, and draw shave.
- The leftover wood shavings are ideal for compost, gardening, basket weaving, and kindling.
- The draw knife was traditionally used by coopers, shipwrights, cabinet makers, carpenters, and gunstock makers.
- During World War II, fifty million tent pegs were made in the U.K. using draw knives.
- Push knives are similar to draw knives except that they are designed for pushing the blade rather than pulling.
If you enjoy working with wood, then a draw knife is a handy tool to add to your collection. They can remove a lot of wood fast, allowing projects to quickly take shape.
Most experienced users of draw knives will advise not to worry too much about what size to get. Instead, make sure it’s kept nice and sharp. This will make any job easier with a better final result.