If you’ve ever seen a skilled woodworker in action, you’ll be transfixed by how they glide through the wood with the lightest touch. They make the complex art of woodworking look like a smooth and simple process – until you try it for yourself without knowing how to use a draw knife.
Any experienced woodworker knows the value of good-quality tools. However, great tools alone aren’t enough to pump out quality pieces. You also need to have the skill and experience to make the most of their higher quality.
Our guide will show you everything you should know about using a draw knife, taking care of it, and harnessing its design to get awesome hand-carved masterpieces. With a bit of practice and experience, along with what you learn here, you’ll have everything you need to start creating woodwork you’re proud of and can’t wait to show off. Let’s jump in!
What Is a Draw Knife?
A draw knife is a handheld tool that you can use to shave and peel the outer layers of a piece of wood. They are excellent at tasks like trimming and shaping a piece of wood, debarking trees, and making curves without using power tools.
Drawknives are known for their versatility and ability to do heavier gouging, and more intricate work – in the hands of a skilled woodworker. Of course, there are power tools that have the same basic functions, but you’ll lose that unique and special handheld finish that drawknives can offer you.
Drawknives have a 6-10 inch blade that’s set between two sturdy handles. These handles are usually set at a 90° angle (or slightly angled outwards) to the blade and are used to pull/push the drawknife along the wood’s surface. The handles have a slight bulb-shape that helps them offer comfort and power for both pushing and pulling.
They’re usually made from wood and are laminated to improve their grip and durability. Almost all drawknives have the handles set at a slightly lower plane than the level the blade is at. This helps you keep your hands safely away from the cutting edge, and away from the surface that you’re working on.
Most drawknives have a relatively tall blade that’s usually longer than 1”, though this isn’t always the case. The cutting edge faces the same direction that the handles do and its bevel angles off slightly lower than the rest of the steel.
There are two main types of drawknives. The first is curved drawknives. They’re less common and are more specialized than the general-use straight drawknives. Curved drawknives are used for reaching areas that straight ones would struggle to reach without risking the rest of the woodwork project.
They’re also great for working on curved and rounded pieces. That’s especially so if you don’t have the skill and experience to do it with a straight drawknife. The straight drawknife is very common and what you’ll find most woodworkers using. They’re intuitive and you can use them in a couple of different ways depending on the result you’re going for.
How to Get Your Draw Knife Sharp?
The process is pretty straightforward but will take quite a bit more work if your knife is very dull or rusted. If you’ve just dug up an old knife and want to get it redone, start by removing all the rust. Most drawknives don’t have top-of-the-line corrosion resistance and will rust relatively easily.
First, just scrub it down with some rough sandpaper until it no longer has any rust. Make sure you don’t forget about the small spaces near the handles or they will spread fast. The next thing to do is to reset the edge on your drawknife. To do this, use a steel file or a light grinder.
You might want to fix the drawknife in place with a vice before you try this. Make sure that you match the bevel angle and regularly inspect the edge for consistency. Once you’re happy with the grind angle and look of the reset bevel, it’s time to get it sharp. Start on a 120-240 gritstone. Once again, fix the drawknife into place with a vice or on a table.
Just make sure the cutting edge lips over the table so you can work easily and consistently. Work on the stone in short phases of 10-15 strokes and stop to inspect the edge. Once you’re happy with the even grind and cutting edge, move up to higher-grit stones until you’re happy with how the draw knife cuts.
How to Use a Draw Knife the Proper Way
There are quite a few different ways to hold and use a draw knife, and a lot of these techniques change and adapt over time. If you’ve got a lot of experience under your belt then you’ll already know how to hold your knife for different projects and results. Let’s take a look at some of the different ways to use and hold a draw knife.
This is by far the most common method for holding a drawknife. This is the better choice for beginners and offers you control over more intricate work and improve your accuracy for detailing and shaving. Hold the handles of the drawknife (pointing towards you) and make sure that you can see the knife’s bevel.
This is the part of the blade just before the cutting edge. Lay the blade flat on the piece you’re working on. Raise the blade so that angle between it and the wood gets steeper. Depending on the type of work you’re doing, you won’t need to go much past a 45° angle.
Pull down on the handles to create a downward force as you move the knife back and forth over the wood to start working on it. The bevel-up method removes less wood and is better for shaving and creating curves on pieces of wood. With some skill, you can get super-thin shavings and accurate detailing.
You’ll hold the handles and knife in the same direction as the bevel-up method, but with the knife flipped over. The bevel should be on the other side and directly making contact with the wood. This method is better for more aggressive cutting as it’s easier to sink the edge further into the wood and remove larger chunks.
The push and pull motion will remain the same – just be sure you don’t try to take too much wood off at a time. You can also learn to get accurate and intricate shavings with this method. However, you’ll need a lot of skill and practice to keep results consistent.
Sitting vs Standing
You might not have a full-sized work table that you can stand and work at – or maybe you just prefer working while sitting down. There are both good and bad points about standing or sitting while working with a drawknife. We’ll talk about sitting first. Sitting is usually better for small pieces and projects.
You need to secure the piece of wood on your legs or between them. You’ll almost always have the cutting edge of the drawknife facing you when sitting down. This helps you secure the woodwork better. When you’re standing, make sure you work at a comfortable height.
While standing, you can work with either the cutting edge facing you or facing away from you. Both methods work pretty much the same, but you should go with what you’re most comfortable with and what the project demands.
Drawknives vs Power Tools
Power tools can now do almost anything you need them to when it comes to woodworking. This is very different from how it was 10-20 years ago. While these power tools have versatile and functional uses, woodworking with hand-tools hasn’t died off. Many skilled woodworkers know the value of hand carved pieces.
Each piece is unique and reflects the attitude, skill, and intentions of the crafter. This uniqueness is often lost when you replace hand-crafting with power tools. The results are often generic and you’ll struggle to give them a unique and special feel. That being said, skilled power tool users can give their work a signature look and feel.
However it will be far easier for others to reproduce and copy. If you’re just working on general woodworking projects (like tables and chairs), power tools offer you more efficiency and increased output. If you’re working on more intricate and detailed projects, you’ll have more control over the subtleties and uniqueness of your work with hand tools.
You should have a very clear idea of why and how you should use a draw knife. We’ve covered the different holding techniques and work methods. Moreover, you have everything you need to start you down the right path and well on your way to woodworking success!
All that’s left is for you to get more practical experience and refine your technique as you go. Woodworking isn’t something you’ll learn through reading. Get out there, get practice and experience – you’ll have the results you’re looking for in no time!