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Skill Builder: Building Woodworking Low Horses

Woodworking Workshop
Skill Builder: Building Woodworking Low Horses

In this installment of my series of woodworking articles, I will be building shop furniture that sees even more action than the sawhorses — these are called “low horses.” Since most Japanese woodwork is done while sitting, it stands to reason that the sawhorses would be short enough to accommodate. And while I don’t do too much work on the floor, I do use the low horses all of the time. They are incredibly useful in general but where they really shine is in keeping whatever I’m working on above the ever-increasing splay of tools that accumulate on my bench. In the years since I made my first pair, I’ve been recommending them to all of my woodworker friends as essential what-did-I-do-before-I-had-these tools. But it isn’t until I make a pair for them that they agree and often go on to make more for themselves.

Constructed using a two by four and a couple of hand tools they’re cheap and easy to build. I usually build them using hardwoods like oak or hickory, but anything will do. The pair pictured above are oak reclaimed from old church pews. For the ones I’m making here, I’ll be using a two by four. Okay, it is admittedly a fancy 2×4 (quarter-sawn hemlock) but a two by four nonetheless. Nothing but the best for the readers of the Make blog I say! As always, choose the clearest, straightest lumber you can find. As far as technique goes, this is mostly about connecting lines. Working both sides at an angle to create a peak in the center, and then gradually reducing the peak to a flat. This approach will give you much more control and cleaner, more accurate results. And that is what good joinery is all about.

What I’m using:

  • Fancy 2″x4″x8′ (1x)
  • Handsaw
  • Sharp chisel
  • Hammer
  • Adjustable Square
  • Glue

Start by breaking the two by four down into its parts, which in this case, are four 8″ long legs and two 22″ long beams. These measurements aren’t critical, they were determined by what I could get out of those original oak boards and I’ve been using them ever since. If you’re cutting them by hand, take a look at the method I outlined in the workhorses article.

The legs are joined to the beam using half-lap joints. They are simple to cut but to get them to fit well, the layout has to be right-on, so take your time and be precise. Beginning with one of the legs, find center by measuring in from each end. Then using another leg, find the center of its thickness. Place one leg on the other with center lines together and then mark to either side. Because of the rounded edge on most 2x4s, it’s easier to make the mark by adjusting the square to the length and marking from it. Transfer the line to the other three, both on the edge and about 1/2″ down either side. These are the shoulder lines.

On the beams, mark a line 2″ in from either end and 1/2″ down either side. Place a leg against the line and mark its thickness. Transfer that line as well. Lastly, set the square for 1/2″ and connect all of the pairs of lines.

Using a hand saw, cut on the inside of each shoulder line down to the 1/2″ line. If you are still developing your sawing skills, stay a little further inside the lines. You can always make the joint wider, but making it smaller is tough. On any joint like this with a flat area wider than 1″, I often make extra relief cuts in between. This makes chiseling out the waste easier and helps keep the bottom flat.

Once all of the sawing is done, it’s time to chop out the waste. Using a sharp chisel and hammer, start removing wood from the joint. Work at an angle removing about 1/8″ at a time to create a slope to the other side. When you get near the line, flip the piece over and chop from the other side until you reach that line, then using lighter paring cuts, carefully shave away the rest until the then bottom is flat. Work from both sides and check the bottom for square when you are done.

Once all the bottoms have been flattened, it’s time to start the fitting. Letter or number each leg to a corresponding joint on the beams. This is important because each one will be trimmed to fit its own spot. Working one joint at a time, trim one side right to the line, but don’t trim the line away. This is called “saving the line.” Hold the end of the corresponding leg in place and check the layout line. If it doesn’t match up with the line you made redraw it. Trim to the line then repeat the process on the other half of the joint. When both halves of the cut are done, fit them together. The fit should be snug but shouldn’t require more than a couple of light taps with a hammer to seat it.

Make ’em Pretty:
As far as function goes, the horses are pretty much done. I could just glue them up and call it a day. But since the wood is so nice and they’ll be around my shop for years, I want to take them further. I have seen examples of these horses with legs ranging from simple 45º slopes to curly carved temple brackets. The ones I make fall somewhere in between. Again, there is nothing special about this design, other than it being typical of low horses. Use your imagination and design them how you like.

I begin by making a pattern on a piece of card stock and then transferring it to both sides of each leg. If you have a bandsaw, scroll saw, or coping saw handy, now would be a good time to use it. Since I wanted to build these with a minimum of tools, I am using a regular handsaw to get rid of the waste and then chiseling away the rest.

Staying back from the pattern lines, saw out a notch to remove the bulk between the curves. Then make a cut across the points.

Using a (say it with me) sharp chisel, trim along the edges at an angle to the pattern lines. When both sides are trimmed, pare away the wood in-between, leaving just a bit of the angled edge intact. Clamping the leg to a bench is highly recommended. Be patient and take light shavings. This will save both your chisel and your hands.

When all of the legs are prettified, it’s time to make a relief in the bottom of each leg to create feet. I measured in 2″ from each end and about 1/4″ deep. This layout could be traced from the pattern, but I didn’t think of it until it was too late. Always learning… Using the same method as the half-laps, saw to the lines and chisel away the rest.

The last step before assembly is to use a chisel (or knife or sandpaper) to remove all of the sharp corners. Just avoid the areas near the joints.

The Glue-Up:
All that’s left is to apply some glue to all of the joint surfaces and put them together. It’s a good idea to place them on a flat surface with weight on them while they dry. If your joints are a little loose, you can use epoxy or some other gap filling glue. Foaming, polyurethane glues, like Gorilla glue, work well. For even more strength, a 3/8″ diameter 4″ deep dowel through the bottom of each foot will do the trick.

And there you have it! If you want to take them further still, sand them smooth and apply finish. Or, as I do with all of mine, using double stick tape, add a sacrificial strip of cedar to the top to protect them, and whatever I place on them, from damage. All that’s left now is to put them to use.

14 thoughts on “Skill Builder: Building Woodworking Low Horses

  1. woodshopcowboy says:

    Ooooh, I’m in come Monday. Two or three sets might do nicely!

  2. Anonymous says:

    If folks actually build these, PLEASE send us some pics (post to the MAKE Flickr pool) We’d love to see what you come up with.

  3. Josh Burroughs says:

    Neat article, I like the low horses. I could see them being very useful for keeping a large case piece up off the floor while laying upside down or on it’s side for finishing or attaching feet etc…

    I know it’s normal to use a metal hammer with hooped Japanese style chisels but coming from a background with Western tools it still makes me wince a little to see it. You might want to consider warning your readers not to use a metal hammer on their chisels unless they are hooped or have a metal strike cap. Traditional Western bench and mortise chisels are designed to be hit with wooden mallets and can split or otherwise fail when struck repeatedly with a metal hammer. The heavy steel hoops on Japanese chisels protect them from such damage making it safe (and normal) to use a metal hammer on them.

    1. Anonymous says:

      Good tip on the chisels Josh. Thanks for pointing that out.

  4. Steve Carter says:

    Nise to see proper woodworking skills on Make blog. So often projects are let down by a rough finish to the enclosure.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Good god, that’s a beautiful 2×4!

    1. Anonymous says:

      Yeah, that’s the difference between getting wood from a lumber yard and getting it from a home center. Not that all of the material is always better, but that you typically have a selection of quality, not just one bunk of $1.98 2×4 to choose from. If you’ve never shopped your local (if you have one) lumber yard, try it out.

      By the way, a VG hemlock 2x4x8′ in these parts runs about $18. Easily worth it.

  6. John Honniball says:

    I made a set of low horses from some offcuts of wood, left over from making a workbench. Photos on Flickr, here:

    1. len cullum says:

      Hi John, I was just scrolling through some of my old articles on the Make blog and saw your link. Great job! I love to see people actually building the projects I write about. Even more so when they give them their own style. Hope you’re finding them useful.

  7. MAKE | Workshop: Len Cullum in Seattle, Washington says:

    […] Build Woodworking Low Horses […]

  8. ○DIY/Tip▶ Workshop: Len Cullum in Seattle, Washington « dot dot dob tob tob says:

    […] Build Woodworking Low Horses […]

  9. Construcció d’un cavallet de serrar com a pedestal de la Dory | petites drassanes says:

    […] Els models de cavallet poden ser de dos tipus: el clàssic de serrar i l’anomenat “baix”, propi del Japó, segons he entés. Una de les diferents formes que pot adoptar el primer ja el vaig utilitzar amb la góndola. En aquest cas, m’he estimat més que la barca no estigués tan elevada, així que el cavallet baix m’ha semblat la millor opció. He optat per un model propi prenent com a referència un cavallet d’aquest tipus, però més complex. […]

  10. Get off your high horse | Engineer & Entertain says:

    […] largely followed the procedure laid out by Make Skill Builder: Building Woodworking Low Horses. I cut four legs at 8 inches long and two beams at 22 inches […]

  11. MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain says:

    Very nice. And it’s called wood”working” for a reason, but I think I would use my power tools to make these. I don’t have your patience :)

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn
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