I was first introduced to the draw knife back in high school. Near where I grew up there exists an open air reenactment museum called Old World Wisconsin. It consists of several homesteads from various points in history, recreated brick by brick and log by log. In fact, many of the buildings are actually original, having been disassembled where they once stood and rebuilt on the museum grounds.
Given its proximity to the school district, it was a frequent destination for field trips. In my senior year, our Wisconsin History teacher made arrangements for all of his students to work out at the museum for two days. Most of us, myself included, were assigned to various homesteads to act as guides. We were instructed on the different tasks we were to perform to remain “in character.” I was assigned to a shop where cedar shingles were made and shown how to carve them with a draw knife.
The draw knife consists of a blade with handles on both ends. It is pulled toward the user to shave wood into the desirable shape. The draw knife is used to take bark off logs as well as to shape limbs into handles for various tools like axes and sledges.
Typically, one uses a draw knife whilst sitting astride a shaving horse, which is a combination workbench and vice. The material is clamped in the vice and the user sits so the material is in front of him or her, then pulls the draw knife down from the top of the material to the bottom, going toward the user. Side note: it is just about impossible for the blade to strike the user in the chest or abdomen if it comes loose suddenly. The mechanics of the arms just prevent it from happening.
Draw knives are one of those tools that just make certain tasks a whole lot easier. While you can certainly whittle a thick branch into an axe handle with a sheath knife, you’ll probably get a much better final product with a draw knife.
You can find them at most good woodworking tool shops but I’ve had great luck finding them at garage sales. Typically, these older tools are of much better quality than ones sold today. Clean them up, sharpen the blades, take care of them and they’ll last a lifetime.