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Copyright:  Mike Sillett


1. Intro
2. Equipment
3. Procedure

Title photo: an all-wood shaving horse from foraged logs. A schnitzelbank.

1. Intro

I started a model birchbark canoe project this winter - 2012 / 2013.
I live in southwestern Pennsylvania.
My desire for making a birch bark canoe goes back decades. Now that I am retired I decided to get the project started, albeit a 1/4 scale model as a learning process.
Not only is it a desire to make a canoe but I also have a goal to make the 3' 4" Algonquin Hunter's canoe model with traditional materials ( no metal ) such as white cedar, spruce gum, split spruce roots, birch bark and other wood products but to make it with only hand tools AND to not purchase any of the wood products in it's construction.

As I started splitting, chopping and carving some wood materials in preparation for making sheathing, ribs and gunwales my old muscles let me know that the project is going to take some effort and that a shave horse would be helpful.

In keeping with the three goals set forth above this shaving horse is made from wood only, wood that is foraged locally and only handtools were used in it's build.

2. Equipment


3. Procedure

First off was to get a an appropriate length of log that I could handle. I decided on sassafras. It is very light but very strong. It's rot resistance is very good. It splits easily and is easily worked with hand tools.
The biggest problem is finding a sassafras that has a diameter large enough to render a wide enough flat for the base.

I found one in a few days that is 7 inches wide at ground level and slightly more than 6 inches at 6 feet high.

photo of a sassfras log being split.
Sassfras log 6 feet long. Just light enough for a 65 year old man to carry out of the woods, if cut in winter when not full of sap.

After that first cut has been made it's time to turn the knifeblade so that you will be heading towards the tailfin.
As you make the turn with the knifeblade and start the cut you will arrive at the first rib bone real fast.
Don't cut through the rib bone. This is where you will slighly withdraw the knife blade keeping only the tip embedded. You want to use the tip of the blade to to feel the bones. With a fillet knife you will feel that.

photo of a sassfras split in balks.
The balk on the right will form the base for the shaving horse.
The others will be used where needed, such as legs or pivot arms, etc..

Slide the tip of the knife along the top of the rib bones, at the same time keeping the side of the knife blade in contact with the vertebrae, that is, parallel to it, as you cut your way toward the rear of the fish.

When you feel the last rib bone has just been passed over by the tip of the knife it is time to shove the knife blade all the way through the fish, the tip of the knife exiting near, but to the rear of, the anal cavity. Once the knife tip is through continue cutting toward the tailfin keeping contact with the vertebrae.

photo showing where the knife tip is to be pushed through during the bluegill filleting process.
Once the last rib has been passed plunge the knife all the way through.
Keep the knife at an angle so the tip exits just to the rear of the anal cavity..

When you get to the tailfin cut through the skin. At that point the fillet is only attached at the ribs.

Go back to where the rib cage is and using the tip of the knifeblade make little slices along the ribs while at the same time lifting the side of the fish a bit more with each slice. As you slice and lift you will get to the point where the meat will separate from the rib bones. Carve along the rib bones quickly, there's not much meat anyway unless it is a big bluegill, and then sever the attachment by cutting through the skin and flesh at the bottom of the belly.

Here is one side of the fish.

photo of a fillet side removed from the fish.
To remove the skin make a careful cut about where my finger is.
Then turn the blade so that the slicing motion is made toward the right.

Only thing to do now is remove the skin.

Place the knife edge near where the fillet was attached at the tailfin and carefully slice your way toward the right keeping the knife almost parallel with the skin. You don't want to cut into the skin. This is actually the easiest part of filleting but it does require a deft touch.
That comes with practice.

photo showing the skin removal step.
The skin removal in progress.
It is easy to do but does take a light hand so that the skin is not cut through.

Do the other side the same way. Then rinse the fillets quickly in a bit of water.

photo of bluegill fillets removed and ready to cook.
Two fillets. Rinse them and then pat dry.

Lay the fillets on a paper towel and pat dry with another towel.

photo of bluegill fillets drying on paper towel.
These are ready for Freddie

Even though they are small they add up. And there is nothing preventing you from attaching several fillets together before cooking if you believe they are too small.

photo of a couple of bluegill fillets joined together prior to cooking.
Those little skewers used to keep stuffing in a turkey work great for joining small/thin fillets.



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