Ox Power Handbook by Paramananda das

How To Make A Yoke

This file is also in the Cow Protection Book 1 PDF file to be found here

The yoke is the most basic piece of equipment you have for working an ox. It is considered to be one of the great advantages of working oxen rather than horses. With a horse a somewhat complicated harness is needed to work the animal. The horse's harness requires a constant supply of rivets, leather, buckles and rings for maintenance and repair. An ox's yoke on the other hand is a simple piece of equipment which seldom needs repair.

Click on picture to enlarge

Yoke Styles

An ox yoke should be well made and very strong. The oxen are going to be completely dependent on this piece of equipment throughout their work. If it breaks, it could endanger the people with the oxen and the oxen themselves. It will be under great stress when the oxen are full grown, weighing perhaps a ton each, and are pulling with all their strength on this yoke. So it is definitely worth the trouble to make it in the best possible way. There are many different styles of ox yokes. The yokes that I use fit over the necks of the two oxen. I've seen head yokes that are simply strapped onto the horns of the oxen and don't sit on the necks at all. The oxen pull with their heads.

I've also seen, in New England, what they call a sliding yoke. It is actually adjustable for different purposes. Different types of work might require the oxen to he different distances apart. For instance, when plowing, we want the oxen to be quite close together.

The yoke that is used in South Asian countries like India, with oxen that have a big hump on their back such as the Zebu, can hardly be called a yoke. It is just a straight stick that leans up against the hump on the Indian ox's back.

The yoke for European (taurean) oxen has to fit over their necks because the taurean oxen don't have a hump of any substantial size. The yoke is held on the neck by curved sticks called "bows" which go underneath the neck. A bow is generally made from hickory wood or ash wood - some kind of wood that will bend. It is actually carved into a rod and then bent into a "U" shape after being steamed to fit it underneath the neck of an ox. 

The Wood

The first thing to look for in making a yoke is a log with a good straight grain, without a lot of knots, and big enough to make the yoke out of one quarter of it. (See diagram 1.) The yoke could be made out of a half or even the whole tree but it would be weaker. We don't want to waste our time to make an inferior piece of equipment. Even if good wood is not available in your locality, you can usually purchase it from somewhere else. If there are any sawmills near you, they usually travel some distance to get logs, and therefore have a greater selection than you might find on your own property.

An ox yoke should be made out of wood that is strong and doesn't split easily. Very coarse-grained wood such as oak is strong but splits too easily. Also oak is a very dense and heavy wood which is not so ideal for an ox yoke although a heavy wood can be used. The ideal wood for a yoke is light and strong. The particular variety of tree that meets these specifications will differ all over the world. In the northeastern U.S., basswood is very light and strong when it is dry. There is a tree called cucumber that is supposed to be ideal for ox yokes. Some varieties of poplar are good for a yoke, being quite light and tough when they are dry, although I have tried poplar that cracked severely when it dried.

Where I live in Pennsylvania, the elm tree has proven to be the best for yokes. Although it is quite heavy, it has a very twisted grain and its consistency is gummy, not brittle at all. Those two qualities together make it almost impossible to split or break, and it makes a virtually eternal yoke, even though it is very dense and heavy. But it doesn't seem to bother our oxen. They have tremendous strength in their necks and can hold up a heavy yoke if necessary.

The type of wood that I am showing in the pictures here is sycamore. I was satisfied with the grain of this piece of wood, but after it was done, I wasn't so satisfied with the checking. It checked, in other words, it cracked, during the drying process more than I would have liked. But the yokes have since held up. They are in regular use and seem quite strong and they have stopped cracking.

If you use wood that is already dry there will be less cracking, but it is much harder to work the wood. When you use a green piece of wood, it is soft and easy to work with even though it may be a hardwood. The traditional method of drying out a yoke is to bury it in a haystack so that it dries out very slowly.

When wood dries out too quickly it tends to crack more. So the yoke would be buried in the hay and taken out the next year. That way it would be all dried out without any cracks. But I don't do that. I just oil it. I completely saturate the yoke with linseed oil. I find that prevents the cracking to a great degree during the time that the yoke is drying out, and it can be used in the meantime.

Squaring the Log

Picture 1. T
his is a sycamore log. Since you only use one quarter or one third of the log, it has to be quite large to begin with.

In Picture 1, I am standing next to a sycamore log. The diameter of this log is about two and a half feet (about 75 cm). In order to get the grain lined up so that it goes lengthwise across the whole yoke and gives maximum strength, we want to make the yoke out of one quarter of the tree. Therefore, the tree has to be quite large. If you are making a six-inch by eight-inch (15 x 20 cm), or a seven-inch by nine-inch (18 x 23 cm) yoke, you have to start out with a quarter that is at least a foot (30 cm) wide, so that by the time you get it trimmed down and squared, it won't be too small. There is a two-inch (5 cm) difference between the depth and width of the yoke that I am going to describe.

The yoke I am making here is six inches (15 cm) across the top and from the highest point to the lowest point it measures eight inches (20 cm). If you had bigger oxen you might want to make it seven by nine (18 x 23 cm). I've never made a yoke bigger than seven by nine. I don't think it is necessary for the strength of the yoke, and if you make it bigger than that you are really just adding extra weight on the necks of the oxen without any purpose. A yoke should be designed to be as trim as possible without compromising strength.

The log should be six feet long (1.82 m) to begin with. To quarter the log, I use wedges and a sledge hammer. Such a big log may take a lot of wedges. You may have to make some quite large wooden wedges in order to split the log. Be careful to split it evenly so you don't ruin the log. It is possible that only one or two quarters will be good and the others will have a lot of knots in them. If you can't split your log with wedges, you can resort to a chain saw and slice the log in quarters.

Diagram 1.
Endgrain view showing how yoke can be cut from one quarter of log.

Diagram 2.
End grain view showing how yoke can be cut from one third of log.

This diagram shows the end of the log. The dotted rectangle is the end of the yoke. If cut this way, the grain will run all the way through the center of the yoke. This rectangle should be laid out at both ends of the log and then lines drawn to connect the two ends. These are important guidelines for squaring the log. This rectangle should be laid out before splitting the log, so you make sure your section of wood will be large enough for the yoke. If a quarter is too small, you can split out a bigger section and make the yoke out of a third.

Make sure to leave an extra inch (2.5 cm) around the dotted lines. You may have to shift the layout a little due to irregularities in the grain or an unforeseen knot.

Picture 2.
Here I'm using a broad ax to hew the log.

As you see in Picture 2, I'm using a broad axe. If you have this tool, it is ideal for squaring a log and hewing it. It is flat on one side and it is specifically made for hewing. Its broad cutting edge facilitates making a flat surface. 

Picture 3.
Continue hewing the log until it's squared out.

In Picture 3, I am going to flatten out this quarter on all four sides and make it into a rectangle, six by eight inches (15 x 20 cm).

To hew a log, hit it at an angle and make notches that penetrate as deeply as possible. After you have made a whole row of notches, lower your axe almost parallel to the log and swing it right along all the notches and they all come off. In that way you work your way down and begin to develop a flat, hewed-down surface.

Picture 4.
Beginning to square the log.

Throughout this process, you want to be careful to keep looking at your lines to make sure you are making a nice squared off piece. Keep turning the log and working on all four sides at once. Gradually work your way in toward your lines. Don't come too close to the lines because there may be some irregularity since you are working with a very rough piece of wood and you are doing a lot by eye.

Use an L square to check your angles. You want to get right angles as you go around the log. Be careful not to take big chunks out of the wood when you hit a knot or if the grain changes a little in the wood, because it could spoil your yoke and make it into a very ugly, messy, irregular thing. If you want to do a nice job, you have to watch the grain carefully. If you see that the grain is changing and the axe is digging in too far, then you turn around and hit the chunk from the other direction. This hewing is not light work. I tried to show the mood in Picture 5. In this mood, the quartered log can be squared in a day.

Picture 5.
The proper mood to square a log in a day.

Picture 6.
A roughly squared off log. The broad axe stage is complete.

Picture 7.
After the broad ax stage, smooth and square the surface using (left to right) an adze, a hammer, a plane, and a draw knife.

Picture 7 shows the squared off quarter of the log with the different tools that I used sitting on top of it. These are the tools that were used to finish it off after I was done using the broad axe. The first tool on the left is called an adze. It is used for the finer work of smoothing out a log, making it nice and flat, and for carving the yoke into its final shape.

I hit this adze with the heavy hammer which is sitting next to the adze. This hammer is made of copper which is a soft metal. A regular hammer, which is very hard, would destroy the adze if you repeatedly hit heavy blows on it. You could also use a dead-blow mallet which is made from plastic and is filled with lead pellets.

Using this mallet you can hit with quite an impact, but the mallet has some resiliency so it also won't mar the adze. The adze is used for the finer stages of leveling and carving the piece of wood. You'll get tremendous control over your wood with this tool. You can hold it at different angles to cut any direction you want and as thick a piece or as thin a piece as you want.

The next two tools are a large size plane and drawknife. I use both of these to finish smoothing and leveling after finishing with the adze. First I use the drawknife to get out humps and ridges in the log, and then the plane which is very helpful in coming up with a very flat, square surface.

During this time I have to be constantly checking with the L square because the successful laying out of the yoke depends on the corners being perfectly square. If they are not square, the whole layout of the yoke might be lopsided which could make it considerably weaker due to not taking full advantage of the grain of the wood.

Carving the Roughed-Out Yoke

Now that the log is squared, it is time to lay out the actual yoke. You should have two patterns made - one for the top of the yoke and one for the front. (See Diagram 3.) First draw center lines on the top and bottom, both ends and all around the middle of the stick. You have some choice where to lay out the yoke lengthwise because your stick is about one foot longer than the yoke. The thinnest part of the yoke is over the necks and the most stressed point is the center, so try to avoid any knots or grain irregularity at these points by shifting the pattern to the left or right, wherever it fits best.

Diagram 3.
Templates for the top and front views of the yoke. Make them life-size out of paper, referring to Master Drawing of Ox Yoke. (Half length of yoke is 30 inches or 76 cm. Height is 9 inches or 23 cm.)

When you draw the pattern on opposite sides of the stick, make sure the two drawings are lined up together, that they exactly correspond.

Pictures 8 and 9.
Using the template in Diagram 3, draw the top lines and drill the holes.

In Picture 8, you can see that I have drawn a line down the center of the top of the yoke. Along this line, I place the holes for the bows which hold the yoke on the oxen. Drill the holes now because after you have started carving the log and it is no longer square, you can no longer line up these holes and drill them properly. They have to be drilled at just the right angle, very straight, so they come out right in the middle of the bottom of the yoke. Otherwise the whole yoke will be lopsided.


Picture 10. A hand auger is a simple way to drill the two inch holes.

There are two holes for each bow, as you can see. These holes are two inches (5 cm) in diameter. I don't know of any power drill, unless you have an industrial type drill press that will drill a hole this big. It can best be done with a hand auger similar to the one you see in the picture. As you can see in Picture 11, I've finished drilling the holes and laid out the top pattern of the yoke.

Picture 11.
After the top pattern is drawn and the holes are drilled, begin to saw slits for easy removal of excess wood.

The next step is to take a hand cross-cut saw and make a slit every two or three inches within a quarter of an inch (.5 cm) of the line. I do this all along the outer edge of the yoke, which makes it very quick and easy to chop these sections out with the adze. After all these slits are sawn, you take the adze and very carefully hit it with the hammer and chop out all these blocks, changing directions so that you are always chopping downwards and with the grain.

Smoothing with the Adze

You then have a rough edge which you can smooth out with the adze and the hammer. The adze is the tool that you will use more than anything here. It is a small carpenter's adze, not a big heavy hewing adze. It is meant to be used with a hammer. If it is too heavy and too large, you won't be able to handle and control it easily enough.


Picture 12. Top view of yoke with pattern roughed out.

Picture 12 shows the top view of the yoke with just the top pattern drawn and roughed out. Next we will work from the pattern on the front and the back of the yoke as shown in Picture 13. Saw the slits very carefully. Make sure you don't make any holes in the yoke. This big dip you see on each side of the yoke is where the neck of the ox goes. It is the most important part of the whole yoke and it must be very smooth because it constantly rubs the neck of the ox and can make a sore if it isn't smooth.

Picture 13.
Now for the front. Repeat the procedure you used to draw and rough out the top. Make sure you place the template correctly.

If you would take a big chip out of this section by accident or a gouge by hitting too deeply with the adze, it would ruin the yoke and make it necessary to carve it down deeper, thus losing the strength in what is already the thinnest part of the yoke. Again the smoothing is done here with the adze and the hammer followed by a drawknife and then a rasp. You should have a large, coarse rasp to work with along with you drawknife.

Picture 14.
The yoke roughed out front and back, and top and bottom.

Picture 14 shows the roughed-out yoke. It is not completed, but it is completely roughed out. At this point the irons get put on, and any excess wood can get carved off and the edges can be sanded. Make sure the edges get all rounded out. It should be very smooth, especially around the neck, so that the animals never get irritated by irregularities in the wood. A sore neck on the ox can put him out of commission in a season when you need him the most.

The only difference between the front and the back of the yoke is in the back, where the yoke contacts the ox's neck. The back edge gets dished out more than the front to insure the ox's neck doesn't get irritated.

Picture 15.
Completed yoke with tools.

The most stress on the yoke is on the center part; therefore you can see how it is thicker. You can see how the grain runs all the way through the yoke. If the yoke breaks, it is either right in the center or at the ends. If the ends are not very strong, they may break off when bumped into a post or a tree. So they should be very strong.

But, as a principle wherever there isn't normally a lot of stress on the yoke, you should try to shave off as much wood as possible, so that it is not heavier than it needs to be. To rough out a yoke like this will take two days of steady hard labor. If you have a large band saw, you could do all of this roughing out in one hour, except for drilling the bow holes.

In Picture 15, you'll see the finished yoke. Although it isn't clear in the picture, I have placed carriage bolts vertically through the yoke at each end to reinforce them. Refer to the following Master Drawing for details.