Cattle were one of the earliest species of livestock to be domesticated, around 7000 B.C. in western Asia. One of the biggest benefits they brought to humankind was the tremendous power that could be harnessed by training the animals to pull. Oxen—cattle that have been trained for draft purposes—revolutionized life for early farmers by lending their strength to pulling plows, carts, sleds, and countless other implements over the course of history. Cattle and breeds vary widely across the world, but one thing remains fairly consistent: the need for a yoke to harness that power.
The yoke is a supremely simple instrument in both design and construction. It has very few moving parts to fuss with, and unlike a horse harness, which usually has an elaborate system of straps and buckles to fit and adjust, it is simple and quick for even a single person to hitch up a trained team of oxen.
Three basic types of yoke can be used with oxen. The withers yoke is most commonly used on humped breeds of cattle such as the Zebu. This yoke is quite simple and generally consists of a round pole placed across the animal’s neck, with two shafts sticking downward from the pole. This yoke rests against the animal’s hump, and the ox pushes against the load with his hump.
The head yoke, traditionally used in southeastern Europe and western Asia, actually straps to the horns of the oxen. This yoke requires that each apparatus be custom-fit to an animal’s horns, and as such can only be used by one team of oxen without substantial re-carving. The advantage to the head yoke is that it allows the animals more braking power, which is especially helpful in hilly terrain. It also holds them in place in the yoke more securely. The disadvantage is that it can only be used on horned cattle, and it will not work well for young cattle without fully developed horns.
The yoke most familiar to us is the traditional neck yoke, used by European and New England teamsters with great success. American teamsters generally prefer a neck yoke, both due to the prevalent cultural tradition and the fact that there is a lot to like about a neck yoke. A neck yoke is also easier for a novice to make and to use.
Creating a yoke
Among the first steps in creating a yoke is to decide what size you need, and what materials are available to make your yoke.
Ox yokes are sized by measuring the width of the animal’s neck. This can be done as simply as taking a pair of yardsticks and holding them against the ox’s neck on either side, and having someone measure the distance between the two sticks. This will be the width of the bows when your yoke is complete. Yokes are measured by the distance between the shafts of one of the bows, not the width or depth of the beam.
If you are starting out with a young team, it can be tempting to build a yoke a couple of sizes larger, thinking they will grow into it, but resist. A yoke works best and properly when it fits the team comfortably, and trying to make even young oxen train in an ill-fitting yoke can cause them to be sore and reluctant to work. If you are going to train a young team from scratch, plan on getting a lot of practice building yokes in graduating sizes.
After deciding what size yoke to make, the next choice is selecting the wood to use. The yoke must be strong enough to withstand the draft forces applied to it, but light enough that it does not tire out the oxen unnecessarily. Hardwoods such as elm, hickory or maple are necessary for heavy-use yokes, as they do not split easily, but pine and other woods can be used for light duty yokes or smaller training yokes. Any wood can be used, but depending on your location, the main challenge will be in finding beam wood large enough from which to cut the yoke.
A small 4-inch training yoke can be created out of a pine 4-by-4, but a yoke for a larger team, such as a 9- or 10-inch yoke, will require a beam 9 or 10 inches in depth and width. A local sawmill should be able to provide you with beam stock. If large beam stock is not available to you, it’s possible to create a laminated yoke by gluing several thinner pieces of wood together, and these yokes can be as strong as any created out of a single beam.
If the wood is green, it will be much easier to work, but care must be taken to dry it well after the yoke is completed to keep it from cracking and splitting. A bad crack or split in the wood will make the yoke useless. If the beam is already dried, it can be harder to work, but will be unlikely to crack or split after shaped.
Old-timers used to put the green yoke in a haystack to dry out over the winter so the wood would dry slowly, but some modern teamsters claim you can coat the yoke with linseed oil and it will not crack that way either—and it can also be used right away.
Look carefully at the end grain of the beam. A yoke will be stronger if it is made from a beam taken from the outside of a large log, rather than from the center. The center grain will give the yoke more of an opportunity to split than will wood from the outside grain.
Detailed plans and measurements for an ox yoke are available from Tillers International; for an example, take a look at the illustration in the slideshow.
Tools of the trade
Several hand tools can be used to shape your yoke. An adze is an ancient tool that dates back to prehistoric times. Shaped like an axe, with the blade fixed perpendicular to the handle, an adze can be clumsy to use at first, but once you get used to the technique, some very fine work can be done with the tool. There are two basic sizes: a hand adze, which can be used for finer, more detailed work, or a foot adze for making larger cuts in a larger piece of wood. The foot adze is usually used by straddling the piece of wood and swinging the adze down between your feet, chipping off pieces of wood and moving backward as you go. Obviously, this is a technique with which you want to practice some caution while using.
A hammer and chisel can be indispensable doing some of the finer carving on the yoke, especially around the neck seat, which needs to be very smooth. A draw knife, which is a horizontal blade with a handle at each end, can be used for some of the finer carving as well. A draw knife is designed for shaving long, thin strips of wood—strips that can even be used for basket weaving. Care should be used when doing some of the finer shaping with a draw knife because it is easy to cut deeper than you intend.
One of the most useful tools for some of the finer carving is a spokeshave. A smaller two-handed, plane-like tool, a spokeshave is used for shaping and smoothing wooden rods such as chair legs, canoe paddles, and, not surprisingly, wheel spokes. Another tool with design and function dating back to prehistoric times, a modern spokeshave generally has a sole plate that fixes the angle of the blade relative to the surface being worked, thereby preventing too-deep cuts, and making it ideal for shaping bows, as well as the finer work on the yoke itself.
Making the yoke
Once you have your log or your beam selected, it’s time to get to work.
If you are ambitious enough to want to hew your own beam from a round log, it is not a difficult technique, just time and labor intensive. Lay out the size of beam you intend to square on the end of the log, and take a saw and make several cuts into the wood close to the depth you want. Once the cuts are made in the wood, the beam can be hewn out with an axe or an adze, until it is a relatively square cross section.
Once you have the beam squared and flat on all four sides, draw the pattern of the yoke on the beam. If, like me, you don’t have any artistic ability, there are templates available to trace the pattern on the wood. The pattern is two-sided, one side for the top, and the other for the shape of the front of the yoke. Again, the yoke form can be cut out with an adze, but if you have access to a bandsaw, it can save a lot of time and effort during this part of the process.
Once you have your rough yoke ready to go, the next step is to draw and drill the holes for the neck bows. This is done before shaping the yoke to make sure they stay centered during the fine carving.
The rest of the process is just shaping and carving. The sharp edges of the neck seat will be the most important to shape and smooth. In fact, the rest of the yoke can be left roughed out, as long as the neck seat is smooth, but most yoke makers prefer to smooth the yoke all the way around to give it a more pleasing appearance.
Shaping the bows
Bows are traditionally made from hickory or other hardwood, created using steam to heat and soften the wood, then shaping it around a form to get a precise measurement and shape. Generally the wood is steamed and shaped before it is shaved into the round form necessary to fit into the bow holes on the yoke. A significant amount of force must be carefully applied to shape the bows and keep the wood from splitting and cracking while it’s bending. Laminating thin strips with glue is another option.
If creating natural or laminated wood bows isn’t an option, a serviceable set can be created from heavy wall PVC pipe. The pipe can be heated with a propane torch until it becomes soft, then bent around a form to create the shape. The other advantage of the PVC bows is that several sets can be created fairly cheaply, and discarded if they don’t work well.
Yoke building 101
In 2013, I had the privilege of attending the Oxen Basics class at Tillers International in Scotts, Michigan. Part of that class is making a yoke for your team.
The team I was working with already had a 6-inch yoke, so it made sense to make a larger one since they were still growing. This proved to be a little more of a challenge, since the beam stock they had was for the up-to-6-inch yokes. My beam was elm, and it was already dried. This was nice because it was relatively light and would not crack or split.
I’d never done much woodworking before, except for an eighth-grade shop class, where my greatest achievement was making a bootjack. Creating something that beautiful and serviceable seemed beyond me. Once the blank yoke was cut out on the bandsaw, I got to work with the hand tools.
I was able to use the chisel to work on the neck seat a bit, carving it down to take the shape I wanted. After a few hesitant taps with the mallet, I was able to find a rhythm, and worked pretty well after that. After carving away the basic shape of the neck seat, I used a spokeshave to smooth the curves and refine the seat. I learned pretty quickly how to work with, not against, the grain of the wood, and using a spokeshave can really put you in a “Zen” state quickly. Lots and lots of sanding finally achieved the right smoothness for the seat—and I do mean lots and lots of sanding. But at last I had a shape that was smooth and pleasing, and I felt like someone had complimented my new baby when one of the interns commented on how pretty my yoke was.
The bows were a different story, though. It is not easy to take a square piece of wood and turn it into a perfectly round piece of wood. And, just by the curse of the draw, the grain of my bows went both directions at once in a couple of places.
I kept snagging the grain with the spokeshave and having to switch directions. I think I spent more time on the bows than the yoke itself. But, looks aren’t everything, and they finally got shaved enough to fit into the holes on the yoke. Once the pin holes were drilled, they actually looked pretty good—and they are certainly strong enough to do what I need them to do. The hand-forged staple for the yoke was already made for us, so all that was left to do was drill and square a hole for the staple, and put it all together. But given the opportunity to try to bend and make a set of bows on my own again, I’m going to seriously consider ordering from one of the professional yoke makers first!
After a couple of coats of linseed oil, the yoke looked much nicer than I thought it would. It also worked well and looked great on the team. But guess what? They have outgrown it. So, back to the drawing board for a larger yoke!
Looking for more woodworking projects? Check out Hank’s handcrafted hay rake.
Parts of the neck yoke
• Beam This is the main body of the yoke, the beam that rests across the neck of the ox.
• Neck seat The part that actually rests on the neck of the animal.
• Belly The lowest point of the yoke, between the two oxen. This is where the staple and hitch rings hang, and where implements are hooked up.
• Bows The curved pieces that go around the ox’s neck. The bows rest on the shoulder and provide the ox with something to push against when drawing a load.
For more information
Full-scale copies of these plans and templates shown in image #2 of the Slideshow are available from:
Tillers International, 10515 E. OP Ave., Scotts, MI 49088; (269) 626-0223
Callene works as a zookeeper in the Children’s Farms of the Sedgwick County Zoo, and she and her husband, Eric, have small herds of Pineywoods cattle and Navajo-Churro sheep on their farm in Kansas.