Using cabinet scrapers

Scrapers are tools that you would use in the finishing process but are used after cleaning up with a hand plane, but before the application of abrasive paper. We tell our students that the careful use of a scraper can save them 80% of their sanding. That’s 80% of the time spent on sanding and 80% of the cost of their abrasive paper. We tell them to keep this mind but still see them laboriously sanding out deep tears in surfaces. Finishing and especially sanding is often one of those parts of the job that takes much much more time than you think, so this is a consideration, by learning how to use scrapers well, and appropriately, you can improve the finish of your job, enjoy it much more, take less time and if you are doing this for money save yourself money.

What do we mean by scrapers?

They fall into two categories. The first is probably the simplest and most effective hand tool for woodworking that I know about. This is a simple cabinet scraper, which is an unimpressive piece of carbon steel which is about 3 wide and 6 long. This is essentially a hand held tool and well talk about sharpening it and using it in these two articles.

The second kind of scraper is the scraper plane. This is essentially a cabinet scraper or a blade much like a cabinet scraper, held in a short plane body with a pair of handles. The advantage of the scraper plane, certainly in the more sophisticated perversions are that the sole of the plane helps to keep the surface of your work flat. That, in turn, can make the work itself a deal slower to do. Of the two types of scraper plane that we’ve come across, the first is the rather beautiful Lie Nielsen scraper plane. I had managed to do without one of these lovelies for the better part of twenty-five years, but have recently succumbed to buying one. I got one for a specific job of putting a final finish on a Rosewood table the kind of finish that needed no papering afterwards It didn’t manage to get the result, but that may have been out lack of familiarity. However, having a job like that is always the best excuse to spend money on tools like this.

A different type of scraper is a short bodied scraper and two planes in this category have recently turned up in our workshop. The old type is the Stanley 80 scraper plane and the new type is the Veritas scraper plane. Of these two planes, the Veritas is considerably superior, although costing £15 more, the sole of the plane is flat and we checked one here at flat to within 1/5000″, whereas a recent Stanley 80 plane here required 5 hours of hard laborious work to get it nowhere near as flat as that. When I bought a Stanley 80 many years ago, the blade was long enough to put an edge on both sides, whereas now, engineering economies have meant that the size of the blade fitted in the Stanley 80 won’t allow this. This is cheese paring tool making to a ridiculous degree and if Veritas can take business away from the Stanley 80, I for one would say good luck to them. I hate to see people wasting 5 hours of their precious lives flattening plane bases that should be pretty flat in the first place.

First of all lets just appreciate what a cabinet scraper is.

It’s a simple piece of steel but it should be a pretty good piece of steel. Most steel these days are cold rolled carbon steel and they can be of a grade which is almost too hard to easily turn a burr. The scrapers that I would personally recommend are those made by Sandvick. They seem to use a grade of steel that is hard enough to hold a good edge, but soft enough to turn a decent burr. The finish on the steel is also an issue and Sandvick seem to use smoother polished steel for their scrapers. Another quality one needs to find in a cabinet scraper is the thickness of the steel. You can buy fairly thick scrapers that are quite hard to bend, and thin scrapers which bend very easily. My preference for most work is a relatively thick scraper, about 2 mm thick. This has enough stiffness to provide resistance when using it and will give me the chance of creating a reasonably wide shaving. Thin flexible scrapers I have somewhere about my bench, but I can’t say where they are right now and I would guess don’t get much work. You can buy cabinet scrapers in gooseneck and curved shapes, but these again don’t get as much use as the flat thick scraper. They do however come in very useful mind you when scraping out the inside of curved shapes.

Next we have to consider the delicate art of sharpening a cabinet scraper.

When you are presented with a new scraper there is a certain amount of preparation work to do. The edge you are sharpening is just one of the long edges of the scraper and we are going to put a cutting edge on the two corners of that long edge. I usually put a piece of masking tape on the opposite side of the cabinet scraper so I know which edge I’m holding and which edge is the cutting edge. Be careful how you store cabinet scrapers as well. Don’t just toss then around as the cutting edges can be easily damaged. Store them in a little slotted block with a series of saw cuts to accept the various scrapers. This way they are always available and you know which one somebody has borrowed. Also, be careful how you handle scrapers they can give a nasty cut.

New cabinet scrapers need to be dressed before they can be sharpened. The sides of the two cutting edges need to be rubbed on a flat stone. This can either be a water stone or an oil stone. Simply make certain the sides of the stone are rubbed hard enough to take away all the machine marks on the steel leaving a flat even grey. There is no benefit in taking it to a finer polish than a flat even grey, and no benefit in using a stone which is finer than 1200. Though I personally wouldn’t go much coarser than say 800 grit. Having got the two sides to a nice smooth even grey, the task is to get the same kind of finish on the edge.

This is best done on a good quality carborundum stone, probably with oil as a lubricant. This is probably one of the only uses of a carborundum stone in our workshop the reason is that if the edge is put on a water stone it will wear a deep groove in the surface of the relatively soft waterstone. Carborundum stones are harder and less likely to wear in this way. I take a square block of wood and place it on the stone first and then run the cabinet scraper against it using it as a guide fence. In this way, the edge of the cabinet scraper is kept square. Once you can see a nice even grey extending out to the sides, giving nice sharp right angled corners, then you’ve got a well prepared scraper.
Now on to sharpening, if you look at the diagram of the cross section of a newly sharpened scraper, you will see what you are trying to do when you turn a burr on a new scraper. Effectively what you are doing is you are pushing a bit of metal right on the corner of the scraper and turning it into a small hook that stands proud of the side of the tool. The size of this hook needn’t be very big, but it should be even and consistent along the length of the scraper. The amount of effort required to turn that burr is determined first by the quality of the burnisher, second by the angle at which the burnisher is applied, and third by the quality of the edge that it’s being applied to. If that edge is smooth and square and well prepared, it may not take very much push or effort to turn a burr. A well used or poorly prepared scraper may require a deal more effort to turn the same kind of burr.

Turning a Burr and burnishing

Turning a burr requires a burr turning tool. This is called a burnisher. Now all kinds of things can be used as burnishers. The essential qualities of a burnisher is that it is a very flat, slightly rounded extremely hard piece of steel that can be rubbed on the carefully prepared edge of your cabinet scraper. A friend of mine uses the gudgeon pin of a piston from an old Ford Prefect. For many years I used a chrome plated screwdriver blade till I took the chrome plating off. I’ve now got a Clico burnisher but wish I had one of those nice oval shape of Veritas burnishers. They are more money but very nice tools.

The way a burnisher is used is to first of all set your cabinet scraper low down in a bench vice. This is probably with about 3 or 4 mm, maybe about 5 mm of the cabinet scraper showing above the surface of the vice jaws. This is to give very good support for the cabinet scraper and stop it bending. Our vices are lined with wood so they grip the job nicely and cleanly along its full length. Because these wooden vice jaws are maybe an inch or an inch and a half thick, they also give a second point for the burnisher to rest on. It’s much easier to burnish an edge if your burnisher is resting on two points rather than the single point of a cabinet scraper edge. In this way, the angle that the burnisher is presented to the scraper can be consistent along its full length and you can concentrate on how hard you are pressing.

If the block of wood holding the scraper in the jaws of the vice is about an inch and a half thick and the cabinet scraper is projecting 3 or 4 mm out of the jaws of the vice, then we have worked out that the burnisher is being applied to the scraper at an angle of about 85 degrees, give or take a few. Strop the tool up and down the edge of the scraper and then just feel it with the edge of your finger, you should feel a slight burr being turned over. This is what you are looking for. Keep on stropping, feel for those areas of the edge where the burr has not yet been built up and strop those areas. Use smooth long strokes and adjust your pressure, when a burr is coming, don’t press too hard where it’s not yet there press a little harder.

Once a new burr has been created along the full length of one corner, you can take the cabinet scraper out, turn it around and strop the other edge. Or, you can be a skilled craftsperson and you can leave it in the vice in its position, and adjust the angle of your burnisher.

David Savage, 2005.

David Savage was a master craftsman and the inspiration behind Rowden Atelier. It is his ideals and his lifetime link with the Arts and Crafts movement, which drives our ethics and our quality. A published author and globally renowned maker in the bespoke luxury furniture business, David sadly passed away at the start of 2019. He is sorely missed, but his articles and his work live on.