Last month we looked at this wonderful and simple tool, the cabinet scraper, and we dealt with how to put an edge on a new scraper. This month we will be looking at how to use that scraper and how to re-establish a sharp edge on the scraper once it becomes worn and dull, and just to confuse matters, we will be looking at how to resharpen a scraper once it becomes worn to a point where turning a new burr will no longer work. This tool may be the most simple tool nothing more than a very simple piece of tooled steel, but using it and sharpening it seems to cause people more grief than it should, which is why I think its worth looking at in a little more detail.
Just slightly recapping what we looked at last month, a cabinet maker is a simple square piece of carbon steel. A new scraper needs a small amount of fettling before you can put an edge on it. Mostly dressing the sides of the scraper on a medium water stone before turning a burr. The edge of the scraper will be nice and square and should be clean of any machine marks. If not, it may be necessary to dress that surface again with a medium water stone, or the surface of a good medium oil stone. Use a block of wood, planed at 90 degrees as a guide to hold the scraper square to the stone and rub the scraper up and down the stone, just to take off your machine marks. You now have a perfectly square and well polished right angle edge suitable for taking a burr. The burr is applied by using a tool called a burnisher which can be anything from a hard blade of a well made screwdriver, to an expensive custom made burnisher. I use a round burnisher made by Clico. It is important that the burnisher is made from a harder steel than the scraper, because you are going to be rubbing the burnisher on that corner of the scraper and moving the steel around with the burnisher. Last month we looked at how we can hold the scraper low down in a vice and dress the edge of the scraper first at 90 degrees, consolidating and shining up the edge of the scraper and then just moving the steel over to create a small hook or burr. That burr doesnt have to be very big, in fact the smaller it is the better, but you do have to be able to feel it as you run your finger down the side of the cabinet scraper, and you are looking to feel a little tiny hook that wasnt there when you started burnishing. You may be able to achieve this burr with minimum pressure. If it doesnt arrive fairly quickly increase your pressure but carry the strokes right through the scraper.
Now youve got a scraper with a decent burr on it. How do you know its sharp? Well, the simple test is, when you use it it cuts shavings of wood, not dust. Simple to tell when a scraper is not sharp enough because of that test, the fact that what you are scraping away it is only producing dust, not fine shimmery shavings should be telling you that, either you are holding the scraper incorrectly, and more of that later, or the scraper itself needs a new edge on it. In order to use a cabinet scraper you need to hold it with your fingers down the outside edges of the scraper and your thumbs in the centre. This should give a slight bend to the scraper and it’s that central bent part of the scraper that is actually going to be in contact with your job. In this instance you will be pushing the scraper blade away from you. Try it out . This bending is also why scrapers of different thicknesses are offered some bend easier than others, i prefer a reasonably stiff scraper thats not too easy to bend. Push the scraper away from you and just try slightly varying the angle at which the tool is presented to the job. You may want to hold it at 45 degrees to start off with. This is good mean average, but you may find according to the species of timber you are working that a lower or higher angle than this will be more suitable. Also the kind of burr you have turned may determine that a lower angle would be better or indeed a higher angle. Its up to you to feel what cutting angle is going to be most suitable for this particular job. This is one of those ultimately variable hand tools that can be adjusted to suit any situation and give a result depending on how sensitive and skilled you are in using it.
Be aware also that as you work a piece of timber you may dull that small part of your cutting edge and you may want to move your thumbs to slightly left or right of it to expose a new sharp part of the burr. A cabinet scraper is not just a tool that works when its pushed. It can just as easily work when its pulled towards you. In this instance the thumbs dont press away from you, but the fingers wrap around the scraper and press the centre towards you. Always remember a cabinet scraper is a cutting tool and a very precise cutting tool when its working properly, that it is capable of removing a great deal of timber and leaving a rather unsightly hollow in a job that you only see when the polish is applied. Quite a lot of the time a cabinet scraper is used to take out one of those awful tears that occurs on the planer when the grain changes direction around some small defect in the timber. Sanding the whole surface down to just that small tear would be foolish and very expensive whereas a few strokes with a carefully tuned scraper will do the job. Try to use the scraper with some forethought in this situation. Make a few strokes to nearly remove the defect then even the job out by putting two or three more strokes longer than is necessary and even the hollow out, so when the job is polished it doesnt look like an approach green on the local golf course.
Now we come back again to sharpening. When you have used a cabinet scraper for a while you will realise that it only holds its edge for a relatively short period and quite soon you are back to replacing that worn out burr with a new burr. Many years ago someone told me that a newly sharpened scraper could have an edge burrr turned on it about three or four times and the burrs that one turned on the second and third time would probably be better than the burrs we turned on the first and fourth occasion. After four burrs, it would be good practice to go back and resharpen the scraper edge back to square. Ive always followed that advice and I concur that those edges that I turn in the middle of the process give me a better result that those I turn at the start and end of the sharpening cycle. But first of all, how do we get rid of an old burr and replace it with a nice new sharp one? Basically it is quite simple. Lay the scraper flat on the bench, take the burnisher or screwdriver or gudgeon pin from a Ford Popular, and run it down the face of the cabinet scraper. Turn the scraper over and do the same on the opposite side. You now have a very dangerous piece of equipment. If you run your finger along the edge of your scraper now, the chances are you will get a rather nasty cut. Its almost inevitable that one will do this, because that edge is so inviting and so fiendishly sharp its almost impossible to avoid the temptation of running ones finger down it. Now take the scraper, put it in the vice of the bench and turn another burr. As you do this the steel will be pushed around and you will create a second, possibly slightly larger burr. Make the strokes even and smooth and you will extend the burr out to the very edges of the scraper. You can repeat this process three or four times before you have to go back to resharpening.
Now what do I mean by resharpening? I mean taking that scraper edge and re-establishing a flat square straight edge. In turning four burr edges the edge of that scraper which was square and true has now become more like the dome of St Pauls Cathedral, well maybe I exaggerate a little bit, but its certainly become a bit rounded rather than nice and square. So going back to square requires the edge being dressed with a mill file held at as near 90 degrees as is humanly possible and pushed across the edge of the cabinet scraper with a shearing action, that is the lead hand holding the toe of the mill file will be in advance of the following hand. Looked at in plan view the file will be placed on the edge of the scraper, almost at 45 degrees – see photo. Once you have created a nice 90 degree edge on the edge of the scraper, stone the edge flat and square and we are getting back to the point we were at with a brand new scraper. Check the edge is true along its whole length, stone off any burrs and you are back to square one again.
Please dont be fooled by the humble appearance of the cabinet scraper. This is a precision cabinet makers tool par excellence. There is no other tool that I know that is capable of doing so much with regard to refining the surface of a wild grained piece of timber than the humble cabinet scraper. It does however require care in use, sharpening and storage. Given these prerequisites, it should be capable of doing work that a 200 bench plane wouldnt look at. Have fun with your scrapers.
Box out for scraper planes. There are basically two kinds of scraper planes. The first is the short bodied Stanley 80 scraper plane that essentially has a cabinet scraper built into a cast iron short body. The blades of these planes are sharpened at a 45 degree angle unlike the conventional cabinet scraper and the burr is struck on the edge of that 45 degree angle. The blade is inserted into the body of the plane whilst it is pressed flat on the bench, and is then tightened with two screws that face forward. Facing back towards you is a small thumb screw that is used to bend the blade away from you and create a cutting action in the centre of the blade. The greater the degree of bend the wider the shaving the deeper the cut. These simple scraper planes have been a favourite in my workshop for many a year, though I think if I were buying one now I would be buying the new Veritas short bodied scraper plane that seems to have avoided the cheese paring approach of accountants in the tool making industry. In my lifetime as a cabinet maker I have seen tons of tools suffer from this effect, mostly in the Stanley and Record range and Veritas and Leigh Neilson have together managed to pick up a sizeable business by going counter to this view and making higher and higher quality tools. The Leigh Neilson scraper plane that we also use in our workshop now is an example of the longer bodied scraper plane. This has a body of about 9 in length which makes it function much more like a conventional plane in keeping the surface flat and true. It also has a very thick heavy duty cutting iron that is not bent like the conventional Stanley 80 scraper plane. So the iron on our plane is slightly rounded, rather like a bench plane is slightly rounded across its width. Like the Stanley 80, the Leigh Neilson is sharpened and ground at 45 degrees with a hook or burr being turned on that 45 degree cutting angle. You can see from enclosed photograph that the blade is set in a body with a variable pitch. So far we have not really needed to fiddle around with that much and the pitch we are using seems to be working fairly well at about 80 degrees. This I think is a favourite tool, especially for those wanting to surface rosewood or ebony or anything with a difficult or awkward grain.