Tips for a close shave

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Woodworking doesn't get any more basic than this. You pick up a rectangular piece of steel and make problems go away. Milling marks, joinery imperfections, glue lines, runs in a finish—they all bow before the simple hand scraper.

A well-tuned hand scraper, with a tiny "hook" of steel that you shape along its edge, smooths highly figured wood or burl without tear-out. If you start with a plane and run into tear-out trauma, your scraper comes to the rescue. It doesn't eliminate sanding, contrary to popular belief, but it does allow you to skip the coarser grits.

So what's the catch? It takes practice to use a scraper properly, and, just as important, it takes a honing technique that's nothing like sharpening your other tools. Don't worry. We'll guide you through all the steps with the help of scraper expert Marc Adams, who runs the Marc Adams School of Woodworking in Franklin, Indiana.

Get your hands on one

If you don't own a hand scraper, buy a simple, rectangular model at a tool store or through a woodworking catalog. Most of them are either 5" or 6" long and 2" to 3" wide. Woodworker's Supply (800-645-9292) carries one, Thickness and steel hardness vary from one brand of scraper to another, but you can ignore those factors for now.

You also have an alternative. A rectangle cut out of an old handsaw blade will work like a charm.

Once you've learned the ins and outs of scraping, you may decide to add a cabinet scraper, a small two-handled tool that clamps a scraper blade in place. It reduces the risk of ridges when you smooth a large surface, and it's a lot easier on you. A hand scraper stresses your thumbs and gets awfully hot.

Give it a keen edge

You can coax some sawdust off a piece of wood with an unhoned scraper, but that's not what this tool is designed to do. Put the right hook on its edge and a scraper unfurls wispy curls of wood, finer than you could ever get with a plane.

Achieving that hook is no mystery; you just need the right technique. Learn to do it the simple way, and resist the urge to buy sharpening devices. Marc Adams says, "I've seen people struggle with those accessories here at the school, and I've never seen one gadget that made me think, 'This is what we need.'" In his opinion, "The less sophisticated a woodworker is, the more sophisticated tools he thinks he has to have."

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A hand scraper and a cabinet scraper require slightly different procedures. Both, however, shave wood with a hook that you form along the edge. See the drawing (above) for a close-up view of the almost invisible hook. The captions to Photo A through Photo F, below, tell you how to sharpen a hand scraper. You'll follow the same steps to sharpen a cabinet scraper, but keep the edge at a 45° angle and then turn the hook to match the drawing. We used a burnishing tool, but the shank of a good chisel works just as well.

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Put a hook on both sides of both long edges so you won't have to reburnish as often. And if you want to get the absolute most out of your scraper, Marc points out that you can put as many as 12 hooks on one rectangular scraper. That's two on each side, two on each end, plus a 116 "-wide hook at each corner that can handle tiny crevices and string inlay.

Put the little shaver to work

No matter how well honed, a scraper won't turn out feathery shavings until you get the hang of using it. You have to flex it properly and hold it at the perfect angle to maximize its performance.

Of 20 students in one class, "Eighteen of them couldn't make their scrapers cut," Marc reports. "But I could, using the hooks they already had." Some people push a hand scraper and some pull. Marc pulls, reasoning that "You can't hold it perfectly flat when you're pushing it, but you can when you pull it." He holds the scraper at a slight skew and varies the flex according to the job. This flexing concentrates the cutting power in one area and keeps the corners from digging into your workpiece.

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The two photos above, and the photo below show both methods. Ideally, you should hold the hand scraper just 10° to 15° from vertical, leaning in the direction that you're scraping. "If you've made the hook so that it cuts at that angle, it's easier to use," Marc says. "If you have to hold it at 45 degrees, for example, it's too sharp an angle for comfort."

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The proper angle can change slightly from one honing to the next. Move the scraper until you can feel it cut and you see the shavings. When you can't get shavings any more, reburnish. Lay the scraper flat on your workbench and "draw" the edge slightly thinner with your burnishing tool, then form a new hook. You can reburnish several times before you have to get out your stone and file and go back to the beginning of the sharpening process.

Give your thumbs a break

A long session of scraping generates an uncomfortable amount of heat. Rather than put the scraper into some sort of holder, which steals away your control of the tool, wear gloves.

However, no matter how comfortable a hand scraper may feel as you begin to use it, a long session will take its toll on your thumbs and fingers. So if you have a large surface to clean up, or some heavy scraping to do, switch to a cabinet scraper, as shown in the photo above. Its big handles make this tool easy to grip, while its large sole helps you do a more consistent job of flattening the surface.

After you sharpen the cabinet-scraper blade, place the body on a flat surface and position the blade squarely in its slot, with the beveled edge facing the rear. Hold the whole assembly firmly in place while you tighten the screws that force the pressure bar against the blade. Then turn the thumbscrew that forces the blade to bow. The farther you nudge it out, the deeper the cut that you'll make in the wood.

A basic cabinet scraper, such as the Stanley No. 80, holds the blade at a fixed angle. It's up to you to form a hook that works at that angle.

Marc's parting advice

Some woodworkers claim that scrapers give them a surface ready for finishing. Because the scraper cuts fibers rather than tearing them, you'll wind up with a clearer, brighter surface than sanding offers.

However, Marc would advise you to resist the temptation to go directly from scraper to finishing brush. "You're not going to eliminate sanding. That's fantasy," he says. "As soon as you try to make a tool do what it's not qualified to do, you'll have failure and become discouraged. But for certain jobs, a scraper is a tool you can't do without."

If you want to get technical about it...

Scrapers range from about C-30 to about C-50 on the Rockwell hardness scale. The softer ones are easier to sharpen, but the harder ones hold a hook longer. Thickness varies from .020" to .030".

A thick scraper works best when you need to remove a great deal of material. Try a small, thin hand scraper for leveling a coat of varnish or making a delicate piece of inlay perfectly flush with the rest of the surface. Steel cut from a dull and inexpensive dovetail saw works well for this. Remember, you also can make small scrapers of any size and shape to suit particular tasks.

You can smooth curves, too 

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Scrapers also come in a French curve, or gooseneck, style, and a model that's convex at one end and concave at the other. Woodworker's Supply sells the ones shown above. The gooseneck is part number 813-763 and the convex/concave model is 813-770. A package that includes these two and the rectangular style is part number 810-145.

It takes more practice to hone and hook a curved edge, but the steps remain the same. Marc Adams recommends working the edge an inch at a time.

Midwestern mecca for woodworkers

Hundreds of woodworkers take classes every year at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking. Marc and visiting experts teach from May through October at his acreage near Franklin, Indiana, about 20 miles south of Indianapolis.

Last summer, we talked to some of his students, many of them repeat customers, and heard nothing but enthusiastic reviews. For more information, call 317/535-4013 or log on to www.marcadams.com.