Homage to the lowly scraper

The cabinet scraper. Next to a rock or a stick, probably the simplest tool found in a woodshop. Originally made from discarded saw blades, the cabinet scraper is a simple rectangle of steel plate. That’s it – no electronics, motors, bearings, knobs, displays, dust collection, or safety guards. A simple card of hard steel.

What is amazing is that – properly used – it can leave a smoother surface in wood than a power sander costing hundreds of dollars! Yes, it takes some manual labor to use, and it needs to be re-sharpened frequently, but who woulda thunk it possible? In the hands of an expert a cabinet scraper can eliminate the need for noisy, dusty power sanders.

I am not an expert.

Nonetheless, I aspire to be one. 🙂 I spent this evening going over some of my bare chair legs with a cabinet scraper, patiently truing the edges of the tool, burnishing them, rolling that tiny little burr that takes ever so whispery thin shavings of wood. Then I started scraping out the gnarly swirls and scratches left by the rough power sanding. Unbelievable. In fact, the finish is so smooth it won’t actually accept the stain well! I’ll have to give it one final pass with a sander (hand or power) to put back in some of the very fine scratches that will hold the stain pigment (otherwise it won’t match the table – I’ve already tried this).

I’m still learning. Gotta pay attention to which way the grain is running on my sloped pieces – while scraping is forgiving, it does tear if I scrape “uphill” against the grain. And I tore up some of the edges of my legs by being too aggressive. A light touch, just a caress, is all I needed…

Anyway, this experience reminds me that high-tech and electricity are not always better then simple manual tools. Yes, I can go faster with a sander (although, frankly, I think if you had two expert woodworkers race to smooth out a cabinet door, one using a sander, the other scrapers, I bet the scraper user would win) and not get tired (gotta keep significant tension on the card – bowing it slightly with your thumbs – while using it), but at the cost of noise, dust, and the risk of more “swirlies.” These front legs are relatively small pieces, and lend themselves well to handwork. And I just like the aesthetics of using simple hand tools – it puts me closer to the actual wood and work. There’s more of “me” in the finished product.

So hats off to that ancestral cheapskate who figured out something useful to do with old saw blades!


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