The Secret to Handscrapers

The first time I saw a hand scraper in use I was sure some form of magic was involved. How else could such delicate, wispy shavings be produced from a rectangular piece of steel? Excited, I bought one, rushed home and immediately discovered that it did in fact require magic to work — or so it seemed. Years later, I learned that the magic behind a scraper is an invisible burr — a tiny hook — that you form on its edges. It’s this burr that makes it possible to tackle jobs that will make a hand plane tremble in fear — squirrely grain like bird’s eye or burls where the grain constantly shifts and changes direction. A hand scraper can smooth surfaces like these without worry of tearing out fibers.

But the No. 1 reason I reach for scraper is to quickly level high spots on a glued-up panel or tabletop. Sure, you could pull out a power sander, but why bother when a few quick passes with a hand scraper will do the job (and do it a lot quieter — and without the dust). Once you slip one of these into your shop apron, you’ll find yourself reaching for it constantly. It’s like having a pocket-sized cordless sander that doesn’t require sandpaper and a hand plane that can be sharpened in seconds all rolled into one. If this sounds too good to be true, it isn’t. All it takes is a quality scraper and a simple procedure to create the burr.

There are several tools called “scrapers.”There is the rectangular piece of metal, the rectangular piece of metal in an oversized spokeshave body (called a cabinet scraper) and a rectangular piece of metal in a plane body (called a scraping plane). Each has its uses. Cabinet scrapers and scraper planes attempt to make the work less tiring. There’s also myriad ways to sharpen and tune them. In this article, I’ll focus solely on the hand scraper. Get the hang of this tool, and then move on to its bigger brothers.

Scrapers 101
Before delving into how to form a burr on a scraper, let’s look at what makes a good scraper. The best indication of overall quality is its metal and hardness. Inexpensive hand scrapers are often sheared from spring steel with a Rockwell hardness of anywhere from C-30 to C-40. This makes them easy to sharpen, but the burr won’t last long. A high-quality scraper is made from tool steel with a Rockwell hardness closer to C-50. These take a bit more effort to sharpen, but the burr lasts considerably longer.

Scrapers come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Rectangular scrapers are either 3″ x 5″ or 2-1/2″ x 6″ and come in a variety of thickness, usually .020″ and .030″. Generally, the thicker the scraper, the more heavy-duty work it can handle — jobs like scraping off dried glue or paint. Thinner scrapers allow you to flex them more to prevent the corners from digging in.

Which scraper is best for you? If you’ll be doing mostly rough work, a thicker scraper will hold up better. For finer work, use a thin scraper that’s easy to flex. As to the size, it depends on whether you push or pull a scraper. I prefer to push a scraper, so I like the longer, narrower variety. Friends who pull a scraper like the 3″ x 5″ size.