Fine Woodworking – Myths and mysteries busted

For more information on the #80 Scraper, see our beginner site Common Woodworking.

DSC_0674 Cabinet scraper- simple, effective and unequalled

I read a recent Fine Woodworking article that conveyed that certain authoritativity in stating “You Need a Cabinet Scraper.” It became one of those articles you first skim over in a glimpse and then you look back to see if what you read was really in print and that you weren’t mistaken in how you took it.

#1) First off it said that the cabinet scraper was “the best tool for cleaning up tearout before final smoothing” and it was this that made me ask myself whether that meant that someone was saying that the tool didn’t or couldn’t give a finished smoothness in and of itself and that it needed sandpaper or some other process to correct the flawed surface it left. This is happening more and more with this tool.  Further more, the thought came to me after reading the article that what is a fairly simple tool to sharpen and use suddenly became complex, expensive and confused.

#2) The second statement made by the author was just sort of slipped in as a fact and this too intrigued and bemused me. He said that “using the (cabinet) scraper hardens the edge too much to allow you to re-turn” the edge. I never heard this and so I questioned more the fact of the statement because that is not the reason that you generally cannot re-turn the edge on the cabinet scraper blade. There actually is a bona fide reason you cannot re-turn the edge, but this is not it. Stating that the work of “using the scraper hardens the edge too much” doesn’t mean that what’s being said is true, so what is the truth? How much heat does it take to turn steel from a working steel capable of taking and holding an edge to one that’s too hard. I always understood that steel needs to be taken to cherry red and then plunged into a cooler fluid such as water or oil. Is this the same criteria or is there another type of hardness I don’t understand? Remember in the sixties when we said, “Question authority.”?

#3 The author states that blade will not fit into a honing guide, that the cabinet scraper “blade is too big for a guide.” Cabinet scraper blades fit into many if not all honing guides. See above with honing guide and scraper blade working fully together just fine. We have a video on this too by the way and its free.

Now I am still on the first page here, which is 80% photo’s and we have two more pages to go so bear with me.

#4) “Unlike the more familiar card scraper (That’s not true. They are both equally well known and used) the cabinet scraper is not made to leave a finished surface.” I never heard of this before recently and have always used them to create pristine glass-like surfaces so smooth that they need roughening with 240 grit sandpaper so that they will take a finish; The roughened surface being given tooth by the abrasion. If we’ve honed and polished and burnished from a start-point of 16,000!!! And then further burnished that edge before turning it what must that cutting edge be?

#5) “They are used to remove jointer and planer marks and tracks left by hand planes.” Yes to the machine marks, but not tracks left by hand planes really. If planes leave tracks they are mis-set. They are however often used to remove skud marks and even the occasional chatter, but track marks is not the way of the artisan.

#6) “It’s a bit of a quirky tool.” It follows on to then state that the blade looks like a card scraper when in fact it looks nothing like a card scraper, but more like a short plane iron. The tool is also quick to sharpen, simple to set up and works like a dream every time. No real quirks to it so let no one be intimidated by it.

#7) “That the card scraper can leave divots” in the surface of the wood. Not really. You would have to be using it pretty badly to do that. Card scrapers are the least like surface cutting tools to leave divots.

#8) It seems that the goal is to make “nice shavings.” The shavings have little to do with anything. What people need to know is how to make a nice surface.

DSC_0182 #9) I don’t doubt that honing through four grits to 16,000 gives a highly polished edge, but this sounds as though you must now go out and buy four very expensive sharpening stones to do what we have done for a couple of centuries with a file a stone and a burnisher. How did those men do it all those years ago without this information?

#10) After all of this the author says that burnishing  the bevel makes for a sharper edge. That’s true, the question for me is whether the four stones were necessary then. He also states that several strokes back and forth across the bevel flattens out scratches left from honing. I mean, 16,000 grit! These statements raise many questions. Especially as after all of this he is only producing a finish that then needs further refining with sandpaper.

#11) The author uses the point of his cone-shaped burnisher to now retrieve an overturned edge. Why not just turn it rightly first off the bat and get on with the job as we have done for a couple of centuries and more? Does this mean we must buy yet another tool for sharpening? And one costing $65 plus shipping and handling?

#12) “Set up for fluffy shavings.” “Fluffy” and “nice” shavings may be a byproduct of having an edge that cuts the surface dead smooth but that’s not the objective. I think often of how we go to shows and see shavings spilling from plane throats and we see people selling planes and we are beguiled by the shavings thinking that’s what we are looking for.

#13) Major, major blunder here. Should be in all caps. We all do it. Don’t listen to this advice, never mind do it. The author says “insert the blade into the scraper body from beneath, with the hook facing toward the depth adjustment thumbscrew.” Utterly the wrong way around , back to front and backwards. Whoops, get ready for an ear-piercing blood curdling scream from the scraper…

#14 “With the scraper on your bench, press down on the blade so it’s bottoming out on the bench.” Bench surfaces would need to be pristinely flat and somewhat firm and hard; better a harder surface of well planed wood, smooth plastic laminate, MDF or some other such surface because it must be level and flat.

#15 Here comes something of a rub. “You can buy a burnisher like this from (Philip C) Lowe for $65”. I wondered whether this article might be better in the tool review section.

#16 The author reiterates, “The cabinet scraper isn’t meant to produce a finished surface and you’ll be smoothing afterward.” After all of that work. Phew!!!

#17 “However, because the plane’s sole”. This could be another mistake, but the scraper is still called a scraper even though ‘scraper’ is a great misleading misnomer too. It really isn’t a plane.

I will answer the many issues surrounding some of this misinformation shortly to get rid of anything that might become fact for fifty years. We’ll choose a poorer man’s approach that culminates in super smoothness from the tool’s edge so that we use sandpaper for roughness and not corrective smoothing


  1. The article author might be referring to work hardening, where pounding or bending metal compacts the molecules and can make it brittle. I would seriously doubt that just turning a burr once could possibly do this. I would guess that returning a burr is not possible as it is likely mostly worn off or at best uneven, thin, and subject to breaking.

  2. #2 Is correct I think, by hammering or rolling the edge becomes much harder. The surface is too small to be expressed in RC hardness, micro-vickers and such are needed. That’s why scrapers are so good. The same technique is (ab)used for kitchen knives (steeling) and scythes (hammering before sharpening). It’s also used to break iron wires by repetitive bending. The reason is an increase in crystal defects

    1. If it were the case that the edge were being bent back and forth it may be so, but the author is saying that its using the tool by scraping that hardens the steel. If that were the case, what is the difference between the two scraper types where one can be re-turned several times and other not as with card scrapers and cabinet scrapers? Using the scraper doesn’t harden the steel in that way, but being so thin with no back up steel does prevent the re-turn.

  3. His skill is in no way in question. Just some aspects of the article he wrote raised many questions and concerns.

  4. Hello John,
    The skills of the author both as a writer and woodworking furniture maker are self evident. He’s gifted and respected by everyone including me.
    I don’t think I said anything about the hardness of the burnisher or where it was made. The article didn’t mention hardness or show RC test results either. I just assumed it was indeed hard. The burnishing process is not under dispute either and, actually, I would have liked to see the whole tool, hand turned handle and all. It would have been nice to see.
    Much of what you say is not in contradiction really. I do take issue with loading the scraper blade the wrong way around. You do realise what you are saying when you say that you have loaded the blade in in reverse, as the article says, with the burr facing the depth adjustment thumbscrew, not the retaining bar thumbscrew. In saying this you are saying that the cutting edge should sit above the base or sole face of the scraper altogether, so that the cutting edge cannot reach the wood. I was at least suggesting this to be an editorial oversight that the editors should have caught. The drawing, though needing much greater magnification to be of an real help, needed magnification and much light to see, does show the cutting blade the correct way around. Now you make me think that what everyone at FW and the author is saying is that this is not a mistake and that we should all start loading the iron in backwards.

  5. About a year ago I purchased a Stanley #80 cabinet scraper and followed the directions in your book to put it into service. It took me a few cycles of sharpening and set up to get somewhat proficient, but even the first time the scraper performed wonderfully. I use it primarily on grain that is difficult to plane (for example, I made two candle boxes from aromatic cedar that I re-sawed from firewood left by the previous homeowner – the extensive knots and contrary grain made for nearly impossible planning but made a lovely box – the #80 saved the day.) I have used a inexpensive honing guide that I purchased at the Woodworking Show and it fits fine. Turning the edge with a Crown burnisher is simple. Bottom line – once again your methods produce results in a simple and straightforward manner and what you have stated above I have found to be true in my experience. While I love learning and hearing other opinions, the proof of the pudding is in the eating – and so far yours tastes superb each time. Currently I am using this scraper to prepare surfaces on a walnut side table that I am making – as you state above, the surfaces are like glass when complete and they get that way quickly, with little effort and consistent results. Thanks again for your spot on instruction and simple methods that work. If everything in hand tool woodworking was as complicated as some folks seem to make it, I think I would have given up. Instead I am enjoying working wood, and doing so with a level of internal confidence and skill that is very satisfying, yet leaves me yearning for greater accuracy and craftsmanship – it is a sense of internal peace in my work that I never imagined possible.

  6. That’s true, but once you learn to sharpen the scraper and use it, I doubt you’d ever go back to the belt sander and 80-grit. For every hundred using the belt sander there will be a handful willing to learn new skills and stand in an atmosphere free of dust masks and ear defenders. So I persevere in the face of everything to help people off of the conveyor-belt mentality to woodworking.
    Also, we’ve trained thousands of people to use the scrapers now and more and more are actually returning to hand tools because they see how efficiently they work.

  7. I realize this is an old post, but have a few thoughts:

    1. The vast majority of the work hardening probably does indeed happen when the burr is turned, not as a result of use. I recall reading that article and smirking when I saw that (and the other errors you point out).

    2. With that said, as any skier who tunes their own edges knows, impacts do cause work hardening, to the point where the damaged metal has to be removed with abrasives before a hard chrome file will do anything but “skitter” along the edge (the newer tungsten carbide files are a different matter). There is however a huge difference between a skier hitting a rock with their full weight over the edge (and potentially several times that if they’re any good) and anything that’s likely to happen while scraping wood. It’s theoretically possible, but a huge stretch. I have definitely work-hardened the burrs on card scrapers when I’ve hit ski edges with them while taking down base repairs, but that isn’t what we’re discussing here.

    3. On a related note, the fact that a hard-chrome file can be used to re-flatten the scraper is a huge hint that there isn’t *that* much work-hardening happening. Quality scrapers like Bahco/Sandvik start out at ~Rc50, and conventional files won’t cut much harder material than that with even the best technique (knowing how to pressure and feel the file)

    The remainder of your critique is spot on.

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