Scraper Burnishers That Work

DSC_0099 People often ask me to recommend a burnisher they can buy for forming the turned edge to a scraper. When I suggest just using the back of a chisel or a nail set they seem either unbelieving on the one hand or disappointed on the other. Most often they want a brand, a one-size-fits all and a dedicated-to-task tool. Fact is, until I moved to live in the USA, I never saw a dedicated burnisher for developing a scraper’s cutting edge and never knew such a  thing existed. I thought everyone used the back of a chisel or gouge. That doesn’t mean they didn’t exist in the UK, just that I mixed in the wrong circles. P1020750

I remember when I first sharpened my first scraper. It wasn’t called a card scraper because that was an Americanism too. It was just called a scraper. The old man I was working with was in his 80’s and he pulled out a 1” gouge, stuck it in his mouth and whipped it along the scraper edges half a dozen times with quick successive strokes. Then he peeled off two dozen shavings a foot or so long and the job was done. On the next bench Merlin stopped mid stroke and picked up a 1/2” bevel-edged chisel, stuck it in his mouth in like manner and, using the back bevelled side of the chisel, also pulled up a half dozen strokes and started peeling off more oak shaving from his wood. To me this seemed like magic. DSC_0033 Torn grain fibres in pockets of unrest around crotch grain and knots suddenly yielded to the deliberate strokes each man made and what I thought to be irreconcilable damage left from the machine planers or hand planes was immediately transformed into a silky smoothness that felt, well, like glass. So it is with skill when experience is married with real working knowledge and a man after the war years had little money spare for his family needs. Those with low income and higher overhead made do with what they had. The men training me felt nothing about stripping out their carburettors and replacing or restoring worn out parts at the same bench they worked wood on. It was nothing to remove the car wheel, tyre (tire USA) and fix the flat in the yard outside the timber racks. There was something about these men that managed their work and finances without compromising or wasting. Their lives spoke to me in my formative years about doing the best you can with what you have. I learned many a good lesson from them. DSC_0604

I never like the idea of people feeling they must have a special tools when there are often many options. So, you don’t need a custom made burnisher to consolidate the edge to a scraper and turn it to form the hook you need for scraping awkward grain. In reality, almost any steel edge works just fine. I agree there is nothing wrong with owning a special burnisher, I own several myself, but it wasn’t until I came to the US did I buy one. Before then and even today, I often reach for a bevel-edged chisel or the back of a gouge and get back to the work in hand.

P1020742 Last week I took four tools and sharpened for corners to a card scraper. The results were the same, as far as I could tell anyway. All four ‘burnishers’ worked just fine. In a matter of seconds I consolidated the steel and turned four new and keen edges. I used my own home made burnisher made from some O1, 3/8″ steel round, a manufactured burnisher, a nail punch and bevel-edged chisel. They each produced a viable cutting edge quickly and easily. And actually, no one feels any better in the process than the other.


I would say one thing with regards to safe handling. My chisels and gouges are usually surgically sharp, so I would suggest keeping a spare chisel or gouge for sharpening a burnisher at an unrefined level of sharpness. DSC_0098 The nail punch (set USA) or centre punch has no sharp edges and works fine as does a 10mm (3/8”) twist drill, the safe edge of a file. P1030151   P1030153 The nose of a pair of needle-nose pliers, screwdriver blade and a dozen more different tool types. P1030155


      1. Ah – makes sense then. I thought these guys must really be tough if they can use a burnisher with the strength of their jaws alone.

  1. The hardened steel bar that printer cartridges run on do an excellent job as a burnisher. Businesses, schools and most recycling centres always have defunct printers lying around so the cost is your time to dismantle one.

    These bars are also machined to very high tolerances for print accuracy, so probably have a multitude of other uses too.

    1. Thanx for the tip. Have two printers rotting away in attic and now they will have a little use before going to the dump. Now just need to turn a fancy handle.

  2. A great post there Paul,

    I can relate to your post because when I started at work there was this one guy who was very ‘old school’ and would try and repair most things – and he was the best tradesman in the place.

    The Americans seem to have invented a tool for most things, I have used their plastering trowels a lot (Marshall Town) and they really are very good. And also lighter than the British equivalent.

    Thanks for sharing your tips, and explaining things the way it is.

    Best regards,

  3. It seems there are people saying their interest is propagating woodwoeking. All I can hear from them is if you don’t spend big bucks for your tools, you can’t work wood. I read a long time ago that a Philips screwdriver shafts works great as a burnisher.
    Keep up the good work Paul. I appreciate it.

    Indiana, USA

    1. It’s not true that any screwdriver shaft will work, what’s more important is that the steel is smooth and harder than the scraper. You can’t fight physics.

      Some of the screwdrivers sold today will bend trying to open a tub of yoghurt.

  4. Thank you Paul for another informative and useful article.
    The use of scrapers would make an excellent video, as with all other tools we obtain them and are just expected to use them, but your videos explain the correct use perfectly.
    Kind regards.

  5. I watched a lovely film about a day in the life of Tage Frid, where he stated that some prefer fancy burnishers, but he was self-admittely “cheap” about such things and simply used the back of a chisel or gouge.

    Venturing the internet, it is not hard to find those who extoll the virtues of this-or-that burnisher for its hardness and/or shape, spending (or charging) anywhere between $20-$60 dollars for a stick of hardened steel.

    To each their own, I suppose, but I for one love the idea of a smaller kit, and that each tiny aspect of woodworking need not cost a king’s ransom.

    Thanks for confirming this!

  6. Paul, did you harden and temper the O1 steel rod. I had some leftover drill rod and it didn’t seem hard enough. But sure enough the nail set was. The scraper I had actually scratched the drill rod…

    1. It was probably a Wal-Mart Grade drill bit. I remember Tage Frid. Before he came along I thought a scraper was this cheap piece of curved metal on the end of a wooden handle used to scrape paint. Got a Sandvic scraper and found out what he was talking about. Now a person in California is trying to say that only HIS burnishers with do the job on a scraper. May be that is because he does not know how to sharpner a burnisher.

  7. I too am a bit confused trying to visualise how the old guys did it – what did they hold in their mouth? I’ve been using a three inch masonry nail embedded in a scrap of oak (and not putting anything in my mouth!) which works for me.

    1. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.Putting the burnisher in the mouth gives exactly the right amount of lubrication to make the burnisher glide over the scraper edge. I’m not advocating people do it, just that that’s the historic way it was always done. it was fast and effective and it worked perfectly. What I wrote was clear I think, which is why I didn’t answer the questioners earlier. If you go to the blog I wrote, “…he pulled out a 1” gouge, stuck it in his mouth…” and, “…picked up a 1/2” bevel-edged chisel, stuck it in his mouth…” Referring in each case to the gouge and the chisel.

    2. If you have trouble visualising that try this. When watching a doco on indigenous tribes in the North of Australia there was footage of a woman dispatching a snake by placing it’s head in her mouth, biting down,yanking and breaking it’s neck (the snake was for dinner). That is something I doubt I would ever try to replicate. A bit off topic I know (possibly offputting as well!) but ingenious all the same. A manual arts teacher of mine used to lubricate screws by running them through his hair! Having a pretty dry scalp I don’t know if that would work for me. I ended up with some beautifully made but flawed hinges in a very hard grade of stainless- flawed due to the fact the pin was not fixed at all and dropped out under its own weight when hung. The pins make quite serviceable burnishers when mounted in a handle. I like the masonry nail, cheap, hard and easy to come by.

      1. My grandfather used to talk about the nail through the hair method. Could be in those days men used hair product like Brylcreem which was pretty greasy.

  8. Thanks again Paul for debunking the many sales pitches from everyone trying to sell you a better and more wonderful burnisher. I have always used whatever is handy, screwdriver, nail set whatever, but I have never put them in my mouth, I’ll have to try it.

  9. Thank you Paul. Makes you realize its not the burnisher its the manner in which its used that gets the job done. I never purchase a tool unless I research your blog first. You have saved me more money than I can even imagine. I now love to make my tools or refurbish discarded ones. Save them so to speak. I fell into that trap of having to get the best and newest tool out there. You have returned me back to what I new was right but had forgotten. I cant thank you enough. When I was a young lad I worked in an equipment rental company as a mechanic and we were had to make many of the parts we needed to repair the old equipment because many of the tractors were from the 1930’s and 40’s. We made due with what we had and I loved it.

  10. I used to use a screwdriver shaft, but the scrapper would cause scratches in it. Now I use a hex key (Allen wrench). Works great, even better once the corners are knocked off.

  11. You sir, just saved me $16.00, which I will now spend on spend on a couple of saw blades to make your frame saw. I looked in my tool box and found a perfectly suitable drift punch. Not sure what you call those in the U.K. 🙂 but they’re used to knock out drift pins and it’s about a quarter inch around with a knurled area for gripping. Looks like it will work just fine! Thanks for all the common sense knowledge you pass on to us beginners.

  12. What is the 3rd tool in from the right, in the last photo? It looks like a vintage oyster knife 🙂

    1. It’s my design of oval burnisher hand made from O1 steel, round-bar stock and hammered out in the forge.

      1. Ah, yes good idea, if making your own, might as well make a premium design. It looks v. similar to a lovely old, English-made (carbon steel) Oyster knife I have (marked “Warranted” and with what looks like a date, 188? I think).

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