The Mysterious Scraper

IMG_0911I can remember my excitement well, when 33 years ago my own mentor in Germany took the time to carefully show me how to sharpen the cabinet scraper in the violin maker manner.  I had already heard about this tool previous to commencing on my apprenticeship journey–I had heard woodworkers wondering how the violin makers approached this tool, so useful for so many applications.  Learning to sharpen the scraper and use it properly seemed like the ultimate initiation into the arcane and mysterious world of the violin maker.  Nowadays, when woodworkers visit my shop in Santa Barbara, the scraper and it’s sharpening are one of the first things they enquire about.  Ahhh, but we generally don’t have the time to go into long-winded explanations of the how to, so it usually remains a secret.  Except, of course, for a little razzamatazz demonstration of what it can do.  Just to rub it in, you understand…

The tool itself is simple–a flat piece of spring steel, 0.25 mm thick, sometimes thicker, depending on the intended work.  We grind and sharpen it much like any chisel or knife, yet due to the specific angle required, success does not always come easy to the student.

Venkoba, in particular, noticed early on that I had a little stack of scrapers under my bench and began peppering me with questions about it.  However, we didn’t yet have a bench grinder set up, so I kept putting him off, telling him to take things one step at a time.  The day the grinder arrived, he was over the top happy, but alas, we were still busy with bridges and soundpost work.  Still sharpening knives and chisels before spending so much time to re-adjust the grinder for scrapers.  He patiently waited for everyone to sharpen all their tools.  Then the incidence of poor quality ebony in the fingerboards we were working just became overwhelming, so it was time to roll out the secret weapon, the one that can cut it without tearing out wood chunks.

In all the time of this class, I don’t believe that I ever had the undivided attention of the students like on this day.  They fired questions in rapid succession, mostly along the lines of “can we use it already?”   I drew the steel across the blade to bend it to a right angle and dark shadows of confusion formed on their faces, for after all, I had taught them that we don’t touch metal to the keen edge of our tools.  But when they saw the large shaving come from a particularly difficult fingerboard, jubilation broke out, like viewing a miracle!


Later, Venkoba offered to let me try his scraper, which he had just finished sharpening.  It worked just fine, and a few minutes later, I caught him sitting in his chair alone, staring down at his scraper which he was holding in both hands like a cherished family heirloom, grinning from ear to ear like a kid who just got his first shiny red bicycle for Christmas.  These are the moments that make teaching here so wonderful.  What a great little way to change someone’s life forever…  I’ll always remember his face in that precious moment.

Turns out, he had spent over 5 years trying to solve this one, plumbing the depths  of Youtube and pestering violin shops in Singapore for the answers.  So satisfying to give it to him in his own neighborhood.  It makes me feel at home here…


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