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This article discusses an important and fundamental woodturning issue which cropped up while I was demonstrating at the AAW Annual Symposium in Louisville in 2006. While there I was approached by a professional colleague who suggested I should change what I taught. There wasn’t time in Louisville to clarify what he meant, but I got in touch as soon as I arrived back in Australia. He then generously sent me a video showing his methods, which he believed students would find easier to learn. Indeed they would because his methods were essentially those of scraping and shear scraping.

My initial reaction was strongly negative, but the video featured students who had obviously been badly taught to cut, had therefore floundered, but were now confident and competently scraping after lessons with my colleague. These students were

very content to scrape. And isn’t to have an enjoyable time a proper aim for hobby turners?

Some years ago I had a letter published in the Sydney Woodturners’ Guild newsletter which opined that only about 20% of the Guild’s members were competent turners. In the next issue was an abusive response from a member who disagreed. He was right to disagree, but not because 20% was too low, but because it was too high. A true figure is probably between 5 and 10%. Why so low? Here are two reasons:

  1. Poor tuition. This is largely because most teachers are reluctant to critically review the methods they teach. Hence the importance of students demanding that their teachers justify the methods that they teach.
  2. Many turners don’t really care whether they turn well or not. Woodturning is to them a pastime, not a passion.

Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that most hobby turners are unlikely to be able to accurately turn what they design--which is in part why design is such a neglected area. Also the problem is not new, nor is there much evidence that the percentage is changing significantly for the better.

Surely therefore my colleague’s promotion of scraping has much to recommend it.

Let me oppose this hypothesis by first contrasting the two methods. Scraping and shear-scraping are easy to master. You merely have to move your tools around in plan. You generate the turned profiles directly. Cutting with a skewed cutting edge with a sharpening angle of 25 to 30 degrees requires far more skill, in part because profiles are generated by blade axial rotation, that is indirectly. In cutting you also have to maintain control of the tool by retaining cutting-edge support, something which is far more demanding than simply levering.

Why cut therefore? There are three reasons:

  1. It’s quicker and less tiring.
  2. There’s less sanding required after cutting than after scraping and shear-scraping; and the softer the wood, the greater the depth of damage caused by scraping and shear-scraping. Note also the difference between smooth and undisturbed: you can scrape a surface smooth, but unless you sand until you reach fibres which have been undisturbed, the surface will look inferior, especially if you apply a translucent finish. The increasing proportion of articles and advertisements which promote scraping and shear-scraping conveniently neglect to mention this adverse truth.
  3. You experience a greater aesthetic pleasure when cutting than when scraping.

These aren’t obviously hugely important reasons for most hobbyists, especially as they don’t turn to support their families. But there is another reason why you should not meekly fall for the siren-like attraction of scraping and shear-scraping. The need for a challenge. If students are offered and properly informed about the choice, some will opt to scrape and shear-scrape. One lesson is all they’ll need, and then they’ll be part of a happy? underclass of turners who took the easy way out. The rest may take ten or twenty times longer to achieve competence in the skill of cutting, but it will be something which they can be proud of. And if success has yet to arrive, they can still be proud that they continue to try. I have retained my interest and passion for turning for thirty years because it still challenges, if and when it ceases to I’ll try something else.

To conclude, I support the right of my colleague and those who consciously adopt scarping and shear-scraping techniques to use an inferior method. It’s their choice, even if not always an informed choice. But it isn’t an approach I shall adopt. I shall continue to promote cutting, and the better teaching of it.


This article was first published in the Spring 2007 issue of the American magazine Woodturning Design.

To go to the other articles click on "Sanitized Sameness" or "The Tower of Babble"


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