Shaping wood is a visceral and rewarding process, especially when making items which will be felt, handled and appreciated for their physical form and ergonomics. Controlling the final form of the workpiece is an ability that benefits from a patient and intimate relationship between the material, tool and the craftsman. The end product is often all that is seen upon completion rather than the process itself, however that end product always benefits from the care and attention of the process.
Commonly, rasps are mass-manufactured and can easily be bought for a few dollars each at the big box store. One could believe that consistency would be the key to quality in rasps. In reality, this could not be farther from the truth. Machine-made rasps' primary failing is due to their lack of human inconsistency. Sight down the rows of teeth on a machine-made rasp and you will immediately notice linear uniformity. A typical stroke from these rasps produces an initial cut, after which the teeth create and follow linear ruts with little to no more stock removal. To continue cutting, the angle, position of attack or the pressure must be continually altered. The uncut surface and the ruts differ in height greatly, requiring significant sanding work to smooth out.
It is immediately clear that here the tool is leading the craftsman and not the other way around!
Quality hand cut rasps are work-intensive and expensive. Each tooth must be "stitched" by hand consistently with each tooth positioned accurately. That is to say, as accurately as is required; natural variations of spacing between teeth and their rows creates a cutting surface with no true linearity. The upshot of this is that a hand-made rasp does not leave deep rutting in the workpiece and requires significantly less pressure to cut. Hand-stitched rasps return control to the user. On one hand they can remove material at a prodigious rate, whilst on the other they can be used with a far lighter touch for delicate refining work.
Hand-stitched rasps are available from a number of manufacturers. At the lower end of the range are the simple and inexpensive imported Dragon rasps sold by StewMac. Going up in cost and intrinsic quality of workmanship and results, one will encounter names like Gramercy, Auriou and of course Liogier. LMI also offer a choice of hand cut rasps. The choice to review a top-of-the-line rasp was a relatively specific one; cheaper tools are commonly a waste of money or at worst a liability. Risking an expensive workpiece with hours of investment tied into it with cheap tools plainly does not make sense. Demonstrating how far up the line quality can extend, reviewing a "lifetime investment" tool illustrates the greater scope of tool quality and the returns to be expected.
The Liogier workshop is situated in the beautiful south-west of France close to Saint-Étienne. The family have been producing world-class handmade rasps for four generations, recently being accredited with the status of 'Ambassador of French Excellence' designated to an elite few who represent the finest of French craftsmen. All processes are controlled to exacting specifications in-house without compromise or working down to a price point. Raw ultra-fine steel alloy is heated to around 1250°C/2300°F and formed by a heavy swaging die to both provide shape and correct the grain orientation. This also removes any physical inconsistencies - such as voids - present in the raw stock to ensure a perfect blank. Subsequent grinding and polishing stages provides a smooth aligned plane so that each tooth's height is consistent with others across the cutting face.
Overview of the Liogier work processes:
After lengthy discussions with Noel about his experience in the requirements of a guitar and bass luthier (several smaller violin-oriented rasps already exist within their portfolio) we decided that a non-specialist "go-to" rasp, or one that represents the best "first choice" would be the best as the basis for review. The Liogier Cabinet Maker's rasp profile has both a flat and convex face. Length and heft is perfect for efficiently carving body contours or shaping an entire neck, all without being too large to dial in heels or volutes. Available in lengths from 6"-12" with stitching grains from super-fine (#15) to highly coarse (#2) we decided that a 10" rasp stitched to #10 would provide the widest number of uses for the luthier. Finally, the rasp was specified to be stitched for use by a right-handed user. Wow!
The cost of this specification of Cabinet Maker's rasp from Liogier at the time of writing is around €75 (USD$94). Without doubt this is a significant cost, however it is worth noting that with basic care and maintenance this is a high-performance tool that should only require replacement after many many projects worth of work. Cheaper rasps have a very limited lifetime with unsatisfactory performance, often leaving them ending up in the bin after comparatively little use. Given that the choice of purchasing a "world's best tool for a lifetime of joyous use" is only a few times the cost of "world's worst tool for a few awkward hellish stressful weeks of doubting your woodworking abilities and questioning your existence" it makes sense to invest in a forward-thinking manner.
The Liogier portfolio contains many alternative profiles and rasp shapes. Whilst the Cabinet Maker's rasp represents the tool that would provide the most use across more working processes, your own working style and requirements may better suit an alternatively-proportioned flat/round rasp such as the Half Round (smaller radii to the Cabinet Maker's), Modeller's Rasp (smaller radii, narrower for more detail and access), dual radius Sage Leaf or even curved bodies like the Handle Maker's rasp.
The rasp arrived by courier and was a trepidacious moment to unbox given the stellar reputation associated with Liogier. True to expectation, the teeth were razor sharp to the touch and consistently stitched across both sides of the blade, right to the very edges and spaced surprisingly close to each other. What could be seen of the original blank blade surface was polished to a smooth satin. The lacquered French Oak handle was a most welcome addition, conspicuously absent from other rasp manufacturers. Having become accustomed to turning handles for rasps, files and chisels it was pleasant to note that the handle "handled" well in the various grips I use. After three months of living with the rasp, the only thing I would change about it is the finish. I prefer raw or oiled wood handles, however this is simple preference and not a slight on the choice of finish by Liogier.
The testing methodology for the rasp was relatively simple and practical. The first tests were to examine performance in shaping a neck profile after producing a heel and volute. How close to the finished sizes can this rasp get? Does it require significant work to remove tooling marks? Is it controllable and precise? Does it cut or does it tear? Does it provide a wide range of uses or is it more specific? After the practical tests a few potentially destructive torture tests! Is this a tool for life? At what point does work become too much for the tool?
I had two necks on the bench at the time of testing plus a variety of scraps common to guitar builders. The first neck was a laminate of Birch and Wengé for a bass. Anybody unfamiliar with Birch should consider it most similar to Maple in terms of workability. The volute transition was a simple flat V with graduations into concave wings either side of the headstock. Shaping to this stage was limited to neck thickness within a few mm and edge profiling.
The first step was producing the rough neck profile behind the first fret with straight cuts using the length of the blade, combining both the convex and flat faces. As expected, the rasp cut quickly with added pressure and quick strokes. Extremely quickly. New users to hand-stitched rasps might easily shoot past their mark until they become accustomed to the tool. Easing back on the attack pressure produced a much finer surface with far lighter stock removal. Of itself this is a huge difference between hand-stitched and machine-stitched rasps; the ability to alter your working rate from pure hogging to finessing, all within the same tool and cutting paths. Also of note is the smoother and more consistent work within each stroke. The random tooth pattern cuts throughout the entire stroke rather than teeth running through ruts. You can sit in one position hacking away, watching a steady stream of material being removed rather than being forced to adjust position to find a new direction of cut that won't just run through the last. Easing back on the working pressure lets the weight of the tool and its razor-sharp teeth smooth out the surface to a finer cut.
I kid you not - this neck profile and the blending into the headstock was produced from a square profile to this within five minutes! The surface finish is rough but possessed none of the deep gouges that machine-made rasps leave. A quick cleanup starting with 100-120 grit paper removed the fuzzies and showed a clean and consistent surface requiring very little shaping work. The flat face of the rasp proved the profile wonderfully.
Moving to the heel produced the same quick and controllable results. Working right up to my cut lines and the fingerboard seam proved to be easy and without issue. None of the random "tooth biting out a chip". Consistent and reliable, plus a joy to use. It is all over too quickly, unfortunately. After finishing up the remainder of the neck with a spokeshave, the flat face of the rasp blended the two areas together seamlessly. It is quite feasible that the rasp could have finished up the entire neck without the involvement of a spokeshave, however I wanted to move on to see how it worked in other materials....
My conclusion from shaping in this bass neck was overwhelmingly positive. The tool did not lead itself out of the cut direction and chip blowout at the end of a cut was virtually zero. I elected to order the tool in a grain size between the two recommended by Noel (slightly coarser #9 and finer #11) however I would expect that both of these would have an equally agreeable rate of cut for pure stock removal and a fine finish ready for fine-tuning with sandpaper grades just above "coarse". The length of the rasp allowed excellent stroke length and for me to rest my left palm on the end of the tool gripped for hogging. The taper is stitched as densely as the rest of the blade as perfectly picked into the concave portions of the headstock transition. The exposed end grain in this area cut excellently without ugly scars or gouges, leaving a surface not dissimilar to that of a coarse grade paper such as #60. The 10" length of the tool is perhaps a little unwieldy for fine work in these areas which immediately made me think of a 5" Sage Leaf rasp or even a 4-5" Rat Tail. Given the one-size-fits-all nature of the tool specified it still produced an excellent result with patience. It is worth noting that the 5-piece set of rasps offered by Liogier consists of a coarse #6 12" Cabinet Maker's rasp, followed by a less-coarse #9 10" and a medium-coarse #11 8". This #10 10" splits the difference quite nicely, however I can see where the benefits of working through multiple grain and tool sizes would lead to a more efficient workflow.
Testing the rasp rounding over a few common and problematic materials showed no real dramas except on a piece of Paperstone composite, which chipped itself to death. Khaya and Iroko produced beautiful results with fine furry final surfaces needing only scraping or finish sanding. I imagine Sapele and the genuine Mahoganies would be just as favourable, if not better. The hundreds (maybe thousands?) of sharp teeth and excellent contact area do what they are meant to do, slicing through all manner of obstinate and otherwise difficult wood fibres without issue.
The final test was one I saved for last out of good reason. A solid Wengé neck is a test that I expected difficulties with, and I wasn't far off the mark. The same shaping methods used for the Birch/Wengé neck produced the same fast and clean results. Wengé is a spectacularly hard wood and prone to chipping out when you really don't want it to. On that basis I refrained from working too closely to cut lines and unsupported grain. The work was significantly harder than the previous neck and the rasp needed de-clogging more than once. Ultimately, it produced relatively similar results albeit half as quickly. That is still pretty impressive going!
Unfortunately while working the Wengé - a timber known for its unforgiving hardness - a small number of teeth were thrown. Harder woods like Sheoak, Katalox or African Blackwood may produce the same issue, however the tendency of Wengé to contain mineral deposits may be the reason this test demonstrated that sometimes the more extreme examples of woods win over metal.
Certainly, the rest of the rasp was not blunted or in any observable way affected by the Wengé, and in the intervening months since the tests were carried out the rasp has been involved in many projects larger and more involved than simply shaping a guitar neck or tummy cut. The rasp is working just as well for me as it did on day one despite its encounter with the demon-whose-name-is-Wengé.
I would however be very tempted to purchase my next rasp(s) from Liogier with the "Sapphire" coating treatment. In addition to hardening and extending the life of the teeth, coating also reduces the tendency of rasps to clog with waste material. Whilst cleaning a clogging rasp with compressed air or a brass brush is no big hassle, it can become a chore and the aspect of tougher tooth strength is of benefit to anybody who commonly use harder materials in their builds.
How do Liogier rasps compare to other similar hand-stitched rasps out there? Definite differences do exist that might not be immediately obvious without deeper inspection. Quality of tooth geometry can make one hand-stitched rasp perform significantly differently to another. The shape, orientation, consistency of height and gullet capacity affect how efficiently a rasp cuts without producing unevenness or premature clogging. Liogier state this quite emphatically, and that learning the hand-stitching process to the standard before rasps can be sold takes two years. This is in addition to the other very specific processes each rasp has to go through from stock to finished tool!
Attention to detail in the grinding and polishing of the rasp blank prior to stitching directly affects tooth tip quality and durability; imperfections left in a blank end up at the tips of the teeth. Choice of base material and tempering techniques can produce a rasp that is either overly brittle (potentially cracking when dropped!) or soft and unable to maintain good tooth sharpness. Liogier take great pride in producing rasps with an optimum between these two; a rasp with a hardened exterior and a forgiving core.
As investment tools, Liogier rasps are both a sensible decision and an eye-opening experience. The absence of control and lack of satisfactory results from cheap machine-made rasps makes the choice a simple one. The instruments we make are in intimate contact with the player; the same process happens during the shaping of those parts. We need to feel the contours and form develop to produce an instrument that feels like it was built for our hands. How can we do that with an unpredictable unsatisfactory tool that doesn't do what we ask it to do? Working with the world's best hand-made rasps is directly comparable to working with the world's best hand-made instruments. They are incomparable.