My father preceded me in a career in the machine tool industry. He worked for several machine tool distributors, beginning in the ‘50s. He also worked at Given Machinery in the ‘60s when they imported Okuma lathes, even before Okuma began building milling machines. I remember him taking occasional trips to Japan on business which included visits to the Okuma factory. He would return from these trips bearing gifts and sharing stories. Just like a tourist, he bought souvenirs such as straw sandals, hand-painted dolls, lacquered trays, kimonos, and once he bought my mother a string of pearls. All of these gifts were beautifully wrapped in pastel-colored or other subtly-toned paper and delicately tied with a string. The package itself was a work of art – so simple and perfect. Each one seemed obviously packaged with respect and attention to detail. Every time we opened one, we were careful not to rip the wrapping and we marveled at how carefully the paper was cut and how little, if any, tape was used to hold it all together.
The stories he told painted a picture of a culture respectful of simplicity, courtesy, and tradition and steeped in an appreciation for natural beauty and spirituality. He described the factory as very clean and orderly and the people working there as meticulous and proud, from the senior managers and engineers to the bent old lady who swept the floors with a hand-made straw broom.
He told me about other hunched-over workers who weren’t sweeping the floor, but who were engaged in another meticulous effort that looked painstaking and wearying, but in a way meditative and natural. These were the scrapers: the men who etched the machine slideways and mounting surfaces by hand, all day long, inch by inch, stroke after stroke, occasionally pausing to check their work.
The first time my father described to me what he’d seen on the floor of the Okuma factory, I was sure that this scraping process was somehow part of the Japanese culture: a blessing of the machine or a way to get workers to become one with the machine. I asked my father if scraping was some kind of eastern religious practice extended to the manufacturing floor. He laughed, and said it was done to make the machine closer to perfect and better performing. I asked if it was something special they did only at Okuma or only in Japan. He said it was certainly special and used to be done by other machine tool builders, but that it was a dying art that was becoming less and less manually performed. A dying art? Surely, I thought, that must mean scraping is something more aesthetic and non-essential rather than an actual manufacturing technique. But I had presents to unwrap so I stopped asking questions.
I don’t remember when I fully came to understand what scraping was all about. But to this day, when I hear it mentioned, it brings a kind of spiritual reverence to mind. It is a merging of art and science. Scraping brings the machine to life in a way that allows it to be the best it can be. I’m sure today’s scrapers feel a kind of kinship with those who learned the skill before them. And that they have a higher level consciousness that allows them to understand the machine in a way that maybe only a journeyman machinist might. If it sounds like I’ve gone all metalworking kumbayah, please forgive me and read this Okuma Whitepaper on the art of hand scraping. Maybe you’ll feel the spirit too.