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My father always told me that you need to have a couple of good files around.  So whenever we used to find ourselves walking together around the flea market or tool shop putting together a toolkit for my apartment or car, he’d suggest I add a file or two.

I’m embarassed to admit that even though there are files in every toolkit I’ve ever owned, I’ve never really used them much.  That all changed yesterday when I needed to create a small rectangular hole in a piece of 1″ x 1/8″ steel bar stock. 

I tried numerous different techniques, but the one that truly worked well was drilling a hole to the correct diameter and filing it square.  After spending a few hours of quality time with the drawer full of files I inherited from Dad, I’ve found lots and lots of uses for them in the shop and home, and now I finally understand why he was such a file fan.  I am, too.

As the file is an extremely old tool, there are lots of odd and technical names for every variation in shape, size, teeth, and intended material.  There are lots of articles out there on the ‘net that can clue you in to the details, and I’ve linked some of them at the end of this post.  Here, however, is the layman’s summary:

Files generally come in a few standard shapes: flat (the one you think of when someone says “file”, round (sometimes called a “rat-tail” file for obvious reasons), half-round (one side’s flat, the other side’s round), and triangular (called “taper”).  Files with more and smaller teeth remove less material on each file-stroke while files with fewer and larger teeth remove more.  You’ll commonly see files divided into three categories as far as the size/spacing of their teeth are concerned.  From smallest/most to largest/least teeth, they’re called: smooth cut, second cut, and bastard cut.

You’ll also see flat files with “cut edges” which means that the small edge of the file has teeth cut into it.  “Uncut edge” files do not.

Like with most hand tools, you have to spend a little time using them to really know what you can do with them.  But once you do you’ll find all kinds of uses.  In the shop I use a file to quickly deburr the edge of a piece of metal that just came out of the bandsaw.  On smaller pieces, I’ll clean the edge up slightly with a file before welding.  (Sure, you can do this with an angle grinder — I used to — but it only takes a few seconds longer with a file and you have much, much more control, resulting in the removal of less metal to get the job done.)  The same applies to getting just the right fit when welding tubing together.

In the house, the right file works great for removing just a little wood to get a new doorknob assembly to fit, or to modify clearance on plastic items.  Totally rounded off a nut?  File it square and give it another go with an open-end wrench.

As you spend more time with your files, you’ll start to get a grasp for which one’s best for the job — or more likely, which ones are best for the job.  I find myself often grabbing a couple of files from the drawer instead of just one. 

For example, to make a square hole, I’ll grab an appropriately-sized taper and a couple of various cut flats.  The triangularly-shaped taper is great for cutting the corners, and once the hole’s square and large enough, you can use the rougher flat to open it up close to the size you desire and a smoother flat to finish it out.

When you get really proficient with your files, you can do some pretty amazing things.  At an amateur telescope building meeting, I saw an incredible telescope mount that incorporated lots of little “machined” aluminum parts — but they guy who built it didn’t own a mill.  He created them all with a hack saw and files… and a lot of time.

I’m not suggesting that you throw out your grinders and sanders, but why not take a little time to practice with your files, too.  And when you’re putting together a toolkit for the home or car, include a file or two.  You won’t regret it.

9-Piece Maintenance File Kit [Nicholson]
Street Pricing [Froogle]

Files & Rasps [This Old House]


7 Responses to Why You Should Have A Good Set of Files

  1. james b says:

    I really liked my files lots more after I put a couple of (steel and brass) wire brushes in the tool drawer with them. Keeping files clean really helps them cut well.

  2. Myself says:

    Keep them clean and with a slight oil haze to prevent rusting. Lining the drawer with newspaper with a few squirts of 3-in-1 on it is probably enough, unless you live in a very humid climate.

    The other important thing about files is you have to LIFT them on the backstroke. Dragging them back will “lay down” the cutting edges on the teeth. This is less of an issue with modern hardened metals than it was with grandpa’s wood-handled heirloom, but it’ll still make a big difference in the lifespan of your files.

  3. Kai says:

    My wife is going to ban me from reading this site – I’ve just discovered something else that I just have to get next time I’m at the hardware store.

    Does anyone have any recommendations on handles for them – leave the tang bare, or heat it with a torch and jam it into a wooden handle?

  4. Nick Carter says:

    1) avoid cheap import files from China or India.
    2) Boggs Tool Processing Co. sharpens old files (and may do a couple to test for free still) http://www.boggstool.com/
    I had them do a couple of big old files and they came back dead sharp
    3) Always use a handle! (except on tiny files) You can buy a variety of handles, permanent or ones that have a chuck. You can use a (non liquid filled) golf ball as a handle. You can make them on your lathe (a fun project)
    4) Nicholson File Co. used to put out a booklet called “File Filosophy” which is a great introduction to the world of files.
    5) learn about scrapers and cold chisels as well…a file is nothing but a bunch of chisels. Learn about the rasp and the vixen file…
    6) keep the files clean with a file card/brush and a piece of brass to get out the embedded chips. You can lightly oil a file, or chalk a file to make it cut freer.
    7) you can never have enough files of different shapes, cuts, etc.

  5. Nick Carter says:

    A good set? I think it’s probably best to buy individual files as need dictates. You probably do want to buy a set of jewelers files as it seems easier than buying individual ones. But basically Nicholson is pretty darn good, available everywhere, so buy whatever set they offer that strikes your fancy.
    This set has a file card included which is a good idea:

    Ultimately you will end up with dozens of files of different cuts, shapes, etc…

  6. Rob says:

    The last time I went to buy file cards, I asked where they were and the guy sent me to the office supply section (I was standing right by the files too, turns out they were out which is why I couldn’t find them).

  7. Nigel says:

    As a locksmith, files are about the most important tool I own, aside from picks (which I can make from spring steel with a bench grinder, a pair of pliers and a set of files!)

    Most jobs require a file, I find.

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