An Introduction to the Hand File

Using a hand file is a skill that anyone can learn with just a little guidance and some practice. The key points are:

  • Get a handle for your file.
  • The file should only be in contact with the workpiece during the forward cutting stroke.
  • Get a file card to clean the file.
  • Protect it like any edged tool.

A file has the advantage over a grinder for the beginner of not removing a lot of material quickly. Taking a right angle grinder to a shovel will quickly reshape the edge and reshape it badly if your hand is not steady. Also a file will not heat up the tool like a grinder will. Heating the tool metal can affect the temper of the metal and actually soften the metal making the edge not last as long.

A file works well for sharpening and cleaning up the edge of a tool. If you don’t wait too long you can clean up the edge of a yard/garden tool in just a few minutes, sometimes in less time than it takes to get out and plug in a grinder. I like the tactile feedback you get through your hands from the file. The only thing you feel using a grinder is a buzz. With a file you can actually feel when the metal has smoothed out or if there is still a bump, dent or burr. A file is not what you use to put the edge on something that must be very sharp like a knife or wood chisel.

The file only cuts on the forward stroke (assuming the handle is toward you) and you should lift it off of the work piece on the return stroke. I am right handed so I hold the file handle in my right hand and hold the other end of the file between the thumb and first finger of my left hand. The direction you file should be from the edge toward the back of the tool. Another way to describe the filing direction is to have the edge of the tool pointing toward you have file away from you.

Until you are an experienced metal worker I recommend following the original bevel or angle of the edge on the tool. How different angles are used on different tools is a topic for another, much longer, discussion. Don’t worry about matching the angle exactly, the beauty of using a file is you will not be removing metal fast enough to drastically change the edge angle of a shovel or hoe.

If the item being filed is not held securely you can get chatter, which is the piece being filed vibrating which can cause your file to skip or jump. A vise mounted securely to a workbench is ideal. With something like a hoe or shovel you can often times put some weight on the handle while is on the ground and do a quick clean up on the edge.

I urge you to buy a 8″-12″ fine toothed file and have a go at sharpening the edges your digging tools (shovel, hoe, pick…). You will be surprised at how much better they work.