An Introduction to the Art of Hand Filing

With the availability of cheap grinders these days few are learning how to do “bright work” or hand filing.  If you have a lot of metal to remove than by all means use, to quote Tim the Tool-Man Taylor, “More Power”.  But this is usually only needed during fabrication or major alteration of a piece of metal. In times past metal was expensive and the stock removal method of making things out of metal was avoided when ever possible.  So a good blacksmith or metal fabricator would shape the metal very close to the finished shape, the better the smith the less filing needed to be done.

No mater how good the smith all edged tools needed finish work with a file.  Even today you would be surprised how much better your lawn and garden tools work when sharpened.  While a right angle grinder will remove a lot of metal in a hurry, if you just need to clean up an edge why don’t you give a file a chance.  Also many people don’t know this but a putty knife is supposed to have a square edge on it and a minute or two with a file will bring this edge back and it will scrape much better.

I recommend you start with buying regular hand or flat files that are about 8″-12″ long and get both a fine and coarse.  Don’t confuse a metal file with a wood rasp.  A wood rasp will have even wider spacing between the teeth and is used for shaping wood and other soft materials, not metal.  Traditionally files are sold with what looks like a metal spike sticking out one end.  This is called a tang and make sure you buy a file handle to go over this tang if it doesn’t come with one.  Trying to use a file without a handle is a good way to impale the fleshy part of your palm, our goal is to avoid blood on our tools.

Just as important as the file is also getting a file card, which looks like a flat brush with metal bristles on one side and sometimes some kind of softer fiber on the other.  This is used to clean the teeth of when they build up with material.  A file with clogged teeth will not cut at all, leading to much frustration.

A file needs to be stored like any other edged tool.  If they are just thrown into a drawer not only can they damage other things in the drawer (files are very hard) if they bang against each other they can be dulled.  Also a file should only be in contact with the metal on the forward, cutting stroke.  You do not saw it back and forth like a wood saw, which will dull your file as well and a dull file does not cut very well.

Blacksmith’s Post Vice – If You See One Buy It

While a post or leg vice is not necessary to get started in blacksmithing it is one of those things that is very nice to have. Further of the blacksmiths tools you need the ones you cannot make yourself are the anvil and the post vice. New they are $700 and up plus shipping, on eBay they are $150 and up (again plus shipping) or you can watch Craigslist. There is also the option of asking around as you never know who will have what. I missed out on an anvil from a guy at work where he just wanted it gone, I’m still kicking myself about that. Think about some old-time farmers as they often repaired things themselves in days past and now that they are retired or semi-retired there could be some of this kind of stuff sitting unused.

A massive piece of forged iron
A massive piece of forged iron

What makes a blacksmiths leg vice different is it is designed to take a beating. First of all they are massive, often times 40″ tall and weigh in the 100 lb range. Notice the leg or post that goes all the way to the ground to transfer the force from striking your work down to the ground. Further the screw goes through two eyes forged in the clamping jaws, this isolates the screw from any striking forces applied to the jaws while you force the metal to the shape you want it. When I think what most of us use a vice for I think this is a much better choice than the machinist vice that you normally find for sale in hardware stores. I was fortunate enough to buy what amounts to a full but small blacksmith’s shop after searching for close to a decade and it included this leg vice. I’m not sure how old it is but it is all I can do to lift and carry it. Now that my house is built I can turn my attention to assembling my smithy. Even if you never plan on doing blacksmithing, a leg vice is a good tool for anyone’s homestead. This is also a word of caution, if you have a “regular” vice don’t strike it or something clamped in it very hard as it can really mess up the screw.