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.

Introduction To The Circular Saw

As you start to build your woodworking skills I recommend starting with the circular saw.  It is the first saw you should buy and will take you a long way toward learning basic woodworking.  It does has some limitations such as not able to cut an inside corner or rip narrow boards, but for general straight line cutting it is possibly the best power tool available.

When you go to buy look for something in the $75-$100 range.  If you are building houses for a living you will want something at a higher price point, but if you use a saw that much you wont be reading this post. When you are picking out a saw check that the blade doesn’t have side-to-side play and I prefer to have a laser on it as it helps free-hand cuts.  The adjustment you use the most is the depth of the blade, so make sure that it is something you find easy to use.

The standard size saw and one you should buy is 7 1/4″, which is the blade size.  The saw will likely come with a blade that will work fine cutting 2×4 type of lumber for rough construction, but plan on buying a 40 tooth blade for about $20 to go with it.  This blade will let you make fairly smooth cuts in both lumber and plywood.

If you are planing on building plywood projects you should also consider some kind of fence.  A fence is something that guides the saw and helps you make straight cuts.  When breaking down 4′ x 8′ sheet goods you need to make a lot of long straight cuts and a fence really helps.  You can buy a fence that is usually an aluminium track that is about 9′ long and can be split into two pieces so you can cut either across the 4′ or 8′ length.  You can also make your own.  A speed square, drywall square and chalk line are also helpful in laying out your cuts.

Cordless Drill and Impact Driver

Cordless tools took the world of contractors and builders by storm about 20 years ago. The price kept coming down and now they are very affordable for the home owner and are extremely convenient and have enough power for most jobs. One thing to keep in mind with cordless tools is the batteries will be a noticeable expense and they will need to be replaced over time. Also the various brands use their own proprietary shape and connectors so you cannot swap batteries between brands of tools, they are not like AA’s, C-cell or D-cell batteries. Therefore you will likely stick with a brand once you start buying it. For the homeowner and DIY’er I don’t think you can go wrong with any of the main brands like Dewalt, Black & Decker, Makita or Ryobi. There is a lot of debate over which is the best, but my opinion on the matter is unless you are making a living with the tool they are all good.

Personally I have all 18V Ryobi tools for the simple reason many years ago there was a 5 piece set for sale at Home Depot and that is what I started with and so that’s what I stayed with. I am a home owner, not a contractor so keep that in mind as it did influence my decision. However I did have a new house build and did most of the inside work myself using these Ryobi tools and while none of my original batteries are still good the only Ryobi tool I had stop working was the radio and having it outside in the rain might have had something to do with that. I’ve also talked to contractors and many of them are going with cheaper tools like Ryobi because when the get dropped off a ladder or left in the rain or on a job site or stolen, they are easier to replace. They are finding that a tool get damaged due to the operator or conditions it is in rather the just breaking because it is not up to the work. Buy what you want, just consider you may be paying more money than you need too based on your usage pattern.

After having said all that I recommend to start your collection of cordless tools with a drill and impact driver. Home Depot has the Ryobi set on sale for $100 and that price will probably stick through the holidays. I did find a similar Black & Decker kit for about $110, but I don’t personally know anything about it. You really do need both the drill and impact driver, they do different things. The drill obviously drills holes and can be used to drive screws, however an impact driver does a much better job. I have also used the impact driver to work on my tractor when I was not near a power source to use an air-powered impact wrench. I was surprised at the stuck bolts the impact actions could get out that I could not get out by hand with a socket. Of all my cordless tools (and I own more than I care to admit) I have used the impact driver probably more than the rest combined. After you buy these two you will also need some drills and driver bits. At this stage I would recommend just a small $10-$20 set until you know what you really need and there will be a future post on this subject.

The Electrical Tester Everyone Should Own

Electrical circuits are a mystery to many people and to be fair even household current can kill you, so unless you know what you are doing you might want to leave any electrical work on your house to a professional. However I firmly believe that everyone should know that basics about as many things as possible and with a basic electrical tester you can know if there are faults in household wiring that require someone with expertise to look at it. While I will not go into electrical theory and standards in this post, a simple tester like the one shown below will really tell you a lot. These are available at any hardware or box store like Home Depot or Menard’s and from Amazon and are in the $10-$15 range. By looking at the pattern of lights it will show you five different wiring faults as well as a correctly wired outlet socket. Further pressing the button will create a ground fault that should trip your GFCI protection. All plugs in wet areas (kitchen, bathroom outside…) should be GFCI protected. After the test make sure you reset your GFCI circuit which can be either the button in the center of the plug or could be in your circuit breaker box depending on the type your home has.

While this is certainly not an exhaustive test as it will not check voltage levels or tell you the size of a circuit, for basic circuit testing it is too cheep and easy to use for everyone not to have at least one. Further if you are having trouble with an electrical device it is good to make sure the plug is wired correctly. That way you will know if you need take the device in for service or have the house wiring looked at. The biggest thing this does for a novice is tell you if the power is on to a plug and if it is wired correctly or if there is a problem. Also it is safe for anyone to use because you don’t have to take anything apart to do the test, you just plug it in like anything else and look at what lights are on and compare it to the code printed on the unit.

Basic Circuit Tester

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.