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.