The Right Tools – Metalworking Files
Often misused and not very well understood — so goes the life of many metalworking files. Yet, they still do things other tools can’t. That makes them a tool worth knowing!
Here are a few quick references to great information about metalworking files. Rather than re-creating an educational piece on the subject, for this Mechanic’s Tip it seems a better approach is to simply point to some awesome resources already available.
Metalworking files — also called Hand Files, or Abrasion Sticks, (or a bunch of other names) — are really very simple tools. They date back a very long time in various forms, and have seen fantastic refinement along the way. All the refinement and all the specialized variations make these tools extremely useful — but knowing which to use for what is the key.
There is actually a ton of great technology and thought that has gone into metalworking files development over the years. For history and a generic overview, check out Wikipedia. For a little funny history and some great overall information, I like this PDF.
Use & Abuse of Metalworking Files
These simple tools (or should I say sets of these simple tools) are capable of so much in the do-it-yourselfer’s shop. Yet, they are often abused, so they won’t work right, and they often go unused. How many metalworking files do you own? How many different kinds? And, how often do you use them?
I have to admit, I have a lot of files. Big ones, small ones, metalworking files, woodworking files, even some power files. And, I’ll also admit, I’m not that nice to my files all the time. You could use the word abuse. I think that’s what you call it when you use something in a way it was not intended . . . but that’s not the focus of this article. While it’s not the best thing, I’ve found that folks are always happy to sell me a replacement. 🙂
A Good Video
Here’s a short video that gives an introduction to various types and cuts, then shows some cool tricks for using them. Even if you use files a lot, you might find a new trick here. And if you don’t use metalworking files much, the general information Gough Custom provides is still great. Thanks, Gough, for the video.
I work with and teach kids stuff in the shop fairly frequently. Proper filing is just one of the topics recently, so these are some tips to share. Learning to use the metalworking file right is the key to success with it. Of course, that’s true of most tools, but it seems the simplest tools get the most abuse. For example, think of the many ways a typical flat blade screwdriver functions that doesn’t include screws. Oh, but I digress. Files are the same way.
Here is another resource that shows variations in file types along with how and why you might use them. I like the animations, illustrations and explanations.
Finally, there are a bunch of weird file types for specialty applications. We won’t go into them — except one that is very useful, but not so common in the DIY-er’s shop — the thread file. Check out this video as an introduction. (The author, davemotohead1, doesn’t use a very careful technique, but look past the goofy stuff and he’s got the right idea.) Very useful.
Practice Makes Perfect
Metalworking files are not the easiest tools to become super proficient with. They take some time for skills development to teach your muscles to always hold them straight through the stroke. Practice a little with these tools, and realize that though they are ancient, they are also extremely well refined by great minds that have honed the technology over centuries.
Take some time to teach yourself to use a file well, and you’ll find they are great for all sorts of things well beyond simple deburring (which is what most people use them for). The right tools, and in this case, the right skills with the right tools for the job make everything easier. And, help you with a better end result.
Here’s a piece of odd knowledge: Did you know that files are some of the flattest tools in your shop? If you need, you can check flatness of something by laying a file on it and looking through at light on the other side. A file will show you the flatness (or not) of the object in comparison. Also, because they are really flat, they are a great way to finish up a part that needs to be really flat. Specifically I’m thinking about wood parts more than metal ones. It would be really hard to finish a metal part to flat with a file.
Need More From Your Metalworking Files?
Going beyond the typical metalworking files takes us to the power tools incarnation of the “files” technology. If you want danger with a capital “D”, these power versions will give it. Ones like in the photo are often called rotary burrs. Dangerous, because this is one wicked tool! Does it look nice enough? Not only will it will eat anything it touches, but it can whip a tool right from your hands, or worse, shatter in splinters all over if you can’t keep it in perfect control.
This one is carbide, and it eats steel. It devours aluminum, but it burns on wood. Super cool tool, but nasty just the same.
While I love this tool because of what it does, I have a huge respect for it. Control is the key to avoid bloody knuckles, or worse.
Not for use by people with shaky hands. The one shown in the image is carbide, made for metalworking, and it eats steel, wood, (or fingers or whatever it touches) for lunch. Be careful.