- Home Improvement
Woodworking Tools: Files
How often you use files and rasps will depend heavily on the type of work you do and how long you've been woodworking. If your work involves a lot of curved shapes, your files and rasps are likely very prominent in your tool cabinet. Folks who build antique reproductions, especially Queen Anne furniture, with its classic S-shaped cabriole legs, use files and rasps regularly. On the other hand, if you build Craftsman- style furniture, with its rectilinear lines, you probably use them less.
How long you've been woodworking is also a factor. I used files and rasps much more often when I was a novice than I do now. This was partly because I didn't have as many tools then, and also that I've since learned better ways to do the jobs. Now, for example, instead of trying to fit a tenon into a mortise by filing it, I use a shoulder plane or a chisel. And instead of shaping a curve on a leg with a file, I tend to use a spokeshave. Any of these tools leaves a cleaner, smoother surface than a file or rasp and, just as important, is more of a pleasure for me to use. I still use my rasps and files — just not as often.
Files are made by cutting parallel rows of teeth into the surface of the metal at an angle (usually between 60 and 80 degrees). There are three common "cuts available: single cut, double cut, and curved tooth. Single-cut files are the most common and work well for both general-purpose woodworking and the occasional metalworking I need to do around the shop. Double-cut files have a second set of teeth at an opposite angle to the first set; so they're more aggressive and work great when you need to remove a lot of material in a hurry. Curved-tooth files are becoming quite rare and are very aggressive. These have been replaced primarily by the rasp.
Files come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes. The most frequent shapes you'll find are: mill (or flat), half-round, round, 4-in-hand, and triangular. For all-around woodworking, the half- round shape is your best bet. This combination of a gently curving face with a flat face will handle most jobs. Lengths for files vary from 4" to 12" and larger. Eight-inch and 10" files are the most suitable for the shop, while smaller files, particularly taper or triangular files, are useful for sharpening.
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There are three common techniques for using a file: straight, cross-filing, and draw- filing. Each has advantages and disadvantages.
Straight or in-line filing is not used often, since most files perform best when skewed at an angle. There are times when in-line filing is your only option or actually works best for the job. When I prepare the edge of a scraper by filing it flat, I typically use the in-line method, since this helps to create an absolutely flat edge. If you hold the file at an angle, there's a big tendency to tip or rock the file, which will produce an angled cut.
Cross-filing is the most common technique used with both files and rasps. With this method, the file is skewed at an angle to produce more of a shearing cut. Cross-filing lets you quickly remove wood while leaving a fairly smooth surface. Any roughness can usually be removed with draw-filing, a scraper, or sanding.
Draw-filing puts the smoothest finish you can get on a surface with a file. The file is held at 90 degrees to the edge and is drawn across the surface. This technique works best with single-cut files and with a light touch. As with any filing operation, make sure to lift the file at the end of the stroke and return it to the starting position.
It's amazingly easy to destroy hours (even days) of work with one careless slip of a file. Since these beasts are all-metal, they can and will scratch, ding, and mar wood surfaces if allowed. Here's a tip that can save you a lot of aggravation when filing, particularly near surfaces that are easily damaged, such as plywood and veneered panels: Simply wrap a turn or two of masking or duct tape around the end of the file. This way you can safely rub the file on your surface without risk of damage.
Taper-cut files are triangular-shaped files that taper along their length. They come in various sizes that are defined by their cross section and taper, not by their coarseness. Common sizes are regular, slim, extra slim, and double-extra slim. These files are most often used for sharpening saws but can be pressed into service for other tasks as well.
Needle files (sometimes called jeweler's files) are thin, delicate files that are used for small fine detail work. They're usually sold in sets that include a variety of shapes, including round (often called a rat-tail file), square, rectangular, half-round, triangular, and flat. I use my needle files frequently to smooth tiny details, enlarge a hinge hole, and in the past, to sharpen spurs on some of my drill bits; this task has since been taken over by my diamond hones.
Riflers are specialty files used primarily by carvers to smooth out small details in their work. They may be double-ended or come with a handle. Riflers are available individually or in sets and can be either files or rasps. I bought a set years ago when I first became interested in carving. Although I don't do a lot of carving anymore, I occasionally pull them out when I just can't get into a spot with any other tool. They really are quite handy.