Files Files Everywhere

By Ted Yost

Anyone who’s ever seen my bench knows which of my tools are my favorites. They’re laying all over the place. Files — all types and their variations. No tool in the shop requires the skill and attention running a file does. But mostly they’re my favorite because I can still recall the lessons regarding their use — most learned the hard way!

My grandpa first taught me to file, making small shapes and widgets and filing perfect flats on pieces of stock destined to go nowhere but a scrap bin. While this was probably arranged to keep me out of the way, I learned from the experience in spite of myself. Two important lessons stuck with me. You cannot have a favorite file. To elevate one file to this status means you will use it where it is not appropriate, and you will hasten its wear. Second, the mechanics of running a file are critically important to the result.

One mechanical fact is true for all humans. There is a very limited number of motions by which a human body can run a file flat and true. In fact, for many humans that number is one. Rough shaping, draw filing, any operation beyond final precision filing requires you stand up straight with your feet comfortably apart. To run a file flat (level) and true (in a straight line), you have to consider the shoulder and elbow as the only two moving parts of a machine. If you add in fingers, hand and wrist, you complicate the linkage between body and file unnecessarily.


A clogged file makes a clean cut impossible!


Shop mate whiz-kid Jason Burton showing proper form —
level forearm, comfortable stance and toothy grin.

What To Buy?

I’ve always been a believer in buying the best. They say you only have to buy the best once, but that doesn’t apply to files. You buy the best again and again. I’m partial to Swiss-cut files, using mostly Grobet products. Their Valtitan line are fantastic files, and more durable than any I’ve used. Grobet’s file catalog is a must-have reference, an instructional work and an idea generator on a par with the Brownells. Of course, Brownells has a great selection of files they’ve found most suited to gun work. And make sure to store files where they don’t come into contact with each other, in divided storage slots, or in their original sleeves.

While it’s never advisable to draw a file backward across a workpiece, human engineering (and nature) favors a back and forth motion, so try and practice releasing the downward pressure on the backstroke. Remember the only part of a file cutting is the very fine leading edge of every “tooth” cut into the file. Three things kill files: contact with things as hard or harder than themselves, rust and using a file for the wrong material or application.

Contrary to tradition, every file does not need a handle and some files are more manageable without. But if you go the naked route on your files, at least take the sharp edges off the tang, it’ll help keep the tang from plowing through the skin of your hand when a file grabs.

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