Hand files are used in the workshop to smooth rough edges. They can be used to smooth a range of materials including metals such as brass and steel to wood based materials such as MDF. They are made from high carbon steel and they are heat treated so that they are tougher than the steel or other materials that they are to be applied to.


Hand files are normally held in both hands. The file is held flat against the surface it is to cut / smooth. The file is then pushed forward and it cuts on the forward stroke. It is then lifted away from the metal and returned to the starting point for the next push forward. This is called ‘through filing’


Through filing is normally the first stage in smoothing a piece of metal or plastic.


If the surface produced by through filing is not good enough - the next stage is ‘draw filing’. The diagram below shows how the file is held during this process. The file is held in both hands by the blade and pushed forwards and backwards along the material. This will further smooth the material.


The final stage of filing / smoothing a piece of metal / plastic is to use either emery cloth or wet and dry paper. Emery cloth is used for metals whilst wet and dry paper is used for plastics. The cloth / paper is held onto the blade of the file as shown i the diagram below. When using emery cloth on steel a small amount of oil can be added which helps smooth the material even further.

A polishing / buffing machine can be used to ‘polish’ the surface of the material (plastic and soft metals only).

The safe edge of a file does not have teeth. This is extremely useful when filing in corners as shown in the diagram below. The safe edge is placed into the corner and because it is smooth it does not damage the surface of the metal.


There are many different shapes / sections of files, some are shown below. They are used for a variety of types of work. Files are classified according to their length, section / shape and cut (tooth shape).


HAND FILE: Used for general filing of metals such as steel. They are rectangular in section and are the most common type of file used in workshops.


HALF ROUND FILE: Used for filing curved surfaces. A normal hand file with its flat cutting edges is unsuitable for filing curved surfaces. However, the half round file has a curved surface which is especially useful for filing internal curves.


THREE SQUARE FILE: Is triangular in section and very useful when filing ‘tight’ corners / angles. The sharp edges allow the file to fit into corners when filing.


KNIFE FILE: Knife files are very useful when filing where there is little space. Knife files are very thin and can fit into small gaps.


SQUARE FILE: The square file is quite thin and fits into corners well. They can be used to file slots in metal or for filing where there is little space.


Files are often graded according to the roughness / smoothness of cut. The file that has the least harsh teeth is graded as ‘very smooth’. The most abrasive of files is graded as ‘rough’. Some of the grades of cut are shown below.


How to Choose the Right File

File selection depends on the size and contours of the item being shaped. It's also based on common sense and personal preference. To achieve the desired results, the user should first consider the work to be done, then select the appropriate size, coarseness, tooth type and shape of the file.
The size and the coarseness of a file are directly related. Larger files are relatively coarse; they remove more stock, but leave a rougher finish. Smaller files are finer; they remove less stock, but leave a smoother finish.
Once file size and coarseness have been determined, tooth type should be selected. Generally speaking, double-cut files should be chosen for the fast removal of stock, while smooth double-cut or single-cut files should be used for finishing.
File shape is extremely important in determining the final contour of the workpiece. A triangular file should be used on acute internal angles to clear out square corners and to sharpen saw teeth. A flat file should be used for general purpose work, a square file for enlarging rectangular holes and a round file for enlarging round holes. A half-round file can be used for dual purposes – the flat face for filing flat surfaces and the curved face for grooves.

Parts of a File

parts of a file

File Terminology:
Back: The convex side of a half-round or other similarly shaped file.
Edge and Safe Edge: The side surfaces of a file; may be smooth (safe edge) or have teeth.
Handle: A holder into which the tang of the file fits. If the file has an integral holder this is known as a solid handle file.
Pinning: Filings wedged between the file teeth.
Shelling: The breaking of file teeth, usually caused by using too much pressure, reverse filing, filing sharp corners or filing edges.

How a File Works: Tooth Type and Coarseness

Two different attributes determine how aggressively a file will remove material and how smooth a finish will result: the kind of teeth that have been cut into the file and the coarseness of those teeth. The work to be accomplished – roughing or finishing – will determine the kind of teeth and grade of coarseness best for each application.

Kinds of Teeth

kinds of teeth

Single-Cut Teeth: Has a single set of parallel, diagonal rows of teeth. Single-cut files are often used with light pressure to produce a smooth surface finish or to put a keen edge on knives, shears or saws.
Double-Cut Teeth: Has two sets of teeth positioned diagonally on the file face at opposite angles to each other. The double-cut file is used with heavier pressure than the single-cut for faster material removal.
Rasp-Cut Tooth: Commonly known as a rasp, has a series of individual teeth formed by a single-pointed tool. A rasp produces a rough cut and is used primarily on soft materials such as wood, hooves, aluminum and lead.
Curved-Cut/Milled Tooth: Has its teeth arranged in curved contours across the file face. Curved-cut tooth files are often used in automotive body shops for smoothing body panels.


Swiss Pattern Files are smaller in size and finer in coarseness than their American Pattern counterparts. Swiss Pattern Files are used for more precise and intricate work.

coarseness american patern

Most American pattern files are available in three grades of coarseness: bastard-cut, second-cut and smooth-cut. The degree of coarseness increases with longer file length, but the differences between bastard, second and smooth-cut remain proportionate.

coarseness swiss patern

Swiss pattern files are available in seven grades of coarseness: 00, 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6. As with American pattern files, the degree of coarseness of Swiss pattern files increases with length, but the difference between grades remains proportionate.

File Shapes

Blunt File Taper File

Type or shape describes the cross-section shape of the file, i.e., rectangular, square, round, half-round, triangular, etc. The area to be filed will determine the specifictype to be used. Type is further classified according to the contour of the file: blunt or taper.

A blunt file has a constant width with edges parallel from end to end. It is used when the item being filed is very uniform or consistent so only one size file is needed.

The cross-section of a taper file decreases from its heel to its point; it may taper in width, thickness or both. A taper file allows the user to vary the size of the filecontact area without actually changing files. It is useful when the workpiece is more complex, presenting different filing needs.

How to Use a File Correctly


Standard Grip: For files needing two-handed operation, the handle should be grasped in one hand and the point of the file in the other hand. The file handle should berested in the palm with the thumb pointing along the top of the handle and the fingers gripping the underside. The point of the file should be grasped between thethumb and the first two fingers with the thumb being on the top of the file.

Heavy Stroke Grip: When heavy filing strokes are required, the thumb on the point is normally in line with the file; the tip of the thumb pointed forward.
Light Stroke Grip: For lighter strokes, the thumb can be turned to as much as a right angle to the direction of the stroke.

If the file is being used one-handed for filing pins, dies or edged tools not being held in a vise, the forefinger, and not the thumb, is placed on top of the handle in linewith the file.

For normal flat filing, the file should be moved forward on an almost straight line of a single plane, changing its course only enough to prevent grooving.On the reverse stroke, it is best to lift the file clear of the workpiece, except on very soft metals. Even then, the pressure should be very light – never more than theweight of the file itself.

For normal filing, the vise should be about elbow height. When there is a great deal of heavy filing, it is better to have the work slightly lower. If the work is of a fineand delicate nature, the work can be raised to eye level.

File Care

The teeth of the file should be protected when the file is not in use by hanging it on a rack or keeping it in a drawer with wooden divisions. Files should always be keptclear of water or grease, since this impairs the filing action. It is advisable to wrap the file in a cloth for protection when it is carried in a toolbox.

The file teeth should be kept clean at all times by using a file card, or a wire file brush, to clear the grooves between the teeth.

A file should never be used without a tight fitting handle. Serious accidents can result if the handle becomes detached exposing the sharp point of the tang.