Use and Abuse of Files

Nicholson File
It is a wonder that the file, rather than the hammer, has not been recognized as the sign of the manufacturing industry. Its range, powers, and usefulness are far beyond those of the hammer, and it can assume the functions and perform the work of a number of auxiliary tools to which the hammer holds no analogy.

Whatever cannot be done by the set and power-driven machines in the shops where the metals are worked is sent to the file. The file reduces protuberances, smooths roughnesses, changes inclinations of surfaces, cuts scores, forms levels between parallel drill holes, prepares surfaces for the scraper, evens the roughness and inequalities of lathe work, cleans out the suggestion of the rib-like projections of the planer, shapes the tool where the most delicate grinding apparatus fails, makes a better finish to the eye than any scraping or stoning, is a saw at times, may be used as a chisel, takes the place of a plane, smooths the roughnesses of castings and forgings, reduces their proportions to size, and finishes them to fit. Except for drilling holes through solid metal the file can take the place of any tool used for any other purpose on the metals.

In England, Scotland, and Wales the filer is a man by himself; he has little to do with the lathe man or the floor man. He is the prince among machinists. Here we think all the work of the machinist may be done by one man, and the lathe man, planer man, floor man, and vise man may be compromised in one. But this general ensemble is getting out of date here.

There is more need of attention in our shops to the uses and usefulness of the file. It is the most abused tool that was ever employed, and it seems to be the most neglected tool. The writer ventures the assertion that in broken or whole discarded flies lies a portion of the buried stock of defunct companies which could not make both ends meet, and the neglect of the file interest is one of the reasons why manufacturing stock “don’t pay.” To be sure, a single file, however fine its cut or large its cost, would not bankrupt a company nor move a mark in the dividend list by its loss; but files are in continual use; they are called on for every emergency, and they are doing duty in the hands of almost every employee of a metal-working establishment. The supply of files is one of the “large” bills of every machine-building establishment in the country.

How to use these tools ought to be a fixed line of instruction in all shops. It is an outrage on common mechanical taste to go through one of the best of our shops and see how this tool is misused, abused, and thrown aside half used. It is a mistake in this country to try to make a good planer, a good lathe man, and a good filer out of one man. It has never succeeded—unless in some remarkable instances—and it is not generally practicable.

The number of shapes of the file demanded in the ordinary business of machine-building and tool-making is enough to appall the beginner and sufficient to employ the shop life of the journeyman in their use. At the great exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 there were show-boards of file-makers from England, Belgium, France, Germany, and home, which showed a collection that would almost make a museum. And yet none of these specimens were gotten up for show merely, but were bona fide specimens of tools called for and made in response to a demand. Looking at these, it would be folly to claim a mastery of the art of filing. But with the diminished number of shapes and sizes we use in our general machine shops, the workman is a remarkable one who can handle them judiciously and economically.

The waste in files in our home shops is enormous. There are some, as the bastard files, which lose their value with the sharpness of their teeth; but all the fine-cut files have as many lives as the traditional cat. The writer knows of instances where fine-finish files have “held their own” for eleven years constant (occasional) use. A better finish can be put on a surface of cast or wrought iron by an entirely worn-out file than by the finest emery—if the workman knows how to use the file.

Cold Chisel – Boston Journal of Commerce 1882

If you would like to learn more about files, refer to:
A Treatise on Files and Rasps Descriptive and Illustrated by William T. Nicholson – 1878

- Jeff Burks

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One Response to Use and Abuse of Files

  1. “A better finish can be put on a surface of cast or wrought iron by an entirely worn-out file than by the finest emery”

    Ahhhh… sweet justification for not even throwing out old files, now! Use them to dress your cast iron (that you shouldn’t have picked up anyway, you compulsive nit, because you have the all the necessary tools in your shop already!).

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