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A file is a metalworking, woodworking and plastic working tool used to cut fine amounts of material from a workpiece. It most commonly refers to the hand tool style, which takes the form of a steel bar with a case hardened surface and a series of sharp, parallel teeth. Most files have a narrow, pointed tang at one end to which a handle can be fitted.
A similar tool is the rasp. This is an older form, with simpler teeth. As they have larger clearance between teeth, these are usually used on softer, non-metallic materials.
Early filing or rasping (the distinction is emic, not etic) has prehistoric roots and grew naturally out of the blending of the twin inspirations of cutting with stone cutting tools (such as hand axes) and abrading using natural abrasives, such as well-suited types of stone (for example, sandstone). Relatedly, lapping is also quite ancient, with wood and beach sand offering a natural pair of lap and lapping compound. The Disston authors state, "To abrade, or file, ancient man used sand, grit, coral, bone, fish skin, and gritty woods,—also stone of varying hardness in connection with sand and water."
The Bronze Age and the Iron Age had various kinds of files and rasps. Archaeologists have discovered rasps made from bronze in Egypt, dating back to the years 1200–1000 BC. Archaeologists have also discovered rasps made of iron used by the Assyrians, dating back to the 7th Century BC.
During the Middle Ages files were already quite advanced, thanks to the extensive talents of blacksmiths. By the 11th century, there already existed hardened files that would seem quite modern even to today's eyes. But although they existed, and could even have spread widely, in a geographical sense, via trade, they were not widespread in the cultural sense of the word—that is, most people, and even many smiths, did not have them. For example, in the 13th century, ornamental iron work at Paris was done skillfully with the aid of files, but the process was a secret known only to a master craftsman. The Disston authors state, "It was not until the fourteenth century, however, that those who practiced art in ironwork began to use other tools, besides heat and the hammer, regularly." This statement could mislead in the sense that stoning (with sandstone) and lapping (with wood, sand, and water) have never been rare activities among humans, or especially smiths. But the point is that modern iron or steel files, with teeth and hardening, and the material culture of intricate filing that would lead to locksmithing and gunsmithing, for example, are what took time to become common. But by the late Middle Ages, however, the transition was extensive. The Disston authors mention Nuremberg, Sheffield, and Remscheid (they use the Reimscheid spelling) as leading centers of production for files as well as tools in general. The activity in Remscheid reflects the metalworking spirit of the Rhine-Ruhr region in general (including Essen, Dusseldorf, and Cologne) rather than representing a single village of geniuses in isolation. (In fact, given the Disston authors' mention of the blacksmith guilds of 13th-century Florence and 15th-century England, coupled with their mention of Nuremberg, Sheffield, and Remscheid, it is interesting to trace a region that sweeps from Florence through Nuremberg, the Rhine-Ruhr, the Netherlands, and up to Sheffield, and to compare it with the modern economics notation of the Blue Banana.) Most files of the period were smithed by hand in a sequence in which the iron was forged (heated and hammered), then the teeth were cut with a chisel (some of this action was just as much upsetting/swaging as it was cutting), and then the piece was hardened (by heating and then quenching), followed sometimes by tempering. Among the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci is a sketch of a machine tool for the cutting of files (the chisel would make one strike, swaging a tooth, then automatically advance into position for the next tooth, and strike again).
Prior to the industrialization of machining and the development of interchangeable parts during the 19th century, filing was much more important in the construction of mechanisms. Component parts were roughly shaped by forging, casting, and by primitive machining operations. These components were then individually hand-fit for assembly by careful and deliberate filing. The potential precision of such fitting is much higher than generally assumed, but the components of such hand-fit assemblies are decidedly not interchangeable with those from another assembly. Locks, clocks, and firearms (flintlocks and earlier) were manufactured in this way for centuries before the Industrial Revolution.
Machining in the mid-19th century was heavily dependent on filing, because milling practice was slowly evolving out of its infancy. As late as the early 20th century, manufacturing often involved filing parts to precise shape and size. In today's manufacturing environment, milling and grinding have generally replaced this type of work, and filing (when it occurs at all) usually tends to be for deburring only. Skillful filing to shape and size is still a part of diemaking, moldmaking, toolmaking, etc., but even in those fields, the goal is usually to avoid handwork when possible.
Files come in a wide variety of materials, sizes, shapes, cuts, and tooth configurations. The cross-section of a file can be flat, round, half-round, triangular, square, knife edge or of a more specialized shape. There is no unitary international standard for file nomenclature; however, there are many generally accepted names for certain kinds of files.
The cut of the file refers to how fine its teeth are. They are defined as (from roughest to smoothest): rough, middle, bastard, second cut, smooth, and dead smooth. A single-cut file has one set of parallel teeth while a cross-cut or double-cut file has a second set of cuts forming diamond teeth. In Swiss-pattern files the teeth are cut at a shallower angle, and are graded by number, with a number 1 file being coarser than a number 2, etc. Most files have teeth on all faces, but some specialty flat files have teeth on only one face or one edge, so that the user can come right up to another edge without damaging the finish on it.
Some of the common shapes and their uses:
|Mill files||Mill files are the most common shape; they are rectangular in cross section and taper slightly in both width and thickness from tang to end. They are all single-cut.|
|Hand files||Hand files are parallel in width and tapered in thickness; they are used for general work.|
|Joint round edge files||Joint round edge files are parallel in width and thickness, with rounded edges. The flats are safe (no teeth) and cut on the rounded edges only. Used for making joints and hinges.|
|Half round ring files||Half round ring files taper in width and thickness, coming to a point, and are narrower than a standard half round. Used for filing inside of rings.|
|Barrette files||Barrette files are tapered in width and thickness, coming to a rounded point at the end. Only the flat side is cut, and the other sides are all safe. For doing flat work.|
|Checkering files||Checkering files are parallel in width and gently tapered in thickness. They have teeth cut in a precise grid pattern, and are used for making serrations and doing checkering work, as on gunstocks.|
Instead of having teeth cut into the file's working surface, diamond files have small particles of industrial diamonds embedded in their surface (or into a softer material that is bonded to the underlying surface of the file). The use of diamonds in this manner allows the file to be used effectively against extremely hard materials, such as stone, glass or very hard metals such as hardened steel or carbide against which a standard steel file is ineffective. Diamond files are also the only type that may be used with a back-and-forth motion without damaging the file. These may also be called diamond laps, as the "teeth" are not regular projections, as in a file, but particles, usually shaped and located randomly and held in place by a softer (any other) material.
The image to the left shows a selection of needle files in an assortment of cross sectional shapes.
Needle files are small files that are used in applications where the surface finish takes priority over metal removal rates but they are most suited for smaller work pieces. They are often sold in sets, including different shapes.
Riffler files are small to medium sized files in an assortment of cross sectional shapes and profiles. The varying profiles and shapes enable them to be used in hard to reach, or unusually shaped areas. They are often used as an intermediate step in die making where the surface finish of a cavity die may need to be improved, e.g. in plastic injection moulding or die casting.
The files pictured on the left are designed for use in a filing machine.
A filing machine is similar in appearance to a scroll saw or bandsaw in that the file is mounted vertically in the middle of a table. When in operation the file reciprocates vertically while the workpiece is presented to the file's face and manipulated around the table/file as the shape requires.
The cone point of the pictured, top two files allows the files to center themselves firmly in the bottom file holder. The pictured, lower two files are required to be inserted into the bottom file holder and physically restrained with set screws, an identical process as for the top holder.
Filing machines are useful tools as they reduce fatigue and improve product accuracy, and although not usually seen in modern production environments, they may be found in older toolrooms or diemaking shops as an aid in the manufacture of specialist tooling.
Files have forward-facing cutting teeth, and cut most effectively when pushed over the workpiece. Pulling a file directly backwards on a workpiece will cause the teeth to bend, permanently damaging the file (especially when an inexperienced user adopts a back-and-forth "sawing" motion). Draw filing involves laying the file sideways on the work, and carefully pushing or pulling it across the work. This catches the teeth of the file sideways instead of head on, and a very fine shaving action is produced. There are also varying strokes that produce a combination of the straight ahead stroke and the drawfiling stroke, and very fine work can be attained in this fashion. Using a combination of strokes, and progressively finer files, a skilled operator can attain a surface that is perfectly flat and near mirror finish.
Pinning refers to the clogging of the file teeth with pins, which are material shavings. These pins cause the file to lose its cutting ability and can scratch the workpiece. A file card, which is a brush with metal bristles, is used to clean the file. (The name, "card", is the same as used for the "raising cards" (spiked brushes) used in woolmaking.) Chalk can help prevent pinning.
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