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Files and rasps

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Files and rasps by Slav Jelesijevich

Note: posted with the author's authorization.

Hi, this is my first post here. My name is Slav, many of you know me from the MWTCA shows. I'm the bad man that sells files, from a post here last year, got a good laugh out of that. For years the only files I used were the 49 and 50, a smooth mill file for scrapers and assorted files I had laying around. Did not know much about them and really didn't care. Then I met a violin maker who asked me to find files for him and he taught me about Swiss Pattern files and the different shapes that they came in.

For the guy wanting to get started I would recommend getting a 10" Cabinet rasp 2nd cut and a 10" cabinet file, the cabinet file is the same shape as the rasp, so whatever you rasp you follow with the cab file and after you use the cab file all you will need to do is lightly sand or scrape and you’re done. Cabinet rasps I thought were just brutish files and never used them. But once I put 2 and 2 together and experimented with them I hardly use my 49 and 50. The cabinet rasps and cabinet files were made in sizes from 6" to 16" in the old days. Today all you will find are 8, 10 and maybe a 12. Files are like old chisels and planes, today's quality is not that good. The best files made today are Grobet, my favorite is old Heller files and rasps from NJ.

I would recommend with a limited budget the 10" rasp combo, a 10" round rasp, smooth mill file for scrapers and 8 or 10 inch pillar file in a bastard cut. If you’re flush with cash get the 49 and 50 just for starters. One thing to remember is that rasps and files are American Pattern; they come in Bastard, Second Cut and Smooth Cut. Swiss Pattern is another post. Thanks for letting me ramble on, will add more in future posts. I've become the file guy because many people shared their knowledge with me and I’m glad to pass it on.

Here we go a second time. The way I’m going break it down is American Pattern Files, Machinist's Files, Special Purpose Files, Sharpening Files, Rasps and Swiss Pattern Files.

When you were a child and went to the hardware store with your dad and he bought a file, he bought an American Pattern File for work in the shop. These are the cheapest files you can buy. All others the price goes up, with Swiss Pattern being the most expensive. American pattern files are made in three cuts; BASTARD CUT, SECOND CUT, and SMOOTH CUT. The sizes range from 3" to 20". Hand, Flat, Mill, Pillar, Square, Round, 3 square, Cant saw, Crosscut, Knife and Warding. All these files are double cut, except for mill files and Taper files which are used for sharpening. When you’re surfing eBay I would recommend buying a file catalog; Disston, Heller, Grobet, you should be able to get them for around 10 bucks give or take. They will have all the basic info on the different files and how to use them, and that will be another post. During my research on files, using a Disston 1920 catalog, they had more categories of files, ROUGH or COARSE, BASTARD, SECOND, SMOOTH, and DEAD SMOOTH. During my hunts I've found a few rough or coarse, but never dead smooth. Back in those days they made so many variations of files for different applications, where today there aren't that many. I've only found a couple of 20" files, now you'll be lucky to find 14" to 16". Files are like planes. They made so many types, where today they only make a handful. The thing to remember about files is to think of them like sandpaper, you start of with 60 and end with 400 or more. That is where the mistake happens by not using the right cut.

(a question was asked about files to sharpen handsaws)"

Triangle files are different from saw files, saw files are single cut, like mill files. They come in taper, slim taper, extra slim taper and double extra slim taper. Swiss pattern are double cut and are much finer, they come in cut #00, 0, 1,2,4 cuts. In a pinch you can use them but you'll pay more for them. Swiss pattern are precision files that's why they cost more, will get into that soon, I have to break these posts down to make it easier. This is going to be a lot of writing.

This is a quick post from an old Nicholson file catalog.

Swiss Pattern Files

The so-called "Swiss Pattern" Files constitute a vast field of their own. They are used by tool and die makers, jewelers, model makers, delicate instrument parts finishers, home craftsmen. In short, every one who does superfine precision filing will have many uses for Swiss Pattern Files. Nicholson File Philosophy1956. You can see why I have to break this down, there is so much info.

A quick example of a Swiss pattern file, an American pattern square file is blunt at the top of the file, and cuts on all four sides. Swiss pattern square files taper to a point on the top, looks like it can be used as a weapon, and what shocked me the most when I saw my first one was it has a safe edge! Only cuts on 3 sides, I have people who buy them from me and only use the first 1 or 2 inches.

For this post I’m using an old Heller File Catalog from 1948. They still carried a very wide selection of files. There are 19 different files made in the Swiss Pattern Style. With American Pattern there are 14 different style files. I'll get into the style of files into the next post. Swiss Pattern Files are made in sizes from 3" to 12", with cuts that start with rough #00, 0, 1 cut starts to get fine, 2,3,4, and 6 cut. 6 cuts smooth as a baby's behind. Jewelers use 4 and 6 for final polishing. For woodworking, you don't want to use anything more than 2 cut. #00 the coarsest is, I think a little finer than a Bastard cut. For woodworking, I would say use #00, 0, and 1 or 2 for final touch. As I said in my last post, you can use a #00 Hand File, Half Round, Round, and square together for a job with different lengths from 3" to 12" and all will match up, where with American pattern that won't work. When you look at a Swiss pattern half round it tapers to a point where American pattern has the blunt top. This way you can get in the corners and odd places, where I mentioned that you can use the first 1" or 2". Swiss Pattern has 6 different cuts compared to 3 for American Pattern.

Here we go again, Swiss Pattern. I’m going to abbreviate to SP files. Once I started getting into the research and talking with my violin friends, it was amazing what can be done with them. The unusual files I will talk about, as I said you look at a half round AP and half round SP, it's a huge difference. You see how the SP is much more refined. The next file is called a crossing file that violin makers use the most. What's wild about it is that it's a half round, but when you flip it over it has a shallow radius on the bottom. The next one is called a pippen file, imagine the cross-section; a tear drop that goes to a point, small round bottom and a smaller one on top. The next one is a Barrette File, has the top view of a half round, but the top is all safe edge, the only cutting is on the bottom. The top of the file has bevels on each side going to the point, for getting in those tight places. Hand files are the same as AP (American Patern), with one safe edge, Pillar files are like hand files but they are narrower. They have 2 safe edges, they also come in Narrow Pillar and Extra Narrow Pillar. All have 2 safe edges. This is one file I would recommend. If you’re into making saw handles, you should look into getting some pillar, and half round. They are more expensive so be ready for sticker shock if you go to a supply house you will be paying top dollar. Do your research. If you have a place that carries them ask to see them and tell them what you are doing. This way you get to see what they look like. I'm still learning all this stuff, so take your time. Try to get #00 and 0, and 2. They hardly make 1 cut anymore. Remember think of files as sandpaper, start coarse and work your way up.

Taking a cheap cigar break and I was thinking the best way for the new person learning files is to start off getting AP files first; hand, half round, round, pillar and mill files. The size is something you need to find out for yourself. If you’re doing small work get 6,8,10, if you’re doing a lot of bigger things start at 10 and work your way up. To give you an example, I was in the basement of an old hardware store looking at files and I found a 20" Heller Hand Bastard file, it was a monster. I’m thinking who the _____ would use something like this? I put the file against the 2x4 brace for the shelving and started rounding one edge. In a matter of a few seconds I felt like a, sounds weird, a ballerina. I rounded a 10" section in a heartbeat without working like a knucklehead, all easy motion.

I stopped and tipped my hat to all the old craftsman of yesteryear. Now if I had used an 8" hand file I would have worked my ass off to do that little section. Hit the flea markets and garage sales and see what you can find in your area and send them to Boggs for sharpening.

Mill files are very important, get 10" in Bastard, Second and Smooth, and small 4 or 6" in the same cuts. The reason is you can clamp a rusty plane on it's side and take that bastard file and clean up the side real quick and move up to smooth. With the small one you can do little fix up on planes, frogs, touch up on others things, very useful. The last thing is don't buy cheap file made in INDIA, CHINA, they are crap. Even the new files made today aren't that good compared to the old stuff.

This post will be on rasps, they are in the American Pattern family. They come in Bastard, Second Cut, and Smooth Cut. Wood rasps are made in Flat, Half Round and Round. Today these are only made in Bastard and Smooth. Back in yesteryear they were also made in Second Cut. During my hunt for files, I've never found a box of 2nd cuts. They were made in sizes from 6" to 16". During my years as a cabinetmaker, I never used these rasps. I thought they were too brutish to work with. Now I'll use one in a heartbeat.

The bastard cut is really brutal, not for fine work, but as I said think of it like sandpaper. Next is the Cabinet Rasp, they were made from 6" to 14", in Second Cut and Smooth Cut. These are great rasps to use, but the secret to them is using the matching Cabinet File. These two together make great team, after using the rasp go over with the file. It does such a great job, all you have to do after that is lightly scrape or sand and you’re ready to finish.

Now for the most misunderstood rasp out there, the 49 and 50. When I’m at tool shows I have people asking me for a cabinetmakers 49 rasp. It is not a cabinetmakers rasp, it’s a Patternmakers Rasp. If you look at a box of them that's what it says. They were designed for patternmakers for the fine and precise work they were doing. The 50 is a Smooth cut. When I began my apprenticeship in New York City I came in with my tool box. My foreman looked in my box and pulled out a Half Round Bastard Rasp I had, which I only used barely, hated to use it. He threw it in the garbage and said go get a Nicholson 49 and 50. I said ok, went to this hardware store and I said give me a 49 and 50. Guy came back and said 65 bucks, almost had a heart attack. This was 1985; 22 years ago. I only had enough for one. That’s all I’ve used until a couple of years ago when I found a 14" cabinet rasp and started experimenting. I found it a pleasure to use; made me scratch my head a little. Went back to the store and got the matching cabinet file that I remembered seeing; started playing with them and was very impressed. Then the light bulb came on and I understood how they were used in the old days. Patternmakers and Craftsman in the old days used many rasps in their work. Using the combination of all the files discussed here to get to the final finish they were after. To give an example, if you had to make a tapered radius 16" long you would start with a 14" bastard rasp. 14is my favorite size, I would use it to hog off a lot of material, then go to the 14 cabinet rasp to get the shape I want, then go to the 14 cabinet file, then scrape, sand and you’re done. In the old days I would just use the 49 to do it all. Why beat up a precision rasp for grunt work? Patternmakers would not do that, these rasps were expensive back then. They would work in the order that I said here. To give you an example, the 14" cab rasp is 14" long and 1 9/16" wide, where the 49 is10" long and 7/8" wide and tapers to 1/2 at the tip, The 10" cab rasp is 1 1/8" wide and tapers to1". You can see by the sizes how you can remove more material with the cabinet rasp. You’re not going to get a good finish with a cabinet rasp compared to a 49 but that's where the cabinet file come in, it's a tag team. Years ago the 49 and 50 were made in sizes of 6, 8, and 10. Today they only make the 10, never seen the other sizes.

Forgot to mention the four-in-one rasp, formerly know as shoe rasp designed for shoemakers, is a cabinet rasp and cabinet file all in one. These are ok to use but are uncomfortable in the hand, good for small work.

Next are the Auriou Rasps. These are interesting rasps; they are a combination of Swiss Pattern and a 49. The rasp comes to a point like the Swiss Pattern. They make many variations of rasps for different applications, I have a couple in my collection.

These work very well and you can get them in different cuts. The only problem with them is the cost. Now look back at this post and see the same thing with the 49 and the wood rasps and cabinet rasps.

A good basic starter set to get: 10" Half Round Bastard 10" Cabinet Rasp 2nd Cut10" Cabinet File 10" Round rasp49 and 50

These are just some to start with. If you can find 6" rasps get them for the smaller work and then get the bigger ones, 12 and 14". When you have that certain job that calls for something special get the Auriou. Beat on the cabinet rasp and wood rasp and be gentle to your 49, 50 and Auriou rasp. Use the others for the dirty work.

Here are some pics of the Cabinet rasps I mentioned :COPY-files_and_rasps-1.jpg

from the left: Nicholson #49, Heller Cabinet Rasp 10" 2nd cut, Heller Cabinet Rasp 14" 2nd cut, Heller Cabinet File12"


Part 2 on rasps.

Five years ago my collection of files and rasps was around 10 I guess; 4 or 5 I hardly used. Today I have around 70 or more. When I talk to people about woodworking I tell them woodworking is controlled removal. We start off with sheets of plywood and rough wood. We use table saws on down to get finished sizes, routers, sander, hand tools, chisels, gauges, planes. Files are one of the last things we start building up. We drop a lot of money and time trying to find all we need. Most of us don't have deep pockets, that's why I became a tool dealer to get my own tools for my shop. I spent many hours traveling around trying to find tools for resale or trade to buy tools for use and for my collection. At the MWTCA shows I've met some of the nicest people in the world and I’ve been able to learn a great deal from other people.

Clark and Williams the plane makers taught me about aluminum and vixen files which work great on wood, that's another post. The only thing about files that I can take credit for is rasps, everything else I learned from the people at the shows.

The goal is to have a wide variety of files and rasps, from the micro plane to the Auriou, each has its place and job. Buy them when you can get a deal, buy the best when you have that special project you’re working on.

Look at it this way, when your car breaks down do you go to the mechanic with a huge snap on tool box or the guy with a small craftsman tool box that’s not filled up? The guy with the snap on can handle any problem that comes up. That's the thing with files, you don't use them all the time but when you do it saves your ass. When you look at a file think of it as a design tool, your imagination and knowledge will allow you to do things you thought you would never do. Like I said earlier, I've learned to cheat better with files and rasps. One last tip; don't let files rub against each other in a drawer, they will dull out faster. Get handles on them. Get some of that pink insulation, cut a piece 12 x 12 and stick them in there, until you can make a rack or wrap them in a towel, take care of them and they will take care of you.

Part 3 on rasps:

What I hated about using bastard rasps is the deep tracks left behind after using them. Pressure is the name of the game, you don't want to use real heavy pressure when using them. Let the rasp do the work for you. Once you start playing around with rasps you will develop the touch needed to use them. 49 and 50 are much easier to use because of the staggered tooth design compared to cabinet and wood rasps that have teeth in a row. Using a Highland Hardware catalog as reference, they show wood files in half round and round. These are cabinet files, they have the same cut on them. I have not been able to find NOS files like these, I've been only able to find cabinet files. If you are going to get any half round bastard rasps and a round I would recommend that you get the wood files as shown in Highland catalog or other dealers. I've been using round bastard files to clean up after using my round rasp. It sure beats using a dowel with sandpaper wrapped around it. Another good way of using cabinet files and wood files is for breaking edges on finished work. It sure beats having a floor filled with dull sandpaper. After breaking the edge all you need to do is go over a couple of passes with sandpaper and your done.

Swiss Pattern files cost more because they are precision made with safe edges. There are 6 cuts which they take more time in making, and all come to a point. When you look at an AP half round and a SP you will see the difference. Your point on using big files is right on the money, I love using my 14" cabinet rasp, it's like using a jointer plane.

Another example my violin friend has an infill plane with a tapered iron which was too thick, the taper point on top blocked the iron from going all the way down. He took it to a machine shop and they were going to charge him 60 bucks to mill it down a little. When he went to pick it up, they changed their mind, they did not want to screw it up and pay for it. So he came back to the shop pissed. One of those light bulb moments happened. We clamped it down on the bench and I pulled out a 14 hand bastard file and started filing away. In 20 minutes we had a pile of metal shavings and it was perfect all the way across the 2 1/4" iron. Then we hit it with a couple of passes with a second cut, and a mill file to make it really clean. He bought the 14" bastard with a smile on his face. You can see the different applications how to use files, when it get dull send it to Boggs.

Talked to a couple of people and they were a little confused with the breakup of rasp; from a 1956 Nicholson File Catalog.

Wood Rasps are used by woodworker, wheelwrights and plumbers. Made in Flat, Half Round and Round shapes. These only come in bastard cut and smooth cut.

Cabinet rasps, used by cabinetmakers and woodworkers, are available in Cabinet and Round shapes, and in the style of cut wood rasps but with relatively smaller degrees of coarseness. Cabinet Rasps only come in 2nd cut and smooth cut.

Pattern Makers and Last Makers cabinet rasps are used where a smooth wood finish is required. Cabinet shape, with Pattern Makers having cut edges and Last Makers uncut edges. That is straight out of the catalog? If you’re wondering, Last Makers Rasps were designed for shoemakers. Just found that out last month. In my building where I have my shop, a shoemaker moved in and told me. Small world, there are many custom shoemakers still!.

The 49 is a second cut and 50 is smooth cut. Can't forget about the poor old Cabinet File, the forgotten secret to make everything work, the finishing touch.

Quick post on using files and rasps. Files and rasps cut on the push stroke only! We’re all guilty of trying to cut on the back stroke. The only files that cut on the back stroke are machine files, those are for a filing machine. During reading of an old catalog, they recommend using light pressure so you don't chip the teeth. Have to find that catalog and will make another post on this subject.

Hey fellas, all these posts I've been doing at my computer with my catalogs and I've been winging it. Now with vixen files the only way I can do this is sit down and a desk and write this all out. This is going to be a mind _____, you know what I’m saying. There is so much info on this section that I really have to research this or it won't come out right.

Quick overview; vixen files from what I can tell you were used for many applications; for metal, rubber, wood and other materials. They were used for scraping bearings, auto bodywork, for machine work and woodworking. Vixen files are the most dangerous files you can use. If you ever held a new one in your hand, you know what I mean, I've cut myself when doing demos at shows. This is going to be hard to believe, with a vixen file you can get shaving with it! That is no____. My research is a 1948 Heller catalog, I need to go through the others I have and start writing. Vixen files were also called floats. I have an old box of Plumb Floats that are not curved but at a slight angle.

These posts were tough to do, but in the back of my mind I knew something was going to boot me in the ass. Read many of these catalogs and had it in the back of my mind, but to put in down on paper is a whole other thing. Once I get this done, you will see how they did it in the old days and how they got the precision work that we marvel at. This post on Vixen will be done in 3 or 4parts, so bear with me, and it will be worth the wait.

Hi everyone, will get the float post at last tonight. Mike on your question of what to use; as I said in past posts, think of rasps and files as sandpaper. If you have a lot of material to remove go with a half round bastard rasp or a cabinet rasp. If you have a detail you’re doing go to a 49 or 50. Then you can go to a cabinet file or wood file; which have coarser teeth for wood. If you don’t have a cab or wood file you can go to a bastard hand file, then to a second cut file. Once you’re done with that all you would have to do is touch it with a scraper or sandpaper and you’re done.

When using files, the best way to describe it is throwing everything and the kitchen sink at the task at hand. If it's too dangerous to use a router go with the route I just said. If your trying to assemble items you can use it to take off a hair. So many different shapes; as I said before it's a design tool. When you have an assortment of files and know what they are for you learn how to cheat better. When I just had the 49 and 50 I was very limited in what I could do, and I’m not trying to push files for sale on anybody. My worst nightmare is being the used car salesman of tools. All I can say is files have made me a better woodworker.


Vixen file or Float. This is from an old Heller catalog:

VIXEN FLAT RIGID STANDARD CUT FILE for use on sheet steel, iron, aluminum, babbitt, brass, copper, marble, slate, fiber, hard rubber, wood, etc. Teeth milled on both sides. Made in 8", 10", 12, 14,16and 18" lengths. 16 and 18 lengths available on order only.

These are different. The cuts I've been telling you about don't apply here. Don't know why but here it is: STANDARD replaces Bastard, FINE replaces 2nd cut, and SMOOTH CUT. Don't know why they do it? Someday I'll find out and let you know.

Fine cut is for Aluminum Sheets, Brass, Cast Iron and Phosphorous Bronze. Smooth cut is for lathe work, die & tool work and where a smooth finish is desired. They made these in a Hand Style which they call FLAT RIGID STANDARD

FLAT RIGID UTILITY. This file is the same as above but with STANDARD CUT on one side and FINE CUT on the other. HALF ROUND, PILLAR RIGID, SQUARE RIGID. All of these were made in 3 cuts. The reason why they add rigid to the phrase is the next post is for the flexible ones that we will get into.

The pillar and square are very hard to find. I have a few in my collection. If you would have told me 5 years ago that I would be collecting files I would have laughed at you. Joke’s on me!

For woodworking you just want to use the STANDARD and SMOOTH CUT. When you have a brand new Vixen, they are very, very, very sharp. I've cut myself with them when I was doing demos so wear a glove. When using these files you will get shavings with them. Never had I thought that you could do that. You can also get shavings with aluminum and brass, it's wild what this file can do. Thanks for reading this and hope you get something out of it.

I hope the post on Vixens didn't bore you too much? Couple of notes; the Plumb Float that has the teeth on an angle; they call that a Float and it is used mostly for Babbitt work, soft metals, and brass. They don't cut as fast as a Vixen.

The file with the angled arched teeth is a Nicholson Super -Shear. Here is a blurb from Nicholson.

A special Curved Tooth File is the Super-Shear. Exclusive with Nicholson--it's teeth, divided by angular longitudinal serrations, are cut in an off center arc. This gives them virtually a right angle and wide gullet toward one edge-- for fast cutting. It also gives a longer, shearing angle and narrower gullet toward other edge--for smoothing. Practically two files in one!

That's a mouthful, it's from a Nicholson 1956 catalog. I've used this file and it grabs hard, you have to watch out for this. The thing with Vixen files is knowing where to use them. This is how craftsman in the old days worked.

I forgot to give credit on the Vixen files to Clark and Williams, the plane makers. I met them at AMWTCA show and they bought a few from me, they use them for shaping handles. They make great planes. I bought a small #1 size plane from them last year and it's a pleasure to use. The next post I'm going to do is Aluminum Files. They are files made for filing aluminum. They are floats that are double cut, they look like the Plumbs in the picture. They are great on wood. Thanks to Clark and Williams for that tip.

The 49 and 50 are perfect for doing saw handles. One thing I do to make it faster is to use a cabinet rasp, 8 or 10 inch to do the first cuts to take off material faster, then go with the 49 and 50, then a cabinet file or sandpaper.

Files are cut differently for different applications. All files can be used on wood, but wood files can’t be used on metal. A cabinet file has coarser teeth that are designed for wood but if you used it on steel the teeth would chip. Example; I had a guy come by and want some files for a gun modification. Showed him different files and later he showed me the piece, it was aluminum. He had a 6" hand bastard that I got for him. I got an aluminum file and had him try it. The Bastard file just slid across the part but when he used the aluminum file it grabbed and cut, big difference. Files are made for different applications.

I’ve been around files and I can tell what they are. By reading these posts on files and rasps the first thing to see is that you have American pattern and Swiss pattern and separate the two. American Pattern have blunt and chopped tops to them where Swiss pattern come to a point. If your files have no numbers on them then you have American pattern.

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