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What are hand and flat files?

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Image of a large bastard cut file ready to be used to file a wheel Hand files and flat files are similar tools. They are machinist’s files useful for a wide range of filing tasks.
Illustration of cross filing The primary use of hand and flat files is for finishing, shaping and deburring a wide range of materials, including soft metal (e.g. copper, aluminium, brass, bronze and white metal, which is also referred to as babbitt), hard metal (e.g. alloy steel), plastic, cast iron, hard rubber and hot metal.
A DIYer shaping a piece of metal with a double cut file Double cut hand and flat files have a rapid removal rate and are useful when you need to remove a lot of material quickly. Files with this type of cut are most often used for shaping.
A DIYer lining their file up so that they can work at a shallow angle to sharpen it Single cut hand and flat files can be used as a substitute to sharpen tools with blades, file material down to a smooth finish, or for deburring.

For more information on sharpening, see: How to sharpen blades with a file

A DIYer filing a convex surface to leave a smooth finish Any type of hand file or flat file can be used to put a bevel on the edge of a piece of metal. They can also be used to round corners and create convex surfaces.

For more information, see: How to create a bevelled edge with a fileand How to create round corners and convex surfaces with a file

Image of a DIYer filing their nails after a hard day of working on their project Due to their safe edge, smooth, single cut hand files can also be used to file fingernails.

For more information, see: How to file your nails

What are the characteristics of hand and flat files?

Diagram of a rectangular cross section

Cross section

Both hand and flat files have a rectangular cross section.

Image of a hand file illustrating that it is almost completely blunt in outline

Profile and cut

Hand files are almost blunt, other than a slight taper in thickness.

Image showing the location of the safe edge on a hand file Hand files have one safe edge, which suits them to filing in corners.
Image showing the shape of a flat file American pattern flat files taper in both width and thickness. They are cut on both faces and both edges.
Image to show that a swiss pattern flat file is not tapered Swiss pattern flat files are completely blunt, with no taper at all, and are safe on one edge.
Image illustrating that a flat file can be used for a wide range of purposes through the depiction of a DIYer filing a torque-shaped piece of metal that can be used as a bracelet All of these slight variations in terms of shape make for a versatile tool that is suited to multiple applications. This is because the DIYer is working with a basic flat surface that can easily be controlled during each filing stroke to work in either straight or contoured lines.

For more information, see: What are the different filing techniques?

Image to show smooth and coarse files and how the size of the gaps between their teeth affects the finish they leave on the material on which they are used Both files can be either single or double cut.
An indication of the range of lengths in which hand files are usually available

Size

Hand files are usually available in lengths from 100mm (4 inches) to 350mm (14 inches).

An indication of the range of lengths in which flat files are usually available Flat files can be a little larger, ranging from 100mm (4 inches) to 450 mm (18 inches).
The American flag, representing American pattern files

Swiss or American?

Hand files are American pattern files.

American and Swiss flags, illustrating that this type of file is made in either American or Swiss pattern Flat files can be either Swiss or American pattern.

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