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Are there any alternatives to files?

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A selection of different files to illustrate the amount of different types available to a DIYer With so many different types of file available, these simple tools have a huge number of applications in the world of DIY – but what are the alternatives?
A workshop containing alternative abrasive tools that could be used instead of files There are a few options available to DIYers who are looking to shape, deburr, sharpen or finish materials in their workshop, which are compared with files below.

Grinders

A bench grinder, one of the alternatives to files Grinders are the go-to tool for most DIYers who are looking to shape a piece of metal or sharpen another tool.
Image of a DIYer shaping a piece of metal on a grinder Working on the same principle as files, grinders consist of a coarse wheel that rotates at speed and wears down any object that comes into contact with it. As they are powered by electricity, they require little physical effort to operate.
Image of a replacement grinding wheel, which can be attached to a grinder in place of one of the wheels with which it was initially delivered They offer some degree of customisation, as it’s possible to choose the coarseness of the grinding wheel that you use.
Image of a bench grinder in use, located in a DIYer's workshop They are, however, more expensive than files and need to be attached to a bench in your workshop, so you will need to make sure there is space.
Advantages and disadvantages of using a grinder instead of a file ADVANTAGES DISADVANTAGES
  • Require little effort to use
  • Wheels available in different degrees of coarseness
  • Can achieve results much more quickly than files
  • Expensive in comparison to files
  • Cannot be used to create shaped grooves or to work in internal angles
  • Requires permanent bench space in your workshop

Angle grinders

An angle grinder, one of the alternatives to files A hand-held version of the grinder – the angle grinder – is much more customisable and can be fitted with a number of different grinding wheels.
Image of a DIYer finishing a piece of wood using an angle grinder These wheels are suitable for use on wood, metal or plastic, for shaping, sharpening and finishing.
Image of a DIYer who is surprised at how expensive an angle grinder is when compared to a file Again, they work more quickly than files, but are considerably more expensive.
Advantages and disadvantages of using an angle grinder instead of a file ADVANTAGES DISADVANTAGES
  • Customisable to a high degree
  • Can cut, shape, sharpen and finish
  • Can be used on a huge range of materials
  • Can achieve results much more quickly than a file
  • Expensive in comparison to files
  • Larger than files, so not as useful in confined spaces or for detail work

Routers

A router, one of the alternatives to files If you are planning on creating complex shapes in two dimensions, a router may be an alternative to consider.
Image of a router cutting complex patterns in a piece of wood Routers are power tools designed to create grooves or cut shapes with a rotating cutter. They can cut around an outline scribed onto a workpiece in just a fraction of the time it would take to file it to shape.
Image of a DIYer using their router to cut in 3D Routers are capable of cutting three dimensional shapes, but this is sometimes not as easy as with a file.
Image of wood, metal and plastic, the three main materials that an angle grinder can be used on They can be set up to work on wood, metal, plastic and a range of other materials used in DIY.
Image of a broken piggy bank to show that a router is a major investment compared to files Compared even to a set of files, a router can be a considerable investment, so you may want to consider how much use you would have for one before committing to buy.
Advantages and disadvantages of using a router instead of a file ADVANTAGES DISADVANTAGES
  •  Capable of shaping material very quickly
  • Can be used on a huge range of materials
  • Requires permanent bench space in your workshop
  • Considerably more expensive than multiple files

Air files

Image of an air file, a pneumatic tool that takes the hard work out of filing An air file is a pneumatic tool that is powered by compressed air. The purpose of the tool is to drive a file bit forwards and backwards to simulate the action of cross filing at a much faster speed.

For more information on cross filing, see: What is cross filing?

Image of the four file attachments available for an air file. These are: flat, round, half round and three square Air files tend to come with around four different file attachments. These are usually flat, half round, round and triangular.

See: What are hand and flat files?What are half round, ring and marking files?What is a round file? and What is a three square file?

Image of a DIYer attaching a file bit to their air file To use the tool, the file bit must be secured tightly, and the air file itself must be connected to an air compressor. Once activated, the file will move forwards and backwards at a rate of around 50 times per second.
Image of a DIYer in an extremely tight space who needs an air file as they cannot move their elbow As you won’t need room to move your elbow, an air file is perfect for use in confined spaces.
Image of an air file in use on a dovetail joint Using an air file, you can remove material much more quickly than you would be able to if you were filing by hand.
An air file automatic filter and oiler However, the tool can be expensive on its own, and you will most likely need to buy other equipment, such as an automatic oiler and air filter, to make sure it will run smoothly. It will also only work with the file attachments supplied with it, and not with any of the other files in your collection.
Advantages and disadvantages of using an air file over a hand held file ADVANTAGES DISADVANTAGES
  • Produces results much more quickly than filing by hand
  • Files easily in confined spaces
  • Runs quietly
  • Comes with four different attachments
  • Incompatible with normal files
  • Requires an air compressor
  • Usually requires an air filter and oiler to ensure smooth running, which must be purchased separately
  • Expensive
  • Not suitable for precision work
Wonkee Donkee recommends that using an air file is going to be expenisve and frivolous, unless there is a reason why you can't use a normal file

Wood turning chisels

A wood turning chisel, an alternative to a lathe file If woodworking on a lathe, a wood turning chisel is a better tool than a file for rapid removal of material to quickly shape a workpiece.
Image of a DIYer using a wood turning chisel to decorate a table leg This still allows a high degree of precision and can create intricate shapes for the creation of chair legs or other cylindrical objects.
Advantages and disadvantages of using a wood turning chisel instead of a file ADVANTAGES DISADVANTAGES
  •  Allows greater precision when working on the lathe
  • Cannot be used for finishing
  • More expensive than files
  • Only applicable to lathe work

Sharpening stones

Image of a DIYer using a stone to finish the knife sharpening process Rather than using a file for sharpening tools, you can use stones as an alternative. Available in a variety of different levels of coarseness, stones can be used to make a tool razor sharp.
An oilstone, one of the alternatives to files for sharpening There are a variety of different sharpening stones, including oilstones, whetstones and water stones. The most important thing, however, is to check the grit (measure of coarseness) of the stone you will be using, as it will be integral to achieving the level of sharpness you are looking for.
Image of a file and a sharpening stone, the ideal combination for sharpening a knife Stones are best used in conjunction with either files or grinders to finish off the sharpening process.
Advantages and disadvantages of using a sharpening stone instead of a file ADVANTAGES DISADVANTAGES
  • Can create a much sharper edge on a blade than a file
  • Will grind in both directions, allowing quicker results
  • Cannot be used for anything other than sharpening

Sandpaper

Sandpaper, one of the alternatives to files for finishing When it comes to finishing a piece of material, sandpaper is an excellent choice.
Image of a DIYer using sandpaper to produce a good finish on a piece of wood It’s cheap, easy to use and produces reliable results. You can find it with different degrees of coarseness, as with most other abrasive tools, meaning you can work towards finer sandpaper to produce exceptionally smooth finishes.
Image of a DIYer using sandpaper to get a good finish on a piece of metal Sandpaper can be used on most materials, including metal.
Image of an old and worn out piece of sandpaper However, its working life is much shorter than that of a file, as it is vulnerable to wear and tear.
Advantages and disadvantages of using sandpaper instead of a file ADVANTAGES DISADVANTAGES
  • Much cheaper than files
  • Only used for finishing
  • Not particularly durable

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