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What are the important characteristics of files?

What are the important characteristics of files?

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Image of a DIYer identifying a file by studying a variety of different attributes Files are defined by a number of different attributes. The most important of these attributes are the ones that suit it to a specific task.
Image showing a close up of a double cut file's teeth and an illustration of its cross section The name of the file may provide a DIYer with an indication of what it was designed to do. Its cross section, profile and the pattern of its teeth are vital in terms of determining whether it will be better at shaping, finishing or deburring an object, or sharpening a blade.

File name

The round portions of guitar f holes are smoothed down with chainsaw files This will be the first thing that will give you a clue about what a file should be used for, although it’s important to bear in mind that files may have multiple uses.

For example, a chainsaw file, which was designed to sharpen chainsaw blades, is useful in the creation of f-holes in violin making.

A DIYer shaping a piece of metal with a double cut machinist's file In other cases, files are named according to their shape. These types of file are often referred to as machinist’s files.

File cross section

Diagram of the cross section of a triangular file, such as a taper saw file or a three square file The cross section, or section, of a file is the shape it forms if you look at it end on, with the point aimed at you and the tang pointing directly away from you.
Image showing a variety of needle files with different shapes, cuts and intended uses There are a large number of different cross sections. Each file guide lists the cross-sectional shape of the file it is describing. The cross section of a file is often governed by its intended use.

For more information, see: What is a file’s cross section?

Image to illustrate the difference between the intended purposes of machinists and saw files

Saw files and machinist’s files

Files can be classified into two different families: saw files and machinist’s files. Saw files are designed for sharpening, whereas machinist’s files are designed for shaping and smoothing.

DIYer sharpening a rip saw with a taper saw file Saw files are usually rhomboid or triangular, and have a cross-sectional shape that will fit into the part of a tool that needs sharpening. For example, a file designed to sharpen a rip cut saw is shaped like an equilateral triangle so that it can fit perfectly between its teeth.

For more information, see: What are saw files?

Image of a DIYer using a square file to rapidly remove material from the inside of a circular hole A machinist’s file’s cross section is always suited to the shape of the surface it is designed to work on. For example, a square file will file straight edges and square-shaped slots.

For more information, see: What are machinist’s files?

A DIYer looking for clues about what his file was designed for It isn’t vitally important for you to know if your file is a machinist’s file or a saw file. The name of the file is more likely to give you a clue about what it should be used for.
Wonkee Donkee reading a DIY guide on the uses of specific files Nevertheless, the Wonkee Donkee file guides will include this information for general reference.

File profile

Image of a blunt file next to a tapered file to show the difference between the two The term ‘profile’ refers to whether or not a file tapers towards its point, or if its edges remain parallel (referred to as ‘blunt’). The terms ‘outline’ or ‘taper’ can also mean the same thing.

For more information, see: What is a file’s profile?

Image of a round file with a taper towards the point The taper of a file can sometimes differentiate it from another type of file that looks quite similar.
Image showing that a round file is tapered and a chainsaw file is straight For example, round files and chainsaw files are both cylindrical, but a round file tapers to a point, whereas a chainsaw file does not.

For more information, see: What is a round file? and What is a chainsaw file?

File cut

Illustration of the way a chisel is used to cut teeth into a file The term ‘cut’ refers to the way a file’s teeth have been chiselled into its faces and edges.

For a more detailed explanation, see: What is a file’s cut?

Image of a barrette file, which always has a safe back and one cut face The number of surfaces with teeth is sometimes a factor in identifying file type. Some files are the same shape but the cut of their teeth results in them being called by a different name.
Image to show how the cut on hand and checkering files is the main distinguishing feature between them For example, hand files and chequering files are similar shapes, but chequering files have specially cut teeth that are not found on any other type of file.

For more information, see: What are hand an flat files? and What are chequering and thread restoring files?

Close up of the face of a file, which is the part that is cut with teeth The location and type of cut can often be quite specific depending on the type of file. This is explained in each individual file guide.
Image showing that slitting and slotting files have the same basic shape but are cut in different places For example, slitting and slotting files are similar shapes, but slotting files are only cut on their edges.

For more information, see: What are slitting and slotting files

Other information about your file

Image to show the wide choice of file types available to a DIYer In addition to the information presented above, there are other aspects of files that have an impact on performance. These characteristics apply to all files, regardless of type.
Image to show that the word cut can be used when describing the coarseness of files, for example bastard cut


This refers to how closely together the file’s teeth are cut. Teeth that are cut close together are described as fine, and teeth that are more widely spaced are referred to as coarse.

For more information, see: What is a file’s coarseness?

Image of a DIYer removing material quickly using a coarse carving float While it is important for you to know whether or not you want a coarse or smooth file, this information is not specific to file types and is therefore not mentioned in the individual file guides.

For guidance on whether you will need a smooth or a coarse file, see: What effect do cut and coarseness have on filing? and Choosing a file: overview

American and Swiss flags, illustrating that this type of file is made in either American or Swiss pattern

Swiss pattern or American pattern

This information only becomes relevant when you need to know how a file’s coarseness is measured. Each file’s ‘nationality’ is included in its respective guide.

Image to show that American pattern second cut and Swiss pattern 0 are the same Otherwise, it’s not possible to differentiate between a Swiss and American pattern file by eye. When choosing a file for a job, selecting the right type of file is much more important than making a choice between Swiss and American.


A steel rule, waiting and prepared to measure the length of a file The defining measurement for a file’s size is its length. Files tend to range from 100mm (4″) at their smallest to 350mm (14″) at their longest.
Image illustrating that the diameter of a chainsaw file should match the gauge of the chainsaw tooth it is sharpening The only exception to the rule is chainsaw files, which are measured across the diameter of their face. This is because the gauge of a chainsaw blade (the distance from the top to the bottom of the cutting edge of each link) is measured in the same way.

For more information, see: What is a chainsaw file?

Image of a selection of files of different lengths As each type of file is produced in an array of different sizes, and the effect that size has on a file’s performance applies in the same way to every file, this information is not listed in the individual file guides.

For more information on length, see: What is a file’s size?For more information on width and thickness, see: What is a file’s profile?

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