Tool Talk - Jewellery Files

Find out all about the different shapes, sizes and grades of jewellery files, and which ones are must haves for beginners!

There are many jewellery tools that you can do without - they may be nice to have and do a great job but they are not essential. Jeweller's files however are essential. I cannot think of a single piece of jewellery that I have ever made that did not require the use of at least one file! I use them for preparing joins for soldering as well as cleaning up after soldering too, shaping my metal, smoothing rough edges and corners, tidying up after sawing.... I could go on and on!

So, which files do you need? Read on and I'll go through size, shape and cutting grade, recommend makes and let you know both what I've got in my kit and what I recommend to beginners...

Let's deal with the different sizes of files first.

flat needle and hand files
flat needle and 6" (hand) files

The largest are hand or 6" files. As the name suggests the cutting length is 6", and the files are finished with a tapered section called a tang. The tang fits into a handle, but more on that later. These are the files that I use for preparing the join on a bangle, cleaning up the inside of a ring and generally working on larger areas

Needle files are the next size down and are essentially miniature versions of 6" files. The full length is usually 16cm, with the cutting surface taking up half of that length and a round narrow handle making up the rest. These files are perfect for getting into tight spaces and working on fine details. They can be bought in sets of the most popular shapes or as individual files.

There is an even smaller size of files - escapement files! These are a little shorter than needle files at 14cm, with again half cutting surface and half handle, but are much narrower than needle files. They are perfect for the tiniest details in your work, especially for pierced designs.

Each size of file is also available in different shapes.

flat and half round handfiles
flat and half round handfiles

In general you should choose a file that fits the shape you want to create in your metal. The following are the most popular:

Flat - cutting teeth on three sides of the file, with the fourth side (one of the edges) as a smooth safety edge. Safety edges allow you to work without in advertantly causing damage to adjacent work or work surfaces. A good general purpose file perfect for squaring solder joins, rounding corners and much more.

Half-round - as the name suggests these are rounded on one side and flat on the other, making them a versatile shape. They taper in width and thickness to a point. Many brands offer both a standard and narrow half-round hand file. The flat side can do almost everything a flat file can, and the rounded is perfect for smoothing inside rings and creating beautiful curved shapes.

Barrette - a triangular base with safety back, and tapering to a point. In needle and escapement files the back is triangular but in 6" files the triangular top is removed so that it doesn't get in the way. The shape and the safety back make this file perfect for neatening up tight spaces.

Round - again as the name suggests, a perfectly round cutting surface, tapering to a point. Great for enlarging holes and filing tight curves.

Square - a square profile tapering to a point with cutting surfaces on all four sides. Used for scoring lines in sheet for bending 90˚angles, refining square corners sawn inside metal and even turning round holes square.

Three-square or triangular - a triangular cross-section tapering to a point with a cutting surface on all three sides. Used for scoring lines for bending 60˚angles and preparing the inside of prongs for stone setting.

Knife - a triangular file with a sharp knife edge and tapering to a sharp point. The two sides have teeth but the narrower top of the file is smooth, making this file perfect for getting into tiny spaces and sharp angles.

The last criteria that files are categorised by is their grade or coarseness. All files types and makes are categories by cut number, with a higher number indicating a finer file. The coarsest file is a cut 00, and this will remove a lot of metal very quickly. A cut 2 is a good every day grade. A cut 4 is great for smoothing out metal in tight spaces that you can't fit any other type of abrasive (sandpaper for example) into. A cut 6 is so smooth that you can hardly feel the teeth and I've not found a use for one yet!

needle files in a storage block
my collection of needle files, some of them over 50 years old!

What about
recommended brands?

My advice to anyone buying files (or indeed any tool that cuts) is to buy the very best you can afford - and the very best is Swiss or German. I prefer Swiss Vallorbe and inherited some when I first started as a jeweller. Some of them are older than I am and still work just as beautifully as the ones I've bought myself. Another great make, and just as great quality, is the German brand Friedrich Dick.

Spend as much as you can on cutting tools, look after them well, and they will do the job for you more efficiently, require less cleaning up afterwards and last you a lifetime!

Recommendations for beginners...

If you are doing as recommended above and buying the best you can afford, that will mean that you're probably be buying fewer files than you really would like, but that's ok - you can grow your collection without having to spend your money replacing cheap files that have worn out!

The first file that I always recommend is a 6" half-round cut 2. It's perfect for most projects that beginners start with (bangles, rings, simple pendants etc) and as it's got a flat side you don't need a flat file as well, at least to start with. A cut 2 grade is a great everyday grade.

Barette and half-round needle files, again cut 2, are also on my beginners list. However, both Vallorbe and Friedrich Dick offer sets of 6 needle files in the most useful shapes and buying a set is always better value than buying singles, so if you can afford a set go for that option!

The recommendations above are the first files that I bought, and I still have the same ones. Over the last couple of decades I have added a cut 2 6" flat file, a cut 0 6" flat file to remove metal quicker when needed, a cut 4 barette needle file that is perfect for smoothing out tight spaces and a cut 2 round escapement file, again for tiny tight spaces. As I said above I was very lucky to inherit a range of beautiful Vallorbe needle files not long after I started out and they get used a lot too!

A couple of pieces of extra info for you...

I mentioned handles earlier. 6" files to not come with handles but it is important to fit them for safety and comfort. A couple of different styles are available but they are all fitted the same way - with help from a blowtorch! Watch this video to find out how.

Needle files can be (and usually are) used without extra handles but you may wish to invest in an interchangeable handle.

Looking after your files is also important - after all they are an important investment and you want them to last! Keep them dry, try to prevent them from hitting each other and other tools too often, and clean them to stop them from clogging up. Get in the habit of knocking them gently on the side of your benchpeg after you've used them to remove most of the metal dust. To find out how to remove stubborn debris that will stop your file from cutting smoothly watch this video.

Cleaning Jewellery Files
Setting Files in Wooden Handles
Bird on a Branch
Learn how to keep your files perfect for years to come
Make your files safer to use by adding handles
Use your files to help create this lovely pendant!

Categories: : getting started, jewellery making tips, jewellery tutorial, tool talk

Joanne Tinley

Tutor and Founder of The Jeweller's Bench

The Jeweller's Bench is run by Joanne Tinley. She has been making her own jewellery for as long as she can remember and left her first career as a school teacher to set up business as a  jewellery designer and tutor nearly 20 years ago. She is
self-taught and like many people started with wire and beads. Learning how to solder, however, opened up a whole new world of jewellery making,  one that she is keen to share!