Best Hand File Sets

Updated November 2021
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Buying guide for best hand file sets

A hand file seems like the simplest of tools, but in fact, they come in an enormous variety of sizes and shapes and differ in the quality of materials and the way that they cut.

Choosing the best hand file set for you is by no means straightforward. When shopping, you’ll want to look at the grades, tooth patterns, shapes, and materials of the files in each set.

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You’ll see some files described as American Pattern and others described as Swiss Pattern. The former are usually medium to large files and also known as engineer’s or machinist’s files. Swiss files are generally lighter and often tapered.

Key considerations

Why is a hand file set a good investment?

Hand files vary from tiny diamond needle files about four inches long to big engineering beasts measuring as long as a foot and a half. They can be used to take tiny silver or gold shavings off fine jewelry or tear chunks out of steel sheet for shipbuilding. They can quickly rough out a shape in wood or plastic or deburr rough edges after drilling or machining processes. Once you’ve got a good hand file set, you’ll be amazed how often you reach for it. Yet for all its versatility, even the largest, best-quality hand file set is remarkably affordable.

Anatomy of a hand file

The construction of a hand file is pretty basic: there’s a blade with a tang at the end (steel point), which is embedded in the handle. For many years, the handles were wooden, but now you’ll see a variety of composites. Hard plastics provide great durability in heavy engineering situations, softer versions offer a more comfortable alternative for lighter and DIY use. A few hand file sets also have a single handle with interchangeable blades. It makes for a space-saving kit, but it can be frustrating if you’re frequently swapping from one file to another.

When examining hand file sets, look at the grade, tooth patterns, and shapes.

  • Grade: How aggressively a file cuts depends on one of five grades. Sets are usually all the same grade (though not always).

    • Dead Smooth (also called Very Smooth)

    • Smooth

    • Second Cut (the most common type in general-purpose file sets)

    • Bastard

    • Rough

  • Tooth patterns: There are also two tooth patterns:

    • Single Cut has rows of teeth, either straight across the file or at 45° to it.

    • Double Cut is formed of diagonal rows, producing a diamond shape. These remove material more quickly.

  • Shapes: There are five common shapes, but there are numerous other shapes available (such as knife or oval) that provide solutions for every filing need.

    • Rectangular (also called hand)

    • Square

    • Half-round (also called ring; very versatile because it has both curved and flat sides)

    • Round

    • Three square (also called triangle)


Good hand file blade material is vital to performance, and product descriptions can be confusing. You’ll often see “carbon steel” or “alloy steel,” neither of which is actually anything special. Why? Because every type of steel is a mixture of iron and carbon. The proportions change, and other elements might be added, but not only are they all carbon steel, they are also all alloys!

If you’re working with wood or plastic, this isn’t a problem. You don’t need really hard steel teeth. What you want in most cases is an open tooth pattern (Bastard or Rough) that doesn’t get easily clogged with shavings. There’s nothing stopping you from using less aggressive files, but with wood in particular, coarse sandpaper wrapped around a block is likely to be at least as efficient, if not more so.

  • High carbon steel: If you’re filing metal, you need teeth that are harder than the material you’re cutting into. The important thing to look for here is high carbon steel. The use of more carbon than in normal steel results in very sharp, durable teeth.

    Hardening and tempering further improve quality. Hardening, as the name suggests, makes for an incredibly tough surface, but it’s quite brittle. Such blades would be fragile and likely to shatter if dropped. Tempering reduces the hardness a fraction but adds a degree of flex. Thus hardened and tempered high carbon steel is the optimum material for hand files. Most files are made this way, but some needle files made for high-precision work like jewelry making have a steel core with industrial diamonds bonded to it.

Hand file set features

Cross section: When choosing your files, look at the cross section. Detailed work requires them to be small, but then they’re also going to be more fragile. If you need to remove substantial amounts of material, you’ll be putting considerable physical effort into each stroke. Does the blade look like it will stand up to that kind of force?

Case: It’s nice to have a case or tool roll to keep your hand file set organized, but don’t assume one is provided. If it isn’t, it’s a good idea to get one. Having file blades banging together in your tool bag can damage them.

Hand file set prices

We usually like to give inexpensive, mid-range, and expensive examples of the products we’re reviewing. That’s difficult to do with hand file sets because they’re all very affordable. You can find a cheap set of needle files for just $6 or $7, but even the best quality engineer’s files are unlikely to be more than $35, and you’ll get at least a half dozen tools for that money. That’s great news because it means you can focus on the suitability of each set for the task you have to perform rather than the cost.

"A file card is essential for cleaning your files properly. It’s nice when a set includes one, but it’s not common."


  • Use the right file for the job. You can use metalworking files for shaping wood, but woodworking files (and rasps) are usually too soft to work on metal.

  • Use the files correctly. Most files are designed to cut on the forward stroke. You should lift them off the material to pull them back. Dragging the file, particularly across steel, will blunt it more quickly and could damage the teeth. There are a number of online videos that show proper technique. It’s worth practicing because it will make you faster and more accurate.

  • Clean your files with a file card. A wire brush will do a reasonable job of cleaning your files, but a file card has closer bristles to do the job more quickly and effectively.

  • Take care of the handle. File handles, particularly wooden ones, can loosen over time. Don’t be tempted to use a file without a handle; the tang can cause a painful injury to your palm. If you can’t replace the handle, replace the file.
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A set of needle files is great for detailed metalworking, jewelry making, and model making. For maximum precision, choose a mini diamond file set.


Q. What’s the difference between cross filing and draw filing?

A. Cross filing is what you’re usually doing with a file: pushing forward across a surface to remove material or sharpen an axe head, for example. Draw filing is usually used for metalwork. Both ends of the file are gripped and the file is moved backward and forward across the workpiece, usually to create a smooth finished surface.

Q. What is a “safe edge”?

A. Some rectangular and square files have one edge without teeth, the “safe edge,” but it has nothing to do with protecting the user! It’s created so that when you’re filing a step or a corner, you can cut into the horizontal section without removing material from the vertical, or vice versa.

Q. What’s the difference between a file and a rasp?

A. This one usually causes some debate, but here’s our take: files are solid, with teeth on the surface. They can be used for metal, wood, and other materials. A rasp is usually a woodworking tool. Most have teeth punched out of a thin sheet, leaving a series of holes that allow for clearance of the wood shavings as you work. Another kind is round with coarse teeth and used for removing material quickly, not for finishing work.

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