I love to work wood and part of that is caring for the tools I use. I have been watching videos of a variety of craftsmen carving spoons and want to give it a try. To that end, I scored an old hatchet on Ebay. It will require some restoration before I can use it. That brings me to yet another tool I have taken for granted: the mill file. I have used a set of files I purchased 25 years ago. This was some mail-order set “15 assorted files and handles for $9.95” or something like that. They’re just files, right?
Filing has been a chore for me. Too much work for too little result. So I have tried using alternative ways to remove metal: Dremels, belt sanders – the usual suspects. They have tended to end up being either too much, or too little tool for the tasks at hand. Finally, after only two decades of struggles (“I’m not stupid, just a little slow”), it began to sink in that my cheap tools might be the source of my filing struggles. Today I picked up an American-made, 12-inch mill bastard. It was not expensive, but it did cost just about what my entire 15-file set did. To try it out I tackled a cheap Chinese-made axe we have been taking camping. What a revelation!
More than 40 years ago, I paid for college fighting forest fires in the summer. That meant lots of days caring for the tools of the trade, sharpening shovels, axes, Pulaskis and hasel hoes. I always enjoyed working a good edge on the tools with the big files they had in the fire warehouse. I missed that. Well, my new file was like a 12-inch time machine. Working a new bevel and edge on that axe brought me back to my youth.
The best part of using a hand plane is the tactile sensation as the sharp iron peels long thin shavings. A good, sharp file gives some of the same pleasant feedback as it bites into steel leaving a new, bright profile. A good file is functional, as well as enjoyable to use, too. In 20 minutes I had the axe reworked down to a noticeable burr on the edge. A few more minutes with a stone and my big leather strop and I was shaving the hair on my arm. I’d have thought that was Swedish steel, rather than the junk I know it to be. I suspect the edge won’t survive much violent contact with firewood, but the test was a success. I know I am ready to rework my little hatchet. I’ll have a date with a cherry log in the next week or two.
I enjoy the products of my woodworking, sure. But what really keeps me going is the fun derived from the process, using tools to reform materials to my design – even when that tool is a humble file and the material carbon steel.
-- Dave K.