Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | March 14, 2015

Woodcarving with Files and Rifflers

Many years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend about a dozen evenings working in the shop of a Swiss Master Carver that had learned his trade in the canton woodcarving school in Brienz, Switzerland. Walter was an exceptionally fine woodcarver but he had a real issue with using rasps and files, etc. He would not allow them in his shop. I took on his attitude regarding such things and would never use them either. On top of that, I have always liked the looks of wood carvings to be obvious so for years I was careful to leave a clean hewn look to the wood surface. I stayed as far away from sand paper as I possibly could. We all have “weirdio synchronicities” (my made up term) and NO files and sandpaper have been one of mine for many years.

You can teach an old dog new tricks…

Then in an Ian Norbury workshop, working on a female face, I knew that a hewn finish was not going to be acceptable. A workshop mate (John Culver) had a fancy file that he let me use. John explained the virtues of the file and I borrowed it to smooth out my lady’s cheeks… then I went to fine sandpaper. Well, right then and there the clouds parted and I was converted to using not only a fine wood file but also good sandpaper.

But, neither files nor sandpaper are created equal. I set out to find a file as nice as John’s. Since this article is about files and rifflers, let me only quickly mention that the best sandpaper that is readily available, in my opinion, is Lowe’s proprietary 3M brand. Nice stuff. Less available but also very nice is Swiss sandpaper carried by some woodcarvers supply sources. I’m sure there are others as well.

Okay, back to files and rifflers.

I searched the web and found some Iwasaki brand wood files. They come in flat and half round and in a couple of sizes. These files are a woodcarver’s dream for shaping, sculpting, easing hard edges & eliminating chisel and gouge marks. They remove material quickly like a rasp, but leave a very clean surface finish like you’d get from a plane. The teeth are curved and are arranged like a single cut file. The wood shaving breaks off & is forced up & away from the face of the file so the teeth are less prone to clog. The tailings created are not dust, but ultra mini-shavings and look as if they came from a tiny plane! The teeth are both danged hard and sharp efficient cutting & long life typical of good quality Japanese carving tools. They come in “medium,” “fine,” and extreme fne” cuts. I highly recommend the extreme fine cut for carving. They also come straight and curved. There are merits for owning both but I do suggest the small 8” size for carving. The curved file allows for getting into areas that a straight file simply will not. The 8” file comes with a comfortable handle and is a pull cut allowing for better control. The larger ones are “push” cuts and less convenient for carving… at least for me.

I also found a Chris Pye, Auriou (French) riffler that I love. I suggest the “Thumb and Laurel” version. Auriou also makes the same riffler without Chris Pye’s endorsement but it is coarser than the Pye version. It is also a bit less money. You do want the finest cut possible. These Auriou rifflers (and their files) are seriously “pricy” but in defense of their cost, they are hand cut. The Pye version is roughly 7” which is perfect for handling. But, rifflers are rasps, after all, and the leave a rougher cut requiring more sanding. I wish Auriou would not only find a way to reduce their cost but also make a finer grain for wood carvers.

Files 2

My File Selection

With the curved Iwasaki file and Pye, Auriou riffler mentioned above, I have added a whole new dimension to my carving process. I found all files mentioned here at Highland Woodworking. In fact they offer a huge selection.

Also, an invaluable little file… if you want to call it that… is to place a diamond or ruby burr in a pin vice or the like and use it for the finest of work. I have also used carbide burrs in a pin vise for more aggressive cutting. Burrs come in a myriad of shapes, sizes, and grits so one can get into cracks and crevices where a knife simply cannot. The best pin vise that I have found is at Cascade Carvers Supply at a very affordable price (their product number 60-6145). I highly recommend this… in fact, get two. This pin vise is double ended so you can place a burr in each end which helps with having to constantly change them around. Cascade Carvers also carries a nice selection of burrs and Swiss sandpaper. Oh, and a little bonus here… as Cascade Carvers mentions on their web site, one can insert a fret saw blade in this pin vise and have a micro saw… pretty “slick” for tight spots with softer wood like basswood.

I am sure there are other fine files that I am unaware of and I welcome suggestions and experiences from readers.

Thank you for reading and…

Keep Sharp!

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  1. Fantastic – you’ve just wonderfully informed my next woodworking purchase 🙂 I carve a lot of faces and although the rough hewn look of the surrounding wood I keep, the faces do look best after a smoothing. So far I’ve relied on varying grits of sandpaper. It sounds like a file would make this process much better! It feels more like carving than smoothing over with just sandpaper, in a way 🙂 Liking the lack of dust as well. Thanks for posting!!

    • Thank you Annabelle. I hope the Iwasaki files are available in the UK. I can’t imagine they would not be. I think you will really enjoy them but stay with the extra fine. Even the extra fine is more coarse than I wish.

      • I’ve had a bit of a look, and the Iwazaki files are available from a few places here, including Axminster shops, so that’s handy! Thanks for the advice, I will make sure to pick up the extra fine when I place the order.

  2. Another insightful and informative posting on a subject that will introduce many carvers to an area they have not heard much about. Your personal experience and research on rasps and rifflers is very helpful. Your mind is as sharp as a keen knife’s edge so slice us up some more good bits of wisdom for the carving experience.

    • Thank you Don. It’s hard to believe, looking back, that it has taken me some 50 years to begin using a file or sandpaper. I suspect, I may have irritated some of my “purist” friends.

  3. Thanks Michael, this is a great article. I too have recently purchased and began using rasps and rifflers for shaping and smoothing out tool marks. Besides those you mentioned, I love the set of Gramercy Hand Cut Rifflers sold by “Tools for Working Wood”——they are a set of 3 hand-stitched rifflers that are double ended with DIFFERENT shapes on each side! This gives you 6 different shapes—–wonderful for getting between claws on birds. Very reasonable priced.
    Also, for sanding, I love the Mirka Abranet mesh style sandpaper which leaves NO grits behind! Learned about this from reading “Carving in the Round” by British sculptor Andrew Thomas—-a fabulous book.
    Thanks again, Richard Hellman

    • Thank you Richard.. I will look up the Mirka Abrnet. I follow Andrew Thomas in Wood CARVING magazine. He is both an excellent carver and prolific. In fact the UK seems to have a lot of “top-notch carvers, like Andrew.

  4. I carve walking sticks and staffs. I mainly use files to shape the pole. I find using a tool that can shape the wood faster and uniquely a nice way to start my staff. I use half round, round and flat. I a like the rasp for shaping the wood and the fine for finishing the staff. I am 70 years old and it takes up my day. I have made close to fifty staffs and sold almost all. Any wear from $150.00 to $80.00. I have made walking canes and sold them any wear from $65 to $25. What a great way for an old man to spend his time and make more than uncle Sam is willing to pay!
    Jim Butler

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