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.
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…
Please look at my web site at http://www.MichaelKellerWoodcarving.com.