Laminate File: A Woodworking Hand Tool You Didn’t Know You Needed
Tool snobs beware: This post is about an inexpensive tool that is useful for woodworking and without an ounce of style or charm. In the cabinet industry, plastic laminate files are used for filing the edges of plastic laminate after trimming with a router. In that world, they are a consumable item and are purchased by the box. If you work with hardwoods making furniture, you can get one at your local big-box store. You have to look way in the back of the store, not in the “pretend-it’s-a-tool department” up front. Look for one near where the sheets of plastic laminate are stored, generally by the restrooms in this part of the country. I picked up a new plastic laminate file today for about $12.50.
Woodworkers tend to think that slicing with a single sharp edge (as with a chisel, plane or scraper) or abrading (usually with sandpaper, perhaps glued to a stick or a machine that makes it wiggle back and forth) are the only options for removing small amounts of material in a precise and predictable way. Files, along with their close cousins, floats and rasps, are indeed cutting tools – but instead of one sharp edge there are many, neatly arranged and conveniently attached to a flat surface.
Laminate files are generally two-sided with one safe edge. Side one is double-cut and rather coarse. “Coarse” in this case is compared to files used in metalworking; it doesn’t refer to the quality of the surface left behind on the wood. The other side is single-cut and finer. Double-cut means that the teeth are cut from two directions, leaving spaces where the lines cross. Those spaces help to prevent the file from clogging with the debris generated from using it. If you want to refine a surface, as on the through-mortise and tenon seen here, the file is an ideal tool. You can do most of the work with the rough side, then flip the file over to finish. With a little practice you can do this in between strokes without slowing down.
One edge of the file is “safe,” that is, it doesn’t have any teeth cut in it. That allows you to work into a square corner without going too far. Most laminate files come with a handle shaped on one end, instead of the tang you would find on a metal-working file. That saves you another few dollars because you don’t need to buy a handle, and there is a hang-hole on the end so you can keep it handy without the risk of damaging the teeth from rattling around in a drawer with other tools.
A plastic laminate file is also an incredibly safe and easy tool to use. Hold it in both hands on the surface you want to smooth and push. If the surface is really rough you can adjust the angle by eye, but if the surface is relatively smooth you can gauge the position by how it feels; it’s easy to tell if you’re in full-surface contact or if the file is tilted on an edge. You can judge your progress by looking at the surface you’re working on, and if you slip you don’t run the risk of a do-it-yourself appendectomy. The file won’t remove a lot of material, but that’s the point. You need something to take off the few thousandths of material that keep the joint from fitting. It’s also a good tool for breaking and beveling edges, and for removing tool marks from end-grain surfaces such as the end of a through tenon.
There are a number of other coarse files that are handy in the woodshop; round, tapered ones are especially useful when you need one. If you get hooked on files, you won’t be able to gloat to your friends about them, but you won’t fritter away your retirement savings either.
If you’re on a budget and want to get into using planes, this DVD from Chris Schwarz will show you how to turn a flea-market plane into a useful tool.