Ask Betsy: November Edition

ASK BETSY – November 2020


Q: Do you have any tips for filing? I sometimes feel like I just don’t get the results I think I should be getting.




A: Filing is an important basic jewelry-making technique that, done the wrong way, wastes time and materials and can create more work than needed. It seems like filing should be easy, and it is if you follow a few basic guidelines. The files I will talk about here are hand files and needle files unless otherwise indicated.

-Use the largest file that your work will accommodate. Using a needle file on a long, flat surface can make it difficult to get a smooth edge.

-Use an appropriate file cut and shape. Files come in a range of cuts from 00 to 8, coarsest to finest. The 0 and 00 cuts are very aggressive and, while they can be used to remove a lot of material, they are too coarse for simply smoothing edges. For jewelry work, a #2 cut can be used if a lot of material needs to be removed, but a #4 cut is finer and won’t leave as many marks. If you do a lot of piercing, a #6 cut is often preferable, and this is where escapement files, which are generally smaller than needle files, come in handy. This can be followed by a #8 cut or fine sandpaper or a burnisher to remove any of the remaining file marks.

-Do NOT “air file”. Support your work on your bench pin or some surface where the work is held steady and the file can do the work. You want to keep your work stationary, and holding it up in the air doesn’t provide any support. Alternatively, if you are working on a flat, straight surface, you can lay the file flat on your worktable and run the metal over the file. This still gives you the benefit of keeping unwanted movement at bay.

-Hold the file handle firmly, and don’t bend your wrist. You should be filing from your elbow and shoulder.

-Files cut on the forward (push) stroke. Use long, smooth strokes in a forward direction. Some folks just pull back on the file after the forward stroke while maintaining contact with the work and some lift the file. This pull stroke is just a way to reposition the file to make your next forward stroke. Trying to file on the backward stroke is pretty much an exercise in futility. It might take off a minute amount of metal, but nothing that is going to make the process any faster or better.

-Keep your files clean. Soft metals can clog the grooves and give you inconsistent results. After filing, tap the file on your workspace to dislodge any loose particles. There are a number of things you can use if the grooves still have material in them. Some makers use “card files” which have bristles on them specifically for file cleaning. You can also use a thin piece of brass or nickel silver to run through the grooves to clean out any larger particles that might be stuck.

-If you work in steel or aluminum, use a different set of files than for your silver, copper, gold and brass so as to avoid contamination.  And always keep any pewter tools completely separate from all your other tools.

Like any other technique, accuracy and speed come with practice. Developing good habits makes filing easy and helps you attain the results you want on a regular basis.

Stay safe and well, and, as always, feel free to send your questions to

Happy Thanksgiving!