INTRODUCTION TO BUYING HAND DRILLS, BRACES & BITS
By Joshua Farnsworth
If you really want to jump fully onto the traditional woodworking train, and abandon modern power tools, then this is one of the most important train cars to hop onto. Ditching your power hand drills and drill press in favor of hand braces, egg beater drills, and augers will test your “purity”. Don’t worry, I still use power drills for hanging drywall, but I’ve almost completely switched to man-powered drilling because of it’s precision and delicacy. No more accidental drilling all the way through my workpiece.
Below is my list of urgent, semi-urgent, and non-urgent hand drills, braces, and bits. Your projects will differ from mine, so your list of traditional woodworking tools may also vary.
A. Urgent Hand Drills, Braces, & Bits (Buy these First)
Below are my recommendation for types & brands of tools that you will likely need right at the start of your traditional woodworking journey. If you’re on a really tight budget, don’t fret. You can use your judgement to narrow down this list and make due without everything at first…but just make sure that you buy fewer tools at first, rather than lower quality tools. I guarantee that you’ll have to buy a better replacement down the road. But you can often find the highest quality antique tools for less money than poor quality new tools.
Buy a Hand Brace
When combined with auger bits (see below) a “brace” is used to bore holes into wood. I’ve found it especially useful for boring holes for large mortises.
You can find really old braces with a simple thumb screw (above) or braces with a chuck and ratcheting mechanism (below). The ratcheting mechanism is especially handy for drilling in corners where you can’t rotate 360 degrees.
What should you look for? 10-12″ braces are suitable for traditional joinery. Braces are very common and shouldn’t cost you very much money. Just make sure the top handle is tight and that auger bits are held firmly in the chuck.
Buy Auger Bits
Vintage auger bits are as common as quarters, and can be found for cheaper than that. Look for a clean & shiny set at flea markets or on ebay (search ebay here) that come in a box. That way you can ensure that you have an entire set, and that they will drill smoothly.
Buy vintage auger bits, as quality was given greater attention in vintage times. Auger bit sets typically contain sizes #4 thru # 16 or 1/4 ” to 1″. Irwin and Jennings were the main quality manufactures of auger bits. I have a mixture of both. Both brands are popular and great. Although the open shape of the Irwin auger bits tend to clog less than the Jennings auger bits.
Buy an Egg Beater Style Hand Drill
Egg beater style hand drills are used for precision drilling. Think drilling holes for hinges, drilling pilot holes, or drilling holes for dowels on hand planes (see above).
In the good ol’ days egg beater hand drills were in almost every tool box in America. So they are very common and fairly inexpensive. A bonus is that often you’ll find bits hidden in the handle! I paid around $15 for my vintage Stanley egg beater drill. Nicer drills can go for a fair amount more. In this article Chris Schwarz recommends the following vintage Millers Falls egg beater drills as his favorites:
If you’re able, test it out to ensure that the gears move smoothly. Try oiling it first. I’ve found that larger wheels tend to lead to faster drilling. Chris Schwarz also shared this article & video on how to tune up an egg beater drill. Here are some links to egg beater hand drills on ebay:
B. Semi-Urgent Hand Drills, Braces, & Bits (Buy these next)
Below are my recommendation for types & brands of tools that you will need fairly soon after you get started in traditional woodworking. You may discover that you want to make something early on that requires some of the below tools:
Buy Set of Brad Point Bits
A good sharp set of brad point bits will give you crisp holes. But most of the larger bits won’t fit a smaller egg beater drill. You’ll need a larger egg beater drill for larger bits.
I recommend the set of 7 HSS Brad Point drill bits (1/8″ to 1/2″) from Veritas. Christopher Schwarz recommended this set in his DVD that accompanied his book “The Anarchist’s Toolchest.”
Buy a T-Handle Hand Auger
Quite often you’ll want to bore larger holes for larger rectangular or round mortises. For example, if you wanted to make a smaller workbench out of a green log for axe work, then you’d bore 4 holes (mortises) for legs (tenons).
This task would be difficult with a small brace. But using a hand auger with a horizontal wooden handle (looks like a “T”), you can use your entire upper body to drill into the green wood. Augers come in different sizes, so just decide which size of holes you want to bore before buying an auger. Or if you find an inexpensive auger, but it and decide that your holes will have to conform!
What to look for in a T-handle Auger?
I recommend a 1-1/2″ (1.5″) diameter or larger for drilling strong mortises. Be very careful to inspect the “lead screw” (the very tip).
If it is blunted then it will be nearly impossible to get the auger to drill a whole…I’ve tried. And the lead screw can only be filed so much.
Also, inspect the handle for cracks. This isn’t as vital as the metal tip, because you can easily make a replacement handle. You can also reinforce an old handle with a couple small metal tie straps (from your home center). But it sucks when you make a few turns and the handle splits into two pieces!
You can usually find T Handle augers hanging in old barns. Or, ebay has plenty of hand augers (make sure you can see an up close photo of the lead screw):
Buy a Bit Sharpening File
Eventually your auger bits and brad point bits will need to be sharpened. Here’s a descent file for sharpening your drill bits: