INTRODUCTION TO BUYING HAND DRILLS, BRACES & BITS
By Joshua Farnsworth
In this hand tool woodworker’s buyer’s guide I’ll cover which hand drills, brace drills, and bits that you need for traditional woodworking. These hand tools are obviously used for boring holes into wood for a variety of purposes.
Don’t worry, you won’t need to throw away your power drills or drill press in favor of hand braces, egg beater drills, and old fashion augers. But these hand tools are fun to use and can be better for certain jobs than power drills.
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 woodworking hand 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 a “brace” is used to bore holes into wood for various purposes, including for pegging joints and boring holes for mortises.
You can find really old braces with a simple thumb screw (above) or braces with a ratcheting mechanism (below). The ratcheting mechanism is especially handy for boring in corners where you can’t rotate 360 degrees. But that isn’t a situation that I’ve run into very often, so don’t specifically look for a brace with a ratcheting mechanism. However, I find that most braces have a ratcheting mechanism.
What is the “sweep” of a Hand Brace drill?
The “sweep” of a brace is the imaginary diameter that the handle creates as you rotate it in a circle. A wider sweep (like 12-inch) will bore a hole faster and more aggressively, and a narrower sweep will bore a hole more slowly and carefully. deciding on the ideal sweep just depends on what you’re making. But I wouldn’t worry too much about this since you likely won’t be using a brace and bit enough for the sweep to matter too much.
How do you measure the sweep of a Hand Brace drill?
In the below photo, if I measure from the center of the handle to the center of the ratchet & auger bit, I see a measurement of 5-inches. Double that radius to get a 10-inch sweep hand brace:
What features should you look for in a Hand Brace?
What should you look for? Braces with sweep between 8″ and 12″ are suitable for traditional woodworking. Braces are very common and shouldn’t cost you very much money: as little as a few dollars. Collectible (e.g. old wooden bodied braces) or popular models of metal braces can run a lot more. Just make sure the top handle (i.e. “head”) is tight, that auger bits can be held firmly in the chuck, and that the brace rotates smoothly.
Which Hand Brace is best for Woodworkers?
I own about a dozen different hand brace drills, but I have a couple favorite hand braces that I favor. I particularly like using my No. 112 Spofford patent split chuck brace (Made by John S. Fray):
The 12-inch sweep gets the job done quickly, without being too large, the handle is comfortable, and the quick release split chuck is convenient. These can run you over $100, but you may be able to find one that needs a little TLC. Stanley purchased the John Fray company in 1909 and used the same design and Fray name for a number of years, and then started marking them with “Stanley” around 1920.
I also really like using my antique 8-inch sweep Stanley 2101A “Yankee” brace that I picked up awhile ago from a local hand tool dealer, for about $60:
It is much more solidly built than my other ratcheting braces, and has a very smooth action. This brace comes in different sweep sizes, and under the model numbers “2101 or “2101A”. The 2101 Yankee brace was originally made by North Bros (apparently of slightly better quality back then), but the company was acquired by Stanley. Bell System (i.e. Bell Telephone) used this particular brace (and other tools) for their telephone linemen in large numbers, so a lot of these braces will say “Bell Systems”. Bell Systems didn’t manufacture them, they just had them made for them in large quantities. Jim Bode said of this particular brace: “The finest and heaviest duty, most indestructible bit brace ever made. Silky smooth ball bearing construction, both top and bottom. Oil filled. Concealed ratchet system. Heavy-duty chuck. Accepts both traditional square tapered shank bits as well as round shank bits. The last bit brace you will ever need!”
Here are some popular woodworking braces for you to research prices:
Buy Auger Bits
Auger bits fit inside a woodworking hand brace, for boring holes. Vintage auger bits are nearly as common as quarters, and can be found for about that much money, if you buy them outside of a nice shiny set.
Vintage auger bits are higher quality than most modern auger bits, and they typically come in sizes #4 thru # 16 (that’s 1/4-inch to 1-inch). Irwin and Jennings were the main quality manufactures of auger bits.
I have a mixture of both auger bit brands. Although the open shape of the Irwin auger bits tend to clog less than the Jennings auger bits, due to their elongated design, both brands are popular and work great. See the Irwin auger bits in the photo above.
If you are on a tight budget, then you can easily pick up some loose auger bits on Ebay, at tool swaps, or at flea markets. Expect to pay a couple dollars each (or less). The size number will be stamped into the tang. These random auger bits will usually require some rust removal. Almost all vintage auger bits require spur sharpening, but sharpening the lead screws is very difficult, so inspect each auger bit carefully to ensure that there are no blunted lead screws (scroll down to the T-handle Auger section for clarification on intact lead screws vs. blunt lead screws).
If possible look for a clean & shiny set of auger bits at flea markets or on Ebay (see links below) that come in a nice wooden storage box. That way you can ensure that you have an entire set, and that they will bore smoothly into the wood, and don’t have pitting from rust. But again, don’t even buy a shiny set unless every lead screw is sharp.
Some even older bits, like center bits (i.e. “bat wing” bits) and spoon bits, work nicely, but are usually quite a lot more expensive than the above style auger bits. One of the specialized auger bits that you can see in the above photo, and that I would recommend that you buy early on, is a vintage countersink auger bit. I use this countersink bit all the time to drop screws below the level of the wood surface. You can find them here on Ebay.
Buy an Egg Beater Style Hand Drill
Egg beater style hand drills are used for precision drilling. Think drilling pilot holes for hinges and cut nails, or drilling holes for pegging with dowels on mortises, and even hand planes. And for this precision work I definitely prefer these slow egg beater hand drills over a fast and aggressive power drill.
What are the Best Egg Beater Drill Brands & Models?
In the good ol’ days egg beater hand drills were in almost every tool box in America (and probably the UK and Europe). 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 above vintage Stanley egg beater drill, and not much more for some others. Nicer hand drills can go for a fair amount more (especially refurbished hand drills). In this article Chris Schwarz recommends the following vintage Millers Falls egg beater drills as his favorites:
- See Millers Falls No. 2 hand drills on Ebay
- See Millers Falls No. 2A hand drill on Ebay
- See Millers Falls No. 5 hand drill on Ebay
I don’t own a No. 2 or 2A, but I do own a restored Millers Falls No. 5 egg beater drill, and really like it. But unlike Chris, it isn’t my favorite hand drill.
My favorite hand drill is the Goodell Pratt No. 5 1/2 (pictured below), which has two speeds that allows me to really slow the speed down for careful work (like when I don’t want to drill through the other side of my work piece). And when it’s set to the faster speed, it makes quick work because of the larger drive wheel. And a larger hand drill like this has larger jaws, which allows me to use larger drill bits (like brad point bits). The jaws of the smaller hand drills won’t fit the larger bits.
So if you can only afford one hand drill, then get one similar to this hand drill. I additionally own a larger Millers Falls No. 2-01 egg beater drill, which fits larger bits, but doesn’t have two speeds. But a one speed hand drill should work just fine. In fact, almost any antique hand drill will work fine (unless it’s broken).
If you’re able, test out the egg beater hand drill 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 useful article & video on how to tune up an egg beater drill. Here are some links to egg beater hand drills on ebay:
Buy Various Woodworking Drill Bits
Egg beater hand drills use straight shafted drill bits. Quite often you’ll be surprised to find a small stash of old drill bits hidden in the screw-on lid of your antique hand drill. But it’s always nice to have a good variety of drill bit types and sizes on hand for your furniture making needs. I often use antique style slotted screws and cut nails (square headed) in my historical furniture, and need to drill pilot holes so I don’t split my wood furniture parts. So I use small split point drill bits with my egg beater drills to drill these tiny pilot holes. And since I use many different sizes of historical cut nails and slotted screws I need different sizes of split point drill bits, and plenty of them, because they can break when I’m not being careful.
I found a great little pack of 50 small drill bits, that contain various common sizes, all stored in a perfect little plastic case with a snug fitting lid. This pack of High Speed Steel drill bits are sold at Rockler (here) and contain the following sizes and quantities:
- 1/16″ Bits (10 qty)
- 5/64″ Bits (10 qty)
- 3/32″ Bits (10 qty)
- 7/64″ Bits (10 qty)
- 1/8″ Bits (10 qty)
I have had this pack of drill bits for about 5 years and still haven’t run out of bits for my hand drills!
A good sharp set of brad point bits will give you crisp holes. But most of the larger brad point bits won’t fit a smaller egg beater drill. You’ll need a larger egg beater drill (like my Goodell Pratt No. 5 1/2 hand drill) for larger bits. I don’t use brad point bits nearly as often as the split point bits that I mentioned above, but they are handy when I need a larger hole drilled, where clean precision is important (cleaner than auger bits).
I recommend this set of 7 HSS Brad Point drill bits (1/8″ to 1/2″) from Veritas.
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 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 bore 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, buy 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-inch (1.5″) diameter or larger for drilling strong mortises for bench legs. 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 bore a whole…I’ve tried. And the lead screw is very difficult to resurrect.
Also, inspect the handle for cracks. It stinks when you make a few turns and the handle splits into two pieces! This isn’t as vital as the metal lead screw consideration, because you can make a replacement handle. You can also reinforce an old handle with a couple small metal tie straps (from your home center).
You can usually find T Handle augers hanging in old barns. Or, Ebay has plenty of hand augers (make sure you ask to see a 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: