“Brace yourself, this is going to be a bit boring”, a quote from Shepherds’ Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker, 1981, 2001 that I always find amusing. The hand brace is a step up from the T-handled auger or drill. The hand brace is a tool that can be made of wood by the craftsmen and many fine examples in wood or metal show the pride and craftsmanship of the past. The brace, also called a bit stock, is the mechanical advantage with a crank that turns the motion into the drilling action. A pad or knob on the top turns freely in the body of the brace and has a wide bearing surface against which pressure is applied. Metal bit stocks were generally used by the coach making trade. The other end has a bit chuck with a square tapered hole that accepts the drill bits. This can be a fancy brass spring chuck that has a lug that engages a notch in the square tapered shank of the drill bit and is released by pressing a button on the side of the chuck. Others are cast pewter, horn ferrules or just square tapered holes cut in the end of the brace. Some metal braces have turn screws that secure the bit in place. While it is generally gripped with the hand, it can also be rested against your chest for additional pressure. Traditional chair makers would wear a wooden bib around their neck. This breastplate has straps that hold it in place, a strap around the neck and straps around the chest. There is a concave depression in the center of the bib into which the knob or pad of the brace is placed. Some of these old examples are highly carved and polished smooth with use and were considered as status symbols and proudly worn. One type of brace that always incorporates the breastplate or a separate hand held pad is called a fixed brace. These are wooden cranks with a drill bit permanently fixed to the end of the brace. Because of the simplicity of this brace without a knob, allows the bits to be fit into their own individual braces. A number of extra braces are made to accommodate the bits that are frequently used. A brace with a chuck can also be made in this fashion and the bits interchangeable. The other end does not have a knob or pad but is instead sharpened to a conical point. This point rides in a countersunk hole in a separate pad or a hole in the breastplate. Some breastplates have a depression for a knob as well as several holes for using fixed braces.
This type of drill brace can also be used as a beam drill. A fixed table of this original drill press has a large beam fixed above the table with a fulcrum pivot on one end usually attached to a post and a handle that is pulled down on the other end of the beam. Sometimes referred to as a post drill. Directly above the table, the beam is at the proper height and with a properly placed countersunk hole on its underside accepts the conical point of the fixed brace. Some adjustments for different thickness’ of material that is being drilled can be accommodated by adjusting the fulcrum point up or down or adjusting the height of the table. The material is centered, the drill point is placed on its mark, the beam is lifted and the braces conical point placed into the countersunk hole on the underside of the beam. As the brace is cranked, the weight of the beam bears directly down on the brace and can be increased by pulling down on the handle on the end of the beam. Weights can also be hung from the end of the handle to provide a constant downward pressure. With proper placement of the drill bit and brace, the beam press drills very accurate vertical holes. Let gravity do the work for you together with the leverage advantage, reduces the most difficult drilling job to one that is just boring.
Drilling horizontal holes by hand is a problem getting the drill perpendicular to the work. While you can use a square to help determine the proper angle drilling vertically, it is more difficult when you are drilling a hole horizontally. One trick you can use to make sure that you are holding the drill in the horizontal plane, you can sight to keep the drilling square and use this to determine horizontal. Place a metal ring on the shank of the drill bit. I use one that is 1 inch inside diameter so it freely turns around the shank of the drill. If you are holding the brace and bit horizontally as you turn the brace, the metal ring will track in one place. If it tracks towards the bit you are tipped up on the knob end. If the metal ring tracks towards the brace you are tipping down and the knob is too low. Keep it tracking in one place and your hole will be square.
Drilling holes at angles require something that helps you get the angles right. An adjustable bevel gauge can be set to the proper angle and the brace and bit aligned to the angle of the gauge and checked during the drilling process. If you are doing a number of holes at a repeated angle, you may want to construct a drilling guide with a hole pre-drilled in a block of wood. This is placed or clamped on the work and the drilling is done down the hole into the work. Stop gauges are made for bits that allow a particular depth of hole to be drilled again and again without measuring. A mark on the drill bit or a piece of tape can provide a visual reminder of the depth to be achieved but a stop gauge or stop collar will provide accurate results that does not need to be visibly monitored.
You will want to pre-mark the hole to be drilled with an awl that gives the drill bit a positive place to start. Nose cutting bits, spoon augers and pod augers require a small hole to start to prevent the drill from wandering as it is starting. I use a small gouge to make a small depression in the correct place. This allows these bits without center spurs or screws to get properly started in its drilling. A pre-drilled drilling guide can also be used to start these bits without making a hole but they need to be clamped down to the work to prevent them from wandering as the drill engages the wood.
Traditional drill bits are not a collection of random designs from creative toolmakers of the past, they each have their own characteristics and application. Certain drill bits make good entry holes but not good exit holes such as the center bit and these are drilled from both sides to insure good entry and exit holes. A gimblet bit will tend to split out when it is going into the wood but produces an exit hole that does not need to be backed up with a scrap of wood. For other bits, a backup piece of scrap wood is a good idea to insure that the exit hole does not split out. Spoon bits and pod augers will drill holes and not follow the grain. Down cutting nose augers work very will in end grain. Spoon or gouge bits are good for blind doweling joints. A gimblet bit produces a tapered hole that is not the kind of hole you want for a dowel or peg. Center bits and twist augers produce a flat bottom hole.
Other bits that have been incorporated for the brace includes screw driver bits. The incredible leverage advantage of a brace will convince you of the ability to drive the largest screws into the hardest woods. Also the speed at which you can set a screw is amazing when compared to turning a turn screw (screw driver) by hand. Also spanner bits, which are in effect a screwdriver bit with a notch in the center of the blade to clear the spanner bolt, which tightens or loosens these special spanner nuts. Specialty hole cutters to cut larger holes, hole saws as well as dowel pointers and tenon cutters have square tapered shanks for the hand brace. Sockets (no they are not new) for square nuts of fixed size work well in the brace. Countersinks with a variety of cutting heads produce the tapered counter sunk edges to dress up previously drilled holes and for counter sunk holes for screw heads. When using countersinks, it is sometimes recommended to use them at as high a speed as you can turn the brace to produce a uniform hole. Because of the changing grain at slow speeds the heads sometimes make lopsided holes, so the higher speed tends to eliminate non-round tapered holes. Tapered reamers used to make tapered holes for chair construction act like countersinks to dress the hole to the proper taper to accept the appropriately shaped tenon. One particularly useful bit for a brace is an extension bit. I have a hand forged wrought iron bit extension that is 25 ¼” long. It has a tapered end that fits into the brace and the other end has a square tapered hole that accepts the drill bits. Besides the reach advantage when I am drilling angled holes with the extension it is easier to eyeball the proper angle because of the increased length.
Adapted devices and clever mechanical inventions have utilized the circular motion of this hand-cranked tool. A paddled device used to mix finishes, stains and paints or to mix food. Plug cutters are used to make round plugs of wood to cover counter bored screw holes. Starting a plug cutter in a brace requires a guide to hold the plug cutter above the work as it has a tendency to walk on the surface of the wood because it lacks a center spur. Button bits are special ground center bits that cuts a profile on thin material like nacre. Drilled from both sides of thin material, this bit actually cuts a profile in the surface to form the face of a button. The center point on these bits is very small and only protrudes enough to engage the material to provide a pivot point as the outside spur defines the outside of the button. Larger versions can be made for the beam drill press and rosettes can be cut in the surface of flat square material. A drilling guide used to position this cutter needs to be clamped into position to insure the rosette is cut in the desired location and to prevent the bit or work from wandering.
Center bits have the advantage of being able to change directions slightly while drilling and this can be good, but the bit can also wander. The center bit is easier when drilling at angles, the bit is started straight in and once it begins to cut the brace and bit are tilted to the correct angle and the drilling continues. Gimblet bits and some pod augers can also vary slightly when they are being used. Spoon and gouge bits as well as twist augers will drill straight holes as their nature prevents them from wandering in cross grain. End grain requires special bits.
When drilling with almost any type of bit it is always a good idea to periodically stop and remove the shavings from the hole. If excessive chips build up in and around the drill bit it will cause the drill to bind. Certain bits like twist augers will tend to extract the shavings they make, but this works in an ideal world and they will still bind if the hole and bit are not cleared. Center bits do not tend to bind up because of the space around the shaft but it is always a good idea to clean out the hole periodically. Also sharp, clean and bright bits will work more effortlessly that sharp dirty, rusty bits. A polished surface does not tend to rust as easily and works much better. Keep your bits sharp and clean them after each use, the acids and moisture in wood can rust your drill bits. On particularly sappy or wet wood it is a good idea to lubricate you bit with beeswax to help prevent binding. Do not use too much especially if you are drilling holes that will be glued, glue does not stick to wax.
It is a good idea to mark where you are going to be drilling with an awl rather than a pencil. The awl gives a positive starting point for the drill bit. Gouge and spoon bits can be started in large awl holes without the need to make a starting depression with a chisel or gouge. If you use a drilling guide, this is not necessary but for all other applications this is a good habit to get into.
I use my brace so frequently that I don’t even have a place for it nor a designated peg from which to hang it. I just keep it on my bench within easy reach.