Bit Braces and Hand Drills
Today we often rely on a portable power drill--probably a cordless one--for making holes. Not too long ago, though, home woodworkers didn't have it quite so easy. Back then, drilling a hole 1/4" or smaller usually called for a hand drill and twist bit, like the one shown at left side of the photo at left. Larger holes were the province of the brace, at right side of the photo, and auger bit.
Bit braces first appeared in Europe in the 1400s, though the underlying mechanics--the principle of the crank--had been known in China centuries before. By the dawn of the 20th century, the brace had evolved to the tool we recognize.
Often termed the American Pattern brace, this type differs from earlier designs in two key elements. The first, the screwed shell chuck with self-centering jaws, came along in the 1860s. The second, a ratcheting drive for the chuck, began to appear shortly thereafter.
The chuck securely grips bit shanks of different diameters, and makes changing them a snap. (Bits for braces typically feature square tapered tangs, shown in the foreground of the photo, above left.) The ratchet provides continuous circular motion even when the handle swings back and forth through only a portion of its sweep. This allows boring in close quarters and also improves efficiency--a user can swing the handle in the range that gives the best leverage.
The Stanley brace shown, dating from the 1940s, was ordinarily used with auger bits. But, it could also take other tooling, including twist drills with square taper tangs, countersinks, and screwdriver bits. Virtually identical braces are still manufactured today.
The geared hand drill, an American innovation, arrived on the scene in the 1870s. It soon became standard workshop equipment, and remained so until deposed by low-priced portable electric drills.
The hand drill is a fairly simple machine to use: You turn a hand crank, which is attached to a large wheel. Gear teeth around the large wheel mesh with a pinion attached to the chuck. Typically the chuck makes about 3-5 revolutions for each spin of the crank. This provides faster bit speed--but less power--than a brace.
The hand drill excelled in drilling smaller holes, such as pilot holes for screws. (The hand drill's three-jaw chuck would grip round-shanked twist drills up to 1/4", sometimes 3/8".) The high bit speed made drilling through metal easier, too.
The drill shown, a two-speed model made by Goodell-Pratt Co. of Greenfield, Massachusetts, represents the deluxe end of the hand drill range. Sears, Roebuck and Co. priced this model at $2.22 in the 1922 catalog. Other hand drills in the catalog ranged in cost from $0.43 to $1.34. (The best bit brace listed for $1.77.)
Its two speed ranges--marked fast and slow--give this drill about 4-2/3 and 1-1/3 chuck revolutions per crank turn. To change speeds, you pull out a spring-loaded knob (above right), rotate it 180 degrees, and let it pop back in. The lower speed range comes in handy for drilling larger holes.
Photographs: Hetherington Photography Tools courtesy of F.E. Hanson