Monday, September 21, 2015

Part 2 Bracing for a long overdue revolution, the brace

Part 1 was tuning the shell bits, now time to put our freshly sharpen bit into a brace, but which ones?  Does it matter?  YES

I said earlier that the modern brace is a relatively new invention.
Thousand of years after some anonymous genius invented the wheel, another anonymous genius came up with the crank!  This made possible the bit brace, which revolutionized (pun intended) how we make holes.

We believed that China had a bit brace in the first century, but the brace did not appear in Europe until about the 15th century.  Some sources says 12-13th century, but nonetheless, it took a long time for the idea to replace the pump and bow drill.

Wood brace found in the Mary Rose, a Tudor period British warship 
built in 1510, sank in 1545, discovered in 1971 and raised in 1982.
It still contained a treasure trove of ship carpenters tools. 

From Jim Bode tools.
A 16th or 17th century French brace.

From Jim Bode tools.
A European 18th century brace in Cormier wood.

About 1631 from Dutch engraver Jan Van Vliet.
Notice the brace on the wall.

The earlier braces were of course made of wood and had a fixed bit.  Hence you required a set of brace/bits to drill various holes.   A chair maker for example would have many braces for that reason.  Good thing they were used to reamed their holes after all these years  :-)  Even after replaceable bit pads were the norm, chair makers kept their various fixed bits drill for a long time well into the 19th century.  Some claim it was because the fixed bits were more secured and drilled truer.  But some habits lingered long after everyone else had made the move, for whatever reasons.

Removable bit pads.  The metal bit is fixed inside a wooden pad
 that clip inside a square hole, much like a clothes pin.
These clothespin tang are considerably rarer than the more common standard tapered type.

Other pads simply relied on a tapered fit. 
The modern twist bit and screwdriver one are obviously not original.

We seen that the earliest brace bits used the shell type and were cutting on the nose.  Being no screw thread to pull the bit into the wood, pressure was required to drill.  For extra pressure a brace bib was sometimes worn on the chest to exert body pressure on the head of the brace.

Same bib that was used earlier with the pump drill, same idea.
Often nothing more than a piece of wood was used.
After WWI we begin to see numerous breast plate made from recycled brass shells.  Drilling in this position, besides applying pressure with your body, 
let you see, feel the other side and stop before you spelch too much.

If you restore and uses shell bits, you will quickly discovered that how you sharpen the nose has a great effect on how much pressure is required.   In my previous demonstration using a small turning gouge, I did not need much pressure going thru pine.  Hardwood would had required more pressure.

All that down pressure and forces required to crank the bit around will greatly influence how the brace evolved with the choices of material available.  Perhaps this is why it took so long to materialize?

Italian brace 1649.

Various bit designs exert more forces on the brace than some other.  A modern Jennings or Irwin would required less force to turn than a pod shaped bit or a center bit.

Typical wood construction.

This Medieval brace is made of various wood parts assembled together.  It goes around the problem of relying on the wood grain direction and inherent weakness of it.  But it is only as strong as the diameter of the parts used and the construction methods to held them together.

Medieval brace of jointed turning construction.
It is probably limited in the amount of downward force it can take.

Making a wood brace put a limit on the practical size of the throw.  Too big and it would be severely weaken.  Hence older wood brace tend to have smallish throw.

The main parts of a wooden brace. 
As with all braces, the sweep is double the throw, 
hence a 4 in brace has a sweep of 8 inches.

Why is the throw measured from center line (handle) to center line (line passing thru center of head to bit)? Because the throw, swing or sweep is a measure (indication) of the force that can be exerted.

Another way to strengthen the webs is to uses as much as possible the natural crook of a piece of wood.   Similar to this one.

Another is to beef up the parts that are subject to weakness due to the grain running out (short grain).  Such as typically seen on Dutch brace (Spyke boor).
The web part that is slanted, either the rear (mostly Dutch as illustrated) or the front is often an indication of its cultural origins.

The width of the web was determined by the amount of stress that the brace was to received.

And finally as exemplified in British wooden brace of the Victorian era, the uses of metal re-enforcement plates.   Notice how the throw of the brace has increased.

The throw of a brace is the distance between the handle and the line between the head and the bit (see drawing above). Say 3 inches.   Twice that would be the sweep of the brace (a full revolution of the handle)  6 in sweep.  The bigger the sweep, the stronger must be the brace, because the leverage is longer (stronger).

Photo from Hans Brunner tool site.
They were made in various domestic and exotic woods.
When they sport these brass plates on both sides, they are called Plated braces.

Notice the release button or catch, it hold securely the bit by 
capturing the indentation filed on the shank of the bits.
The sweep on this brace is 7 in BTW.

A common problem with tapered shank bits and the catch button is that there were no real consensus or standard about the size of the taper shank nor where to locate the notch.  As a results, not every bit found will work with these.
Sometimes, bits are found with two notches, probably made by the then user to adapt them to his brace.

This bit fit, but the indentation is not in the right spot to be captured.
And no, I`m not about to make a new notch for it...

This bit has too big of a shank to go deep enough inside the chuck.

Another variation on the Sheffield braces was the Ultimatum brace.  Using cast  metal hollow pieces often stuffed with exotic wood. Black ebony, Lignum Vitae etc.
Their weakness is at the mechanical connection for the middle wood handle. These were often presented as gift rather than to be used, but they are usable tools in their own rights.  It is just that they were and still are rather expensive...

Photos from Jim Bode tools.
WM Marples Ultimatum brace.

When using wooden brace, please be careful not to over torque and damage them.  If you need more strength to turn, either uses a different pattern bit, OR, use a stronger metal brace.

The industrial ages brought along a number of metal braces design and a large number of various patented design to hold the bits in place.

The Scottish metal brace is quite elegant with its simple design ornamentation.

Photo from WK fine tools.
This type still used a notch bit design.

An earlier Gent or Penny brace.  It is missing the wooden ball handle.
Notice the bent frame.  When shopping for braces, look at the alignment between the head and the bit at the chuck.  Should be all in the same straight line.
Being wrought iron, its frame is easily bent.  The small opening for the bit shank, is one clue that it cannot turn bigger bits without injury.

Simple button mechanism to capture the notch on the bit shank.
Push to release bit.  This would be similar to the British button mechanism except that theirs are all internal.

But the one design we are most familiar with, is the ubiquitous American metal brace sporting a variety of patented chucks.
Perhaps the best known are the Millers-Falls one sporting the Barber chucks.

Not all American pattern braces sport a ratchet mechanism, nor the familiar clam shell alligator jaws. 

My all time favorite metal brace.  Spofford or Fray patent.

The simplicity of its split chuck enables it to grip pretty well every bits I can throw at it.   Simple, hold bits securely, very strong.   If you bend this brace, you should probably start a career as a strong man in a circus :-)

And finally rounding up our braces overview, lets have a quick look at some commonly found examples of the American pattern that we know and are more familiar with.

First the non-ratchet type

Atkins No 010. Strong steel construction, simple, 
nothing much to go wrong, Barber type chuck.

Unscrewing the clam shell, expose the jaws.

Two jaws, alligator grip, no spring to loose.

The business end of your typical 2 jaws chuck.

Ratchet braces came next to solves the problem of limited access preventing the full rotation of the brace.  They have a three positions selector, ring, lever or button: CCW-Lock- CW

Millers Falls with Improved Barber chuck and exposed cog gears. 

A Stanley No 923 with fully enclosed mechanism.

A common ailment of old enclosed mechanism braces, is the old grease used has a tendency to dry up and seize everything.  Often a blue/green dried up gunk.
Clean & lube is the easy fix, not so easy is to take some of them apart.

See the springs holding the jaws open?  Do not loose them.

Removing two screws, then a circ clip, you can remove the head. 

Typical construction of heads on various similar braces. 
This one is the Stanley 923. If they used the same stupid grease on the head, 
that they put in the mechanism, it will freeze. Clean & lube = fixed.

The head should be free to rotate and have minimal play in order to bore true.
Some have ball bearings, most not.  Some allow for taking up the slack as it wear down, most not.  At any rate, now you know what to look for and how to take them apart to troubleshoot.

Bet you can now quickly spot the good ones from the duds

Most have two tapered jaws to grip the tapered shank of the brace bit, They would not grip very well the round shanks of modern bits.  But there are ways around it.

 Seldom seen 4 jaws brace chuck. Will grip round shanks no problems.
Tapered shank? Not so well.
Newer manufactured brace often sport these or 3 jaws chucks.

And of course there are a variety of adapters to fit pretty well everything, with a little bit of imagination :-)
Check out the selection at Lee Valley   They also have a 3 jaws chuck brace which would grip round shanks bit.

But nonetheless, the reason they used a tapered square shanks was to resist the tremendous torque which can be applied with a brace.  You will always get better grip with these tapered bits of old.   And please DO NOT cut off the tapered shank to adapt your bits to a powered drill like I sometimes seen advocated!

And to go around the problem of drilling in close spaces and the ratchet is not sufficient, we have two choices.

The Stanley No 716 Joist brace, designed to go
 between house joists for example.

And my favorite for its gizmocentric funky look, the Amidon patented corner brace, later to be purchased and manufactured by Millers-Falls.

Mine has the original patent date on it.
Pretty funky, but mostly hang on my wall as a decoration :-)

I hope that this quick overview of braces has given you some ideas as to better match your braces to your bits and to the type of work to be performed.

We are now ready to put bit into the brace and poke some holes :-)

You will notice that some jaws have a small V cut out into them.   When found, line up the square corner of your bits into it.  This will ensure a more secure grip.
It was an earlier attempt at accommodating round shank.

 If your brace has a ratchet mechanism, ensure to turn it to the proper position to lock or unlock your bit.  You will quickly figure this out, but just saying :-)

You do not need to bottom out the bit shank to be solid when putting pressure, a benefit of the tapered shank.

So in order to pick the right brace for the job, you must consider its intended use;
A big hole or fastener is going to require more torque, get a bigger sweep brace.

The type of drill bits used as an effect on the stress put on the brace, get a metal brace versus a wooden one.

And of course, your chosen brace chuck has to accommodate your drilling bits.

Lastly, please remember to treat your braces with the respect they deserves.  Do not over torque them, especially the wooden variety.  They lasted that long, they should outlast you.

Bob, bracing for your comments...


  1. I have a question on the Spofford brace. Do you have any problems with the bits being off the center line? I doesn't look like you have any wiggle room with that 'chuck' to align them.

  2. No wiggle room, you are either centered or you are not... Well, In thuth, by rotating the bit in the chuck, you can shift it a bit. Nonetheless, you quickly notice if the bit is close to center or not. Thankfully my bits (the ones I actually uses (I have " a few") are in good shape, they been fettled :-)
    Similarly the other chucks don't give you much play either, except that it is possible to put a small bit crooked in a large Barber chuck.

  3. This series of posts will stand as a great reference and much like Patrick's Blood and Gore, lots of valuable buyer's info. Thanks for putting in such effort.

  4. Thanks Paul. I try to share as much as I can and still hopefully be relevant to someone else..
    I really need the distraction to keep my sanity right now..

    Per Ardua ad Astra

  5. Hi Bob. I hope things are going well for you Heather and Rudy.

    Just broght back a Stanley brace #923-10" form Cambridge. It looks very similar to my #945-10", and I see that Stanley manufactured them both over the same time period.

    Walter's book describes #923 as "box ratchet, alligator jaws" and describes the #945 as "latch-pawl ratchet, plain jaws".

    Why the two different braces produced at the same time? The wire holding the jaws on the #923 looks finnicky to me. The ratchet teeth on the#945 are exposed while those on the #923 are encased (is that the difference between box ratchet and latch-pawl ratchet)

  6. Hi Terry
    Me and rudy are doing well, Heather sadly not so good... :-(
    You are correct in your description of the ratchet mechanism, that is basically the differences. Why so many models produced at the same time? Remember that Stanley was on on a mission to dominated the world with their tools ( Stanley, the toolbox of the world) in order to do so, they needed to cover a wide range of models covering all price points from DIY to professionals. In addition as they acquired competitors, they carried their previous lines concurrently for a while. When they bought out a company they also acquired then sold off their inventory. Some of it rebranded Stanley, some retained the old labels for a while.

  7. Hi there,

    for a bit of encampment and re-enactment focused on the 13th century, I am looking four tools I could use (and sources that tell of the use of tools in that period). Now I notices you pointed to the 15th century with some sources going as early as 12th-13th century for braces to be used. So, ehm, could you point me towards some of those sources? That would be a great help.

    Thanks in advance,


  8. Hi Dirk
    First, let me says that I applaud your interest in trying to keep your woodworking tool kit period accurate, not an easy undertaking. I have demo in museum before that was for the 18th and 19th century, to go back into the medieval times is ...quite a leap of faith :-)

    The sources of info that we have available to us are: actual tools that survived the times and can be dated by the shipwreck they were found in. Specifically, in your case Mary Rose , Vasa (16th and 17th century), the Mastermyr tool chest (12th century) et. Also painting give us a frame reference, but are notoriously inaccurate in representing tools, but they would not appears if not known to the artist at the time, hence we can say that if brace do not appear in painting prior to the 12th or 15th century, they most likely did not appeared much before.
    There are also a variety of books about tools history, Look for Goodman (UK) RA Salaman (US) etc.

    Finally did a quick google and came up upon an interesting site, just what you were looking for...

    Hope this help. If you need more info just ask