Posts Tagged ‘millers falls’


In:Tool Review, Vintage Tool Talk

Comments Off on Which Drills and Why

The biggest issue when getting started in working wood with hand tools is wondering, “what tools do I need?”  I remember thinking I needed all bench planes #1 – #8 and every saw or chisel size sold by a given manufacturer.  After all, if I didn’t need all the sizes they wouldn’t be offering them, right?

Well, as you spend some time in the shop and read a few books you will quickly learn that is very wrong.  And while there is a lot of information out there on which planes or saws you should get, I’ve seen little to no words of wisdom around what drills are useful and why.  So here is what I’ve found most useful:

First, no single drill will handle all your hole-boring needs (or to some, your boring hole needs, but I digress).  The diameter of the hole you want to drill determines how much torque your drill will need to provide.  A traditional hand drill (or “egg-beater drill” as they’re often called) can only handle small holes, up to about a 1/4″ in diameter.  They are fantastic tools that can be easily found on the vintage market at a very affordable price.  Take the time to get a decent one that is complete and in good shape and/or fix it up yourself (see my restoration advice here).  I own two of these drills, one smaller than the other.  The larger (a Millers Falls #2) is my workhorse.  It does the bulk of the drilling in my shop and if I had to live with the absolute minimum number of tools, this would be one of the two drills I would own (I actually own five drills total).  My second hand drill is smaller (a Millers Falls #5a) and is nice to have on hand for very delicate work or if I’m alternating between different drill bit sizes, I can dedicate each of my drills to a different bit size rather than switching bits back and forth between the same drill.  I also find these drills easier to keep vertical compared to a cordless drill which is always trying to tip over due to the offset handle and battery weight.

My Millers Falls #2 and #5a hand drills

Perfect for general drilling up to 1/4″

When I need to drill small holes horizontally, I prefer a breast drill.  The name is derived from how the tool is used; the pad at the top is pressed under your… well… breast and your hands align and crank the drill.  I own a two-speed version (a Stanley 905) that allows me to choose between faster drilling or more torque, just like with a battery powered drill.  I find this drill easier to support, keep flat, and crank when drilling horizontally, but as this is not something most woodworkers do very often I wouldn’t go nuts trying to track one down.

My Stanley 905 breast drill

Tool-free speed change. Just press a button, pop out the drive gear, and place it in the other hole.

My favorite method for drilling holes up to 1/4″ horizontally

Now for the larger holes.  From about 1/4″ – 1″ diameter holes, hand braces are awesome and readily available… the bits (called auger bits), on the other hand, can be a little tough to find in a complete set (sets typically range from 1/4″ – 1″ sizes in 1/16″ increments).

Vintage auger bits made by Irwin

The term “brace” is based on the older wooden versions of this drill which were reinforced with brass plates, or braces, to avoid cracking the wooden frame during use.  Hand braces have two major features that differentiate one from another.  First is the sweep size.  A 10″ brace, for instance, is one which has a handle offset 5″ from the chuck, thus creating a 10″ diameter circle you must sweep the brace around to turn the bit.  The larger the sweep distance, the more torque you can generate (nice for your largest drilling needs), where smaller sweep distances allow for faster drilling (preferable for smaller bits).  The second feature to look for in a brace is ratcheting chucks vs solid chucks.  Ratchets allow for reversing the direction of rotation when an obstruction prevents the brace from making a complete circle.  This sounds like a big advantage and indeed if you find yourself in a situation where you can’t make a full sweep of the brace you will want a ratcheting chuck.  However, this shouldn’t be a regular occurrence and the ratcheting mechanism can add a sloppy feel to the drill (depending who made the tool and how well it’s been cared for).  Thus, I have two braces.  The first is an original (before Stanley bought them out) North Brothers Yankee 2101A brace with a ratcheting chuck and 12″ sweep.  This would be the second of my two essential drills and can handle any large-hole-drilling need I may have.  However, when drilling a smaller hole (maybe 5/8″ or less) and assuming there is nothing in my way, I will often reach for my Millers Falls brace without a ratcheting head.  These tools are so cheap it’s worth having a couple around, especially if you vary the features they bring to your shop.  These tools work well drilling vertically or horizontally, but the way I use them differs based on the situation.

My Millers Falls brace (top) with a 10″ sweep and solid chuck, followed by my Yankee brace with ratcheting chuck and 12″ sweep.

For vertical drilling, the right hand holds the pad, the left hand spins the drill.

For horizontal drilling, I hold the pad against my chest with my left hand and drive the drill with my right. Here I was adding holes in my bench legs to store my holdfasts when not in use.

A few tips on the bits themselves.  For hand drills, you can use the vintage bits that accompany some drills, but I just use brad point bits.  They are just easier to find and cut cleaner.  For the auger bits, two common styles exist: Jennings and Irwin.  I can’t say I prefer one over the other, but if they get dull they can be tuned up with an auger bit file (check Lie-Nielsen’s website to buy one, they are only $8.50).  Finally, if your auger bits are blowing out the back of your board, stop drilling as soon as the lead screw pokes through the back.  Then flip the board over, line the bit up with hole, and finish drilling from the backside.

Brad point bit in a hand drill

Auger bit file

Have a great day, -WMT




In:Vintage Tool Talk

Comments Off on Restoring a hand drill (cheaply)

Vintage hand drills are some of the most useful and inexpensive tools to have around the shop. Few are manufactured new today and the drills that are don’t come close to the quality of the vintage models.  I have two sizes I use all the time, both made by Millers Falls, a #2 and #5A.

The biggest issue most people have with these “egg beater” drills is the misconception that they don’t work well.  That’s true if you’ve only tried rusty junkers.  It’s no different than using hand planes.  Garbage planes cause more problems than they fix, but a well tuned plane can make you sell off all your power tools.  A smooth running hand drill is accurate, quiet, fast, and never runs low on batteries.  So if you’re interested in restoring an old drill, here’s how I go about it.  DISCLAIMER: the operations shown on the drill press could be considered dangerous… so is using a tablesaw, jointer, etc. if you’re not familiar with the tool or operation being performed on that tool.  In short, if you’re not comfortable with how I cleaned up these drills, don’t try it.

First, you need to acquire a drill in the usual manner (eBay, flea markets, tool shows, theft, etc).  Look for three things:  solid handles without cracks or a loose fit, gears with no broken or chipped teeth, and a chuck that operates with all 3 jaws and associated springs.  Obviously major flaws like missing screws, cracked bodies, or rusted out drills are no good, but those are usually thrown out these days (a little surface rust isn’t a problem though).  Most drills being sold are in at least satisfactory condition and can be had for $5-$25.

With the drill acquired, it’s time for the restoration process to begin.  Disassemble the entire tool.  Take out the screws, remove the drive gear, unscrew the chuck, etc.  If any rust or surface tarnishing is present, give the parts a 24 hour bath in Evapo-Rust (more info on that here).  Once the hardware is cleaned I paint the body with enamel, typically black gloss on the body, red on the gear, but it’s your drill, do as you like. There’s nothing magic about this process.  Just brush the enamel on, then clamp it by the chuck in a vice to dry.  Over-paint areas that butt up against metal that is supposed to be paint-free (like the edge of the gear).  This will ensure full coverage and the over-painting will get removed later.  It can take several days to fully dry, sometimes over a week depending on the temperature.  Make sure the body is completely dry (no tackiness to the touch) before proceeding, otherwise you may be starting over (believe me, I know)…

On to the fun stuff (in my opinion at least).  Most drills only have two screws in the assembly and it’s worth getting them pristine.  Chuck them into the drill press (or lathe if you own one) with the head down.  leave as much clearance as possible, but make sure you have enough threaded into the chuck so things stay in alignment.  A couple warnings here: first, don’t over-tighten any of the threaded areas in the chuck or they can get damaged.  You only need a firm enough grip to resist light material removal, so just gently hand-tighten the chuck.  If you need to, put some blue tape around the threads.  This will protect them a bit and give a better grip in the chuck.  Now, with the screws secure and spinning, file the heads clean of dents, then finish with some fine sandpaper for a nice polish.  I usually go to around 800 grit for a clean, somewhat matte finish.

The main gear is handled in a similar way, but you have to put a bolt through the center so there is something to chuck into the drill.  File/sand the edges to the desired finish.  Make sure any over-painting is removed.

With the hardware painted and cleaned up, it’s on to the wooden handles.  The side knob that many drills have is easy to clean up by chucking into the drill press just like the screws, again, be careful not to damage the threads.

The gear handle is tricky.  It can not be removed from the arm because it is typically riveted on.  I got around this by spinning a steel rod in the press (in this case, a 1/2″ diameter center punch), clamping the handle on the bed of the press, and belting the two together with a generic pulley drive belt.  Some light side-pressure and the friction of the belt is enough to spin the knob while sanding down to bare wood.  A few tips here: use a large diameter rod to avoid bending under the side load as well as to provide enough surface area for the belt to stick to the rod.  Also, keep the table close to the press to minimize the side load/torque on the press.  Drills aren’t meant to withstand too much side load, so just use enough to spin the knob (which isn’t much).  Center the knob over a cut-out in the table so it can spin freely (shown in the 3rd picture below).


For the large handle, the body (minus all removable parts) can be chucked into the press.  There is one problem, however, as the center will spin while the body remains stationary.  I placed a clamp over the small gear to lock it to the body.  Tape could also work, but whatever you try, keep it tight to the body.  Again, sand down to the bare wood.


Finally, some finishing touches.  I have drills with film-finishes for the wood and others with oil.  The film looks more traditional, but I like the feel of the oiled wood, so it’s up to you.  There’s a good chance the main handle has a threaded cap (traditionally for bit storage).  I don’t use these for anything at the moment, but I want it to work well for future use just in case, so I wax the wooden threads after the finish is dry.  There are also several holes around the drill’s chuck and drive gear for oil.  Put a few drops in and add more as required.  My only other tip is in the fit of the main drive gear.  I don’t like too much clearance between the gear and screw holding it to the body.  Excessive slop is felt with every revolution of the drill and if the gears mesh too tightly it adds drag to the tool and increases the wear on the gears, shortening the life of the tool.  I use plastic shim stock (because it wears well and is available in precise thicknesses) to take out the slop, leaving only a few thousandths of clearance.


That does it.  You should be left with a top-notch drill that will last for generations.  Happy drilling.