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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Have a great day,