Arts & Mysteries: Boring in the 18th Century

04pwm1013artsmysteriesToday’s array of bits has nothing on historical practice.

By Adam Cherubini Pages 58-61

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In my attempts to recreate period work, I’ve many times come across the need to make holes that no modern tool can practically create.

My workbench has 16 1-1⁄2″ holes bored into its beech top to house vise screws. I bored them with a framing auger. I use shell bits when I have to drill a hole from the back of a workpiece to the front. I typically do this to drawer fronts, positioning the lock on the inside of the drawer, and then drilling the hole for the keyhole from the backside to the front. Shells don’t typically break out fibers when they exit.

I use center bits for all kinds of inlay work. Most people would probably use a Forstner bit in a drill press for this. But I have neither and do just fine with a sharp center bit. I use gimlets and bradawls for nail and screw holes. I don’t use tons of fasteners in my work and these simple tools work well enough – and faster than some might think.

In this article I’ll review the boring tools I use in my shop. I realize you aren’t itching to trash your new cordless drill; I’m just thinking you might enjoy reading about the tools our great-great grandfathers used to drill holes, a task I think many of us take for granted.

What is an Auger?
The augers we know today, those twisted things with the lead screws on the business ends, were not invented until the end of the 18th century. I don’t believe they were available to Anglo-American woodworkers much before 1800. And it would be a few decades into the 19th century before folks figured out how to mass-produce them efficiently in the versions we find today at flea markets and tool-swap meets.

Before their invention, “auger” was the term used for a range of different and often T-handled tools, dating from at least as far back as the Middle Ages. Some may have been twisted – but perhaps only once or twice if at all.

Spoon Bits
Spoon bits are hollowed semi-cylinders that were made in different forms for various jobs or trades. The best-known spoons are probably those used as chairmakers’ tools. Their blunt, rounded ends allow them to penetrate turned legs deeply, maximizing the tenon length. They are typically short (only a few inches long) and limited to the sizes required for chair work; that is, they are typically not much larger than 5⁄8″ in diameter.

Blog: Read Adam’s Arts & Mysteries blog.
In Our Store:The Arts & Mysteries of Hand Tools” on CD, updated through June 2013.

From the October 2013 issue, #206
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