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How to sharpen a hand drill

Though my 12-volt cordless drill is always close at hand, I keep my brace and bit just as close. My brace and my augers allow me to drill deep holes in stout stock that my cordless drill struggles with. The brace also gives me more precision when boring to a certain depth because it’s easy to take things slow.

Plus , and I know I’m going to take some grief for this statement , I think it’s about the same amount of work to bore a Ã?¾” hole with a brace as it is with a cordless drill. Sometimes we forget that electric drills require a fair amount of strength to control when drilling sizable holes.

The only real trick to using a brace and bit is to learn to sharpen the augers (it’s easier than filing your fingernails) and to get a decent used brace. Please don’t buy a new one. I have yet to find a new brace that is anything more than a shadow of the vintage ones.

I’ve used a lot of braces in my lifetime , it was the only tool my father and I had for boring bolt holes in joists when we were building our houses on our farm. And I have a few favorite brands that have good chucks and a smooth ratcheting action. Here’s the best news: The very best braces ever made can still be found for about $10 at flea markets, tool swaps and (if you shop with care) on eBay.

By far, my favorite brace is the North Bros. Yankee 2101A brace. It is the Mercedes of the brace world. I first got my hands on one at my grandfather’s house. He worked for Western Electric and the Yankee 2101A was standard equipment for Western Electric/Bell System employees who installed phone equipment. He had one that he used around the house and in his woodshop. That first brace spoiled me.

What’s so good about it? Lots. The alligator-style chuck jaws close tightly and quickly on square-shanked auger bits or round-shanked twist bits. The ratcheting chuck runs like a top. The ratcheting chuck is a nice feature on high-end braces. The ratcheting allows you to work up against walls and to use your arms in tight spaces or more efficiently (some motions with a brace are more tiring than others). You can run the ratcheting either in forward or reverse, just like on a ratcheting wrench.

Most ratcheting braces have a fairly coarse ratcheting action. Each click shakes the tool. The North Bros. brace, however, is as smooth as silk and is quiet, like the ticking of a fine mechanical wristwatch.

All the knurling on all the parts is quite fine. The pad at the top fits tightly and rotates smoothly. I even like the handles, which are some sort of rubber or composite. They are very durable and comfortable. I’ve bought about a dozen of these in the last five years, usually for $10 to $20. They’re fairly common in the used market. (Just look out for the ones marked “Stanley.” After Stanley took over North Bros., a Philadelphia company, the quality declined.)
How to file drill bits
I’ve fixed up all of the braces (they didn’t need much, usually just a cleaning) and have sent them out to other woodworkers or tool aficionados as gifts. I have other brands that I really like as well, including Peck, Stow and Wilcox. If you want to read more about braces and the manufacturers, I recommend Sanford Moss’s excellent site: SYDNAS SLOOT. Sanford also sells a lot of braces, so if you’re looking for one, he’s a good man to know.

About the Augers
Once you get a good brace, you need to sharpen the auger. It’s simple work with an auger bit file. An auger bit file is a file with two arrow-shaped ends. On one end the faces of the tool have file teeth, but the edges are toothless. On the other end of the tool, the edges have teeth but the faces do not. These sections without teeth are called “safe edges” and allow you to file in localized areas. You can get auger bit files from a wide variety of sources for less than $10.

When you sharpen an auger (or any tool), the less you sharpen it, the better. If you file aggressively you’ll only ruin the cutting geometry of the auger and it won’t cut butter. There are two places you need to file: the cutting lip and the inside of the spurs. Anyplace else that you file will probably make things worse.
How to sharpen brace bits
First work the cutting lip. The lip levers out the waste and pushes it up the flutes. Put the auger point down against some scrap and gently file the lip. Mimic the existing edge geometry; secondary bevels won’t help you here. I’ll take four strokes or so until the lip gets shiny. Then I stop.

The spurs score the rim of the hole and allow the cutting lip to lever the waste up cleanly. File only the inside of the curves. The filing motion is more complex because the spur is vaguely football-shaped. As a result, I like to clamp the auger upright in a vise. Again, mimic the existing edge geometry and gently file the entire surface of the interior of the spur.

Don’t file the outside of the spur. Bad things can happen.

If the lead screw of the auger bit gets clogged you can clean it out with dental floss. Other than that, there’s not much to maintaining your auger bits.

Once you’ve sharpened up your first auger, try making a hole with your brace in some scrap. A sharp auger will beaver through wood at a remarkable rate. And then I think you’ll be hooked.

– Christopher Schwarz

Sharpening hand drills

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Showing 5 comments
  • James Carpenter

    In trying to figure out what tools to purchase as a present for my 6 year old nephew. Combining information from various places I have the following list so far.

    I look forward to any feedback you or your readers may have. Might make a good blog entry. 🙂

    Current Tool List:
    * 6" or 8" sweep Millers Falls 30 series brace with improved barber chuck without ratchet.(Stanford Moss suggests a ratchet will likely add too much weight. Unfortunately, this knocks out the North Bros. brace mentioned here.)
    * A nice complete set of auger bits appropriate to the bit brace.
    * An auger bit file appropriate for sharpening the auger bits.
    * Miller Falls No 2A Hand drill. (Maybe
    a new $20 Schroeder Hand Drill with 1/4-Inch)
    * Better quality small woodworkers’ vise (mount into child sized workbench)
    * Coping Saw
    * Well made Ryoba or Dozuki Japanese pull saw, or an appropriate set.
    * Appropriate small hammer (likely a 225g Japanese Octagonal hammer) (reader thoughts?)
    * Small crow-foot for removing small nails. (skip if hammer has crow-foot)
    * combination square
    * tape measure
    * Surform tool (Is this the best choice?)
    * Assortment of slotted and Phillips screwdrivers
    * Assortment of small pliers
    * possibly a few books (or just recommend to other adults in the family)
    * child safety glasses
    * Nice set of appropriate portable toolboxes. This will either be a smaller suite-case style toolbox(s) with wheels, or a few small hand carried toolboxes small enough for my nephew to carry.
    * wood glue
    * rubber bands

    Roughly speaking, the items higher on the list are better candidates for a used purchase than a new purchase.

    Related Links:

  • Christopher Schwarz


    More important than the make is the size. I think a smaller throw would be best. An 8" brace would probably be right. Most clean (not rusty) braces that function well are going to last several lifetimes.

    As to bits, the standard set is 13 sizes from 1/4" up to 1" or so.

    Same goes with the eggbeater drills. Brand isn’t as important as function.

    My recommendation would be to buy from someone who knows their stuff and stands behind it. I have two recommendations:

    Walt Quadrato at Brass City Records and Tools.

    And Sanford Moss:

    Both are honest men I dealt with for many years. Their prices are very reasonable. And they will be eager to help you.

    Kind regards,

  • James Carpenter

    What make and model of used bit-brace and bits would you recommend for a 5-6yr old boy? I’m less worried about aesthetics than function and price. If one can find them, most "childs" tools are so poorly made as to be worthless. In my opinion, any child’s tool should at least be good enough to last until the child is into high school if not a lifetime.

    As per your blog entry, its very easy to find bit braces (and egg beater drills) on e-bay. The problem is I can’t tell the size and as I am not an active woodworker I don’t know makes and models.

    Can you please identify a few bit brace models as well as bit collection recommendations which are readily available on e-bay or similar yet are small enough to be easily handled by a 5-6 yr old boy?

    Can you do the same for the egg-beater drills? I noticed you liked the miller falls egg-beater drills, but what size is best? (Is a 1/4" chuck the right size?)

  • Guy E. Miller

    Great article! My dad was a carpentar and I recall the braces he used on the jobs 50 years ago, I loved boring holes with them. I recently purchased a vintage craftsman brace in excellent shape but am having a hard time finding auger bits for it….any idea where I can find them? I’m especially interested in a 7/16 for boring tap holes for maple syrup.



  • lee

    I, too, am a brace and bit affectionado and appreciate the finesse achieved with these fine tools. It’s a shame that they are not used and appreciated by more tradesmen. You note I address them as tradesmen, never craftsman. A craftsman knows and uses his tried and true tools as they were designed.

    Now: I must thank you for the lesson and photos regarding sharpening bits. If you have additional tips on that important issue, please share them.

    Thanks for a great read.

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