A Tale of Two Hand Drills | Popular Woodworking Magazine
 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Woodworking Blogs

Hand Drills

Buying vintage tools through the mail can be frustrating – and expensive if the seller does not allow you to return the item.

My favorite way to buy old tools is – hands down – in person and at a meeting of the Mid-West Tool Collectors Association. If you need tools and cannot buy new ones, join this fantastic organization and attend a regional meeting. Problem solved.

This point was made pointier this week when I had to replace my hand drill – I gave my old reliable one to a friend who didn’t have one and didn’t have access to a tool meet.

“No problem,” I thought at the time. “I’ll pick another hand drill up on eBay.”

Hand Drills

One of the multiple oil ports on the Millers Falls drill.

So I bought a nice Millers Falls drill for $20. Sweet cocobolo handles. Beautifully cast frame. It’s one of the models that everyone loves. And the seller said all the right things.

Yes, the chuck works and has its springs.

Yes, the chuck closes tight.

Nope, no wobble in gears. Runs smooth.

Of those statements, only one turned out to be true (the chuck’s jaws close up tight). The drill’s transmission was frozen. The chuck’s springs were nowhere to be found and the jaws flopped around like dead dolphins. I spent this morning trying to scavenge other bits from my parts bin. But to be honest, this drill is really ragged out. After cleaning and lubricating the oil ports and tightening things up as best I can, it still runs like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Hand Drills

The $6 Defiance Drill
While fixing up that Millers Falls drill, I had work to do, and so I picked up a Stanley Defiance hand drill that a fellow woodworker had donated to my students. The drill turned out to be surplus for the students, and so I sntached it in a pinch.

Two minutes with the drill told me it was a winner. Smooth transmission. Perfectly functioning chuck. Little or no wobble with the tight gears.

The chuck on the Stanley drill. It closes well enough.

The chuck on the Stanley drill. It closes well enough.

Yet this was one of Stanley’s low-end hand drills (model 1221). It has beech handles, one oil port and a basic chuck. What gives?

Likely it simply didn’t see much use and is still in a like-new and tight running condition – like finding a 1970s Honda Civic with 5,000 miles on it.

The Millers Falls, on the other hand, was used to death.

It’s a point worth thinking about as you buy old tools. Nothing beats picking them out in person. And sometimes the high-end tools aren’t the best ones.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 7 comments
  • Merl

    I’m willing to pay a little more to buy tools from an antique store, flee market or such for the opportunity to fondle before I buy.
    This is most important when buying something like a hand plane (especially a wooden one) where I need to make sure my hand fits the tote ( I have huge, fat hands ) and the tool must speak to me.
    If it doesn’t say ” Take me home and I’ll make you happy” then it really won’t .
    I have to pass up a lot of nice looking tools on ebay because they can’t speak to me.

  • sawyeredu

    I for one have had good luck purchasing tools on ebay. I also tune them and take photos of them in use. I won’t sell a tool that doesn’t work unless it’s stated so in bold print. There are a few of us who take pride in what they sell. I’m not trying to advertise here, but if you see a plane with full width shavings in the photos, and broke down into parts to show each piece. It could be one of mine.



  • tailwagger

    Buying stuff from non tool types is an adventure. I’m in Nebraska so outside of MWTCC type events, which only happen so often, buying vintage tools for me is usually by description and not by first hand inspection. So, I love eBay and Etsy. Things I look for:
    • Good seller feedback
    • Photos, lots of photos—I’ve gotten great at analysing photos and comparing those to research of the item
    • A good price
    • Returns accepted by seller is nice. I’d probably never go through with that, but the seller looks that much more honest

    Sure, I get a dud every once in a while, but rarely. I can usually always return an item, but for the cost of shipping it aint worth it. Still, I’m usually not out much, so I can never be too disappointed.

    While reading this blog entry I thought of a particular experience… I bought an older No. 5 hand drill (Type 10 circa 1921-1925) off Etsy from a non tool type. She didn’t know what it was, only that it was purchased and owned by her grandpa. That told me it was likely only used by one person who passed away a long time ago and the tool has just been collecting dust. She had great pictures, multiple pictures. I noticed the crank arm was double stamped. Wierd! That oddity allured me.

    I purchased and received the item. Turns out it had a McCoys Springless Chuck which is kind of a pain to use, but certainly functional. (I wonder if Chris’ could be a McCoy’s?) The rest of the drill was in fanstastic shape, and the double stamping makes it a conversation piece. But buyers should be aware of the springless chucks on MF hand drills.

  • Emma Anderson

    Nice Blog Post!

  • Mike Ramsey

    That’s why eBay makes me nervous. I bought a couple planes recently and lucked out but I’ve been screwed more than once on there.

  • tms

    …sometimes the high-end tools aren’t the best ones.

    Reminds me of a Stanley FourSquare 502 that I have that’s nearly as new. Second tier, but top condition.


  • gdblake

    I hope you took the time to warn other buyers that the seller is a lying scum bag.


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