Chris Schwarz's Blog

A Visual Guide to Meat-Powered Drills

I like corded drills , as long as it’s an umbilical cord.

Actually, I do like my Makita corded drill for some things (mixing paint, for example). And I do like to use a battery drill when I have a heap of screws to drill and drive. But for most of my onesie-twosie jobs, I much prefer the meat-powered varieties of drills.

Now some beginning woodworkers get confused about what each boring instrument is used for. And, like people who buy a No. 1 plane all the way up to a No. 8 plane, they think you need all the tools to do good work. Not so.

Here are some of the common pork-powered drills in woodshops and their intended uses. I think you need one solution for small holes and one for big holes , though there is a lot of overlap and oddness ahead.

These little guys are , in their modern form , essentially a piece of wire that has been sharpened at one end and twisted into a handle at the other. Old gimlets were a drill bit mounted in a wooden handle. There are several flavors of gimlets (such as shell and wire-fret gimlets) but the vast majority are what we now call “twist gimlets.”

These have a small screw thread at their point that then changes into your typical drill flutes, which are designed to remove waste from the hole. The smallest one I have is 5/64″ in diameter, and R.A. Salaman’s “Dictionary of Woodworking Tools” says they were available up to 3/8″. That’s a gutload of gimlet.

I like the little suckers. They’re cheap. And they are handy when boring a few scant holes for nails when I’m toenailing the inside of a carcase. Do you want to use them for all your small holes? The answer is Socratic: Does your health insurance cover chronic wrist injuries?

Roy Underhill describes gimlets thusly:

“…(T)hey are a nuisance to sharpen, easily broken, kill your arm, and split the wood. Other than that, they’re great.”

Bradawls and birdcage awls are actually boring tools. They are ideal for making small holes in confined spaces. Or where you need a lot of control. I prefer the so-called bircage awl to the bradawl. The square shank of the birdcage awl scrapes a hole. The bradawl seems to mostly push fibers aside.

Hand Drills
These gizmos are what we call “eggbeater” drills and operate by turning a crank, which spins the chuck. After a 100 or so holes with a gimlet, these guys will seem like your best friend. They are, however, greatly limited by what size of bit they can spin. The biggest bit I can spin is about 1/4″ , which is good because that is as big as the chuck is on the typical hand drill. The bits get pretty small, the smallest one in my kit is 1/16″.

I’ve written a lot about hand drills, and I use them as much as I use my cordless electric drill. They have infinitely variable speed and torque. You can bore with immense precision by starting very slowly. They make a fun noise.

Look for ones that have a fully functional chuck , many are gummed up or the springs have sprung. And the side handle , sometimes called the “chef’s hat”–  is a great place to hang on while you ride.

The hand drill is, to my eye, the more evolved member of the bow-drill family. This primitive form goes back to Egypt (at least). A stringed bow wraps around the shaft of the drill. Move the bow forward and the bit spins. Pull the bow back and it spins backwards. I’ve used them. There’s a good reason that it looks like a Native American way of making fire.

Archimedean Drill

These tools are generally for small holes, sometimes very small holes. the shaft is a spiral. By moving the head up and down, the drill spins. They work, but their job has largely been supplanted by the hand drill. However, the technology lives on in the spiral screwdrivers that old-school carpenters and woodworkers still use , the spiral is just typically hidden by a steel sleeve.

To make bigger holes, there are different tools:

Breast Drills
These are the bigger cousins of the hand drill and work on the same principle. However, instead of being topped with a handle, they have a breastplate. This makes them ideal for drilling big holes while holding the drill horizontally. It’s more of a home construction tool. I own one, but it’s mostly for the kids to play with. I have yet to find the woodworking job that made me glad I had spent $5 on the tool.

The Brace
This crank-based tool is one of the most widely used boring tools in the woodshop. I’ve had one since I was a kid. With this tool you can do a remarkable range of work. If Ronco had been around in the 15th century, they would have made one of these tools. Not only do they bore holes , a typical 13-piece set of bits is 1/4″ to 1″ , but they are good for countersinking and driving screws. You can ream holes with them. Make round tenons. Create plugs. There are even special bits for reaming out the ends of trees so you can join them end-to-end into one giant floating raft.

Typical woodworking sizes of the brace range from a 6″ throw (for wussies) up to the 14″ throw (for those with gorilla arms). The most typical sizes are the 8″ and 10″ throw. The bigger the brace, the easier it is to turn the big bits. But you need more clearance. And you need to make sure you don’t punch yourself in the liver.

They come in an almost infinite variety. There are all manner of nutty chucks. Crazy pads and handles. Byzantine ratcheting systems. Be sure to hunt down the rare Whimble brace. Not to buy it. But to wonder at it.

There are some jobs that the brace will do that will poop out a cordless drill or cook a corded one. Whenever I bore the dog holes in my workbenches, I use a brace. I think you should get one, too. But don’t buy a new one. I’ve only seen stinky ones (including one with three jaws. Why?).

Do you research at Sanford Moss’s site, save up $5 or $10 and go buy one.

Another old-school way of making big holes was to use an auger, which is essentially an enormous gimlet. There is a big bit with a big wooden T-handle. Many of the handles could accept a variety of bits. Augers work extremely well, though you really have to use them vertically, which isn’t always an option in a shop.

I have some augers and break them out occasionally, though I much prefer my brace(es).

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some ways to make a hole (drips of water plus 10,000 years, pump drills, pillar drills, Passer drills), but these cover most of the tools I’ve had experience with. I think most woodworkers can get by with one tool for small holes and one tool for large holes. For me, I like the hand drill for small holes and a 10″ brace for big ones.

– Christopher Schwarz

14 thoughts on “A Visual Guide to Meat-Powered Drills

  1. Joe Kube


    I think you’ve got the braces backwards. The greater the swing; the easier to turn. Leverage,you know.

    I love my braces, breast drills, egg beaters, and push drills. The madness started when I bought a brand new Millers Falls model 2-01 over 40 years ago. Now I have…well let’s say it takes more than two hands to count ’em.


  2. Gordon Conrad

    I regularly use my No 2 and No. 5 eggbeaters for small holes to start a nail, screw or brad. For 3/16 and up to 1-1/4 inches I will use a brace and bit unless I am lazy, then the tailed tool comes out. I have a variety of braces available and most won’t cost you $25.00 even with shipping. Email me at if interested.

  3. Michael Faurot

    Another thing to look for with hand drills (egg beaters) is that the chuck will actually hold a bit centered. The first one I bought would not. I guess the chuck was just too worn.

    To test things, put a bit in the chuck and then point the drill at yourself, as if you were going to bore a hole in your forehead. Now turn the handle and look at the tip/end of the bit as it spins. You’ll know it if the bit isn’t centered.

  4. Christopher Schwarz


    I think you might be reading it a little differently than I intended. Try eBay. Join the Oldtools listserv. Patience pays. Impatience costs.

    Still, $25 is a good price for a lifetime brace.


  5. Dano

    [i]Do you research at Sanford Moss’s site, save up $5 or $10 and go buy one.[/i]

    Really? Just checked his site and the cheapest [least expensive, to be fair] brace is a Miller Falls #422 for $25.

    Is there a double-secret handshake for magazine editors that gets you better than half price? I suppose you were implying that these devices are inexpensive and thus worth the minimal outlay. I agree, but I should no better by now than to jump quickly to [insert antique tool dealer site] when someone posts, what I believe to be, a great price for this tool. Only to find out, yet again, that the price is exaggerated.

    As it happens I live in a state somewhat devoid of old tools. Unless I’m lucky enough to have the day free to travel a long distance to a sponsored, bi-annual "fair".

    I therefore rely on online tool dealers.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love my braces/eggbeaters and use them frequently,and might be tempted to buy a few more if they could be had for $5 or $10. Wish it were the case.

    I somehow feel, well, let down. ;^)

  6. Gye Greene

    Re: Breast drill — upon reflection, I think I ended up just leaning on it with my chest, with the work held horizontally. Worked pretty well, actually.


  7. Gye Greene

    Trying to drive larger-diameter (3/8”?) drill bits, and becoming frustrated — caused me to go off eggbeater drills in favor of cordless drills. Hadn’t really thought of there being a natural maximum (the 1/4” that you mention).

    The larger bits caused me to turn to a breast drill; used it as an oversided eggbeater drill: the longer handle gave me more leverage, and I also used the higher-torque gear configuration. However, the breastplate was a little uncomfortable to hold on to.

    I’ll have to give my eggbeater drills another go — but limiting myself to smaller bits this time.


  8. Ed Furlong


    Great summary. Like yourself I have examples of all but keep gravitating to braces. I find it very efficient to keep several braces set up for specific tasks. For example, I have a countersinking bit that lives in one brace. I’ve also found braces incredibly useful for driving those large screws that that just waste their powered cousins.

    A minor quibble perhaps, but I find my Standley Yankee push (Archimedes) drill one of my handiest hand tools. I reach for it more often than the eggbeater for small holes, perhaps because it fits in a pocket and I have one with a complete set of bits in the handle.

  9. Michael

    I loved the book "One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw" which gets in to drills. A good and short read for anyone in to tool origins with a side of Archimedes.

  10. Jeff Mummert

    Interesting post, I’m a history teacher at Hershey High School in Pennsylvania, and we (my History and Technology Club) have designed an archimedean drill and use it regularly. Ours is quite different, I wonder if the term is used for two different tools. Here’s some info on ours, as well as a SketchUp model, and a quick movie of a race between our archimedean drill and a brace:

  11. Steve

    I’m a big fan of Lee Valley’s chisel-point awl (item 05N60.01) for starting holes, which I then finish up with a (battery-powered) drill. Although they advertise it for use with softwoods, I find that it works very well as a hole starter in hardwoods, too. It gives the tip of the drill bit a place to settle into, so that the hole ends up where you want it.

  12. shadyb

    Ahh….drills….more drills……yep, gots me a drill problem I do. Still looking for a therapy group, but everyone just looks at me weird when I mention drills? How`s come iz that?

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