Indulge me for a
moment if you will dear reader, for I would like to
tell you about an old friend. This friend came from
Sheffield, England nearly two centuries ago.
This friend, born in the
1850’s, serves as real window into the past, and a reminder
of simpler times. Even with its tremendous age it has never
let me down, and I shall be quite surprised if it ever does.
Who is this friend you ask. Why
it is a wooden brace of the type used to turn various boring
bits. And although I do not use it every day, when I do it
is a great joy to use.
I shall describe it to you
thus. It was manufactured so many years ago by Henry Brown,
or perhaps James Bee, though it may be impossible to know
for sure. You will find Bee’s mark on the chuck and Brown’s
mark on the pad.
The brace is made of the finest
English beech and has beautiful brass plates expertly inlaid
into the sides. The chuck is brass and is of early English
design, octagonal at the upper portion, delicately sweeping
down to round at the base. It has a push button release for
the bits; this push button itself is what carries the name
and trademark of James Bee. Originally this tool would have
included a set of square shanked bits carefully matched to
The pad at the top of the brace
is of lignum vitae and has a beautiful brass insert that
bears Henry Brown’s trademarks. This top pad is neatly
turned and even includes a concave recess underneath the pad
so that the craftsman’s fingers may curl naturally under the
pad and thus gain better control of the tool.
The base of the top pad is
fitted with a fine brass cap, as is the top of the brace
itself. A steel washer is set between these caps to allow
the smooth movement of the top pad as the brace is turned.
At the center of the brace, the
wood gracefully transitions from the nearly octagonal sides
to the side handle; which itself swells smoothly in the
center to better engage the hand. All this is by careful
design with the tool being meant for real use, not to be
hung as a trophy.
And now that you have a picture
of this fine tool, please allow me to tell you what makes it
special to me. For whilst I certainly appreciate the fine
craftsmanship that went into making this brace; that is not
what sets it apart for me.
What really makes it special to
me is its unequivocal connection to the past.
For me this connection to the
past is especially poignant, as for at least the last
fifteen years history has been my passion. In particular the
study of early tools and woodworking is very near and dear
to my heart. I cannot explain why the past has such a
powerful draw to me, but here is one possible thought. In
studying the past we can gain much wisdom, and lest we
forget the past we shall be doomed to repeat its mistakes.
When I look at an old tool or
antique of any kind I like to see what makes it tick. How
does it work, and why is it still working or why is it not
working. For instance, we have some 100-year-old doors in
our house that are holding up far better than the ones that
were made just a few years ago. Why? Sound frame and panel
joinery based on historical precedent! For you see,
connecting to, and studying the past can help us learn these
time-tested techniques. This in turn will make future
projects more successful and rewarding.
The old plated brace speaks
directly to these historical passions of mine. The handles
are gently polished from the many hours spent in an earlier
craftsman’s hands. Its beautiful soft brown beech, and
gently polished brass carry the many scars of tool chests
and jobs long past. Who knows what creations this old tool
helped to build so many years ago. Who knows how many
craftsmen have owned this old tool throughout its lifetime.
And who knows all the far-flung places this old tool has
What I can say for sure is that
it has been used, albeit carefully, over the many long
years. Why its very existence, and its good condition, lend
credence to the idea that it has been a treasured tool to
its many owners over the long years.
As the tool, so well polished
by hands long since gone, works smoothly now in my hands, I
truly feel the connection to the past. It is almost like one
was shaking hands with the craftsman from nearly two
centuries ago. And indeed much like a warm handshake, the
old brace’s beech handle gently warms in the hand, as it is
rhythmically turned round and round performing its simple
task. The smooth crunching sound of the bit steadily boring
into the wood, and the often sweet smell of the fresh
shavings only serve to further bring the past to life for
It is as much about the process
as it is the product, and each creation from my hands
becomes a step on a long journey. It is my personal goal
that with each completed project I learn just a little more
of the craft.
Perhaps it is with the help of
the craftsmen long gone that this old brace always seems to
run straight and true. As one of my oldest, and most well
loved tools, this brace is a true bridge across the ages.
One that will one day be passed to a new generation of
craftsmen, and just maybe, they too will feel this
unequivocal connection to their ancestors.
Mountain City, TN