Bit Braces

W. & S. Butcher


Woodworking with Jason Stamper


The Old Brace & Bit - an Exercise in Creative Writing



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 chuck.

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 visited.

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 me.

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.

Jason Stamper
Mountain City, TN
Email: jsstamper23@gmail.com
April, 2015


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