The Best Basic Hand Tools for Woodworkers

Building non-electrical woodshop tools, including a basic brace, auger bits and adjustable mouth block plane.

| June/July 1995

The average construction site is full of hard-working men and women sweating over their craft while attached like marionettes to the electrical grid. You'll see them waving thousands of dollars worth of candy-colored power tools over their work, while trailing miles of copper gossamer back to the nearest generating station. Ask one of them to drill an oak plank two inches beyond the reach of their longest extension cord, however, and they become as productive as a three-year-old bruising grass with a toy mower. Those that quick-draw a battery-powered tool in response to such a challenge will lose their snugness after the tenth or eleventh hole.

We seem to have forgotten what some of history's best craftspeople had no choice but to understand: The right hand tool, with a generous application of human muscle and skill, does the job quickly and well. A hand tool is on intimate terms with the material it works in ways that a shrieking, wood-shredding, finger-risking power tool cannot approach. Despite the trend toward "more power," a hand tool is always a cheaper—and often more efficient-alternative to the plugin come—latelys. I've equipped my own toolbox with a few secret weapons that make me a more productive, perhaps even more graceful, worker than my plugged—in partners.

Brace and Bit

The need for a board to pass daylight is fundamental in construction, and nothing bores kilowatt-free holes through wood better than a brace and bit. Originating in fifteenth century Europe, shaped like a set of handlebars, the modern carpenter's brace with spring-loaded split jaws and ratchet was introduced in 1864. By pushing on the brace's pivoting "head" end and turning the middle, the carpenter can rotate a cutting bit fixed in its "chuck" end continuously, and with tremendous force. A ratchet allows the brace to be used in close quarters where it can't be turned full circle.

Although a brace will accept any drill, an auger bit with a lead screw which pulls the cutting edge into the wood is most efficient. I always keep a few augers in the common sizes up to one inch in my toolbox, along with an expansion bit that can be adjusted to drill any size hole from one to three inch diameters.

Using a brace and bit is as simple as lining up the bit, holding the head steady in one hand—if possible against the body—and turning the brace with the other hand, as if cranking an old-fashioned ice cream freezer. Don't push on the bit, but allow the lead screw to feed the cutting edge into the wood. Take a few turns in reverse now and then to clear chips from the hole. To avoid splintering the exit, either back the work with a piece of scrap, or drill until the lead screw begins to break through, then finish from the other side.


A pushdrill is ideal for fast, small holes, such as those you need for starting screws and nails. It uses a spring-loaded spiral shaft to rotate special "drill points" when you apply a downward pressure to the handle. When released, the handle springs back, ready for another cutting stroke. A carpenter hard at work with a pushdrill looks like he's churning butter. Since its bits are stored in the handle, my own pushdrill imparts an aura of organized efficiency to my efforts. Onlookers no longer catch me rooting through 50 pounds of tools looking for a tiny twist drill. There is absolutely no trick to using a pushdrill; extend your forefinger along its shaft as a guide, start slowly, then pump like you're rubbing two sticks together to make a fire in the Arctic.

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