What I wish I'd known before spending money on woodworking hand tools #2: Still more new or used... You decide.

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Blog entry by Dave Pearce posted 03-29-2011 08:35 PM 5034 reads 1 time favorited 3 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 1: New? Used? You decide. Part 2 of What I wish I'd known before spending money on woodworking hand tools series Part 3: Time, Money, Experience. »

This is the followup on my first posting concerning new vs. used woodworking tools.

Bits, Braces and Eggbeaters

Fortunately, for me, it wasn’t hard to find braces, either at flea markets, or antique shops. There’s a wide variety out there as well, so it’s not uncommon to find many variations of the same item. I’ve got several Stanley, Millers Falls, and Pexto models, and all of them have their good points. Since there were so many manufacturers, if you see one you’re unfamiliar with, spend some time researching if you’re looking for a particular feature. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I like to handle and inspect most of the tools personally before buying them, and I think that’s particularly useful when shopping for braces. Usually you’ll want to make sure the chuck turns freely and the jaws (if there are some) retract and engage without sticking. If not, the first question is, can it be cleaned and lubricated until it does? What about the pad and the handle? If these are cracked or worn, there’s a good chance you’ll want to replace them, unless the damage doesn’t interfere with use. You’ll find a vast array of chucks, ratcheting mechanisms, and sweep (or throw) sizes. The simplist form is nothing more than a wingnut or machine screw to hold the bit securely and no ratcheting feature. The more complex versions have four jaws and ratchet in either direction. I’d recommend buying several and trying them out. This is especially important because there are more than one type of bit these braces can take. And in some cases, only certain bits fit certain braces well. You might find that for some bits, a two jaw chuck has some slop in it and prefer to use a three or a four jawed chuck. Aside from the number of jaws, some of these chucks also contain some small springs to help retract and engage the jaws. I’ve never personally had to disasemble and fix one of these, but from all accounts I’ve read, be prepared for these to suddenly fly off in unknown directions never to be seen again. It would probably be prudent to find a diagram before attempting to service one of these, at least so you know what to expect. The sweep indicates how wide the handle swings during use. Think of it as the diameter of the swing. Larger sweeps allow for more torque and small sweeps allow for use in tighter quarters. Once again, my advice is to get a variety and try them out. It truly depends on what type of woodworking you do the most.

I’ve heard mixed reviews about new braces. In my area, I have no trouble finding good quality affordable antiques, so I’ve had no need to buy new. The good news is, there are still new ones to buy. Lee Valley, Woodcraft, and several other outlets carry new braces.

Bits are fairly plentiful in my neck of the woods and I’ve found a large variety of these as well. Straight shanked augers bits to spiral shanked, threaded centers, non-threaded centers, fluted and non-fluted, and even adjustable diameter cutters, there’s more to list than I know about. This is one item that I don’t mind buying used. Even the rusty ones, as long as they aren’t hopelessly pitted can be cleaned up with a rust remover and a buffing wheel in short order. My only advice is to make sure nothing is snapped off, chipped or broken, and they’re not bent (some you can roll from side to side on a flat surface and look for wobble), and you should be ok. The good news here is, they can usually be sharpened up and put to use quickly. There’s no shortage of information online about how to restore and use these, so I’ll leave the sharpening tutorials to all the others who’ve come before me. I happened across a very nice set of Irwin bits from an estate sale that even came with a nicely made wooden box. Just remember that some bits are marked in graduated numbers instead of fractional sizes like today’s drill bits, so it might take a little detective work if you’re looking for that perfect 3/4” auger bit. I’d recommend researching the different bits, anyway, because there are many different uses, you’ll probably want a few sets depending on what it is you like to build. I own a few bent bits, and the only remedy I have heard about was, just as with anything metal, if you heat it up enough it’ll become soft enough to bend. I haven’t had much inclination to do this, because I know sooner or later I’ll find another bit in that same size without the bend.

Eggbeaters, (or as some might remember them called, hand drills) top the list of the nice-to-have items for a hand tool woodworker. While not completely a necessity, there’s nothing more frustrating than your cordless drill running out of juice halfway through a job, and having to wait for a battery to recharge. Once again, I’ve found no shortage of these items in my area. Arguably, the finest ones were made by Miller-Falls, with Goodell-Pratt coming in a close second. Many have survived in decent shape. The same sort of things applies to eggbeaters as they do for braces, so remember to avoid ones with frozen or stuck chucks or parts and broken handles. Good examples aren’t too hard to find and you can even send one away to Wiktor Kuc at WK Tools, ( if you happen to want your grandfathers’ eggbeater restored to mint condition. Wiktor is highly recommended and does an excellent job. He also sells restored eggbeaters if you can’t find one you like on your own. I’ve had good fortune with my antique eggbeaters, a little oil and some light scrubbing was all that was needed to bring this handy tool back to life. The chuck seems to have no problem holding modern round shank drill bits. On the flipside, I’ve heard little about new eggbeaters, and I think it’s because most folks reach for the cordless drills before anything else. Traditional Woodworker ( carries new stock made in Germany if you’re inclined to research further.

I’d probably be remiss if I didn’t mention the “other” type of hand drill, the push drill/driver. Stanley’s Yankee drill is probably the most well known of all, and most frequently mentioned. Other than the one example I have, which works fine, I haven’t had enough experience with this type of drill to really comment about it. I love the gizmosity of these drills as devices but I’m not keen to take one apart for repairs. Mine is relagated to specialized tasks, rather than as a daily user, like driving or loosening a screw in the back corner of a deep cabinet where it’s hard to reach. I still think are interesting feats of engineering. I had a small ratcheting driver as a kid (I think my dad just let me “have” it) and for some reason they’ve always facinated me. If you can’t find used ones in good working condition, new push drills are available at Garrett Wade ( that are patterned after the Stanleys.

One last thing I’d like to mention about braces, bits, and hand drills is, I appreciate having lots of options in my shop. Like most people, I typically reach for my cordless drill or driver before I’d consider the hand tool alternative, just because I like the speed and ease of use that the modern equivilent offers. However, there are a few jobs that I’d choose differently. Drilling many holes through thick stock, while not impossible with cordless drills (or even corded) can be stressful on small motors. A brace, while arguably slower and more tiring, would save quite a bit of wear and tear on your power drills. Another good example is drilling angled holes for legs in a chair seat. Hand-driven braces, using the right bits can be “directed” in a given angle much easier than a hand-held power drill. Like I mentioned above, a tight fitting space lends itself to a push drill, when it’s too difficult to reach back and control a powered hand drill properly. And if I need to carefully drill a small hole in thin stock, often times I’ll grab the eggbeater first. I’m sure there’s other examples but, all in all, I like having the options to switch gears when needed, so I keep a few of each kind cleaned and ready for use.

Files and Rasps

First, I should probably differentiate metalworking files from woodworking files. I have dozens of used metalworking files from over the years and every antique shop and flea market I’ve ever been to has metalworking files galore to choose from. Woodworking files seem to be less prolific, but I’ve found more than a few. Metalworking files are harder and finer than woodworking files but regardless of the type, most old files I’ve seen for sale often look abused so I generally steer clear. Other than a few small files for sharpening my handsaws that I bought new, (which were inexpensive enough I had no need to consider the time and effort to locate these specialty files used) I save my money for other things. When I have needed a general metalworking file, I’ve found the Nicholson files at the local home stores perform well enough and are reasonably priced.

Now, if you happen to have the motherlode of used woodworking files and are determined to get some use out of them, besides missing teeth or being bent, the only problem you may run into is them being dull. I’ve heard, (but never tried) that if you soak a file in a bath of citric acid overnight, or maybe a little longer, the acid will etch out the teeth on the file and create a fresh edge. Essentially, the process eats the thinner steel away from the edge leaving a “new” edge. Once again, I’ve never tried this, so your mileage might vary. I’m sure there are tutorials on the Internet about it. I purchased several new files from Lee Valley on the recommendation from a magazine blog. These were Japanese style files, both rough and fine, and I’ve been quiet happy with their performance. As long as I store them carefully, I expect to get a lifetime of service from these tools. Even so, I’ve never found their equivalent in a flea market or garage sale, so buying new was the only option. I’ve used these files to smooth over the edges of cutting boards, bookends, and many other small projects in the past year, and I’ve been pleased with the results.

Rasps are another matter. Since they tend to have more aggresive teeth than a file, the chances of them being so dull they won’t do anything, is less likely. Generally, if the teeth are in good shape, even if there’s some light rust, a short overnight bath in some rust remover does a world of good. I’m under the impression that the same thing with the citric acid bath applies to rasps as well as files, so even if yours is too dull for your liking, there’s hope (Once again, never tried it, personally). One thing to note: Eventually, an acid bath will eat up a file or rasp until they’re useless, so I wouldn’t leave for vacation with one soaking. I don’t use rasps all that often, but I can surmise that if you carve alot of three dimensional objects or if you spend alot of time fairing curved objects, you would want a good rasp for quick, controlled stock removal. Finer rasps leave a better surface behind resulting in less sanding, so keep that in mind. If you plan on spending alot of time using rasps and want the absolute best, many people recommend spending the money and getting rasps made by Auriou. Lee Valley, Lie Nielsen, Tools for Working Wood, and I’m sure some others carry Auriou rasps and rifflers. If you’re not that serious about these tools and just want to test the waters, Kutzall, Nicholson, Gramercy, and a few other makes are available at more reasonable prices. That being said, I don’t think most people will have trouble finding decent used rasps. I have a couple of rasps I found at a flea market that, other than needing new handles, serve me just fine for now. I haven’t tackled a project that really required a lot of rasp work but if I ever delve further into that world, I’ll probably upgrade.

Spokeshaves and Drawknives

Spokeshaves seem to be one of those tools that you can find so many different kinds it’s hard to tell what to buy. Small, metal-bodied Stanley’s from days gone by often show up in antique malls and flea markets and the wooden-bodied versions crop up from time to time, as well. There’s combinations of wood and metal, and endless user-made versions, all in slightly different sizes. There’s so many configurations of throats, soles, and handles because it all depends on what type of work you want to accomplish. If you intend to make spindles, there’s a spokeshave for that. If you like to chamfer edges by hand, there’s a spokeshave for that, too. If you need one to help clean up the hollow of a chair seat, well you get the idea. My advice is to research what the common configurations are and decide from there if they fit your style of work. I have several small Stanley spokeshaves I picked up at nearby antique malls. Once the blades were sharpened they cut beautifully. I tend to appreciate the version with a small lever cap on the blade, I think it’s easier to adjust. That’s just me, however, and I found I don’t really need to adjust the blade that often once it’s set. Lie-Nielsen and Lee Valley have new spokeshaves available if your budget allows for it. From all the reviews I’ve read, these new spokeshaves are among the best made and usually recommended by woodworkers who use them day in and day out. Kits and plans to make your own wooden spokeshaves are prolific as well, so if you prefer to make your own tools you have some ready-made options. Some woodworkers swear by wooden spokeshaves and prefer them over their metal-bodied cousins, especially if they spend alot of time with the tool in their hand. Besides the fact that a wooden tool is generally less stressful on your hands, they prefer the wood-to-workpiece feel a wooden-bodied spokeshave gives them. I don’t currently have any wooden-bodied spokeshaves, so I’ll have to take their word for it. Antique metal-bodies spokeshaves are fairly prolific everywhere I’ve been, and even through online sources. I’d skip the damaged and rusty ones, unless you like to collect them. If they don’t have a decent blade, I personally pass those by as well. I’ve found more than enough good examples to choose from. As with most of my tools, once I start using it for more and more work, I’ll investigate some of the new ones more seriously. If you’re just getting started and don’t want to outlay alot of money until you’re sure you can’t live without it, investing in a few used spokeshaves is probably the way to go.

Drawknives are another tool that seems to have endless variations. From the width, depth, angle, and handle configuration, there are alot of combinations. I’ve found it not uncommon to see one-off blacksmith made versions as well. I’ve read more than one article that said skip the new stock and find a well made antique. The criticism is, the new ones are made with the wrong cutting angle, or their handles are awkward and unwiedly. Many people consider this tool to be more specialized than what’s normally found in the average woodworking toolkit. Whenever I’ve come across an article about drawknives, it’s almost usually by someone who is skilled in making certain kinds of chairs or items with similar parts. If I were just starting out, I would pay close attention to what these people recommend and go from there. I own an antique I purchased about three years ago. It was reasonable and in good condition, so the small amount of cash I spent was worth it. I spent some time reading a few tutorials on usage, and other than a quick sharpening, I haven’t invested alot of time and effort into this tool. I had a few small logs I was cutting up into usable pieces, so I used the drawknife to de-bark and shape them. It’s actually kinda cool to use, so I would say if you’re interested, hunt up a reasonably priced antique in decent condition and go from there.

Since I’m pretty much done talking about tools, my last post on the subject will lean toward a more philosophical nature on the subject…

Until then, enjoy!


3 comments so far

View BigTiny's profile


1676 posts in 3084 days

#1 posted 03-29-2011 10:00 PM

I’ve seen miniature push drills from some of the veneer supply companies to be used to put starter holes in scroll saw packets. They’re about the size of a fat fountain pen and take bits up to about 1/8 inch.

-- The nicer the nice, the higher the price!

View David Kirtley's profile

David Kirtley

1286 posts in 3194 days

#2 posted 03-30-2011 05:46 AM

The new Schroeder eggbeaters are nice. Also, the funny looking ones from Fiskars are not bad at all.

The wooden spokeshaves are generally low angle shaves. They can be really nice at times but there is a lot to be said for the metal ones.

The drawknives are really under rated. They are a really versatile tool. They quickly switch from dainty to monster wood eaters. Bevel up, they will take out wood nearly as fast as a hatchet. Bevel down, they will take off fluffy shavings. They also can skew in so many ways to handle unruly grain.

-- Woodworking shouldn't cost a fortune:

View Dave Pearce's profile

Dave Pearce

108 posts in 3869 days

#3 posted 03-30-2011 03:02 PM

Excellent info guys. It’s difficult to nail down all the possible manufacturers of new versions of these tools. I try to keep a bookmark when I find a new dealer online, but sometimes they just don’t show up in search results very well. Anyone else who has manufacturer info they’ve found for hand tools beyond the normal places, feel free to post them here.


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