View Full Version : The Incredibly Versatile Sweep Brace

Bob Smalser
10-20-2004, 02:12 PM
Here's an article we’d like (for Gaff Rig)…how to use a brace with a long ship’s auger, for instance, to bore through a deep keel at a slight angle without the hole breaking through the side. For most of us, the problem is holding the brace and bit true so that our drilling is straight…a lot of folks would like to use hand tools, if only someone would show them how. Regards, Jim. http://pic3.picturetrail.com/VOL12/1104763/5457882/70304708.jpg

My pleasure, Jim. I can’t think of a more multi-purpose tool than the ratcheting, reversible sweep brace, once present in almost every household…and because of that, nice ones are often under 10 dollars today complete with bits. Boring clean, accurate holes with ease, taper reaming those holes, screw driving and countersinking, cutting round tenons, and pointing spokes, the brace still holds a prominent place in the tool kits of chair makers and boatbuilders today because it still does some tasks much, much better than machines.

Braces came with different patented chuck designs and ratcheting mechanisms, and in different sizes and configurations. The most common sizes available have 6-inch sweeps, 8-inch, 10-inch, 12-inch and even 14-inch, the 10 being the most common. They are so inexpensive today, that there is no reason not to have two or more in play for a given task rather than bothering to change bits. In addition to an 8 or 10-inch, a larger 12 or 14-inch brace is handy for those occasions where more torque is required. So is the joist or right-angle brace for use in confined spaces.


Shown are some varieties of chucks commonly found, all of them with two spring-loaded jaws. The Stanley joist brace on the right has a chuck that comes off with a setscrew, but the others just screw off. The late model Miller Falls at center left is the beefiest design. The unmarked one to its right has lost its spring, and I’ve fabricated a replacement from music wire. The 2-jaw chucks are designed for 4-sided augers and accessories, but also work reasonably well with modern 8-sided screwdriver bits in longer lengths. Today, there are boatbuilder suppliers who carry magnetic bit extensions for the brace designed to hold those interchangeable, quarter-inch 8-sided bits.


The lead screw auger bit still has a place in modern shops. A low-friction design that pulls itself into its own hole, little pressure is required to bore even the deepest holes, and combined with the short joist brace offers options for tight spots not available elsewhere. It’s also the easiest tool to sharpen in the shop. A tapered auger file is used to put an edge on the inside (never the outside) lips that serve as nickers…


…and both main cutting edges of the bit.

I’d prefer to show Jim some examples of use in boatbuilding, but I don’t happen to have a boat in the shop this fall. I do have a custom concert stool of Bigleaf Maple I’m making for a choir director with a bad back, however, and if y’all don’t mind, it’ll demonstrate some capabilities of the brace even better.


Nothing out there bores an angled hole single-handedly as well as the brace, because it is slow enough to make corrections as you go and still result in a clean hole. Sure, I’ve also done plenty with long bell hanger’s bits in electric drills and a helper sighting from one side while I both drilled and sighted from the other, but like all conventional machine bits, there is always the risk of the bit wandering in inconsistent grain and the exit hole not being perfectly centered. That’s not as much of a problem with an auger, either used by hand or power…and the older, used Irwin and other maker’s bits designed for the brace and a bit extension are much easier on the wallet than a new ship’s auger. The bit extensions designed for the brace take some searching, as many antique tool dealers don’t know what they are…but because of that are equally inexpensive.

Here I’m using 8” and 12” bevel gages as indexes to bore a hole angled for 6 degrees of splay on one side and 11 degrees of rake on the other. I’m using the larger 12-inch brace for power. You can also see penciled sight lines based on the resultant angle of rake and splay… 5-dollar words that mean besides the bevels, I also align the centerline of the brace up with a separate line laid out on the work piece specifically for that purpose. You can do the same in other situations by tacking a batten or yardstick to the workpiece to serve as an index. I simply run the lead screw in my center-punched mark until the nicker lips bite, take my angles, and bore until the lead screw protrudes slightly from the opposite side of the work piece, sighting down my pencil line as I am boring and stopping occasionally to double check my accuracy using the bevels.


Then I flip the workpiece, circle my lead screw holes with a pencil so I don’t goof and begin in the wrong place, and counter bore using the bevels to achieve the same angles so as to make a perfectly clean hole with no chip out.


Next I use a tapered chair maker’s reamer to ream the holes for mating with the tapered, round, wedged tenons, using the same care to keep the angles correct as I used when boring the holes. These reamers generally have two identical cutting edges, and are used both clockwise and counter clockwise to even the wear on those cutting edges. These tapered and wedged round tenon joints are self tightening, allowing air-dried wood to be used for the legs so that cooked, dryer wood can be used for the stretchers…also self tightening as the air dried legs shrink when brought into central heating.


The tenon cutter acts as a rotary plane to quickly turn a spoke shaved stretcher end into a uniform round tenon that fits its bored mortise.


Bob Smalser
10-20-2004, 02:14 PM

I always cringe a bit when I see teachers like Norm running screws home in an important application using a power driver. Sure, I do that too in many instances in general carpentry, but never in a critical application like boat planking, furniture carcasses or hinges. The torque limiters on even my best electric drivers can never accommodate the minor changes in grain density that always result in a percentage of over-driven screws, causing crushed threads that lack full strength and rot more quickly. I certainly run them in using a power driver, but I always seat them home by hand twisting the last couple turns, either with my big Yankee or with the brace. Much as I like the North Brothers and later Stanley Yankee push drivers, it is impossible for me to seat more than a few dozen screws without carpal tunnel pain, and it’s on big jobs where the brace excels.

The brace is also the best tool by far to remove those screws when the time comes, as it combines massive torque with the sensitivity required to break any rust bonding without stripping the slot. Carry along a separate, unmounted bit and 8oz hammer to give that rusted screw’s slot a good rap before trying the brace.

Here I’ve changed to the more sensitive 10-inch brace and a Phillips bit to seat the steel #16 screws mounting the stool back post in their epoxied mortises. I did bore the pilot holes using an electric drill and a tapered drill-countersink bit. Also shown are the wax I use to lube the screw threads before driving and the walnut bungs I’ll use later to fill the holes.

I have a surprisingly popular class I take to Grade Schools occasionally where I lay out and explain a selection of “old-time” hand tools and proceed to froe and plane a chunk of log into a board with the kids’ help. Then the kids are broken into small groups and get to try all the tools under their teacher’s and my supervision. Their favorite tool? The brace and bit, of course. Mine too.

Oh…forgot…the purpose-built stool? Ain’t much, but it’ll fit the dais safely, blend with the tux, looks tippy but isn’t…and I suspect it will serve:


Dave B
10-21-2004, 12:00 AM
You are truly amazing! Your posts are always informative and fun to read. Not to mention the fact that I always learn something. Keep them up!

10-21-2004, 02:57 AM

Thanks for a great post! You've inspired me to buy a couple for myself. I checked E-Bay, and your right, they are cheap!

I didn't bid on any, as I'll be out of town fishing when the auctions finish (commercial shrimping.) But I will certainly do so when I get back.

Maybe you could do a thread on what tools every wooden boat owner should have in their tool box? If not for complete restoration, at least for basic maintenance.

Thanks again!

10-21-2004, 04:25 AM
Thanks again Bob, another one for the file

Andrew Craig-Bennett
10-21-2004, 05:15 AM
Thanks, Bob.

May I add a footnote? The joist brace, as illustrated by Bob, is a very useful tool to have, if you are doing the sort of boat work which involves pulling out and driving screws whilst perched in mid-air on scaffolding, which is a pretty regular event for many of us. Because you don't have to step off the scaffolding to get behind it!

Unfortunately, in Britain at least, joist braces are rare and correspondingly pricy - I have yet to pay more than five pounds for a regular brace (I follow Bob's advice and have a few about the place, rather than change bits often) but joist braces run at forty quid or so. Should be possible to convert a sweep brace to a joist brace with a little careful welding, though.

I am experimenting, and will report back!

[ 10-21-2004, 08:33 AM: Message edited by: Andrew Craig-Bennett ]

John Hastie
10-21-2004, 07:43 AM
Bob -

Great as usual. I noticed you didn't differentiate between a pole bit and auger bit.
Also, you might like to try the spoon bit for chairs.

I use my brace a lot. Sometimes it is the best for driving (and removing)screws as you mentioned.

I would love to see one your articles about fashioning tre'nails.

Keep it up Bob.


Bob Smalser
10-21-2004, 09:57 AM

From an electrician:

Yup. A brace is a good tool to own and use. A lot more versatile than most drills.
When I need to drill a hole down through a top plate into an interior wall, especially if it is a long and tough crawl getting there a brace would be preferred to a drill, cordless or otherwise.

A brace and sharp auger bit is lighter and handier than the drill and there are no issues with batteries going dead or the cord catching causing a return trip in an overheated attic. Also a boon on powerless job sites or where stretching a cord to drill a couple of holes is hard to justify. I can go through a double top plate in about 30 seconds and I can also feel the work which can help me avoid problems of hitting something I shouldn't of blowing out the side.
As an electrician a brace has advantages. Especially on service calls I am unlikely to need more than a hole or two and I am often drilling into unknown territory. With a large expansion bit, be sure to keep it sharp, I can often cut a 2-1/2" hole faster than the helper can get the cord strung and the angle drill out.

Where I need a lot of holes, small holes, holes in metal or I can't swing a brace, ratchet braces help but they take time, ####drill gets the nod but a brace can often do a lot of the work and do it faster and better than a drill.

Also on a crew where there is usually three drills: A big angle drive or spade handle, a lighter 3/8 unit and a 1/2" cordless drill, the power units get occupied. The brace fills the gap when you have to add a couple holes but you don't want to slow down the guy using the mass-production drill. Grab the brace and have at it instead of waiting. Options are good. From two shipwrights:

Them modern thingies is 6-sided, not 8-sided bits, and some newer braces have 3-jaw and even 4-jaw chucks for handling round bits.

More could be added on both bits and driving screws:

Russell Jennings style bits are double twist, as compared to the Irwin single-twist style. Most were made with fine lead screws to pull the bit through the wood more slowly, but they were available with medium and coarse lead screws as well.

Point out the proper size drivers for each screw size, removing the taper from the sides of
drivers that have that feature, ‘cause if you set a screw deep the taper will enlarge the counterbore and mess up the opening for plugs. Use the shortest shank on the driver that will work in any particular application is best for control ie: more torque, less cam out etc.

For boat work slotted screws are to be preferred with Reed and Prince or Phillips the next choice, Square Drive are nice but try to clean bedding
compound out of one! Slotted screws have more meat in the head that’s less likely to break during a hard removal. Best trick to clean screw slots is a propane torch with a crappy driver heated and inserted in screw slot to clean out gunk. Use a cheap 'home dump' screwdriver and cut off the steel shank and use pliers to hold the hot bit to insert in the slot.

[ 10-21-2004, 10:58 AM: Message edited by: Bob Smalser ]

Dan McCosh
10-21-2004, 10:32 AM
I don't even remember the last time I used a brace to drill a hole. On the other hand, I use it for a screwdriver so often I hardly touch the regular kind.

10-21-2004, 09:15 PM
Bob & others, that's a nice contribution on braces. I'll just re-emphasize a major good characteristic: they're the original CORDLESS drills. And I certainly agree that a brace/driver is far superior to a power drill for setting fastenings where the torque is critical, e.g., in planking. After using many, many Frearson, Phillips and squarehead screws, I've finally come back to good old slotted. The heads seem stronger (anyone ever done a test?), easier to clean for removal, and easier to remove. The others are just for guys who can't hold a screwdiver straight. And you only need one type of screwdriver bit!

[ 10-21-2004, 10:27 PM: Message edited by: Bayboat ]

Scott Rosen
10-23-2004, 10:42 AM
Nice post, Bob.

I would add that driving and removing bronze screws into hardwood (i.e., boatbuilding) is pretty much impossible without a brace.

It's one of my favorite tools. When I use it at the boatyard, I always get a lot of comments like, "I haven't seen one of those in years," or "my grandfather had one like that," or most recently a finish carpenter told me the last time he used one was in tech school about 35 years ago.