Warning to parents: If your child becomes interested in working with wood, this may result in a variety of physical, social, and mental health consequences.

Your child will develop hand-to-eye co-ordination, learn manual skills, grow in self confidence, find expression for their natural creativity, develop problem solving skills, develop a greater appreciation for trees, reduce their dependence on electronic entertainment, build muscle strength, increase dexterity with their hands, become handy around the house in future years, and may even develop a lifelong passion for woodworking.

If this scares you, please leave this site now!!

Click here to view my other blog: The Joy of Wood.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Drilling holes - not such a boring task for kids!

Kids love making holes in wood. Recently I was running woodworking activities with kids in a festival situation. It was an opportunity for free creative play. There was a mountain of wood pieces to choose from, plus 7 benches, 20 hammers, nails, and a couple of saws - all there for kids to use to make their own creations. I also keep on hand a couple of braces and bits and a couple of hand drills. Like the saws, the use of the drilling implements is supervised fairly closely. In the pile of wood, were lots of small bits of dowelling. Each of the braces had a bit in it which corresponded with the two main dowelling diameters. The hand drills are used mostly to help with tricky nailing operations, or when a loose fit is needed (eg. Propellors on the front of a plane). However, any hand drill left lying around is quickly grabbed by some small hands and put to use - just randomly drilling holes! They love it, but small drill bits are readily broken unless the kids get some guidance and coaching. Fortunately the brace bits are a lot more robust.

About the Brace and Bit.
A brace with a bit in it.  
The first we know of the carpenters brace is from the Middle Ages. They appear in a number of paintings and woodcuts from Europe in the 15th Century. I understand there was also one found on the wreck of the Mary Rose. So they have been around for a while - but have been mostly unchanged for the last 150 years.
A pair of different braces - the one of the right is bigger and heavier.
Braces come in different sizes - the diameter of the crank sweep, the weight of the chuck and the crank, the weight of the handles, etc. In the picture above, the one of the left is lighter duty so is easier for kids to use.
There are a wide variety of bits for braces, with many different types, profiles, and sizes of bits - at times reflecting claims of new developments in technology in their day.  With kids I try to use the shorter bits - as the whole combination of brace and bit can get very long!

Note that all brace bits have a tapered square on the end, which fits the chuck.
 Pictured above, just a few of the brace bits commonly found. From the top down:
Gimlet Bit (also has a variety of other names);
Centre Bit;
Improved Pattern Centre Bit;
Wood drill or Twist Bit;
Short Auger Bit;
Auger Bit (small diameter),
Auger Bit (larger diameter),
Auger bit (of a diffferent pattern)
There are also many other types, plus things like screwdriver bits, countersink bits, and more.

Which bits are best for kids to use?
Using the criteria of ease of use and robustness, I would suggest the Centre Bits are the best for most applications when kids are using a brace and bit for drilling larger holes. The Improved Centre Bit takes the cake as it has a threaded centre point, which also helps to pull the bit through the timber under rotation. This is especially helpful if the kids are drilling into hardwood. They are short in length and pretty tough, but like all tools do not like to be dropped on their tips or points! The short auger bits are also really good for kids, and are better at staying straight doing deeper holes. They also have threaded centre points, which help.
I don't use gimlet bits, as they bend too easily. Length is a problem with standard auger bits, getting unwieldy for kids - hence my preference for the shorter versions.  The Wood Drill/Twist Bits are also pretty good, but not as commonly found in the flea markets and garage sales I frequent. Especially good in that size range between 1/4" and 3/8" - between the hand drill (max 1/4") and the centre bit (getting more fragile below 3/8").

Helping kids to use the brace and bit effectively.
Due to the overall length of the brace and bit, I usually get kids to use the tool in the horizontal position, rather than the vertical position. This makes it much easier for them to use. For example, they can lean into it and use their body weight to apply pressure. With their hands low in front of them, it is easier to rotate the crank. It works beautifully.
Horizontal use of a brace and bit, with work held in a vice. Cutting beautifully.

High vertical use of a brace - much harder to push and to hold the tool steady. Much more difficult.

Low vertical use of the brace. Workable because he can push down and keep the tool steady with his body.

Low horizontal use of the brace. Work held by a cramp and the tool steady and working well. 
The secret to kids successfully using a brace and bit is to hold the brace steady and apply enough pressure to keep the bit biting into the wood. The use of the body to both hold the tool steady and at the same time provide the required pressure is the best way of achieving this. Hence I have found that horizontal boring is the best way to do this. Of course this is usually made easier with the use of a vice and a sturdy bench.

About the hand drill.
The other main drilling option is the classic "eggbeater" style hand drill. These are good for smaller drill bits, up to 1/4 inch in diameter. These are lighter to hold than a brace, but also need to be used in a similar way to a brace - the top handle must be held steady and pressure applied to this top handle simultaneously.

Two hand drills - top one with 1/4 inch bit, bottom with 1/16 inch bit. 
 The problem with twist drills (the standard bits used in these hand drills) is that the smaller they are the more easily they break. With kids learning to use a hand drill, this can happen a lot! The trick is teaching them to keep the drill steady while winding the handle, and particularly to withdraw the bit without bending it. Keep winding forwards while withdrawing the bit in the direction of the hole - straight out. The smaller the bit, the more bits you will go through as they learn how to use the drill.

What to look for when buying hand drills.
If you want your tool budget money to go further, I reckon it is always best to buy second hand. Two reasons for this - they are much cheaper than good new ones, and the older tools tend to be much better quality than the cheap modern mass produced stuff. However, it helps to know what to look for. Some old tools are just plain worn out!

There's a few things to look for with hand drills:
1. The large gear drives either one smaller cog or two - which is best?
The single small cog models are prone to slipping. This can be very annoying at best and quite useless at worst. It is better to get the models with two smaller cogs. These do not slip and are generally much better quality.
Two differences: one has two smaller cogs (right), the other has one smaller cog (left). 
 2. Ensure the chuck is intact.
The chuck has three jaws, each held equally apart by the small springs which separate them in the base. Looking at the chuck partly opened, equal spacing will suggest all three springs are intact. If one is missing, there will be a much smaller gap between two of the jaws.

Nice even spacing of the three jaws - suggesting all three springs are there. That's important.
3. Ensure the shaft holding the chuck is not bent.
Give it a few revolutions with the handle, watching the chuck. If it wobbles around in a circular motion, it is only good for a few parts. If it sits there turning around straight and true, then it is a winner.

The life time and life skill legacies. 
 The hand drill on the right in the picture above (comparing two drills) is the drill that I was given when I was a child, about 10 years old. Before that I used one of my father's. That hand drill is still going strong. I expect to pass it on to one of my grand kids some day.

The knowledge and ability to drill holes is one of those life skills which make up the tools for sustainable living. If you can fix stuff which is broken, make stuff and modify things around us, build and connect stuff together, then you are empowered with a resourcefulness and ability to reduce your footprint on the planet. The ability to use the body's energy rather than fossil fuel powered electric tools is both very healthy and kinder for both the spirit and the planet. It also builds a greater appreciation for that wonderful organic renewable recyclable low-energy versatile material we call wood.

I was doing woodworking with a class of 24 pre-primary children recently. A boy was trying to work out how to attach a piece of dowelling to his wooden creation. Experience told me we would be unable to nail it on without the hardwood dowel splitting in two. I suggested we should drill a hole in it first, to accept the nail. He response was: "Wow, that will be noisy!" Expecting me to produce an electric drill, I brought out the hand drill. He had never seen one before, and was amazed when we drilled the hole with the hand drill. After that, he wanted to drill holes in everything!

When kids are using a brace and bit with me, parents are often heard to say: "My grandad used to have one of those in his shed! ... Is that how it works?!"

Revelation can come through life's simple pleasures.


  1. Thank you so much for this informative post. Just what I wanted to know!

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