The Primitive Wooden Brace

by Ron Pearson
(originally published in The Tool Shed, Number 93, September 1996)
One of the more intriguing, as well as frustrating, areas of brace collecting is the "Primitive" wooden brace. The wooden braces that I have encountered show a great deal of ingenuity and artistry in both design and construction. The frustration is that these tools are rarely marked and, therefore, often impossible to identify as to time or place of origin.
The majority of the early wooden braces employ the use of "Bit pads," where the bit is embedded in a removable segment of wood which is then mounted in the chuck end of the bitstock. These bit pads are secured to the bitstock by several methods, the most common being the simple tapered square pad which fits into a corresponding tapered square hole in the chuck and is held by friction.
A good example of this design is the brace (Figure 1) from the James Wilson chair factory in Taylorstown, Pennsylvania, circa 1840. As you can see, multiple pads were made up to accommodate a variety of bits and other attachments, including a tenoning device. This brace, by the way, came from an auction of the contents of the long-defunct chair factory in Taylorstown back in the 1980's. It is not marked. The brace is in almost new condition, whereas the pads are well-used. This suggests that Wilson made several braces to accept the same bit pads, replacing the braces as their efficiency was destroyed by wear or damage.
Another method of retaining the bit pad in the chuck is the use I of a simple thumbscrew, either wood or metal. The tangs of the pads are usually square, though not necessarily tapered. The brace in Figure 2 is fitted with a wooden thumbscrew. The round tip of this screw engages a corresponding depression on the tang of each pad. This brace came from a farm auction in Warren, Penn. and is styled along the lines of the Sheffield braces. Whether or not the brace was made there is unknown.
The brace in Figure 3 uses a nicely forged iron thumbscrew to retain the pad. This brace is very artistically carved, with gracefully curved arms. The ironwork is all beautifully handforged. This brace came from Virginia and has no maker's marks. One question that arises with braces such as this is, "Why did the maker use curved arms?" Other than artistic interpretation, there appears to be no satisfactory explanation. It has been suggested that the curved arm increases the amount of torque transmitted to the bit. Not so.
A less commonly found method of bit pad retention is the "Clothespin" pad. Here, the tang of the pad (Figure 4) is divided (carved and/or sawn) into two parallel arms, each of which has a lateral ridge at its tip.
This tang fits into the square chuck of the brace (Figure 5). The tang arms compress together to allow insertion, then spring into position to secure the pad. To remove the pad, the protruding tips of the tang are squeezed together. This brace also has curved arms.
A fourth method of bit pad retention employs the use of the screw concept. The tang of the bit pad is threaded; the chuck is provided with corresponding internal or female threads. At first blush, this method appears to be overly elaborate. However, once the threading tap and die have been made, the creation of the pads should be relatively easy. The drawback is that the brace can only be used with a clockwise motion. Otherwise, the pad would unscrew. Shown here are two braces that demonstrate this design.
The first (Figure 6) is a brace with fourteen such threaded pads. The configuration of this brace suggests that it was made in the eighteenth century. The bits mounted in the pads have flat tangs indicative of European or Scandinavian origin.
The second brace (Figure 7) is handcarved with a rare scallop design and also has a threaded pad and chuck. It, too, is believed to be eighteenth century and European in origin.
An unusual variation of the screw-type pad was used in the construction of the brace shown in Figure 8. The pad itself is threaded, but the chuck is not. Instead, a threaded wooden nut (shown disassembled) is employed at the upper end of the chuck to engage the protruding tang threads, thereby locking the pad in place. Again, the arms of this rather crudely made brace are curved. In spite of the number of such examples shown in this article, this is not a common finding! By the way, this brace is dated "1751" on its upper arm.
At least two braces in my collection have spring-retained bit pads. The first example (Figure 9) has a relatively large iron spring built into the wall of the chuck. This spring engages a slot in the tang of the bit pad (Figure 10) and is actuated by an external button on the chuck.
The second example (Figure 11), although appearing to be handmade, was actually manufactured in Austria as late as the beginning of the twentieth century. In this case, the steel spring protrudes from the upper end of the chuck opening and has an inward deviation within the chuck to engage a notch on the tang of the bit pad.
Figure 12 shows a rather unusual brace which is one of my favorites. It almost appears to be a forerunner of the English Sheffield-style braces which employ a metallic chuck that accepts a square taper tanged bit. The brace is quite large in comparison to the usual primitive brace, measuring 20 inches in length without the bit. The body of the brace was made from bird's-eye maple; the head was made from what appears to be a maple burl; the ferrule below the head was created from cow horn and the chuck was fashioned from pewter! The bit is retained in the chuck by means of a spring mechanism which engages a notch in the tang of the bit and is actuated by a button on the side of the chuck.
Of course, primitive wooden braces were made with bits permanently attached. The brace shown in Figure 13 is called a "Crooked stick" brace. This example was made from a naturally curved limb of a cherry tree. The head is also crudely made from cherry. The bit is handwrought. The chuck end of the brace is reinforced with a blacksmith-made iron band to prevent splitting the wood from the torsional stress on the bit.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, it is often very difficult to date primitive wooden braces. For example, such braces have been found in third world countries and may have been created and used well into the twentieth century. The brace shown in Figure 14 was found on a farm in Cranberry, Pennsylvania. It is obviously very crude, its appearance suggesting a very early origin. The bit is roughly hand forged and is held in place by means of a leather wedge. However, the maker/owner marked this brace, "Pat'd 1890." He probably couldn't afford a newfangled, store-bought patented brace, so he created his own.
As you can see, braces, especially the primitive varieties, hold a particular fascination for me. I hope that I've instilled a little of that fascination in you, too