George Gets Boring

For more information on brace and bit, see our beginner site Common Woodworking.

One of my more senior apprentices was boring a 1″ hole every few inches as he made one aspect of a dog-leg element of a staircase string to receive some fanned out stair treads that went into the newel post. The posts were oak and George caught a glimpse of Ian struggling to get the bit to work on one or two intermittent occasions.

“Hey, Ian! Seems like you’re making hard work of that!” George tossed out. Ian persevered and muscled the brace harder. Each staircase had half a dozen such holes 5/8″ deep. After a while George threw down the gauntlet. “Get some oak together 1″ thick. I challenge you to duel of brace and 1″ bit in the morning at 8am. Fastest through wins and slowest buys in the cream cakes.” Ian rose to the challenge, “You’re on.”he said.

“George!” I said, “That’s a lot of cream cakes if you lose. Cost you a bomb!” I said.

“No, it’s to teach him a lessen he should have learned and one `i am going to teach you now.”

When Ian left George pulled out his 1″ bit. It was clean and seemed sharp. He also pulled out a fine saw file. The finest I had seen. Positioning the bit at an angle on a block George taught me the basics of auger bit sharpening using the saw file. The bit cut into oak like butter. Amazing. I thought that we were done but George said, “Hold on. We’re not done yet.” From under his bench he pulled out some fine abrasive emery paper. He placed the emery paper onto a flat stick of oak 1/4″ wide and wet the two so that the emery stuck to the stick. A few strokes polished the four cutting elements. He used three levels of abrasive and they glistened. This was honing at its best.

Ian was there on time as were all of the men. George rolled up his sleeves and at the toss of a coin Ian won. With all of his confidence boosted by his boring holes in the newels Ian went to task. Best of three holes was agreed on. Ian broke out into a sweat as he swung that bracer handle. The holes were clean and fast and I wondered if George hadn’t bit off more than he could chew.

But my confidence in George was ever present. George took up his brace and swung into action with great attention. The first hole clipped of two seconds off Ian’s best time and the second and third were even better. Needless to say Ian lost and with lunch came cream cakes all round.

George kept his method between me and him. He equipped me for a boring life with every bit finely honed and tuned to cut pristinely. It’s all about accuracy you see.


  1. If Ian had said “George you beat me fair and square, how did you do that?”
    I’ll bet George would have told him and it would have been a inexpensive lesson about boring holes and how to work efficiently ( in spite of the humiliation) uh, what are cream cakes over there? Any chocolate on them?

  2. That’s really neat that going back through your book can bring back such personal memories. What that means to me is, yours is a book that you have put your heart and soul into – Many Thanks!

      1. That is the case but we are looking into how we can massage it as it is quite annoying.

  3. “First you have to be smarter than the machine”. A great piece of advice delivered my my future father-in-law Gerald, now passed… Advise I pause and contemplate as part and parcel of the design process in each project I attempt without fail. And, there is no failure, just abandoned at some point short of total perfection.

  4. Thank you for sharing your stories about George and your great wealth of knowledge. I own both of your books and hope there is a biography in the near future. Keep up the good work.

    1. I hope that a good biographer has been interviewing our Paul and maybe even begun the book. It will surely be a great read!!

  5. Paul, is there a minimum size auger that can be resharpened successfully? Once I get down to around 3/8″ or so, I struggle and don’t understand why. I think it’s just hard to get at the parts that need to be filed, even with a safety file.

    1. I know the feeling – but a small diamond file, such as the ones ladies use for their nails, does the job for me

  6. I wondered if you have ever used a dedicated auger bit file? or do you just use saw files? I don’t want to bore you with too many questions though, hope you don’t find that too boring.

    1. Not at all. I haven’t because I have never had an issue using just a small saw file.What I did do with some of my files, especially the small ones, is grind off the corners (the small flats on the corners that is; files have six faces not three as people think) so that they don’t cut. This reduces the cut on width and also allows me to size files for the small bits.

      1. Hi Paul your stories always take me back to my apprentice days….thank you.
        I have a good set of bits, well actually several sets going back to
        Pre-war flat bits…….having read your “George method” I will give them a tickle.
        Picked up last month ANOTHER brace….it’s due for a clean.
        My Stanley ratchet brace bought in 1967 for £2/10 (£2.50) together with a set of bits….then taught myself to use when replacing our stair newel post.

  7. I learned in my 20s to listen to older men when it came to doing things. They often had ways that were much more efficient.

    Interesting but not really relevant story. Back in my late teens, my dad and I were making homemade calabresse sausage that we were going to let cure in the basement (like my family had been doing for generations). We needed to debone 100 lbs worth of pork butt before we then used the human muscle powered meat grinder. This large scale work was always fun and a bit festive (wine, hard cheese, bread, cured sausage from prior year out to consume while we worked, Frank Sinatra music in background, etc). Our retired next door neighbor came over at one point to help us. He was a retired butcher. I think for every one pork butt we deboned, he did 4 or 5. It was pure joy watching how efficiently he worked. Plus, it was just fun talking to him.

  8. About a year ago I was cycling home (normal city bike, normal clothes) when I noticed an older gentleman riding behind me. I kept up my usual good pace, he kept up fine. After a few minutes he overtook me and in passing, we started conversating. He rode an inconspicuous bike and plain clothes, cargo shorts and a shirt, no lycra. His legs seemed pretty muscular and tanned.

    Said he rode 30-40 km every day, that he was in his late 70s, that he used to ride races a bit in his earlier days, even participated in a Tour de France once. As he said this I was thinking ‘yeah, sure, and I’m the Easter bunny’, but didn’t contradict him, he seemed a nice man. Asked him what year and he vaguely mentioned ‘somewhere in the 1960s’. A bit too vague to my liking, confirming my suspicions of him being a bit full of it. We rode together for 3-4 km, he had to be near to where I lived, he was going to visit his son in law’s store. As we parted I thought, what a nice gentleman, but a tendency to exaggerate. Participating in the Tour… sure. And that, I thought, was the end of it.

    But a few days later I was talking to a friend and mentioned this older gentleman who claimed to have participated in the TdF, mentioning I didn’t really believe him. When I mentioned where he was going, she said casually, ‘Oh, that must have been [insert name of famous cyclist], I know his son in law who runs that store.’

    When I heard the name she mentioned I was baffled…. Turned out he hadn’t been exaggerating when he said he had participated in a TdF. Actually, he did so several times. And he didn’t just participate but he was the very first Dutchman to ever win the Tour de France, in 1968….

    Moral of the story: never underestimate older men.

  9. Hi Paul – I have searched everywhere (well not everywhere – but in lots of places) for info on restoring/sharpening the snail on an auger bit – have you done any instruction or video on this?

    1. No because once the threads are worn or damaged to a point that they are no longer functioning it’s better to replace them.

  10. Would you sharpen up unused bits or are they proper initially from the factory? I suspect each one could be different. I came across an old Irwin set that was never used and a some seem to cut better than others fresh out of the box

  11. I helped build a playground a couple of years ago in out of thick larch boards which were pretty green. the main contractor was very much a power tool guy: but when it came to drilling holes through the 2″ thick boards, nothing he had was faster than the brace and bit

  12. I have an added item to my “to do” list. Sharpen bits.

    I will be purchasing wood for my soon to be 2 year old Granddaughters first Big Girl bed.

    I will be thankful for this remembrance as to the value of sharp bits.

    It is also time I build a proper work bench. I will be back to see you on that topic as well Paul.

  13. I agree the George stories are great and enlightening. I really enjoy your blog posts.

  14. At what angle is the bit blade properly honed? I have a drawer full of old bits that need sharpening and the requisite files. What I lack is knowledge and the confidence to do the work. I don’t want to damage otherwise good bits.

  15. Ian should have watched more movie musicals. Sky Masterson in Guys And Dolls gave him all the warning he needed:

    “One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to show you a brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken. Then this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of this brand-new deck of cards and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not accept this bet, because as sure as you stand there, you’re going to wind up with an ear full of cider.”

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