Full Chisel Blog

May 19, 2008

Brace yourself, this is going to get a bit boring.

Filed under: Drilling,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 9:03 pm

That just never gets old.  I am about to embark on a rather lengthy diatribe on making holes.  I will not describe this all at once as it is far too complex for a simple post, so this will continue for some time.  Although I can get sidetracked and go off on a tangent at any moment, I will attempt to keep my focus.


Notice the straight up and down position of the brace, lined up and sighting down the bit to make sure it is going in straight.  As cabinet makers and chair makers and woodworkers we are called upon to remove wood in a circular manner, we make holes. 

Here is how it has been done.  The first hole, aside from that handy knot hole was probably made with a sharpened (knapped) stone or bone or antler awls that worked its way through wood.  Fairly sophisticated points were knapped out of concoidal fracture stone (obsedian, chert, flint, etc.) and were good for shallow holes.  These tools were also attached to pump drills to increase the speed of boring.

Pump Drill

This is a reciprocating drill and cuts or drills when spinning in both directions.  This example has a metal bit, but a stone bit would be attached to the end to do the work.  Examples of this with horn, antler and bone tips are in existance.  I have one in my shop and I use it for shallow holes and the bit also works as a small countersink, although it needs to be made first and the hole drilled after to work properly.

With the advent of the bronze age (4000-3000 BC) metal could be heated up and burned through a piece of wood.

Burn Auger

Then iron came around shortly thereafter and steel was available after the 12th century.

The burn auger continued well into the nineteenth century as a good way to get a hole albeit rough through a piece of wood in quick order.  I actually use this method in the winter when the stove is hot.  A red hot pointed piece of iron, goes through a piece of pine in seconds and produces clouds of smoke, a rather fun experience.  Keep a wet rag handy in case of a confligration.

I would not be surprised that the first ‘modern’ drill bit was an old distorted burn auger that worked without being heated to cut a hole.  Early bits were probably pod or gouge augers that had a proper geometry to cut a clean hole.

This is a brief history of early drill bits and how people made holes.  There is also using sand to abrade wood by putting sand in a depression and using a round stick rubbed between the hands to spin it to make a hole.  Or the use of a grub to eat the center out of a branch of ash or walnut (with a collapsible pith) to make a Native American pipe stem.

What I will continue to discuss is the drills and bits in use in the nineteenth century, so that will include everything up to that point.  And being as drilling holes is so essential to woodworking this may go on for a while.  I hope this augurs well.



  1. I love your blog, through I have already learned so much and hope to learn more.
    I was curious about your reference to “use of a grub to eat the center out of a branch of ash or walnut (with a collapsible pith) to make a Native American pipe stem” and wanted to hear more about that (I wasn’t able to find any material on this through Google yet). It sounds very interesting, and reminds me of the Hebrew legend that King Solomon used a special grub/worm to hew the stones for the temple (since it was forbidden to use steel to cut the stones).


    Comment by Moshe Eshel — May 20, 2008 @ 6:54 am

  2. Moshe,

    Thanks for your comment. The Native Americans used a variety of methods to make the hole along the center of branches (as I said usually of walnut or ash [closely related species]). Some were split, the center removed and glued back together (with hide glue of course) others were made with a long thin wire heated up and used for a burn auger.

    The grub is unique. A small cavity was made in the center of one end. A grub was placed in the hole (mouth first) and clay is packed over the hole giving the grub only one way out. They would also warm the end with the clay near a fire to encourage the grub to work faster.

    I have seen worm holes in very hard woods (although they are softer when green or unseasoned), made by strong worms with sharp mouths.

    Grub drill


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — May 20, 2008 @ 7:24 am

  3. Stephen,
    Speaking of heating things, how do you heat your hide glue? I can see setting it on the stove in the winter, but in the summer? I suspect that an oil lamp burner would be handy, but as for a pot?

    I am asking because I was thinking about finding a non-electric way to heat it. I have never used hide glue or even seen it used, but I am planning to get some in a few months when I make another order from Joel.

    A related question is how temperamental the glue is if you get it too hot or let it get too cool. Is a thermometer strictly necessary? I can hardly imagine a 19th century woodworker with a thermometer.

    Some say that it starts to suffer is heated to over 145 F. Could you provide some perspective on that?

    Comment by Luke Townsley — May 20, 2008 @ 9:06 am

  4. Hi Stephen,

    For some reason, I’ve been thinking about hide glue lately. And then saw Luke’s post, which is not boring or holey but related to the glue idea. Have you seen this woodcut?


    It’s one of my favorites. It’s also on http://www.art-robb.co.uk/pic3.html

    Sorry for the diversion. Looking forward to more about holes. There seems to be some controversy over drilling the upper and lower terminal holes in violin tops (the ends of the f-holes). Figure out how to do it, and you’ll be wrong! 🙂


    Comment by Ken Pollard — May 20, 2008 @ 10:13 am

  5. Luke,

    An oil lamp heater would work, several were made in the nineteenth century for portable glue pots. A tin and copper affair. I use a small brazier with hardwood charcoal to heat my pot in the summertime. You should give liquid hide glue a go as it is liquid at room temperature.

    And yes excess temperature will degrade hide glue, cooling doesn’t effect it but reheating it a few times and it starts to degrade as well. I detail all of this in my book that will be out soon. Waiting on the preface and forwards to be written (and there is the matter of those missing 14 drawings) and it goes to the printer.

    The double boiler goes a long way to prevent overheating but it needs to be attended to. As for the right temperature, they just knew how there glue mixture behaved at proper temperature, it is too thick if not hot enough and too thin in consistancy when too hot. Hope that answers your question.


    I have not seen that woodcut, guess it will be in the hide glue book as well, thanks for the heads up.

    What are the ‘theories’ of f-hole drilling, I am intrigued. It is a terribly shallow hole to drill as the spruce is quite thin there, Cremona craftsmen wouldn’t have had center bits, my choice for an ideal hole in something so thin, drilling from both sides. Gimblets would work but too late as well. Pod auger, a bit troubling or gouge augers or spoon bits are the two they would have had, unless of course they use a brad awl then a reamer. Peg hole reamers are probably too small.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — May 20, 2008 @ 5:31 pm

  6. Hi Stephen,

    Well, now that I’ve opened my mouth, guess I’ll have to track down the concepts better. Spoon bits, yes, and drilling prior to hollowing, or at least final graduation. But folks argue about how it was actually done. I’m thinking if Stradivari would have had a $100 Sears bench-top drill-press, well…

    And it’s interesting conceptually. Modern f-hole templates tend to be cut-outs that have the upper and lower circles connected by the f-hole curve. Stradivari’s templates (and a quick internet search didn’t show any right off) were simply the connecting curve, with a bit of the upper and lower circles’ curvature to connect the two previously drilled holes.

    Violin makers tend to smooth things out with knife cuts, but then are the cuts perpendicular to the surface, or to the plane defined by the top of the ribs (the sides)?

    Here’s a bit of the research that’s going on about f-hole positioning today (a different can o worms) —


    What’s pertinent, I guess, is Figure 2 showing an f-hole. The strad template would be the open curve connecting the two holes.


    Comment by Ken Pollard — May 20, 2008 @ 6:17 pm

  7. Ken,

    Well, Antonio, nor the Amati’s nor the Guenerrie’s had a SR Drill press, however they could have had the following.

    Beam Drill

    This beam drill will make perfectly vertical holes when properly positioned, no head wobble troublesome to hand held braces.

    I will have to do a test on how well spoon bits exit the wood, they make a good entry hole. I have had this obsession recently (wait, I am obsessed all the time) with boring holes, especially endgrain, hence this post.

    While the holes are easy, eliminate the bits they didn’t have and voila. Now cutting those connecting slots involve both crosscutting and ripping the wood. Glad to hear they did this before thinning out as that would be a little more problematic on thin wood.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — May 20, 2008 @ 7:36 pm

  8. Hi Stephen,

    From what I understand, they cut the f-holes when the top was fairly close to final thickness. I don’t know if they did this at the f-holes, and will have to look into it, but it was common to glue-size the edges before cutting the purfling groove. A way to reduce chipping out which I’m sure you’re familiar with.

    F-hole would be cut out by saw close to, but inside, the template mark, with the final shape being done by knife.


    Comment by Ken Pollard — May 20, 2008 @ 10:49 pm

  9. Ken,

    Were the holes in the peg box drilled before the center is excavated? Do they drill from both sides and meet in the middle? I imagine they need to be drilled straight for proper alignment. Then of course they are reamed to the proper taper. Was the taper standard or did it vary with different makers? I have a couple of early reamers and they are square and tapered, do peg reamers of the period have more than 4 cutting edges?

    Do you size the purfling prior to installing?


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — May 21, 2008 @ 7:05 am

  10. Hi Stephen,

    Well, I’ll say I don’t know. Given how many folks made violins, even in the ‘Golden Age’, there is bound to be someone who did it any way you can think of.

    From what I’ve been exposed to, the holes are drilled, err, created, after hollowing the top. One current popular method is to drill pilot holes, then use a tubular cutter. Did Strad do it this way? I don’t know.

    Generally the f-holes are not tapered. Peg holes are, of course, but it is also common to drill the pegholes after cutting the side profile but while the block is still square. We use a small machinists square quite a bit in violin-making, and by the end, everything is curved.

    Purfling is typically glued of three separate strips of wood, so in essence it is sized. I don’t know that folks size it separately before installation. In any event, after the purling is installed, it and the top are channeled, which takes off the sizing layer.

    And since this is violin-making, everything I wrote here is exactly the opposite way some other luthier does it.

    There’s a really good photo-essay on modern making at http://www.darntonviolins.com/viola1.php .


    Comment by Ken Pollard — May 21, 2008 @ 10:14 am

  11. Ken,

    Thanks for the information. And the link to the Modern site is interesting. Does anyone do it traditionally?


    Good to see there is consensus among luthiers, same with woodworkers.

    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — May 22, 2008 @ 6:26 am

  12. Stephen,

    From what I’ve read, the idea of a single maker doing every step of the instrument is a modern romantic ideal, maybe generating in the Victorian age. Most ‘makers’ had several apprentices to do the grunt work — wood splitting, joining, hollowing, whatever the maker didn’t want to do in order to be able to concentrate on design or finishing. So folks now consider some of the power tools as the apprentices.

    And, for example, they don’t chop down their own trees, haul them down the mountain, split them, etc. We get wood from suppliers.

    That being said, however, I think most decent violin makers really don’t have all that many power tools. A bandsaw and a drill press are pretty common. For most of the rest of a violin, by the time you set up the jigs needed for power tools, you could have done the work by hand, and it’s more satisfying. Blocks are split from stuff rather than sawn out, to make life easier later on. That sort of thing. Violin makers I’ve talked with are interested in hearing the wood as it’s being carved, something you can’t do with a power tool.


    Comment by Ken Pollard — May 22, 2008 @ 8:22 am

  13. Ken,

    I caught that in the Movie

      ‘Red Violin’

    , the apprentices doing the prep work. If people haven’t seen this movie they should.

    Are there records of Cremona maker’s cutting down their own trees? I would have thought that they would have bought it from local wood merchants?

    While I have cut down a tree and made furniture from that tree, I only had to do it once to be thankful for the historic fact that that didn’t happen that often. In the nineteenth century, plenty of sawmills and people willing to go up in the mountains cut the trees, having them sawn up into boards and trading those boards for furniture.

    What about the theory that power tools put unhealthy ‘vibrations’ in the wood? Certainly kiln dried wood is much different than air dried wood.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — May 23, 2008 @ 7:22 am

  14. Legends have Stradivari roaming the mountains, tapping on trees, etc. I don’t believe it. He may have tapped on wood when it came in thru Cremona on the wood merchants’ carts.

    Unhealthy vibrations, that’s pretty hard to calculate — but abrasive power tools tend to mash the surface of the wood as opposed to handtools that cut. I think it makes sense that you get better tonal qualities by cutting as opposed to grinding, but I can’t prove it.

    Tone wood is supposed to be air-dried 5-10 years, though thru dendrochronology, they have shown that Guarneri was using wood aged as little as about 3 years. His seemed to hold up ok.

    And the Red Violin — pure romantic schlock, and I’ve seen it several times, even bought it on video (remember those?) as well as the soundtrack on CD (remember those?). It is a great fantasy film, and I’d recommend it for a good ride. Pretty scenes, costumes, and great historical travels. I’ll watch it again, probably a few more times. It’s the ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ of violin-making.

    You know, and this doesn’t give too much away, in one scene the master smashes an apprentice’s white violin, saying something about it not having soul, or something like that. I thought that scene bogus, that they’d just varnish the thing and sell it. Then, at a workshop I attended, the teacher was telling of his apprenticeship in France. His master had him carve a top. Did the best he could. Took it to the master. The master looked at it, broke it across the edge of the bench. The 8th top he made didn’t get broken by the master. “Now you know how to make a top.”


    Comment by Ken Pollard — May 23, 2008 @ 10:16 pm

  15. Ken,

    The ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ of violin-making, whoa, burn. I know what you mean, I put a post on a messageboard somewhere about this movie and a fellow commented that he walked out after that scene as it was so unrealistic.

    I too tap my woods to hear their tone, however being tone-deaf I have no idea what the notes are,the wood is playing, that doesn’t stop me.

    The advantage of not using power tools (well one of thousands of advantages) is that I can hear the wood as I work it. I can actually hear if I am going the wrong direction on a board by the sound the plane makes. I can also tell I am going in the wrong grain direction by the wood chipping out. I can hear the difference between a plane taking a full cut and one taking a partial cut, this helps on edges to get a square cut.

    As I get older I have beginning to rely more on touch and less on looking at my work to see if it is flat. I have always felt the work but lately my hands can ‘see’ things my old eyes can’t. (This is not a touchy-feely thing).


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — May 24, 2008 @ 6:44 am

  16. Stephen,

    Ha! I wonder if he walked out of “Star Wars” the first time they went into hyperspace. Movies are not documentaries, just as novels are not tech manuals. And the Red Violin had lots of great detail in its various scenes. For the record, it would be hard for me to count the number of times I’ve seen Jeremiah Johnson. And now when I see it, I recall Utah of the early 1970s, as well as the 1840s.

    I like listening to my tools cut, too. I’m beginning to understand how to use light to see things. But it’s as if I’m just beginning to peer over the edge. There’s that old saying, something like: As the radius of our knowledge expands, so does the circumference of our ignorance.

    It would be interesting to take the knowledge we have now and transfer it into our younger self’s brain — what’s important, what to ignore. Maybe that’s what the documentaries, tech manuals, and niche blogs are for.

    You’re doing great work with your blog — a resource for folks interested in old woodworking. A comment on another post mentioned the irony of digital photography and 1800s woodworking. It is ironic on one hand, while on the other, all of us in the related fields have thought about the knowledge lost because it wasn’t put into an archival, accessible form. Now we can do that, so life is better.


    Comment by Ken Pollard — May 24, 2008 @ 10:09 am

  17. Ken,
    Ah, the good old days and when you wouldn’t let Robert Redford shoot your new rifle, priceless.

    Few woodworking trades can actually listen to their work, most woodworkers put things in their ears to do woodworking. I can do all of the processes of woodworking that I do and still carry on a conversation without yelling or using hand signals.

    Sounds like the luthier trade is similar to hand tool woodworking, divers views and I have notice that when I do a little experimental history and rediscover a new/old technique and discuss it, people take exception. It is not like I am claiming authorship of the technique, hell I just rip off the past in all I do anyway, someone else far more clever than I came up with the idea in the first place. I just happen to stumble across what works and if it works now with the same tools, same materials and same techniques as in the past, then it is possible to rediscover archane and undocumented methods.

    Then I still have about 3200 35MM color slides from years past, that I have yet to archive, so you are right life is better.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — May 27, 2008 @ 6:42 am

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