This type of drill is probably not in the arsenal of the average woodworker but were essential until the last part of the nineteenth century, although some are still in service. Fired clay and lead was also used but it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that cast iron would become common, prior to that time most water pipes were made from wood, well trees.
The bits are modified shell or pod bits with parts that grab shavings so they can be pulled out as the hole is drilled. This type of bit will follow the center of the tree (they selected good straight trunks of the appropriate diameter), so the hole will be centered. What is unusual about this arrangement is the very long handle and the interchangable bits and reamers.
Some pipe auger handles were segmented and lengths could be added as needed. The handles were slightly longer than the logs being made into water pipes. Twenty feet is not an uncommon length for the handles.
There is a permanent set-up to do the work. Saw bucks or stantions to hold the log and smaller ones to hold the shank of the bit in the proper location.
The work is done in green (unseasoned) wood, so the drilling is actually quite easy, but it is a lot of work. The handle is twisted (in either direction, usually) and the small bit is drilled all the way through the log/tree/pipe. After the pilot hole is bored, the bit is changed out to a reamer to enlarge the hole. In order to facilitate the reaming, a rope is run through the hole and fixed to the hook on the end of the reamer. Now the work gets easy for the fellow twisting the handle as they no longer need to push the auger, the fellow on the other end pulls the rope (also done with weights) pulling the reamer through the pilot hole enlarging the opening, as the handle is twisted.
Sometimes the logs were squared off but often left round, some were hooped on the ends with iron, others not. Most had a taper on each end, one socket & one tenon and slip into each other forming a continuous water pipe. Buried in the ground they would last quite a while and I believe old wooden water pipes are still in use today. Some pipes were in places, on the surface in larger urban areas. And every Volunteer Fire Department carried a brace and bit, just in case they could tap a nearby water pipe for their bucket brigade or hand tub pumper. When the conflagration was out they would fill the hole with a bung called a ‘fire plug’.
Now here is an interesting story of using a tool, not for its intended purpose. In the 1850′s when Europeans (white occupying forces) encountered the giant redwoods in California, they of course wanted to cut one down (they didn’t stop at one), however for the first one they used pipe augers. Two teams of workers (working on opposite sides of the tree) drilled a series of holes next each other at the same level, around the tree. Once these dozens and dozens of holes had been drilled to near the center of the huge trees (20 foot handled bits could only go in 20 feet from each edge toward the center), wedges were pounded in and the tree tipped over.
These are also called pump augers as they were used for making wooden water pumps to get water up from wells or cisterns. These of course would have shorter handles.