Brace yourself: the nuanced differences between restoration and rehabbing

Andy, a prolific contributor to, posted a comprehensive blog series about hand braces.  He started his superb tutorial by restoring a hand drill. And his subject was an 8″ Skinner brace that he dubbed “Rusty”.

A few things immediately piqued my interest:

–To my eye, the chuck is beautiful, sporting the lines and curves of a 1960s racecar

–I liked the fact that Andy chose to restore the tool versus simply rehabbing it for use. Restoration requires additional skills as well as a finer attention to detail.

–His restoration went beyond just refurbishing up the brace to encompass the selection and use of braces. In essence, the collected posts represent a treatise on the topic. Which in turn is a valuable contribution to us folks who don’t have a lot of experience with braces.

Inspired by Andy’s post, I made the decision to restore a brace of my own. I was looking forward to learning new skills (like metal filing) as well as gaining some tool-restoration experience. The next step was to track down a Skinner brace.

Rusty, piece-of-crap-looking brace, come on down! You’re the next contestant on the Restoration is Right.
What I learned was that while Skinner braces may be common place in Merry old England, they’re not readily found in the State of Colorado. So I took the hunt to the next level: including searches on the Ebay UK, Australia and Oh Canada sites. I actually found one on Ebay UK but the seller would not ship his treasure beyond his Anglo-Saxon shores.

Sadly, I turned to Plan B to find a restoration test subject on Ebay USA. Here was a candidate that turned up.

Uh…it’s obvious why this was listed for $1.99. The description read, “Turns freely, top knob sticks and squeaks a little. Has some rust, some pitting, and wear from use.” I just LOVE how sellers have the propensity to use the qualifier “some” when describing tools that are obviously caked in oxidation.

All the better. This brace was the kindred cousin to Andy’s “Rusty”.

[cue sarcasm] Surprisingly, I turned out to be the only bidder and $6.99 and a few days later I opened the package to find this—complete with the squeak.

In Andy’s honor, I named her “Dusty.”

Rather than recount the blow-by-blow restoration here, I’ll note the insights, issues, mistakes and triumphs I experienced by following Andy’s guidance.

Screwing off the chuck was easy. Here it is after taking it apart.

Lots of rust. The jaws weren’t too badly scarred from the rusticles on the inside of the chuck.

Taking apart the head was a bit trickier.

The top handle required a woodworker’s potion mixed from cursing, coaxing, muscle and a rubber pad used to remove stuck jar lids. One screw hole was a bit stripped. I had to use a small screw driver to apply upward pressure on the screw head at the same time I was unscrewing it. This pulled it up, past the stripped portion to engage the wood and finally pull it free. Then I had to twist the top using the rubber pad to finally unseat it. That sucker was really stuck.

Now that I had it apart, it was time to give Dusty a dermal abrasion.

Rust removal
I’ve made it a point to try different rust removal techniques over time so that I could compare their effectiveness. Here are my experiences to date.

–Mineral spirits + sandpaper—this approach has worked well on the handsaws I’ve tried it on. Be warned that saw etches are sensitive to this treatment and you have to use a light hand.

–Citric acid-A quick trip to a brewers store found me pouring the powder into water. It worked just ok on a saw plate. While the trick is to let the metal soak for a sufficient amount of time, the acrid solution turns the metal a sickly dark gray. On the saw rehab project I tried citric acid on, I abandoned it in favor of the mineral spirits + sandpaper treatment to finish it.

–Something new: Evaporust. This time around I ponied up $26 for a gallon of Evaporust. The results were amazing. Let things soak over night then put green scour pad and brass brush to work on removing the pale gray coating that forms where rust used to be.

The curved handle wouldn’t fit all the way into my Evaporust-filled container so I had to scrub at it with a brass-wire brush over time to get it off. I’ve read about others putting rusty parts in plastic bags but I didn’t want to waterlog the wood handle.

Thanks to Andy and my own mistakes I learned a lot about files and filing metal on this restoration.

For example, you need to take care not to use too course a file like I did on curved surfaces.

My round file was just too darn aggressive and even using 100 grit sandpaper didn’t get out the deep scratches it left.

What I learned was that I needed to use “fine” files. Ones that have a single (versus double) hatch pattern(s).

The brace shaft was pretty rough, (pits, scratches and dings), so I took a file to it before sanding. I used Andy’s method to file the round shaft very effectively. It’s well worth reading about here.  Since then I’ve applied this technique to filing rounded corners on wood. So this is one of the new skills I was hoping to learn.

The chuck had curved, versus flat, facets, so I skipped the filing step (how do you file a curved surface anyway?) and went straight to sanding.

Since I had some deep pits to remove, I started with 100 grit paper, then progressed through 150, 220, 320, 400, 600, 1,000 and 1,500. By cutting long strips of sandpaper (Andy’s method), I was able to create my own manual “belt sander”. Simply wrap the paper around curved surfaces (chuck and shaft) then see-saw the paper back and forth across the surface. This was extremely effective.

The courser grits took me a while to get out the pits and dings but once that was done I quickly progressed through the finer grits.

You’ll find that your brace has many hard to reach places. For this restoration, there were areas where I only had about 1/8″ of surface area to sand. For these I used my 1/8″ chisel as a “sanding block”.

In order to finish the entirety of the brace shaft and bends, I had to vice it up in different orientations.

Chuck lessons learned
When I first started sanding the chuck I secured it in my face vice. However, this was a big mistake because I think I tightened it down too much and squished it a little to make it out of round. It’s possible it came that way but I don’t’ think so.

Instead, I suggest you do what I eventually did, which is to make a round-thing-a-majig jig out of 2” x 4” stock to hold it.

To smooth the inner surface of the chuck, I tried Andy’s dowel/scrubpad technique. I couldn’t apply that approach too well so I used 100 grit sandpaper and my finger as a sanding block to sand the chuck interior. This was probably a mistake because the fit between the inner chuck surface and the jaws is a bit “loosey goosey” now. Stick to Andy’s scour pad.

I can tell you that it was a mistake to sand the chuck shaft threads, even though I only use 400+ grits. The chuck fits loosely on the shaft and I don’t like the feel of it. In the future, I’ll heed Andy’s instructions on thread treatment quite strictly.

Andy didn’t use any power tools to complete his restoration. I cheated a bit and used the buffing wheel on my bench grinder with some white rouge.

I have to tell you that this step left a mirror finish so clean that you could use it to signal rescue aircraft in the desert.

Note that there are still some pits and light scratches on the surface. The restoration process was a LOT of work for me (hours and hours) and I didn’t have the patience to sand, sand, sand till all the pits were gone. I suspect that had my initial filing been more accomplished that I would have had a lot less sanding to do.

That said, for the areas where I did take out pits and such, I was able to achieve a perfectly mirrored finish such as the one you see in the picture of the curved handle (lower right-hand picture above.)

Finishing the wood
I taped the metal surface before sanding the wood handle and progressed through 150-400 grits before “polishing” the wood on my bench grinder buffing wheel. I found this step leaves a baby smooth surface that feels nice to the touch. I made the mistake of using the same buffing pad that I used to polish the metal. This infused Dusty’s wood parts with micro-pieces of metal, giving it a grayish tint. Yuck.

This was followed by 2 coats of BLO and three coats of polyurethane finish.

Here’s Dusty “before” and “after”:

…and after applying Andy’s restoration techniques.

Putting it to use
After everything dried I reassembled the brace, putting a dab of silicon grease in areas where parts move.

When I chucked up a bit and drilled a hole, I noticed that the brace was off-center while being turned. Because I didn’t try it out before my restoration I can’t say whether it came that way or if I bent something during the restoration. That said, it performs well, delivering straight holes.

However, I don’t like that I have to manually push the jaw halves apart to make room for a bit. (perhaps a spring is missing?) Though once chucked, the bit doesn’t move.

For the areas where I followed Andy’s instructions, I’m very pleased with how things turned out. And while I made a lot of mistakes on this restoration, I accept that as the price for learning a lot of new skills. Better to learn those lessons on a $6.99 Dusty, than on a precious Skinner brace.

As luck would have it, two Skinner braces did make their way into my life courtesy of a Lumberjocks buddy! And that’s the topic of two “before/after & this-is-what” I learned posts to come.


About The Write Biz

By day, I'm a mild-mannered copywriter who harnesses frontal-lobe creativity (right brain) to help B2B marketers generate leads and sales. By night I pick up hand tools to create wooden masterpieces...and give my black lab Bella the "red dot" laser to chase after.
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4 Responses to Brace yourself: the nuanced differences between restoration and rehabbing

  1. Bryan Burns says:

    This is one of the best web tutorials I’ve ready on anything!
    I like the use of collage photos. I like how mistakes were admitted.
    I’ve also wondered myself if I’m crazy to spend hours and hours cleaning and polishing antique and vintage hand tools. When do you stop? And like you, I use a variety of techniques from initial cleanings with TSP (I love the feeling of cleaning a 100 year old tool that I suspect has never ever been cleaned) to steel wool, naval jelly,simichrome, mineral spirits, emery cloth, rubbing compound emery cloth, and finishing waxes. I’ve heard of Evaporust but never wanted to pony up the money either. Sounds like I should though.
    What do you figure your $7 brace is worth now?
    By the way, for the wood parts, I would have
    1. Cleaned with TSP and soap solution.
    2. Cleaned with mineral spirits and steel wool.
    3. Oiled with Watco oil.
    4. Waxed with Watco finishing wax.
    5. Hand buffed them.

    Thanks for a great post.

  2. Co says:

    I’m not sure about Skinners, but there is a spring to hold the jaws apart on Stanleys.

    • Robert Foedisch says:

      I found a spring in the chuck of the stanly hand Brace I got off of eBay also, There was no model number. Do you know how the spring is supposed to fit into the jaws?
      Thanks Tons

  3. Robert Foedisch says:

    I, first of all must commend you on a job very well done. I am curious to learn if your stanley chuck had a spring to hold the jaws in place?

    Thanks Tons

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