North Bros Manufacturing Co, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

As someone who buys and sells old hand tools, a frequent question I field is, "What is the best bit brace?" Itís a simple question, but not a trivial one. First, we can throw out modern (post-1960) braces as being poorly constructed, over-priced, and products of the Detroit "planned obsolescence" mentality. Looking farther back in time, it seems that the beginning of the 20th century makes a good dividing line to consider the sorts of bit braces that were on the market then, and which continue to be available as "old tools" today.

After 1900 some interesting developments took place that were both technical in nature, and the result of changes in the manufacturers that provided bit braces. First, the Stanley Rule and Level Co entered the brace market in a big way by acquiring the John S. Fray company (and others) in 1906 and expanded the Fray line of braces substantially. In the 1890s  P.S.&W. introduced their "Samson" chuck with jaws designed to hold both the traditional tanged bits, bits with round shanks, and bits with tapered shanks, and which featured ball-bearing construction for smooth ratchet operation. This was soon followed by Millers Falls, and their development of "Master," Holdall," and "Lion" chucks.  But perhaps the most significant development was the entry in to the brace market of a new player, the North Bros. Mfg Co. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

North Bros began business as an iron foundry producing some fairly mundane articles in 1880.

  This pair of small ice tongs for moving pieces of ice in home ice boxes was patented in 1887 and produced by the North Bros Mfg. Co.  It is shown in an early advertisement for their foundry products as "I X L" ice tongs.

 

In the mid-1890s they had the good fortune to entice a Maine inventor of spiral screwdrivers (Zachary Furbish) to come to Philadelphia with his patents, and further develop the idea of ratchet screwdrivers. This proved highly successful, and by 1897, North Bros was marketing the now renowned line of "Yankee" ratchet screwdrivers, which are widely imitated and internationally known. Although North Bros had earlier acquired other companies to enlarge their product line to things like ice breakers, ice cream churns, tobacco cutters, and fluting machines for the textile industry, their real name was built on Yankee screwdrivers. By the 1910, their familiarity with ratchet design caused North Bros to branch out into the production of an expanded line of drills- push drills, egg-beater drills, and breast drills--most with ratcheting mechanisms. Today these drills are considered to be the most technically sound and mechanically innovative of any hand drill ever produced. Their quality could not be matched today at many multiples of the prices they now command on the old tool market. With this experience in the development and production of ratchet mechanisms, the next logical product line for North Bros was ratchet bit braces.

Beginning in 1922 North Bros introduced two models of ratchet bit braces, the models 2100 and 2101 (a third model of Yankee brace existsóa so-called whimble brace, with unequal lateral arms, but it is rare). These very similar brace models differ principally in the details of their finish and the internal packing. The unique features of these braces include: a ratchet case that is moisture and dust proof; hardened and tempered steel pawls; a push button ratchet selector; chuck jaws that accept Ĺ" diameter round shanks and 5/8" diameter tanged bits; and handles made of hard rubber or composite materialónot wood. Moreover, the ratchet housing on these braces is unusual in that it is formed of brass, not steel, and the finish of the metal parts consists of chromeónot nickelóplating.

The heart and soul of these ratchet bit braces is the ratchet mechanism itself, which runs on all bearings and is silky smooth. A properly lubricated ratchet will spin like a top when given a twist and sound like a well-oiled clock. The development of the ratchet and other features of the brace were due to a series of patents awarded North Bros employees, Thomas Fegley and George Leopold, in the 1920s.

North Bros must have done a very fine piece marketing for the Yankee brace at its inception. The two models, 2100 and 2101 are quite similar in outward appearance. But the 2101 is made more inexpensively, with different internal packing, and a lower quality finish. From its inception the 2101 was marketed toward large volume purchasers, such as utility companies. Indeed, most of the 2101 braces that you find today are marked, "Bell System" and were a standard tool for telephone linemen. The sealed nature of the ratchet and its consequent imperviousness to weather must have been an important feature in this regard.

 

This example of a Yankee 2101 brace with 10" sweep dates from the late 1940s, shortly after the takeover of North Bros by Stanley.  The form of the brace did not change from its initial creation in 1923.  This one has black plastic handles.

 

 

Yankee braces were listed in all of their catalogues in sweeps of 8", 10", 12" and 14", with the 10" size the most common. This is likely due to the standard Bell System brace having a sweep of 10". Unlike other manufacturers, North Bros did not list braces with either 6" or 16" sweeps.  However, I have an example of a 6" sweep No. 2101 in collection (marked, "Bell System" and pictured at right) that shows that this small size was also produced before the Stanley takeover.  It would be interesting to learn if a 16" sweep brace was made.

Another uncommon Yankee brace, never listed in any catalogue, is the No. 2101W Whimble brace.  Ostensibly made for telephone linemen who had to bore holes aloft, requiring great torque, the wimble design (used back in the 1880s by Fray), was never a popular design.  This example is one of the handful that I've seen.  The mark on the chuck is just "No. 2101", withouth the "W" designation.

Both the 2100 and 2101 braces are sometimes found with and "A" suffix (2100A and 2101A). This apparently denotes minor changes in the internal mechanisms, and the A was added to the model number to alert repair technicians to the type of mechanism included and guided their selection of tools to make the repairs.

The composition of the handle material changed over the years. Early on, the braces were described as having "hard rubber" handles, and indeed, the handles on these are a solid, shiny black in color. Most examples have "Yankee" embossed on the top of the cup (top) handle, and this is filled with red paint. Other examples have brownish handles that that appear to be made of a very dense composite material. In all cases the handles are very durable, and significant cracks or chips are almost non-existent. They certainly hold up better than the traditional wood handles of other makers.

Because the ratchet housing is made of relatively soft brass, the business ends of these braces are often dinged, sometimes severely. But unless the brace has been dropped from a telephone pole, and thrown out of alignment, even a well used and dinged brace generally works better than even newer looking braces of other makers. A fairly recurrent problem with Yankee braces concerns the congealing or solidification of the internal lubricating grease that the ratchet mechanism is packed with. Because the mechanism is sealed, that packing material is difficult to replace. With a Yankee ratchet mechanism that seems balky, it is possible to disassemble the ratchet, clean, and repack it. A nice set of instructions for doing this can be found at  George Langfordís website

North Bros produced other brace-related products, including very fine chain drills that can be operated by braces.  Here is an example of their No. 1500 Automatic Chain Drill, with automatic advance.  Like the brace line, it is probably the best tool of its type ever built.

Another North Bros product was their No. 75 "Push Brace".  This tool is essentially a large spiral screwdriver fitted with a chuck and jaws that can grip tanged auger bits, as well as round shank bits.  It remains a popular tool.

During World War II, shortages of metals like brass, chromium, and nickel were in short supply. North Bros dealt with those shortages in the early 1940s by eliminating chrome or nickel finishes on many of its tools. So today it is not unusual to find Yankee screwdrivers with a brushed brass finish, or black paint over the brass. Iíve not yet seen an example of a Yankee brace with such a WWII finish, but to find one would not be surprising.

After the end of WWII changes took place at North Bros that ultimately resulted in some compromise of the quality of Yankee braces. In On April 18, 1946 the Stanley Tool Works acquired North Bros to establish their entry into the spiral ratchet screwdriver business, and upgrade their line of braces. After the takeover, the North Bros braces and other tools were first marked, "North Bros Mfg Co., Philadelphia, Division of Stanley Tool Works."   These "Philadelphia Ėmade" tools seem to have retained the construction quality for which North Bros was famous.  In 1956 Stanley split off much of its former North Brothers holdings under the name, "Yankee Tools Inc."  Braces and other products produced between 1956 and 1958 were marked with this name, and were still produced in Philadelphia.  Gradually, however, the North Bros tooling was relocated to the Stanley home area of New Britain, Conn, and on June 30, 1958 the "Yankee Tools Inc" name was discarded..  From this time the "Yankee" line of tools is marked only "Stanley" (in a notched rectangle), and the North Bros name is dropped. The Yankee braces and other tools from post-1958 generally show the decrements in quality that are associated with modern mass production. In generally the tools are not finished as well, have rougher machining, and poorer quality handles.

In summary, for anyone who wants a sturdy, strong, and reliable ratchet bit brace, there are none better than the Yankee 2100 and 2101 braces. This is especially true for those produced by North Bros (and subsequently Stanley) prior to 1958. In sound condition they will easily provide a lifetime of service.

 

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Sources for the information on this page include:

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several North Bros Catalogues in my collection

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"North Brothersí Manufacturing Company Product Guide" by Joseph W. Ward, Baraboo, Wisconsin, 2000

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 "Antique & Collectible Stanley Tools" by John Walter, 1996

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 and George Langfordís web page, http://www.Georgesbasement.com/ 

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For more information on patent ratchet screw drivers, see Cliff Fales' website at http://cfales.sos4net.com/index.htm