John S. Fray & Co.

The "Spofford" Braces

John S. Fray was born in Januarry, 1833 in Camborne, Cornwall, England, and by the time he was 17 years old (1851) worked there in a Safety Fuse factory.  At some point he emigrated to the United States and, living in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and established the John S. Fray & Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. He built an early reputation and brace building success upon the initial patent of Nelson Spofford, an inventor from Haverhill, Massachusetts. Spofford’s first patent (he was awarded at least four more) was for a type of split chuck, often termed a "clamshell" chuck. Different in that was not composed of separate pieces, the chuck is really a terminal fork of the frame that pinches the bit when tightened with a thumb screw. The patent was #25984 granted on November 1, 1859. This design proved to be rugged and held bits securely. Stanley continued to produce braces using this design until at least 1942, making it second only to the Barber's Improved chuck in brace manufacturing longevity. Its major disadvantage was the impossibility of including a ratchet mechanism with this sort of chuck.

John Fray apparently began manufacturing Spofford braces as early as 1859 in partnership with a gentleman named Horace Pigg. These early braces are marked, "Fray & Pigg Manrs / Bridgeport, Conn" and "Spofford’s Pat / Nov 1, 1859". An example of this brace is shown below. It has a cast iron handle that has the sweep of the brace cast in its underside (this one is a 7" sweep).

Sometime before 1866 the partner, Pigg, dropped from the company and subsequent braces are marked only "John S. Fray & Co / Bridgeport, Conn. USA". The association with Pigg must have continued for some time--although speculation exists that it was maintained for only a year or two. But too many braces marked "Fray & Pigg" turn up to think that it was a fleeting partnership. Indeed, Fray patented a whimble extension to the Spofford brace in 1869 (#89265) and assigned the patent to himself and Horace Pigg.  So the Fray-Pigg involvement must have continued to at least 1869.   The iron Spofford braces marked just by John Fray are identical to the braces above, even to the sweep number casting in the undersides of the handles.

Spofford’s subsequent patents included an 1880 one for a means of manufacturing the frame so the danger of breakage during bending was reduced.  Two were for modifications to the chuck and one for a wrist handle. These are rare braces to find. The fourth patent was for a clumsy ratcheting mechanism that was probably not produced.

At some point the Fray company began to produce Spofford braces with wooden handles. The handles were cocobolo or rosewood, with the wrist handles being strikingly attached with inlet pewter rings to hold the halves of the handles together.  These braces, in  their most lavish nickel-plated form are distinctive and eye-catching. Because I’d not seen a wooden handled Spofford brace marked with the first patent marking, I thought that this handled form probably did not appear until after the expiration of the chuck patent. Not uncommon, they still command premium prices. The largest size (17" sweep) is seldom seen.  I have a couple of the wood handled Fray Spofford braces marked with the second Spofford patent,  Feb. 23, 1880. This is a rare patent mark (Pearson, "A").  One example is above.

I recently found a Spofford patent brace with the pewter-bound wood handles that is marked, by Fray & Pigg.  This one has a delicate lignum top handle that is dished out underneath and has the largest pewter rings that I've seen on any Fray brace.  With the mark, it is a rare item, and may represent a very early example of a pewter ring brace.

At some point the Fray company also produced Spofford chuck braces with rosewood wrist handles, but without the distinctive pewter rings.  Several of these have come my way in the past few months (2004).  Nearly all of them are unmarked, but are distinctly Fray products.  One No. 10 whimble brace is marked and is shown at the left.  This style of brace does not need the pewter retaining rings on the wrist handle because the turned handle is fashioned in one piece--rather than being split and applied after the forging and bending of the brace bow.  This construction is possible because the brace frame is constructed in two pieces.  The lower section of the shaft contains the Spofford chuck, the lower bow, and the swelling that holds the wrist handle in place.  The upper part of the shaft is separate, and does not include the upper swelling to contain the top of the handle.  Rather there is a steel collar to fix the wrist handle in position.  This upper shaft is seated in the top of the lower section, below the wrist handle, and is pinned in place (the head of the pin can be seen in the photograph).  I am not aware of a patent protecting this style of construction.

One further feature of this particular whimble brace deserves note.  The ferrule at the bottom of the top handle is stamped, "Fray's Pat. Aug 7, '83".  Examination of the patent records for that date does not reveal a patent that would pertain to this brace (or any other brace).  The patent in question was awarded to John Fray for the design of the jaws in a tool handle--a patent that was not applicable to this tool.  Apparently Fray felt there was a need to stamp the brace with a patent date--apparently any valid patent--to help protect the brace from potential copiers!


Did Nelson Spofford produce braces?

In the Spring of 1917 I found a Spofford brace in a large box lot at a Connecticut tool auction.  This caught my eye due to its unusually large cast iron top handle and a curious shape to the bottom of the chuck area under the fixing thumb screw.  A closer examination showed that the split in the bottom of the frame had been very poorly made--as if it had been hand sawn-- and that one side of the brace, where the lower bow meets the chuck, was marked, "N. Spofford / Haverhill, Mass, while the opposite side is stamped with Spofford's patent date, Nov. 1, 1859.  A couple of other interesting features are that nowhere is this brace signed by John. S. Fray, nor does the exceptionally large top handle have the sweep number marked under it.


Fray non-"Spofford" Braces

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