How Does a Holdfast Work? The Old Alternative to Clamps.


Woodworking has been around for centuries, and it’s no surprise that there are numerous tools from ancient times that we still use today. One of these tools is called a holdfast. But how does a holdfast work?

A holdfast works by holding your workpiece against your workbench, horizontally or vertically. All you have to do is drop the holdfast into a hole in your workbench, and hammer it down, securing the holdfast and your workpiece into place.

Throughout this article, we will discuss all facets of a holdfast. We will also go over different versions of holdfasts you can buy right now. We will then discuss alternatives to using holdfasts and where to buy them. Lastly, we will go over helpful tips for using your holding tools.

What Is a Holdfast?

Holdfasts are ancient tools. There even exists a Roman painting from the 1st Century AD that includes a workbench and a holdfast. 

Holdfasts are made of metal, usually cast or forged by a blacksmith. They have a rod that is usually about a foot long and then a curved top that looks like a duckbill.

How to Use a Holdfast

To use a holdfast to hold down your workpiece, you need to slide the tool through a dog hole. A dog hole is simply a hole drilled into your workbench. The hole usually measures ¾ inch (1.9 cm), and you can easily make it with a ¾-inch drill bit. Many workbenches have multiple dog holes, usually spaced two to three inches apart from each other.

Once your holdfast is inserted into your dog hole, take a hammer or a wooden mallet, and hammer down on the top. This will secure the workpiece to the workbench. If you’re worried that the curved top of the holdfast will ruin your piece of wood, slip a piece of leather underneath the top of the holdfast. You can also use a scrap piece of wood placed over your workpiece to protect it.

Different Types of Holdfasts

There are several different types of holdfasts:

  • Traditional holdfasts: These tools are cast or forged from steel.
  • Screwed holdfasts: Instead of being secured with a hammer, these types of holdfasts are screwed into place.
  • Wooden holdfasts: These tools are usually made from timber or plywood and are screwed into place. There are also some wooden holdfasts made from a forked tree branch. 

If you’re in the market for a holdfast, here a few you can buy right now from Amazon:

How to Keep a Holdfast Working Properly

It’s best to use a piece of sandpaper on the stem to keep your holdfast working properly. It’s important to perform a circular motion when sandpapering, rather than up and down.

With the arrival of new woodworking tool inventions, holdfasts became out of fashion in the early 19th century. But, due to their ease of use, they are making a comeback.

Other Types of Holding Tools

If you don’t want to use a holdfast while woodworking, you do have many other options:

Bench Dog

A bench dog is a small metal peg that you can insert into a dog hole. It is perfect if you want to plane your wood, something you can’t do with a holdfast alone. 

Here is a Bundle Taytools Pack of 4 Bench Dogs from Amazon. These bench dogs are just under ¾ inch (1.9 cm), so they won’t get stuck in your dog holes, but will fit snuggly. They also come equipped with side spring holds so that you can place them at any height.

Vise

A vise is a tool mounted to your workbench. It is equipped with two parallel jaws; one jaw is fixed, the other is adjustable. To use a vise, insert your workpiece between the jaws and tighten the adjustable one. This will secure your piece into place. 

Here is a Yost Home Vise from Amazon. Its swivel base allows you to rotate this vise up to 250 degrees. It is also made from cast iron for added durability. 

C-Clamp

Originally called a carriage clamp and sometimes called a G-clamp, these holding tools consist of two jaws. One of the jaws is not adjustable, and one of them is the flat part of a screw. All you have to do is put your workpiece on the edge of your workbench and attach your C-clamp to the top of your workpiece and the bottom of your bench. Then, screw your C-clamp until your desired pressure. 

Here is an IRWIN QUICK-GRIP C Clamp from Amazon. It measures six inches and is made of durable steel.

F-Clamp

F-clamps, named for their “f” shape, is similar to C-clamps. They are much larger and can handle much bigger material. They consist of two parallel bars connected by one perpendicular bar. The lower bar has a large screw that makes the clamp adjustable. 

Here is a Jorgensen 2-Piece Steel Bar Light Duty F-Clamp Set from Amazon. These clamps are made of cast iron and rust-resistant steel. The set comes with one clamp that can open to 8 inches (20.3 cm), and the other one can open to 12 inches (30.5 cm).

Quick Action Clamps

These clamps are similar to C-clamps and F-clamps, with one main difference: you can tighten and adjust them with one hand, making them perfect for a woodworker. 

Here are some IRWIN QUICK-GRIP Clamps from Amazon. They come equipped with pads to protect your workpiece and provide 140 pounds (63.5 kg) of pressure.

Tips for Using Holding Tools

Now that you’ve read about which kinds of holding tools you can use to hold down your workpiece, it’s important to note a few matters of safety while using them:

  • Use multiples. No matter which method of holding your workpiece in place, it’s best to use at least two of them for maximum security. 
  • Tighten snugly. It’s also important not to overtighten your clamp as this could damage your workpiece and your clamp.
  • Check your clamps. Never use a bent or warped clamp. This could damage your workpiece and is potentially dangerous.
  • Remove promptly. When you’ve finished using your holding tool, always remove it when the job is done.

Final Thoughts

Although holdfasts are ancient tools, they’re still being used today as a way to hold your workpiece to your workbench. Throughout this article, we went over exactly what a holdfast is and what it does. We also discussed the three different types of holdfasts you may come across: traditional holdfasts, screwed holdfasts, and wooden holdfasts.

If holdfasts are not right for you, there are many other holding devices you can try. Bench dogs, vises, C-clamps, F-clamps, and quick action clamps are all alternatives to using a holdfast.

Lastly, we talked about different tips to safely and productively use your holdfasts and other types of clamps. Use multiple holding tools at once to secure your workpiece, tighten them snugly, check them for any flaws, and remove them promptly. Following these tips will make for a safe and constructive workspace.

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