Friday, June 30, 2017

The Humble Holdfast

I missed my blog entry last week because I was in Florida at my 40th high school reunion.  Hard to believe it's been that long.  Some folks changed very little and some changed a lot, but everybody had a great time.

I think The Schwarz has found evidence of holdfasts being used a thousand or more years ago.  Like some of my high school classmates, holdfasts have changed very little over time.
The holdfast doing it's thing
I love the simplicity of holdfasts.  A long chunk of iron is bent so that one end fits into a hole in the bench and the other end can rest on your work.  A tap or two with a mallet drives the shank into the hole and the pad clamps a workpiece firmly to the benchtop.  How simple is that!?

I'd been thinking for a long time about getting a couple of holdfasts to help with my work holding. And finally I plunked down some cash to make it happen.
My first holdfast
My holdfasts come from Black Bear Forge, out of Colorado.  These holdfasts have shanks with diameter slightly smaller than 3/4", so they fit in my standard dog holes (they also make holdfasts for 1" diameter holes).
The Black Bear Forge logo, just above the pad
I splurged and got the leaf-shaped pads.
A nice ornamental and functional touch
When using a holdfast, it's good put something between the iron pad and your work so that the workpiece doesn't get dented.  One option is simply to slip a scrap of wood between the pad and your board.
Using a 1/4" scrap to keep the holdfast from damaging the work
However I wanted something that would stay with the holdfast so that I wouldn't have to remember to slip in the scrap every time.  I had a couple of scraps of thick leather (off-cuts from making a strop) that I used to line the underside of the pad.  This thick leather will not only keep the holdfasts from marring the wood I'm clamping, but also they'll add some "grip" to it.  I cut the leather to the leaf shape and glued it to the pad with wood glue.
Leather shaped like the pad
When I glued it, I used wedges to get the leather to take the curve of the pad while the glue set up.  It's holding fine after a few weeks.

So far, I've found several uses for the holdfasts.  I've used it to clamp boards to the benchtop while mortising.
A mortising hold-down
I've used it to clamp a plant stand upside down on the top slats for positioning and marking.
Handy for an unusual clamping situation
When a board is clamped under a holdfast, it's tough to move it in the direction of the length of the board.  However, it is quite easy to pivot the board with the holdfast pad as the pivot center.  This is where an accessory that I've heard called a "bird's beak" or a "doe's foot" is helpful.
Using a "bird's beak" to keep the work from moving away from me
With this setup, the workpiece and the bird's beak create an angle.  With both the workpiece and the bird's beak held at the far ends, you cannot move the vertex of the angle to the left.  If I was doing some work on the near end of this workpiece and pushing the tool away from me (I stand to the right of the bench in the above picture), the bird's beak would keep the workpiece from pivoting.
A closer look at the bird's beak, moved slightly away from the workpiece.
Up until now, I've used only my bench's dog holes for the holdfasts.  But I'm sure that over time I'll figure out where to put some extra holes so that I can make the best use of these remarkable devices.

And like any new tool in a shop, you've got to find a home for it when it's not in use.  I drilled a hole in the right front leg of my bench to store it.  This location can also be used to clamp a board to the front of my bench when planing long edges.
I ended up turning it around in this hole
However, my bench's top is flush with the legs and I kept hitting the holdfast with my thigh.  So I had to turn it around in the hole.
Holdfast turned around - totally out of the way
I'm still thinking about where the other holdfast of the pair will go.  I'm really looking forward to using these.  So far, they've been great.  I'm sure there will be many uses that I haven't even considered.


  1. I have often considered getting a hold fast, but so far I haven't pulled myself together and gotten one.
    I use a regular clamp a lot for the same purpose, but by clamps you are somewhat limited to staying near the edges of your bench.

    1. Hi Jonas. I have a removable center piece in my bench so I've been able to use regular "F" style clamps for some work holding. But I'm happy about getting the holdfasts. They are very fast to set and to release. I'm still a rookie with them, so I'll have to see after a year or two how well I do with them.

  2. Those are nice looking holdfasts! Mine are the plain-Jane ones from Tools for Working Wood and I would be lost without them. They solve a lot of work holding problems that crop up.

    1. Yeah - I just saw your picture of holding a turned piece in a cradle with a holdfast. Great solution.