Chris Schwarz's Blog

Authentic Holdfasts from Peter Ross

The first time I taught at Roy Underhill’s school in Pittsboro, N.C., Roy made sure that I met Peter Ross, a blacksmith who worked at Colonial Williamsburg for 25 years.

We all ate dinner at gas station in Saxapawhaw – probably the best gas station food ever made on this planet. Seriously. Check this out.

A couple days later we toured Peter’s shop. And that’s when I realized that Peter is no ordinary super-talented blacksmith. His work is breathtaking. Even his simple things, such as a butterfly hinge, make you realize that most of the furniture hardware we buy in catalogs might as well be made of tinfoil because it is all so flimsy and ugly.

I spent almost an hour just gawking at the hinges, locksets, tools and accessories for Colonial living that Peter had sitting on the shelves in his immaculately organized shop. I wanted to buy hinges for a certain tool chest that was on my drawing board last summer, but I was too intimidated by the workmanship to even ask. Heck, if I made stuff that nice I’m not sure I would ever want to sell it.

So last month as I was teaching a sawing class at Roy’s school, I took a break and headed up the stairs to the tool store above the school. And lo and behold, there were holdfasts and hinges that Peter had made that were sitting out for sale.

At first I couldn’t bear to look at the price tags. But the work was just too nice. I had to look. It was surprisingly reasonable. The chest hinges were $200 for the pair. The holdfasts were about $70 to $80 each. Shoot, I’d pay that.

But there was a problem. I don’t need any holdfasts. I have plenty. Heck I have some holdfasts that I plan to sell. And yet, Peter’s holdfasts looked like they had leaped right from the pages of Joseph Moxon – like something you might buy at the local ironmongers in 1678.

I resisted their pull – for about 300 miles. By the time I hit the Kentucky border on my drive home I resolved to call Ed Lebetkin, who runs the tool store and carries the holdfasts. And I called. And sent him an e-mail. And followed up.

Finally, on Monday, the holdfasts arrived. I took them down to the shop and immediately put them into use on my daughter’s old school Roubo workbench. It has a benchtop that’s more than 4” thick, which is a challenge for many holdfasts.

But not for Peter’s. They sprang right into action and pressed down some walnut boards I was tenoning against my bench. It was like they were glued there.

I am in love.

These holdfasts are designed to fit a 3/4”-diameter hole in your benchtop. The shaft is 11-3/4” long. These have a 6” reach from the tip of the beak to the shaft.

Want details? If you are in Pittsboro you can see the holdfasts in person in the store. If you’d like to order a set to be mailed to you, it’s best to talk to Peter directly so he can work out the right size and style for your bench. You can contact Peter through his web site or at 919-663-3309 or peter@peterrossblacksmith.com.

— Christopher Schwarz

More workbench and holdfast madness
• Do you want your holdfasts to function but aren’t concerned if they look a bit modern? Then you should check out the Gramercy holdfasts from Tools for Working Wood – they are the best deal going on this essential bit of workshop equipment.

• I’m also a longtime fan of the holdfasts sold by blacksmith Phil Koontz. They are curvier and have a pad that looks like a leaf.

• And if you have a benchtop that is too thick to accept the traditional whack-on, whack-off holdfasts, then you need to meet the Veritas Hold-down. Works anywhere.

• Finally, don’t you deserve an old-school French-style bench? The kind with the through-tenons and the through-dovetails? We have a great little DVD on how to build one entirely by hand. Check it out here at ShopWoodworking.com.

14 thoughts on “Authentic Holdfasts from Peter Ross

  1. esincox

    “…and immediately put them into use on my daughter’s old school Roubo workbench.”

    And? Did Lucy swallow the chocolate-coated this-was-for-Katie’s-bench-not-mine justification pill?

    If so, I’m going to have to build Finley a bench after I build mine…

      1. esincox

        Er… not “build a Finley Bench”, but “build Finley a bench”.

        You know, my one year old son, Finley (ask Megan to show you pictures on FB)… build him a bench after I build mine… so I can start looking for a whole other set of tools.

        Ok, I DO already have two of the 043s.

        Maybe I’d loan him one.

        Maybe.

        But he’s going to have to save up for his own Peter Ross holdfasts.

  2. texasbelliott

    It’s tremendous to see modern craftsmen, such as Peter are getting some attention. Guys like this are a rare breed these days. Here’s to a resurgence of individuals who have a passion for their craft!

  3. Paul Moldo

    Chris. I have a 4″ thick Roubo and my Gramercy holdfasts did not work. Joel suggested I widen the dog holes from the underside, which I’m not prepared to do. How do Peter’s holdfasts work on such a thick top when the Gramercy ones don’t?

    1. hammerguy

      I have forged a few holdfasts out of 3/4″ stock and have found that the holes in a thick bench should be about 13/16″ or 20mm in order for the holdfast to work. The stem has to be able to tilt slightly in the hole. It also seems to help if there is some spring to the portion near the pad. If you realy don’t want to alter the dog holes, you can reduce the size of the stem. Determine how much you want to reduce the diameter and divide that by two. Place some tape that distance from the tips of the teeth of a hacksaw as a depth guide. Cut a spiral down the length of the stem. Use an angle grinder or bench grinder to remove the excess material down to the base of the spiral. A bit of draw filing to remove the last traces of the spiral will clean it up nicely, and you should be at the diameter you need for the holdfast to work.

      1. JoshLovesIt

        I also purchased the Gramercy holdfasts, and drilled a nice 3/4″ hole in my 3.5″ thick workbench top. The holdfast didn’t work, so I widened it to 13/16″, as “hammerguy” suggested. Still didn’t work. Any other ideas please?

    1. Medullaryray

      Wow! I’ll have to second that. Just returned from Lee Vining/Mono Lake/Yosemite and ate at the Whoa Nellie a couple of times. Highly recommended!

  4. abt

    This is one of those ‘look at the bright shiny things’ posts, where I don’t know if I should linger on the food, or look at the nice looking holdfasts.

    I’m fortunate enough to live near a blacksmith shop that produces some nice work, but unfortunately, as I’ve asked, their specialty isn’t woodworking hardware or shop helper tools. Chris’s options look good though.

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