It seems I have more holdfasts than internal organs. And yet, when I was dropping something off at Managing Editor Megan Fitzpatrick’s house this week, I was struck by two holdfasts in her bench that were familiar and yet different – like an old friend who had lost weight or gotten implants.
The holdfasts were made by Alaskan blacksmith Phil Koontz and had been given to Megan as a gift (some women like diamonds, and then there is Megan…). I’ve had a pair of Koontz’s holdfasts since 2004 or so, but these were different.
They had much more of a curve to them than my older holdfasts. It wasn’t subtle. They had so much of a curve that they looked more like a “shepherd’s crook” holdfast than the flatter ones he made before.
Ignoring Megan completely, I began messing around with the holdfasts in her bench, which has a top that is 5” thick or so. The holdfasts stuck like crazy in her bench, and so I asked to borrow them for a couple days so I could compare them to my old ones.
The new holdfasts weigh the same (about 2 lbs. each) as the old ones, have the same reach and about the same shaft length. But the curve makes them stick up about 2” more than his older ones. This design has advantages and disadvantages. The only real disadvantage is that they can occasionally be in the way of your long planes during some operations.
The advantage is that I have found the shepherd’s crook-style holdfasts to be springier and to (in general) hold a bit better. However, any well-made holdfast will do the trick in a wide variety of woods. And by “well made” I mean those made by blacksmiths or Gramercy tools in Brooklyn, New York.
After messing with them a bit, I e-mailed Koontz to get the story on the design change.
After a recent flurry of orders after Woodworking in America, Koontz decided to make some changes to the details of his holdfasts.
“The higher curve was mostly a conscious thing, partly because I have developed more of a taste for how I want them to look, and partly because I have started to use a jig to set the final angle of the pad so it contacts the work a little better. When I did that, I found that I wanted more curve right there by the pad, so the contact point won’t change so much as they set.
“This is hard to explain without graphics, but as you know, holdfasts aren’t perpendicular to the work when they are in use. I make the pad square to the shaft, although some of the old ones weren’t very accurate in that regard. When the holdfasts seat, the contact moves closer to the shaft. The higher curve makes more allowance for that movement. I suppose that’s why so many of the traditional designs had more of a ‘C’ shaped curve. I have also started making the reach a bit longer, and maybe improved the tapers a bit. I think that the main issue with grabbiness is the reach, and that comes back to the contact area on the pad.”
If you are interested in getting a set of handmade holdfasts from Koontz, the best way to reach him to discuss orders and pricing is through his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s nice to see someone’s work continue to evolve and improve over the years, even if it does make me feel a bit old.
— Christopher Schwarz
Holdfasts are one of the most important bench accessories. And they are indispensable when using a traditional workbench. My book “Workbenches: From Design & Theory to Construction & Use” discusses how to use these tools at some length is available at a very good price in the ShopWoodworking store.