Let me say this first: You are welcome to put a holdfast hole anywhere you please. No one will think less of you. In fact, if you are questioned by your friends as to why you put a certain hole in a certain position, you can tell them it’s a panini press.
That said, I think there’s a method to positioning your holdfast holes. First, take a look at Andre Roubo’s famous plate 11 above, which shows an 18th-century French workshop. The plates from his book, “L’Art Du Menuisier,” are important because Roubo drew them (he is listed as the illustrator on each one) and Roubo was a highly skilled woodworker.
Each bench has small differences, but I see two rows of holes on the benches. One row is near the back and a second (but more irregular) row is slightly closer to the front.
This is the arrangement I followed when I built my first French workbench in 2005.
The row near the woodworker is for joinery. You can see in the plate the woodworkers are using this row to hold their work for mortising, sawing tenon cheeks and sawing tenon shoulders.
For me, the most important hole is up by the face vise and planing stop. This is the hole that works in concert with my bench hook. It allows the pad of the holdfast to press on my work in the bench hook. Though Roubo doesn’t show a bench hook, it’s the same idea: Hold the work so you can conveniently saw it.
The second row of holes isn’t shown in use in Plate 11. But if you bore these holes you’ll decode the reason they are there. They are used (among other things) to secure battens – thin strips of wood. The battens allow you to restrain your work for planing – especially traversing. Plus they are great for holding down sticking boards for making mouldings and shooting boards for truing up long edges of boards.
On my 8’-long bench I have four holes in a row along the back edge of the bench. They are 3-1/2” from the rear edge of the benchtop. The first hole is in line with my face vise. The remainder are positioned based on the reach of my holdfasts. If you have holdfasts with an 8” reach, you can position the holes on 16” to 18” centers and provide lots of coverage.
I also have a holdfast hole at the back of my bench that holds my swing-arm lamp. And some holes in the legs – which support long boards for edge planing and press them to the front of the bench.
So that’s my reasoning. If you have a different philosophy, feel free to add it in the comments below to help your fellow woodworkers decide if their bench should be holier than thous.
— Christopher Schwarz
• Who would have thought that there is much to write about workbenches? I didn’t. Then I started writing about them and have yet to stop. This blog contains hundreds of posts on benches. Click here to start.