The Mystery of Holdfasts
EDITOR’ NOTE: This article was originally published in Issue 4 of “Woodworking Magazine” which was published in the fall of 2005. At that time, the current holdfasts made by Gramercy tools and sold by toolsforworkingwood.com did not exist. The Gramercy holdfasts referred to in this article were prototypes, not the current production models. Click here to read our review of the current Gramercy holdfast.
We love nothing more than to completely tear apart a tool, project or technique to figure out exactly how it works. Most of the time our efforts are rewarded with enlightenment, but in the case of holdfasts, we’re still a bit in the dark. It seems that making and using a holdfast has as much in common with art or religion as science.
Before the era of metal vises, woodworkers secured work to benches (horizontally and vertically) with holdfasts. Until the 1920s these were so common that if you saw a workbench, you would likely see a holdfast. Little was written about them because they were so common. To explain holdfasts would be akin to explaining shoes. But they eventually fell out of general use as manufacturers added mechanical gizmos to benches such as tail vises and bench dogs.
And as we found out, that’s a real shame.
Using a holdfast for the first time can be an epiphany. A good holdfast drops in a hole in your bench, and with a few light taps secures a workpiece solidly to the bench. As the holdfast’s pad hits your work, the shaft wedges itself in the hole and against your work.
It is one of the quickest, most secure and efficient methods of holding something down, whether you work with hand tools or power tools. A good pair of holdfasts is like having an extra set of super-strong hands. They can be set in a fraction of the time it takes to secure a clamp or tighten a vise, and their use soon becomes second nature. A light rap on the back of the shaft releases the holdfast’s grip on the work.
Not as Simple as it Seems
There is much about a good holdfast that is not objective. Our favorites felt good in the hand, cinched down without a severe beating, released easily and didn’t do much damage to either the hole or the workpiece. There was a clear and impressive difference in performance between the manufactured versions and the hand-forged ones. We knew what we preferred, but we really couldn’t explain why.
Separating the Wheat from the Chaff
The first holdfast we tested, an inexpensive imported model from Harbor Freight (#41885-OVGA, $3.99) was made from cast gray iron. It didn’t survive the first of our tests. It broke the first time we knocked it into a hole. Don’t waste your money on these.
The small Jorgensen (#1708) was the best performer among the mass-produced ones, but it had some quirks. It held in all thicknesses of tops we tried, but at the 3″ and 4″ thickness it would hold only if struck with a dead-blow mallet rather than a metal hammer. In the thickest tops it also performed better if struck twice on the shaft, and once halfway between the shaft and the pad. Overall, it held best in a 3/4″-diameter hole.
The angle between the shaft and the pad (82.5°) was nearly the same as that of our favorite, the hand-forged holdfast from Alaskan blacksmith Phil Koontz. At $21.99 we consider the Jorgensen #1708’s performance acceptable and the bargain of the lot.
The large Jorgensen holdfast (#1716) didn’t perform as well as its smaller brother. We found it difficult to seat in the softwood top, and the hexagonal shaft quickly deformed those holes. But it did seat easily in all thicknesses of hardwood tops. Overall, it also held best in a 3/4″-diameter hole. However, we do not recommend it because of the damage to the holes the facets of the shaft cause after very little use.
The Woodcraft Large Bench Holdfast (#145479, $19.99) was the only product we tested that had an angle greater than 90° (it was 93°) between the shaft and the pad. It also had a 7/8″-diameter shaft that wouldn’t fit in the pre-drilled holes of many commercial benches. The only hardwood thickness that we found usable was 2 1/2″, but it did hold in softwood tops up to 3″. Overall, it held best in a 7/8″-diameter hole. It might have performed better if the shaft weren’t smoothly finished and if the angle were reduced.
As a group, the manufactured holdfasts were harder to use, didn’t hold as well, and were more temperamental than the hand-made ones. Modern technology may be able to make these quickly and economically, but there’s a significant loss in performance.
There is one big exception to our conclusion about manufactured holdfasts. The Veritas Hold-Down (#05G14.01) from Lee Valley Tools always works in any thickness of benchtop in both hardwoods and softwoods. But it’s not a true holdfast. Instead of striking the device to get it to cinch and release, the Veritas Hold-Down acts by turning a large clamping knob. It’s a tad slower than the old-school tools, but it is 100 percent reliable in any 3/4″ hole thanks to its ingenious barbed shaft. And after a frustrating week of pounding ineffective holdfasts, the Veritas was most welcome.
A Blacksmith Provides Answers
Scratching our heads, we packed up our samples and headed to Paint Lick, Ky., to visit blacksmith and bodger Don Weber. Weber had agreed to make us two different kinds of holdfasts, and to share his expertise. He made them using old wrought iron right before our eyes, and after a quick quench in the water, we took the holdfasts to his adjoining woodworking shop and gave them a try. After a few walks back to the forge to tighten a bend and to slightly change an angle in each holdfast we got two examples that worked perfectly in almost all of our samples.
We realized that this back and forth between woodworker and blacksmith was probably typical when these two trades practiced in the same neighborhood. Because of this, we achieved results that were to our liking. We also realized that the decline of holdfasts probably also was tied to the disappearance of the village blacksmith. As manufacturers took over the fabrication of holdfasts, they no longer functioned as well and became less popular.
The process of hand forging alters the material used in the holdfast, and leaves it with an ideal set of properties – strong enough to be hit smartly, yet flexible enough to bend and act as a spring to hold the work. Weber contends that modern fabrication methods tend to produce a metal with a more crystalline structure that is more likely to break, and less likely to bend. The sizes and angles may be similar, but there is a world of difference in how the two types function.
Weber made us two different types of holdfasts. The version that looks like a shepherd’s hook is easier to make, and the curve makes it act like a leaf spring. The only drawback to this style is that the holdfast sticks up high on the bench and can get in the way of your tools. The second version, with the sharp bend and low profile, is more suitable for holding down a batten when planing, as it won’t interfere with the tool. Weber is willing to make custom sets for woodworkers at a reasonable price. Contact him for details.
In addition to Weber’s holdfast, we also tested a prototype that will be offered by Tools For Working Wood. This low-profile hand-forged version worked very well in both hardwood and softwood tops up to 2 1/2″ thick. Beyond that thickness, we couldn’t get it to seat. It seemed to need more of a bend in the crook, and the angle between the shaft and pad was 87.5°. It does look and feel like it belongs on a workbench, and we would recommend it for use in thinner tops. An improved version is expected to be available later this year. So stay tuned.
Phil Koontz, an Alaskan blacksmith, also provided us with a pair of hand-forged steel holdfasts that he sells for $100 a pair. These were the most reliable and easiest to use holdfasts we tested. They seated with a few light taps in all but the thickest tops. In tops thicker than 3″, they would not work in a 3/4″-diameter hole, but worked well in an 1 1/16″ hole. The angle (83°) and curve of the crook allowed them to generate a good deal of tension without much effort.
If you’re building a bench and planning to use holdfasts, don’t wait until the bench is complete to drill holes and choose one. Get your holdfast first, and experiment with different-size holes and different top thicknesses. Go ahead and invest in a nice pair of hand-forged holdfasts (or pony up for the Veritas version of this device). The difference in performance of the hand-forged holdfasts far outweighs the difference in cost compared to the mass-produced versions, and you’ll be grateful every time you use them. WM
800-871-8158 or leevalley.com
#05G14.01, $54.50 each
312-666-0640 or adjustableclamp.com
#1708, $21.99 each from many retailers
Tools for Working Wood
email@example.com or toolsforworkingwood.com
Details and price unavailable at publication date; call or e-mail for information.
859-925-9225, firstname.lastname@example.org or handcraftwoodworks.com
Hand-forged Holdfasts $45-$60 each; call or e-mail for more information.
907-656 2328, email@example.com or
P.O. Box 288, Galena, Alaska 99741
$100 per pair; call, e-mail or write for more information.
Robert W. Lang is senior editor of Woodworking Magazine and Popular Woodworking