Harbor Freight Clamps One Year Later - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Harbor Freight Clamps One Year Later

 In Shop Blog, Woodworking Blogs

A year ago I wrote about the demise of America’s clamp manufacturers and my choice to try a few inexpensive alternatives for the obsolete Pony, Wetzler and the like. We decided to buy a few types of Harbor Freight clamps and give them a try. A year of use has passed and here are my thoughts on the matter.

  • Harbor Freight F-Clamps. We got six small clamps and I have to say that they work like a charm. The price is very affordable ($3 each)  and the materials they are made of, together with the reliable construction makes these clamps feel and perform very well.
  • Harbor Freight Aluminum Bar Clamp. These clamps are very handy when clamping boards edge to edge to make wide panels. In addition, they are excellent for holding workpieces in some planning situations, especially when you don’t have bench dogs and other jigs. I was introduced to this method via Paul Sellers. To strengthen his Aluminum clamps Paul inserts into the extruded bar a wooden beam. Following Paul’s idea, I made oak and ash inserts for our clamps too. The other advantage of these inserts is that they inoculated the bars from being crushed or buckling when clamped in the vise. I shaped my inserts on the table saw and milled a wide groove along their top edge to accommodate the bar’s teeth row. Rubbing some wax on the wooden beam made inserting it easier.  

In the pictures and video below you can see how we use these clamps when shaping stool legs for our 8th-grade project. 

  • The C-Clamps that we got from HF proved to be a success too. These cast iron and steel clamps are as simple and straightforward as can be. By the way, they have a fine-medium Acme screw thread. If you get such clamps or any clamp for that matter remember to oil and grease their moving as necessary.
  • The HF Ratcheting Bar Clamp…ouch. These ended up as a total disaster. The pump-action mechanism has an unreliable clutch plate that kept slipping. I will try to fix them by corrugating the bar (see my blog entry about reforming bar clamps here) in hope that I can save them. 

– Yoav Liberman


Evaluating Used Hand Tool Condition


Cover of Woodshop FurnishingsWoodshop Furnishings Digital Edition
By The Editors of Popular Woodworking

Trick out your shop with 7 inexpensive projects!

We’ve gathered seven articles from past issues of Popular Woodworking Magazine and Woodworking Magazine to help you add storage and efficiency to your workshop, at little cost. Most of these shop projects are built using inexpensive dimensional lumber or plywood, and can be completed in just a few hours. And all of them will help you make your workshop work better!

$30 Lumber Rack
by Christopher Schwarz
There’s no need to buy expensive brackets of build bulky shelves to store lumber. Here’s an inexpensive and flexible system that’s simple to build and takes up little space in your shop.

Mobile Clamp Cart
by Robert W. Lang
From F-style clamps to cabinet-assembly clamps to handscrews, this small cart puts the clamps you need within easy reach.

Benchtop Router Table Stand
by Troy Sexton
Build this smart shop cabinet that puts your router table at a comfortable working height, plus creates lots of space to store your bits.

The Butterfly Horse
by Don Williams
Make this clever and sturdy workholding device – it’s easy to fold and stow away when not in use. Better yet, make two.

A Better Miter Saw Stand
by Robert W. Lang
This inexpensive and practical workstation for the miter saw combines stationary and rolling stands, material storage racks and a convenient place for scrap.

Traditional Sawbench
by Christopher Schwarz
An essential shop fixture, this cross between a sawhorse and workbench will quickly become a dependable assistant – particularly if you saw by hand (or need a place to sit).

Storage & Assembly Bench
by David Thiel
This handy rolling assembly bench provides ample room for storage, and features a sturdy, height-adjustable top that makes a great extra work surface or outfeed table.

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Showing 27 comments
  • don1cobb

    I found that using a cutoff wheel on my Dremel was a great way to score the bar on the HF clamps. I was able to put small indentations very close together. It worked just fine. Thanks for the tip, save have a bunch of unused clamps around. Now I just need to stock up on cutoff wheels.

  • Archer Yates

    I bought into what Paul Sellers said and quickly became dissatisfied . They are prone to sticking and the small screw drive clamp is a wimp. The pipe clamps by Bessey are about $12.00 from Amazon and the 3/4 inch black pipe is rather inexpensive if you get the longer lengths and get them to cut it for you. I just bought the shorter lengths. They are way better than Harbor Freight. I don’t like the Harbor Freight clamps.

    • Cuttingboard78

      Second that motion… HF clamps are junk unless you only do light duty work. I make cutting boards and tried the bar clamps. Most broke in a couple of months or would not grip the 3/4 pipe and were useless.
      F-style work for holding a piece where minimal pressure is needed but bow under any stress.
      The quick clamps are also ok for very light work but very unreliable so have trashed them all.
      I have not tried the bar clamps but since others were crap I avoided the cash waste and potential disappointment. I will not waste my money on any of the HF clamps moving forward….

  • Psychoccu1

    Sorry Yoav, but you misunderstood my meaning I think. It seems to me you must be a paid HF spokesperson. To put it more plainly, yes, in fact the vast majority of ALL HF products are JUNK! That is not at all to say that everything they sell is, but all of the clamps, battery operated power tools, tape measures & other so called precision measuring devices just to name a few is garbage in a waste of money for even single use. The tape measures for instance over a 20′ span are always inaccurate between 1/8″ to 5/16″ when checked against a quality tape. UNACCEPTABLE!! The few things that I do purchase from HF are grinding disks, some of the recipricating saw blades seem to be okay & I did purchase a .75 HP electric motor that the price was disabled on, with the 20% off super coupon I got it for $80. I put this motor on a 2″ X 72″ belt grinder I built. It has worked well so far. Like I said one MUST be extremely choosey as to what one purchases from HF. All of my Friends type bar clamps are quality clamps from Bessey & other brands but I always get them on sale. I never pay full price. I bought some 40″ F type bar clamps from Menards which are guaranteed for life, I paid $16 a piece for them. They are usually priced at more than $47 each. HF can’t touch that for price or quality for brand new clamps.
    The bottom line is you can praise HF stuff all you want but junk is still junk no matter how shiney it is or how much you tell other people it’s not. You can’t change the factual nature of a thing. It’s kind of like people who believe evolution is a fact when it has actually been scientifically disproven more times than people can count. Lies are still lies no matter how much perfume you pour on it. It still stinks like you know what. Nuf said!

    • stumpynubs

      You lost me when you accused him of being paid by Harbor Freight. Why can’t people just state their point of view without questioning the motives and integrity of those with whom they disagree? You may or may not have had a valid point, but it is entirely lost in the rude tone of your response.

      • michalofsky

        STUMPY
        i have the feeling that psycho was not being rude
        he was being sarcastic
        i have many many clamps of all sizes and shapes
        more than i need
        i would never dirty my clamp racks with chinese/asian claims
        i may pay a bit more but
        i feel i am supporting the american mfr
        that being said
        the jets c-clamps are of a decent quality
        a quality that HF would not carry
        i once bought from HF clamp pads
        they are not bad and reasonably priced
        other than that
        i wont even look at a HF ad
        btw i am a woodworking hobbyist
        michael michalofsky

    • Yoav Liberman
      Yoav Liberman

      Rest assure Psychoccu1, HF did not pay me, or my school’s (woodworking program) a dime for writing my review. We were not given or promised tools for free, nor any kind of discount. We bought the clamps at full price via the internet. In addition, I have no connection nor obligation to write anything in favor of HF. And lastly, my publishers did not asked me to write about the HF clamps either. My review was about the tools as used in our class room. It did not say that the clamps are superior to industrial quality clamps such as the one made in Spain, Germany, India or China. I did say that the F-clamps, the Aluminum, and the C-clamp are preforming very well after a year of use. If you recall, my review also scolded HF for the quick action clamps. Thats it. I wish Adjustable clamp Co, Wetzler, and Hartford Clamp Co. had not closed down shop. But unfortunately they did. And remember, we woodworking teachers are fiduciaries of our school’s budget and need to decide carefully how to spent it. There are a lot of good considerations to process when buying tools for a school’s shop, and price is one of the most important one to put into the algorithm.

  • gjknotek

    Thanks, Yoav. Your evaluation of the clamps value is very good, as far as it goes, and will no doubt provide valuable insights to woodworkers who consider price the most important factor in purchasing their tools. However, you seem to have left out issues of primary importance to me, and others who want to live in a world that provides adequate wages, safe working conditions, and environmental protections. I admit I don’t know who produces all of the goods Harbor Freight sells, and don’t know about the clamps specifically, but I do know that a lot of the products they sell are made in countries where manufacturers pay extremely low wages, expose their workers to hazardous working conditions, and are allowed to foul the air and water that we all rely on. When I was a kid my Dad taught me that if the price looks too good to be true, there is probably a catch. And in this case the catch is something that may actually compromise our long-term self-interest, and ironically, cost us more money tending to the collateral damages. I would hope the journalistic standards of Popular Woodworking would include more comprehensive evaluations of the products that are endorsed. In my opinion, as someone who has been a woodworker for over thirty years, it is far too late given the status of the planet, and frankly too easy with the access we all have to information, for us not to make well informed decisions in our purchases. Setting all of this aside, I honestly do appreciate your writing, and look forward to more in the future. Thank you.

    • Yoav Liberman
      Yoav Liberman

      Hi gjknotek,
      Your approach is both ethical and practical and you really bring forward paramount points to consider when buying any product. In the case of the clamps:
      As far as I know the only light-weight bar clamps out there, of the HF style, are made in countries whose manufacturing and labor laws are in need of drastic improvement. Though the USA still have one good aluminum bar clamp manufacturer, we need to remember that it cost more then twice then the HF, plus it did not fit our woodshop/classroom needs for reasons that I will explain down the road in a separate blog entry. So I was left with the “Developing Countries” option…
      On that token we should also remember that the situation with F-Clamps, and C-clamps out there is not that bright either. Of all the makers that I know of, whose products are sold in the USA, only Bessey and two Spanish manufactures makes clamps in “Developed Countries”. But even here one need to read the product’s label carefully. Though Bessey still have a lot of manufacturing in Germany, when buying their pipe clamps, basic F-clamps and a few other models one will discover that they are made in “Developing Countries” such as China. Recently I bought for us a few small F-Clamps, made in Spain and sold in the USA by Rockler. They are of impressive quality but are very expansive compare to the HF F-Clamps. I will write about them too so stay tuned.
      Best,
      Yoav

      • gjknotek

        Thank you for the thoughtful and informative reply, Yoav. I will look forward to your future writings. It must be gratifying to combine your excellent skills as a woodworker with your skills as a fine journalist.
        Cheers,
        George

  • Kelly Craig

    I have something north of 150 clamps. About 20 or so are Besseys, at least 20 are Pony’s, there’s a Jorgenson or two and a whole lot of HF F clamps.

    Over the years, only one of my HF F clamps broke and it was an easy fix. Then there is that a couple more got dissected and turned into built in jig clamps. Sure was nice to destroy a $2.00 clamp, rather than a $10.00 one.

    I avoid many of the HF clamps, other than for site work, where they might disappear. But the F clamps are gold, as are the wood jawed Jorgenson types. I even like the aluminum ones, but they are not my most trusted clamps, by any means. For sincere work, it’s still the Pony pipes or the Bessy K’s.

    I do plan on test driving a Jet and Irwin version of the K’s in the future.

    • michalofsky

      jet c-clamps are excellent
      i have many and
      they are equivalent to pony and brinks and cotton in quality
      in my opinion and
      i guess i must be an elitist because
      i will not own a pipe clamp or
      buy any clamps from HF
      do you enjoy woodworking with cheap tools
      i dont
      michael michalofsky

  • BigBadBuford

    I’ve had basically the same experience with the HF clamps. The F-style clamps are at least equal to my Bessys and actually have less flex than my Jorgensons. I agree the ratcheting clamps are junk, every one I’ve had has broken. Mine didn’t slip, but the plastic heads always snapped. Some of their other specialty clamps are half decent too like the band clamps and the toggle clamps are nice for making jigs.

  • John

    I have a variety of clamps from Bessey, to Harbor Freight to Pony and some so old I don’t know their origin. Other than the garage/estate sale dollar buys the HF clamps have proven to be an exceptional bargain. I do test each one before purchase for ease of operation and then once in the shop for clamping power but I would probably do that with any clamp purchases. For the money they are an excellent bargain!

  • AlanWS

    I have a similar but different take on HF clamps. Some of the quick-action clamps work very well, but a few have cross-threaded parts or don’t work well for another reason. Check them out soon after you get them because they don’t do the quality control that would be needed for a consistent product. They have a good return policy, so if you are willing to do the quality check for them, you can get a reasonable product for a low price.

    I agree that the HF ratcheting bar clamps are a total disaster.

    I don’t agree about wood inserts in the aluminum clamps. To me the primary virtue of those clamps is their very light weight; pipe clamps are superior if you don’t mind them being heavy. The aluminum bars are strong enough that over tightening will let you break the fittings before bending the aluminum (yes, I’ve done it). So the only advantage in my mind to a wooden insert is to make it crush proof, which I suppose you might want in one of them.

    • Yoav Liberman
      Yoav Liberman

      Hi Alan,
      Thank you for your comments. I found that adding the extra wooden bar weight to the clamp is negligible. The clamp remains a very handy light weighted clamp after that. When I negotiated which aluminum clamp to get, I also considered the well built Dubuque Clamp Company products which are the best in terms of strength. But at the end of the day the price dictated to us the low cost HF.

  • AircooledAddict

    For the ratcheting bar clamps, I found that some would work and some would not. Removing the rubber on the release trigger got them all working. The release trigger appears to have been dipped in in a rubber/plastic coating which goes too far up the trigger. This rubber build up seems to keep the release mechanism slightly engaged. Removing the rubber stops that problem.

  • Psychoccu1

    Like anything one may desire to purchase from HF one must be extremely choosey. I heartily disagree with Mr. Liberman on the quality of any of the clamps available from HF. I have used these extensively both personally & professionally. The c-clamps are very poorly made from cheap very soft cast pot metal. They very easily warp or bend out of square when tightened to even moderate pressures rendering them completely useless. I have other quality f-type bar clamps from other vendors & compared to the ones from HF the HF clamps are garbage. Put it like this. If you have to modify a brand new tool in order to make it into a useful device that won’t brake the first time you use it, then why would an intelligent person buy the product. That’s just plain STUPID! I have also looked into purchasing the ratcheting bar clamps, just put it this way, one would be better off using a couple rubber bands to hold your project together over these things. As the saying goes you get what you pay for. If your only planning on using these clamps one time it may be worth it, but for repeated use you’ll be better off going to Sears. Theirs aren’t worth the $ but far far better than any clamps you can get from HF. I don’t personally own any clamps from Sears or HF. I usually get quality stuff from Rockler or other wood working supply store. Again you get what you pay for. Garbage in garbage out. Quality clamps on your hard work will ensure a quality product when it’s done.

    • Yoav Liberman
      Yoav Liberman

      I am happy we can agree at least on the quick action clamps. But I disagree that across the board all HF clamps are garbage. The clamps that I gave a positive review to do well in our shop. I agree that C-clamps from cast iron are not as strong as drop forge steel clamps, and if put to intensive use, such as in welding situations, may deteriorate. But for most woodworking operations they work great. By the way, because in my school’s wood shop there is a need for premium drop forged steel C-clamps, I recently went ahead and ordered a few by Yost. These are great, possibly the best that money can buy. Lastly, the F-clamps, the aluminum bar clamps and the cast Iron C-clamps that HF carries are sold under a few other brand names around the world, and seem to be made by the same tier of factories in China and the like. We have to remember that all these clamps are intended for medium to light duty use and should be considered as such. Modifying the aluminum bar clamps is necessary for the kind of work that we do (see images and video). If you don’t intend to squeeze them in a vise you probably can avoid the modification. However, adding the wood does reduce their tendency to bend when incorporating them into the traditional work of panel making. Please remember that these products cost a fraction of the cost of the more reputable brands, and should not be compared to them. Also, stay tuned to my review on the Yost C-clamp in the coming weeks.

      • Ray

        I checked the Rockler site for their offering on 6″ “F” style clutch 2-1/2″ jaw clamps that sell for $16.99. Not sure where their clamps originate but I suspect they may be imported. I am not a big fan of Harbor Freight tools but I believe their 6″ “F” clamps are quite serviceable and at $2.99 you can get five of them for the price of one Rockler’s Sure-foot clamp. I have collected numerous Bessy parallel clamps over the years as I needed them and they are very high quality heavy duty clamps, probably more than I really need for my work. I have not tried the other HF clamps or the “F” style in longer lengths than the 6″.

        • Yoav Liberman
          Yoav Liberman

          Hi Ray, Thanks for your comment. We have not tried the Rockler brand F-clamp (Sure-Foot® F-Style Clamps), however I believe that they have some great features. I am talking about the broad based jaws that allows them, literally, to stand up, and the convenient clutch plates’ release lever. However, we did buy a different high-quality and more expansive F-clamp from Rockler. Last June we got the made in Spain Piher ZMM F-Style Piston Clamps at 12″ and 8″ length. They are well made clamps which I intend to feature in a future blog posting.

    • gjs

      Have used F clamps 6 inch to 24 inch for seven years. When the grey plastic pad covers wear out I apply leather discs to the pads. They are quick, versatile, and I can apply them with one hand when needed. I do not recommend any “plastic ratcheting clamp” whatever name is embossed on it.
      Anyone who can fracture a metal “C” clamp on wood needs to reassess their technique ( clamp to small for the job, or more torque than necessary).

      • Yoav Liberman
        Yoav Liberman

        Thanks for sharing the pad retrofitting tip, and for your wise comment on over tightening of C-clamps.

    • dadugan

      “STUPID” is bending or warping C-clamps. You obviously don’t know how to use a C-clamp. “STUPID” is using something “extensively” before figuring out it is not up to your needed application. “STUPID” is saying “personally & professionally” it implies you are using tools differently based on where you are (home or work) or what you are working on (income producing or not). “STUPID” is this statement, “I have also looked into purchasing the ratcheting bar clamps, just put it this way, one would be better off using a couple rubber bands to hold your project together over these things.” Even more “STUPID” is going on to contradict yourself by saying, ” If your only planning on using these clamps one time it may be worth it,” And the most “STUPID” thing I heard from you was, ” I don’t personally own any clamps from Sears or HF.” You should have started with that line, then I wouldn’t have had to read the rest of your drivel. YOu are the definition of, “Garbage in garbage out.”

  • Ray

    I too have purchased the small “F” clamps. I figured at $3 each it was worth the effort to see how they would work out. They have performed well.

  • dmurawsky

    Thanks for the followup and the great wood insert idea!
    I use these F clamps all the time. I was honestly surprised at how decent they are.

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