Note: If you follow this blog, you are in for a bit of unusual activity. The next subject is spread over six posts, and I am going to upload them over the course of the next six days. If you like woodworking, it’s a great chance to express your opinions in the comments. If you don’t like woodworking, hang on until next week – thanks for following!
I was going to include clamps under hand tools. When I ran out of room there, I thought I would include them under shop accessories. Then I realized that clamps deserve their own entry so this five-part series evolved into six parts. Clamps serve two main purposes in your shop, holding things together while the glue dries and holding parts to a work surface while you work on them. I’ll tackle the second subject first, and I’ll talk about things that are clamp-like, vises.
Every shop needs at least one woodworking vise. These differ from machine or metal working vises in that they have wide, usually wood-lined jaws and they aren’t just mounted to a workbench, they become part of your workbench. Woodworking vises normally include a retractable pin in the moving jaw that can be used in conjunction with dogs that are let into your workbench to grip large items like table tops or panels while you sand them. If you don’t have this option available, you will spend hours rigging up work-around solutions. Vises can range in price from cheap and useless to somewhat expensive and generally helpful to outrageously expensive amazing devices. Generally, you get what you pay for as you invest in a vise. I use the word invest, because you will have a good vise forever. If you’re starting out, start with a 7-9” vise from the middle of the price range, or consider buying a vise in kit form that might be fun to build. Either way, buy one that is good enough to keep.
Clamps are portable vises; they come in an ever-widening variety of shapes, mechanisms and materials, and you will probably be buying new clamps as long as you practice woodworking. But, if you are just starting, there are a few clamps you should have, and there are some economical ways to acquire them.
Pipe / Bar Clamps – These clamps are long and exert their pressure along their linear dimension between one fixed and one adjustable jaw. The fixed jaw includes the screw to apply pressure; the adjustable jaw allows you to accommodate varying width material. For case work panels, table tops and for aiding in assembly, I would start with 4’ clamps in groups of three. You can make relatively inexpensive ¾” pipe clamps that will hold most anything without deforming under pressure. If you need more pressure than this to close the gap on two boards, you’re not done preparing the surfaces to be mated. Buy these in groups of three so you can alternate top and bottom and keep your panels from bowing under pressure. You can also buy much more expensive parallel jaw clamps, but… For assembly work, I would add some lightweight aluminum bar clamps because they are much easier to hold in position midway up the side of a bookcase.
F-Clamps – These are ok for lightweight assembly, but great for holding things to a work surface. Split your money here; buy a few high quality F-clamps in the 12-18” range which will be in near constant use in your shop. Then buy some longer ones as you can. Generally, I would say that you should always buy good clamps if they go on sale, because you can never have too many clamps! I like the age-old standard Jorgenson F-clamps. You can spend more on other brands, but I have a hard time justifying the extra expense. I have some Jorgenson clamps that are over 30 years old with no problems to report.
Spring Clamps – Many years ago, I would have included these in the next section, but these days, I don’t know how I lived without a wide selection of spring clamps. These are great for holding things together during assembly. My favorite use is to hold perfect 90° angle braces in place during drawer and case work assembly.
Hand Screws and Band Clamps – These are both clamps that you won’t use nearly as often as the ones listed above, but when you need these, there is no substitute for the real thing. Again, for hand screws, I like Jorgensen, but the first set that I owned were 12” ones that I built from a kit. That is a fun project that I would recommend. I have 8” and 6” hand screws, and I bought them all while they were on sale. A very nice use of hand screws is to fasten one to the bottom of a panel and then clamp the hand screw to your workbench with an F-clamp to hold the panel upright. This is why you can never have enough clamps. Band clamps are for holding irregular shapes together, and for holding case work that is joined with box joints or other decorative joints like through-mortises where direct pressure is impossible. Band clamps are inexpensive, so buy yourself a set of four.