The holdfast

Holdfasts are the rats in the shop whack-a-mole game. The frustration getter-ridder-offer. To be serious: they do one thing superbly well, and they are named accordingly. They hold. They are fast.

Work holding is important for the outcome. If the piece flies all over the place, you’ll end up re-stocking your fire wood pile. While that’s a good thing in and of itself, better save that for the offcuts or logs intended for that purpose (as if we EVER haven’t grabbed a piece of firewood, cradled it and whispered “you poor thing, come with me to the shop!”). On the other hand, we woodworkers do have the nicest kindling…

There are a lot of different methods to work holding. Clamps, the vise, vise and dogs in dogholes (wuff!), pinch dogs hammered into the workbench surface, bench knives, planing stops of different styles and so on. And the holdfast. To me, a work holding method needs to meet two requirements (for frequent use):

  1. Hold the piece firmly without it slipping on me.
  2. It has to be fast in use.

There is no way I want to spend time spinning a handle or fiddle around with clamps unless I don’t have a choice. I want to slap the piece onto the bench and get going with the task at hand, not fighting a complicated setup or inefficient thingamabobs I need to get just right in order for them to work.

I also do NOT want to take a gatling gun to the bench like those universal work tables that look like a slice of fine Swiss cheese! Imagine bumping a box of small screws on that thing? I would have to mount some sort of pool ball return gizmo underneath (BUSINESS IDEA ALERT!!!).

Woody’s hand made Caskets – you stab’em, we slab’em, this is eightball talkin’. How may I direct your call?

I can understand that such a top would be beneficial in certain situations, but for the most part they are a solution to a problem that’s not really there. At least in my shop. Of course, your mileage may vary and I fully respect that.

It is just that the marketing departments knows how to tickle the two cells in our brain that says “shiiiiinyyyyy – want!” (there can’t be that many more cells…). The multifunction work holding wondermarveltable SEEMS like a revolution (and of course they do work well), but for over ten grand (NOK) it better make my dovetails for me! Ten grand for some aluminium and a sacrificial top. A top that costs a couple of grand. For a slice of MDF with holes in it.
I might be overly critical and it might be the thing that redefines sliced bread, but I do not buy it. The alleged redefinition nor the table.

Please note: for power tool work, the methods and demands for work holding is a bit different than working with hand tools. With hand tools, I find that I often pick the work piece up to check my progress, alignment and so on. Fire up powertools, and the work piece should be one with bedrock unless you want to have splinters flying about.

I do have a couple of holes in my bench, and I suspect there will be a couple more over time – but I want as few as possible. I have holes for my planing stops, which also doubles as holdfast holes, and a few holes strategically placed so that I can use a holdfast along the length of the bench (it is 200 cm long). Add a batten, and you have (almost) all the flexibility you need.

So, how does it work then?

An image is worth a thousand words, so here’s the wall of encyclopediae for you – how a holdfast works.

Drop it in a hole, position it on the work piece then welly the fear of God into it. To release, give it a good whack in the “neck” so to speak. It is so quick!

The holdfast works by pivoting in the hole until it becomes stuck. The shaft then bends while being pushed down, which creates downwards pressure at the tip. The shaft is slightly undersized for the standard 19mm hole (3/4”).

Image credit Wikipedia / L’Art du Menuisier by André Jacob Roubo

How to protect the surfaces from damage

There is a risk of denting or marking your work with the holdfast, so here’s a couple of ideas on how to remedy that:

Some random piece of wood underneath the holdfast protects the surface.

A small piece from the shavings bin is really all you need to avoid dents and marks from the holdfast. But let us improve on that:

A slightly longer piece of prospective kindling gets a 19mm hole in one end, a bit of sanding to ease any sharp corners and make its edges smooth. Great way to keep the piece of wood from being lost in a pile of shavings. Perhaps fasten a piece of string or rubber string looped around the tip of the holdfast to keep it in place.

A slightly more involved solution would be a leather sleeve. Here’s how to make one (scroll through the images and see the description): Cut a piece of about 5mm thick leather. An old belt would work too, but I would avoid any tanned / coloured leather in case the colour rubs off. Make the piece wide enough by pinching the leather on both sides of the holdfast end. You want a rather tight fit.

The brown mark shows where the pressure was located when I tried it out. Should the leather become slippery, a stroke or two with 240 grit sand paper should suffice. I dragged the whole work bench while testing if this would work well. I doubt the leather will slip.

The holdfast and a batten

This technique is very old – I’ve learned it is described in Roubo’s L’art du Menuisier. But it was Richard that taught it to me in this article.

A batten get a notch in one end, at 45 degrees. A bit off-center. The notch is placed at one corner of the board you want to support, and a holdfast secures the batten. The work piece is supported against a planing stop or a dog at the other end. I’ll let the images and a video demonstrate this better.

In this image, a holdfast acts as a dog at the left corner.

Here’s how to make the batten:

I drilled a 19mm hole for hanging the thing on the wall. 19mm. That means I can put a holdfast through it should it be needed. Probably unnecessary, but why not? Anyway, I made a quick video of how this setup works:

I give credit where credit is due. Thank you, Richard, for showing this. I have not tested this in a work situation yet (the video is my first try), but just from the test in the video I know this really works. Now I have a batten on the wall, and the next time I need to support something I know what I’ll use.

No need to be fancy about this. Any piece of scrap will do nicely. When the batten gets toasted, make another. Make a short one. Maybe a really long one? It doesn’t matter. This is infinitely adjustable. The best part: no need for a tail vise! This makes it so easy to work – the work piece can be lifted for inspection then slapped down and off you go, without any twisting or spinning of handles. Priceless!

You can glue some sand paper to the batten to increase the grip. It will scratch your bench, but who cares? It is a WORK BENCH, not the sacred home altar to thumb twiddling.

My planing stops, my holdfasts – and now my batten. Add the vise, and there is not much I cannot hold on the bench!

The holdfasts are stored on the wall directly behind me when I’m working at the bench, in a nice piece of burma teak. Me like it purdy around meself!

The Viking version

I ordered two holdfasts from a Norwegian Viking named Kristian Elsness (he even looks the part with a manly Vikingly beard!) who does hand forging and metalwork as a hobby. It is really nice to use a hand-made item in stead of mass produced things, so when he offered to make them for me I could not resist. His price was as modest as his nature, too.

Hand forging a holdfast, image honestly stolen from the Facebook post of Elsness, the Viking hammer flailer.

The design is different than the one from Lie-Nielsen, more classical. It does perform slightly better for holding thin stock as the longer “neck” allows the holdfast to be put into tension a lot better. The shaft on the hand-forged model is in this case 9.5 cm shorter compared to the Lie-Nielsen, which gives it a bit less capacity. For the applications where a holdfast is useful, this really does not matter that much. A shorter holdfast is easier to move about on the bench. If you are going to make one or ordering one, consider your needs and get a longer version if you think you need it on a regular basis.

The holdfast needs to bend the shaft in order to apply downwards pressure, which is why the goose neck design wins over the Lie-Nielsen design. I have found that the Lie-Nielsen model wedges itself within the dog hole when I’m using it on thin pieces. That might be why one of the dog holes are a bit elongated now – or it could be just the material in my bench. I have to smack the thing pretty hard to get it to hold in such cases. I can work around the issue by putting a piece of scrap between the holdfast and the work piece, but that impacts the speed when fastening or loosening. On thicker stock, there is no noticeable difference in holding performance.

When I loosen the holdfast, there’s a remarkable difference! The Lie-Nielsen can be a bit hard to release, whereas the hand forged one almost leaps out of the hole! Which is good. Loosening the Lie-Nielsen holdfast can often be quite the experience. I have to pull on it with one hand while whacking it with a hammer in the other hand. I have to be a bit careful lest I want to sing the “I got the owie” blues.

This can of course be a problem that only applies to my workbench. I’ve noticed that the dog holes are a bit oblonged now. Soft pine does not like the holdfast, it seems. Should that turn out to be a problem, I’ll just inlay a block of hardwood where the problematic dogholes are.

The difference in texture on the shafts

The Lie-Nielsen holdfast is made from cast ductile iron. The surface finish seems to be from sand mold, with some grindmarks here and there. The hand forged version has a hammered texture. The steel is quenched in oil, which blackens it and gives some rust protection. Both provides good friction in the dog holes. Should that change, I can add texture to the shafts with a steel punch in order to increase friction against the walls of the hole.

The conclusion: Both models works nicely. Either one will serve you well, but the goose neck version is slightly better when it comes to holding thin stock. Again, these findings might be relevant for my bench only – but it seems logical to me. The longer neck means longer arm, which enables more tension and thus more pressure. On material thicker than 5 cm (about 2”), I haven’t noticed any differences.

I prefer the hand-forged ones over the Lie-Nielsen for three reasons:

  1. Better performance on thin stock
  2. A lot easier to release
  3. It is hand made, and it work as good as or better than the commercially made version.
  4. Also, it is HAND MADE! Just for me. Kristian spent time and energy making something for me. Yes, I commissioned the pieces – but still he made them for ME. That is something truly special.

The Lie-Nielsen holdfast is a very nice product, and I give it my recommendation too. You will not regret buying one. But do consider a local blacksmith first.

The one gripe I do have with the Lie-Nielsen, apart from the poor performance with thin stock due to the design, is the finish. The seemingly haphazard grinding here and there does not look good. The finish on the grinding on the “head” is uneven and sloppy. From a manufacturer who is known for their quality products, this is unacceptable to me. I paid just slightly more for two hand made holdfasts than the single mass-produced one. Factoring in the freight, tax and profit for the reseller, one hand made costs about the same as a mass produced one. Lie-Nielsen could spend 30 seconds more on each one to make them a bit nicer. But I cannot hold that against them since it would only be cosmetic value.

Summary

A holdfast is a great way to secure your work. It is lightning fast to use. Add a batten, and it borders on mind-blowing how versatile they are. When you need to pick up the work to inspect it, and at the same time you need the piece to stay put while working on it, nothing comes close. Butt your work up to a strip of wood held by two holdfasts to make a split top style situation – anywhere on the top! See? Versatile! Drill a hole in the leg of your bench and use a holdfast both as a support while setting up and to clamp the piece to the leg. Just remember that you need between 5 and 10cm (1.5” – 2”) thickness for them to work. They may work on thicker benches too, but at some point you will have to drill out the bottom portion of the hole so the holdfast can pivot. On thinner areas, such as the aprons, you can add a piece of wood behind the area where you want the dog hole.

In the image above, my holdfasts are placed in their holder on the wall. Ready to be used and abused.

One of their finest qualities is the fact that you can actually beat them into submission. It’s sorta their thing…

4 thoughts on “The holdfast

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