The Different Flavors of Clamps

April 13, 2013 § 6 Comments

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I’ve collected different types of clamps over the years. Some I like better than others. For some reason clamp pressure and gluing seem to be a contentious subject with woodworkers. I don’t have strong opinions on that subject. Maybe I don’t know enough about the physics and chemistry involved to say what’s too little or too much pressure. On the ergonomics of the different clamps themselves, however, here are my own opinions.

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F-Style Clamps. I have the ubiquitous light-duty, two-clutch plate orange Jorgensen’s you can find in any hardware store. They are quick and handy (and very inexpensive), but they have their limitations. Without those little orange plastic pads their small heads tend to tend to crush the wood a little, especially on the screw side. With the pads, they mark your wood with an oil residue. You can eliminate both these issues by taking off the pads and, with your third hand, insert a piece of scrap wood in between. Or you can add some leather to either the pads or the clamps themselves. I don’t really use them for glue-ups anymore, only to hold things onto a bench. For that they work fine, unless there is pounding or chopping involved, where they eventually come loose. I’m slowly phasing them out and replacing them with Bessey’s Tradesman cast bar clamps. These are much more robust, don’t slip as much, and the pads don’t seem to stain. They are also far more expensive than the light-duty Jorgensen’s. (Bessey manufactures clamps both in Germany and Asia, I only buy the bar clamps that read “Germany” on the clamp head). Another advantage of the Besseys is their 4″ reach (small Jorgensen’s are 2.5″), which is useful for clamping things to a bench. Now that Wetzler has closed up shop, these are some of some of the best quick-action bar clamps on the market. While more expensive than aluminum bar clamps and pipe clamps, they are also more versatile. I buy the Besseys at my local woodworking store, but Woodcraft also sells them.

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Aluminum Bar Clamps. I’m a big fan. I find these to be the perfect joinery clamps. They are light, strong, easy to use, and fairly inexpensive. A criticism from some is that they aren’t strong enough to completely crush a baby seal’s skull. To which I believe the best response comes from The Best Thing’s website, “If you need any more clamping force than these clamps can provide, you need to go back and fit your work better…“. Even with their perceived reduced strength, I think they would still work fine for laminations, the place where people like to absolutely bottom out their clamps. Made in USA, and sold through Woodcraft, The Best Things, Tools for Working Wood, and Lee Valley. I plan to buy more of these as I need them.

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Pipe Clamps. The biggest advantage of pipe clamps is their modest price. Of the four clamps I discuss here, these are the cheapest of the lot (excepting the small Jorgensen F-styles). The cost of each clamp, minus the 3/4″ pipe, is about $15. For those who don’t dumpster dive, buying the pipe raises the price of each clamp to anywhere from $20-$25. Not bad, especially when you need really long clamps. Hence the reason you see so many of these in commercial cabinet shops. They are very strong, but not the most user-friendly. The clamp heads are cast iron, and couple that with iron pipe and you have a very heavy clamp to lug around. I use black iron pipe, which needs to be covered with a layer of masking tape so it won’t stain the wood. Some use galvanized pipe to eliminate the staining. Another way to make these even cheaper – Lowe’s will cut and thread longer lengths of pipe to custom lengths for free while you wait (and wait, and wait…). I have four 36″ clamps and two around 24″ (what I got from two 10′ lengths of pipe), and unless at some point I need a really, really long clamp, these six will probably do me for this style. The orange Pony pipe clamps are made in the USA (although with Jorgensen you need to check this on a regular basis). The pipe, who knows where that is made?

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Parallel Bar Clamps. These are the big plastic-headed things that Norm Abram pulled out in every episode of the New Yankee Workshop for so many years. That show alone probably sold tens of thousands of these for Bessey, despite their high price tag (these are some of the most expensive clamps you can buy). Jorgensen ingeniously calls their versions “Cabinetmasters Clamps”. What woodworker wouldn’t want to be called a “Cabinet Master”!? I don’t care much for this style clamp. For me they are big, awkward, heavy things that are complete overkill for 99% of my clamping needs. If my business was laminating thick workbench slabs all day long, then I would have a cauldron of these. But I rarely need the deep reach of these clamps, nor their insane clamping pressure. I have a couple 24″ Bessey clamps, and I might get a couple more to help with some workbench glue-ups. Or maybe I’ll just call it good with the two I have. I am decidedly in the minority here, though, as lots of woodworkers absolutely love these clamps.

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I have a small assortment of miscellaneous clamps as well, including spring clamps, c-clamps, and a few wooden handscrews. All of those are nice to have, and inexpensive enough that you can get them as needed (I get vintage USA-made c-clamps from ebay). Wooden handscrews are especially handy, but a real pain to store. I have mine sitting on plywood blocks screwed into a post. While Jorgensen made the classic wooden handscrew, they have now moved production of those overseas. The Dubuque clamps, however, are made in USA and are reportedly very nice – sold at Lee Valley and The Best Things.

There are obviously all kinds of other specialty clamps – miter clamps for picture frames, band clamps for boxes, etc. And the small maple cam clamps look especially useful if you just need a quick third hand. If those little clamps aren’t simple enough for you, Stephen Shepherd sells this one. Many woodworkers like the quick-grip clamps (I think they are now made by Irwin). I haven’t tried those yet, though I see the advantage of the one-handed operation.

The brands I’ve noted here are some of the most popular ones out there, and are made in either North America or, in Bessey’s case, Germany. I realize there are less expensive Asian-made knock-offs of all these types. I’m just not interested in those. Now I try to be positive on this blog and not completely disparage anything, especially when it comes to tools as they can be quite personal for some. But I will share one experience I had recently with a very inexpensive clamp. This particular F-style clamp was blue and gray and sold at a place that rhymes with “Harbor Freight”. After two days of fighting using these, I was ready to chuck them all into the Willamette River. They are the epitome of false economy. Save your pennies and buy good quality clamps as you need them.

More:
Though I haven’t tried these, Craig Feuerzeig created the BowClamp, ingenious clamping cauls that are used with standard F-style clamps. A few of these and some F-style clamps could drastically reduce the number of clamps needed in a small shop.

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§ 6 Responses to The Different Flavors of Clamps

  • Nice review. I have all of yours with the exception of the aluminum ones. I’ve been watching Paul Sellers use the harbor freight version and he does it all with just them.
    How long have you been using your aluminum clamps?
    I really like my besseys for gluing up face frames and doors. I think they are a great aid in getting and keeping everything square.

    • Brian Eve says:

      I wholeheartedly agree with avoiding dubious cheap clamps if you can avoid them. I think it is great that a company like Lee Valley stopped carrying Jorgensen because since they moved production to Asia, quality seems to be inconsistent. Those of us who are forced to do most of our shopping online don’t really get a chance to compare brands before we buy. Price shouldn’t be the only concern.

      • Eric Bushèe says:

        Hi Brian,

        The Jorgensen thing is unfortunate. I guess a company has to do what it needs to survive. Some of their products are still made here, but I fear that it’s a slippery slope. I wonder if 10 years from now we’ll be seeing their whole product line being made elsewhere.

        Just because you live in Europe doesn’t mean you’re different than the rest of us when it comes to shopping online. In North America we are in much the same boat. Oh how I wish I could walk into a store and pick up and use tools from all the manufactures. Woodworking in America is as close to that as you can get, but only a tiny fraction of the woodworking community can attend those events. I was lucky enough to go to one last year, and there is certainly a benefit to seeing things in person, and as you say, compare one tool to another. But most of the time, I’m going on recommendations from others, reputation, etc. And yes, price is only part of the decision.

        -Eric

        • Brian Eve says:

          I agree the Jorgensen thing is sad. But, as long as a company like that or one like Nicholson can sell crappy versions of their good, old products for a higher profit, many companies will choose to go that route. It is up to us consumers to send a message that we still appreciate quality, and vote with our wallet.

          • Eric Bushèe says:

            I completely agree, but I think we are in the minority. Most people tend to use price as the main criteria for buying things. Hence the explosion of cheap junk in the market. At some point we may wake up and see that our throw-away attitude to materials is a bad thing.

            I try not to be too uppity about buying expensive tools, though. Some woodworkers just can’t afford a Lie Nielsen jointer plane or Blue Spruce marking knife, and I completely understand that. I would rather see a debt-free woodworker happily building things with old Stanleys or Wood River planes and an exacto knife than see someone spend money they don’t have just to keep up with the Jones’.

            -Eric

    • Eric Bushèe says:

      Hi Ralph,

      I’ve seen how Paul Sellers modifies those inexpensive aluminum clamps. It seems like a lot of time and effort to make a lesser quality tool work right. The Universal bar clamps are nicely made and, quite frankly, not that much more expensive than the Harbor Freight knock-offs. Plus they are made by a small firm in Iowa, and I feel good about supporting that.

      I haven’t used them too terribly long, but I would suggest picking up a couple on your next order to Lee Valley or Tools for Working Wood. I think you’ll find for face frames they work great.

      -Eric

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