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Whether your workbench has a working surface the size of a sheet of plywood or one that more nearly resembles the school desk you had in third grade, you will probably need one or perhaps several of the array of devices that have been specially adapted for bench work.
These tools are often referred to as “bench furniture.” None of them actually performs an operation like cutting or planing or shaping or fastening. But each is used to grip workpieces firmly in place so that they can be manipulated in the production process.
At the top of the list are the vises. They are built-in clamping tools that can make a great many jobs easier. Having both hands free to hold the plane, router, or other tool can make for a marked increase in precision and safety. You may be familiar with the several kinds of vises, or perhaps you think that they’re all the same. They are not, any more than all handsaws are the same.
Holdfasts, bench dogs, and shooting boards are next. These perform what you might call supporting roles, in many cases, to the vises. There are time proven varieties and newer designs and innovations, some of wrought iron, others of wood, and still others a combination of both. Whatever their age and raw material, these tools are invaluable, especially to woodworkers, once again enhancing the care and accuracy with which tools can be applied to the workpiece.
The bench hook and its near relation, the shooting board, make me wonder at the cleverness of their inventors: they’re so simple, so practical, yet so useful.
Holdfast Clamps. Some people call them holddowns. Whatever the name used, the purpose of these pieces of bench furniture is the same: to hold material fast and flat to the workbench while it is being worked.
Hold-down devices come in a variety of configurations. The classic iron holdfast is shaped like an inverted L. The leg of the L is set into a hole in the workbench top or through a hole in one of the sturdy timber legs of an antique bench; the base of the L-shaped holdfast, which often has a slight crook in its neck, rests on the workpiece. The holdfast is then struck with a hammer, driving it into the benchtop (or bench leg), wedging both itself and the workpiece firmly in place.
A more modern variation is a holdfast clamp with a screwdrive. This variety usually has a collar set into the benchtop to accommodate its shaft, though it may also bolt to the benchtop. An arm with a steel screwdrive and T bar then can be used to fasten workpieces securely. These holdfast clamps are removable, their fasteners sitting flush to the work surface.
Another variety is an adjustable screw-driven clamp. A shaft is fixed to the bench, often on the front, through a collar that allows the shaft to be pushed in or out, adjusting the gap between the arm of the clamp and the workpiece. The screwdrive beyond the elbow of the holdfast levers the arm to tighten (or loosen) the piece.
Sometimes more than one holdfast is necessary, especially on larger benches. Often they are used together with a woodworker’s vise, also mounted on the face of the bench.
The Bench Hook. If simple pleasures appeal to you, you will enjoy using the bench hook. This tool makes securing and then crosscutting a piece of stock as easy as one, two, three.
The bench hook could hardly be less complicated, consisting of two small blocks of wood (called cleats) that are joined on opposite sides and opposite ends of a piece of board. The blocks are fastened with the grain running perpendicular to the board.
Obviously, a bench hook isn’t a hook at all (it isn’t curved, and wasn’t bent, either). But one of the blocks on the contraption does hook over the front edge of a bench or other work surface.
A bench hook makes holding a piece to be cut much easier. It’s set up the moment you set it in place (unlike a vise which always requires adjustment) with one cleat flush to the front of the benchtop. You then position the workpiece to be cut tight to the other block. By holding the piece against the top cleat with one hand, you will also be holding the bench hook tight to the front of the bench. Step three is to reach for your saw and make your cut.
(Note that if you use a Japanese-made saw with a bench hook the position of the hook must be reversed, because Japanese saws cut on the pull stroke.)
Shooting Board. A near relation of the bench hook, the shooting board is also a jig used to hold workpieces firmly in place. But in this case, the operation is not cutting but planing.
This device consists of two boards two feet or longer and roughly six inches wide. They are fastened to one another, with one edge of the upper board set parallel but perhaps two inches back from the outer edge of the lower board. A block of wood is fastened perpendicular to the top board near its end to act as a stop.
To use the shooting board, clamp it between two bench stops on the benchtop. Position the workpiece flush to the stop and so that the edge to be planed protrudes slightly over the channel, or rabbet, formed by the two boards. You can then slide your plane along the rabbet with its iron held precisely square to the workpiece.