It seems a lot of new woodworkers are confused about what’s out there in which they should buy. This leads to a lot of wasted money. This post is intended to save you the money and the grief that comes with buying the wrong thing and to inform you about some of the specialty clamps you may not have known existed.
C-clamps used to be the go-to clamp for woodworkers metal workers pretty much everyone. And while some folks still like them I don’t find them that useful for woodworking. They’re heavy especially the bigger ones. They can be a pain to twist tight and the pads often seize up so they rotate with the screw and that twists your parts out of position as you apply pressure. C-clamps do apply a ton of pressure though but that can easily mark your workpiece if you’re not careful.
Handscrew clamps are too often dismissed as old-fashioned by modern woodworkers. The fact is they’re very useful. First, they’re strong you can exert a ton of pressure with these. Yet the wooden jaws are less likely to mark your work surfaces. The jaw angles are also adjustable making it possible to clamp tapered workpieces. They often have extra throat depth for a longer reach although the more throat depth the bigger the clamp will be. And they can be used in creative ways such as holding small parts at the router table or the drill press or holding project parts upright during assembly.
Many woodworkers buy a bunch of spring clamps because they’re inexpensive at least some of them are. And I do find them useful for some things. They’re great for light jobs where you need lots of clamps but the cheap ones don’t exert a great deal of pressure. The spring clamps can be used to keep glue surfaces aligned or jigs or clamping power cords up out of the way anywhere you want to hold something fast and remove it just as quickly. Some include ratcheting mechanisms that help them to grip tighter but it makes them less quick to use. Bandy clamps are a clever idea with little rubber bands in the throats.
F-style clamps are among the most common in small shops because they’re relatively inexpensive they’re versatile and they’re super strong. They come in various lengths and pretty lightweight. The screw head can exert a lot of force but longer lengths can bow under too much pressure and the pads can seize up like on C-clamps which makes them turn with the screw and makes it difficult to keep your parts of lines. There are versions of clamps with a piston-type mechanism that doesn’t turn as the clamp tightens. Another alternative design eliminates the screw altogether and instead has a cam or a ratcheting mechanism in the end. These are fast to set and work well but they don’t provide as much clamping pressure as the screw type and there isn’t a lot of play between the jaws which could help you force work pieces into alignment.
Pistol-grips are perhaps the most convenient clamps in my shop because you can operate them with just one hand. Good ones will apply a decent amount of pressure more than enough for most glue-ups but cheap versions will break if you tighten them too much.
Pipe clamps had been widely used for generations because they’re very strong and available in almost any length imaginable. They come in half-inch 3/4 and one-inch varieties. Weight is the biggest drawback of these. Especially the 3/4 and 1-inch versions. They’re best used for gluing up panels where you can just lay them on the bench and then put your boards on top. However, if you have a big piece of furniture and you need to force a cup or abode board into place these will do the trick because they’re that strong. The best feature is you can buy a few of the clamp mechanisms and swap them between different lengths of pipe as needed. You can even connect two or more pipes with couplings to make a super long clamp.
Bar clamps are lighter alternatives to pipe clamps. They’re pretty inexpensive and work well for panel glue-ups. The shallow throat depth makes them difficult to use for project assembly but that’s a drawback with pipe clamps as well. And they aren’t nearly as strongest pipe clamps but most edge glue ups don’t require a great deal of clamping strength.
Parallel clamps are so named because the jaws are designed to remain parallel to each other. As they tighten making them ideal for gluing boards edge to edge to make panels without forcing them to Cup. They’re strong like pipe clamps but more convenient to stand side by side on a benchtop as you put your boards in place. And unlike pipe clamps, their larger jaws make them more useful for project assembly. The downside is they can be heavy and a little bit expensive.
There are several types of band clamps on the market and I like them for gluing up mitered frames and boxes or for awkward shapes like cylinders and polygons. Simple ratchet straps can be used for this purpose. But I prefer those with corner brackets. Many woodworkers neglect band clamps when they’re building their collection.
If you assemble a lot of mitered frames you may prefer a corner clamp. It’ll hold two sides exactly 90 degrees while you secure it with glue or pin nails. You may think you need four of them since there are four corners on a frame but if you use mechanical fasteners you can get by with just one. If you make cabinets you may find face-frame clamps useful because they’ll hold the frame in place while you bore your pilot holes and set the screws.
Face clamps remind me of vise grip brand plier but they have flat pads instead of tooth jaws. I like them because they’re fast to use especially the newer versions that adjust the tension automatically. Face clamps come in different styles including deep throat versions corner clamping versions and pinned end versions for securing pocket hole joinery while you drive home your screws. They do make bar clamp versions as well but I find them less convenient than regular F-clamps if only because that’s just what I’m used to using.
The saying goes you can never have too many clamps. I disagree I do have too many clamps not because there’s a magic number but because I have a lot of types of clamps that I simply don’t use. For example, I have a bunch of pipe clamps that mostly just hang out in the storage shed. They’re heavy and clunky and other clamp styles do the job just as well. I also have a lot of spring clamps that I bought cheap at a tools store and they sort of hang around. They can be handy but I don’t need three or four dozen. Which clamps are best for you depends on the work you do and your personal preference.
I hate pipe clamps but some folks love them. I like pistol grip clamps and some folks hate them. Usually, the clamps you are used to are the ones you like. And the ones that you’ve never used before are the ones you have a hard time falling in love with. So all I can do is tell you what clamps I like for my work. And that includes a variety of styles each with its purpose.
I like F-Clamps because they’re inexpensive strong lightweight and versatile. I use them when I’m clamping project parts together. I like at least two of each size available if you can afford it. I also really like parallel clamps. They’re perfect for gluing up panels and laminations and the longer ones can apply a lot more pressure to big tough project assemblies than other clamps can. Because they’re expensive I recommend buying medium-sized ones to start and expand from there as your project demands in your budget allow.
If you plan on doing a lot of panel glue-ups at the same time and you can’t afford a bunch of parallel clamps you might pick up a few inexpensive aluminum bar clamps.
I find the 12-inch versions to be the most useful. Buy them 4 at a time expanding your collection as you need to. I also think you should have at least 2 band clamps they’re worth their weight in gold in many projects. Another incredibly useful clamp is the pin type vise grip style for holding pocket screw joints together. If you do any of that type of joinery they’re really useful.
For small parts holding and other miscellaneous tasks, I like a few spring clamps and a couple of wooden screw clamps as well. So if you want a good starter set of clamps I recommend 6 to 8 F-Clamps for parallel clamps for pistol grip clamps 2 band clamps for spring clamps and 2 wooden screw clamps. Then see how it goes you may find yourself using one style a lot more than others. And that’s the one you should invest more money into.
If you need some of the specialty clamps I mentioned get them. But don’t buy a bunch just because you think you may need them to wait until a project comes up. I hope this quick tutorial saves you some money and better equips you for your next woodwork project.
By P. Gordon