What Clamps Do I Need For Woodworking?

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Power tools are cool, and the home woodworking shop enthusiast usually starts with the list of them they think they need to get underway.  Table saw, compound miter saw, sander, planer, drill – most lists start with these.

Clamps are almost an afterthought for the list.  They’re not cool or sexy, and yet you’ll likely use them more often than your power tools and will find them indispensable in making that new dining room tabletop, or the new frame, or the new cabinet or drawer.

But with so many clamp styles, sizes, and materials to choose from, how do you know which to have and in what number?

Let’s see if we can help!

What are the different types of clamps?

The list is long, actually, but we’ll keep this piece to those you are most likely to both see in your search and use in your shop. We’d consider them essential clamps for the home woodworking shop.

  • Pipe Clamps. They are precisely what the name implies:  pipes with jaws that clamp.  You will find them to be the least expensive clamps, too.  The jaws can be purchased separately and used on whatever size and length of pipe you choose for the projects you are most likely to tackle.  Choosing ½” pipe instead of ¾” pipe will save you money, also, without sacrificing strength on most home woodworking projects.

The jaws screw onto the pipe, and the adjustable second piece is slid along the pipe to the required position to provide the right fit for your project. Buying the jaws separately allows you to buy a varied selection of pipe sizes and lengths. 

The large home DIY stores and local hardware stores sell differing lengths of pipe already threaded; some will even cut pipe to your specifications and thread them for you.

  • Bar Clamps. Bar clamps have adjustable arms that can be moved easily to fit the project at hand when gluing pieces together. As a result, they are well suited for woodworking projects such as doors, tabletops, and furniture. 

They have a long metal bar with two adjustable jaws that hold the sides or end of the piece being held.  The long metal bar allows their use on long/wide workpieces, thus making them very versatile.

Bar clamps are measured by their jaw opening, which determines how large a workpiece can be effectively clamped. 

  • Handscrew Clamps. Wooden handscrew clamps have, well, wooden “jaws” that hold the workpiece in place.  They are adjusted by, well, handscrews, one on each side, that are tightened to the necessary grip on the material being clamped.  You’ve likely seen them in DIY stores. Unfortunately, they don’t do anything special that pipe clamps or bar clamps do, and they are more expensive than other types.
  • C-Clamps. It is thus named because it looks like the letter C.  The wide mouth of the “C” can sometimes be very handy, but the screw mechanism to tighten them can be time consuming.  They also do not do anything that one of the other clamps above can do. Therefore, many woodworking enthusiasts prefer a pipe clamp or a bar clamp as both easier to work with and more friendly toward larger workpieces.
  • F-Clamps. These clamps are similar to C-clamps but have a wider opening capacity.  The name comes from the shape of the clamp, as you might expect, and is used as the pipe and bar clamps are used – – to hold in place long/wide workpieces during the gluing or screwing process.
  • Spring clamps. These clamps look a bit like tongs you use in the kitchen or clothespins you use to hold up laundry on an outside line.  They are good for holding something in place temporarily but not especially good at maintaining horizontal pressure on a wide/long workpiece.  And, the larger the spring clamp is, the greater the hand strength needed for one-handed adjustments.

Bessey clamps are a well-known brand made in Germany, and some of their models are considered among the best clamps for woodworking projects. 

This list is not exhaustive, but for the average home woodworking shop, these are the most likely types to be considered.

Harbor Freight Clamps

Harbor Freight F Clamps

Are Harbor Freight clamps any good?

Their aluminum bars are light, and the jaws are easily adjustable.  In most instances, they will do the job you want them to do, and many find them to be just fine for the home woodworking shop and smaller projects. 

If you decide to purchase Harbor Freight, be sure to check carefully for any defects, as many believe the HF quality control to be less than it could/should be.

On the other hand, they are comparatively inexpensive, and sometimes you do get what you pay for.

Which Wood Clamps Do You Need?

After reading the previous section, you can probably identify the clamps you’ll most likely use in your woodworking shop.  The equally essential questions are:

  • What projects do you anticipate tackling?
  • What size clamps do you need?
  • How many clamps do you need?

Larger projects such as tabletops and doors, and some furniture pieces, will require a wider “mouth,” and thus, some pipe clamps will come in very handy for you.  The black pipe usually associated with pipe clamps can be lengthened simply by adding another length of pipe with a coupler. Of course, the longer the span to be clamped, the more clamps you will need.

Bar clamps come in various sizes, and again, your needs will depend on the projects you’re likely to tackle. Furthermore, the longer the boards to be clamped, the more of them you will need.

Here’s what we might suggest as good clamps for a beginner woodworker:

  • For pipe clamps, stock up with 8-10 fixtures, several 24” and 36” pieces of pipe with threads at both ends, and several couplers. The couplers can be used to make the clamps longer when needed for big workpieces (think tabletops and doors). If I could only choose a single clamp, this would be it.
  • For bar clamps, choose various sizes starting at 12” and up to 24”. These will come in handy for smaller workpieces.
  • For F-clamps, either as a supplement or in addition to pipe and bar clamps, are also a good choice. Again, they come in a wide variety of sizes, from as small as 2” and up. What size F-clamp should you buy?  You might want your shop to have a few smaller sizes, perhaps a 4” and a 6”, as well as a 12” and a 24” clamp to be able to meet most of your needs.
  • For C-clamps, a couple should be plenty. There will likely be some small pieces that will best be clamped with them. 

This will offer you a variety of types and sizes that will suit your most likely wood projects, and you can easily add to both the type and number as you advance in your woodworking skills and the sort of pieces you will build.

Are Pipe Clamps Better than Bar Clamps? 

Pipe Clamps

The lighter weight of aluminum bar clamps makes them easy to manage, and they provide a stable and wide span to hold your piece in place while glue sets and dries. However, the size you buy is the size you use, as they are not expandable.  They also will run you more money than pipe clamps.

Pipe clamps are more versatile than bar clamps in that you can simply add another length of pipe to enlarge their span to accommodate the width/length of your workpiece. You simply buy the jaw sets and whatever length of pipes will best fit your anticipated projects.  Pipe clamps will also provide an extra measure of strength to the grip, as pipes will not torque, bulge or bend.

The use to which you will put your clamps, and your budget, will determine which is better for your needs.  Don’t buy clamps simply to have clamps; think it through first and made a better decision based upon your needs in the shop.

What Is A Trigger Clamp?

Trigger Clamps

A trigger clamp is simply a clamp with a trigger mechanism to set the stride of the jaws.  You use the same motion to work the trigger as you would the spray handle on a spray bottle or the trigger of a gun. 

It will hold your workpiece together or in place for cutting, sanding, gluing, nailing, or screwing.  The mechanism can be worked with just one hand, which makes them quite convenient to use, and the trigger is a quick release to adjust.

What About Used Clamps?

Conscientious craftsmen will take good care of their tools.  Sometimes they will offer their used tools for sale when they are no longer needed.  It’s possible to find good prices on used tools, and clamps are no exception.

Of course, you want to inspect them carefully before buying them.  But a quick search on Craigslist as this piece was being written found multiple pages of clamps – – wood screw clamps, bar clamps, C-clamps, F-clamps, and pipe clamps – being offered for sale.  Some of them looked like great bargains.

Remember, too, that pipe clamps are already pretty inexpensive when new.  It’s the other types of clamps that might prove the real bargains.

Clamps are an indispensable part of your shop tools, and you can never have too many of them.  After a while, you’ll have your favorite type(s) based upon the workpieces you choose to build, and that will determine future purchases.  This article is intended only to help you get started. 

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