“A woodworker can never have too many clamps,” is a common saying in the craft. Whether or not that’s true, it pays to appreciate this part of the woodworking tool kit and knowledgeably plan your purchases.
The overall best type of bar clamp for assembly work is the parallel bar clamp, though I will also include in the discussion other alternatives that are favored by many woodworkers.
Parallel clamps employ two large rectangular heads, one fixed at the end of the bar and the other moveable, that automatically adjust square to the bar with their clamping faces parallel to each other. The heavy-duty steel bar with a modified I-beam profile is very stiff.
These clamps have the great advantage of accurately directing clamping force. While clamps in general may seem like fairly coarse tools, good ones are actually refined, accurate tools. This is important during the crunch time of glue up when the assembly must be true and there is no going back once the glue starts to set. Skillfully tweaking the position and force of high quality parallel clamps can help make critical alignments easy.
An economical option in bar clamps
There is a problem in building a tool kit: you’ll soon need a fairly large number of clamps but a sizable set of top quality parallel clamps is expensive. The ubiquitous pipe clamp is a low cost alternative.
Pipe clamps consist of a pair of heads that can be attached to any length of iron pipe to instantly create a clamp. Black iron pipe, or a neater alternative, galvanized pipe, is readily available at home centers in lengths up to 10 feet. 3/4″ pipe with correspondingly sized clamp heads will make a much sturdier clamp than 1/2″ pipe.
The price of a 24″-long parallel clamp by Bessey, Jet or Jorgensen averages about $45, while a 48″ or 50″ is about $60, and so on and upward for longer clamps. On the other hand, a pair of 3/4″ pipe clamp heads costs only about $19 including pads. 24″ pipe is about $9, 48″ is $12, 72″ is $16. Add a few dollars for galvanized pipe.
It is easy to see the economy of pipe clamps, especially considering that the clamp heads can be quickly and easily transferred among different lengths of pipe. Versions with a wide stand-up base, such as those by Rockler, are more stable.
My suggestion for novice woodworkers is to start by getting several pairs of pipe clamp heads and buy lengths of pipe as needed for specific projects. Later, as your commitment increases, upgrade to some parallel clamps, starting with a few 24″ lengths. The quality of these will be welcome, particularly in smaller work that often requires more precision. Later, add some 48″/50″ parallel clamps. The pipe clamp heads will remain very useful when longer clamps are required because long pipes are relatively inexpensive.
When planning your clamp buying, consider three general categories of assemblies. First are post and rail assemblies, such as clamping a pair of table legs connected by an apron with mortise and tenon joints. Stile and rail assemblies are similar, exemplified by a frame and panel door. Second are case assemblies, such as a dovetailed blanket chest. Third are the edge-to-edge joints used to glue up boards to make wider panels.
More options in bar clamps
Aluminum bar clamps, notably Dubuque Clamp Work’s “Universal” variety, are a high quality lightweight alternative to steel clamps, and cost about half as much as parallel clamps of the same length. They are pleasantly easy to wield, and ideal for small to medium drawers, doors, boxes, and the like. In fact, they may be all you need for your work. Still, I prefer the versatility and beefiness of steel clamps.
Yet another practical, economical option is Dubuque’s clever “wedgegrip” clamp, for some situations where especially long clamping distances are required.
You’ll certainly want these versatile helpers for clamping work to a bench, intermediate assemblies, stop blocks in machine setups, and countless other uses in the shop. Bessey’s fast-acting Tradesman series clamps (below, red) and Jorgensen’s clutch-style clamps (below, orange) are good choices. I suggest starting with a few of these with about 4″ of clamping depth and about 8″ long as shown in the first photo below. They seem to get the most use in my shop. Add different sizes as the need arises.
You can see what eventually happens: lots of clamps! But I use all of them for something or another and simply acquired them as needs arose.
No discussion of woodworking clamps would be complete without mentioning these wonderful tools. Woodworkers love them because they are versatile, dependable and the jaws are wooden.
The jaws of a handscrew are rectangular in cross section so the clamp itself can be easily held in a vise or accept the jaws of other clamps. Furthermore, the jaws can close parallel or at an angle to each other.
Start with a few of these and before long, I guarantee they will solve a clamping quandary that no other clamp can. A good all-around choice is 10″ or 12″, sized by the length of the jaws.
Build a set of bar clamps of the size and type based on your projects and budget. Add a few F clamps and handscrews. And build things!
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