Workholding: The art of getting a board to stay put while you shape it with your tools.
A lot of people default to modern clamps. But they're not always the best solution.
Regular clamps don't give you full access to a board's top face. And they're pretty slow to attach and remove if you need to repeatedly move a board around.
But there are so many other ways to keep boards still.
Today, I'm giving you 11 workholding techniques — a mix of timeless classics and modern solutions — that keep boards steady as a rock.
These strategies can save you time and help you get better results...
So let's get rocking (not your boards, though).
BUTT & KNEE CLAMP
The butt clamp is a work-holding solution that has stood (or sat) the test of time.
By using a low workbench (check out these plans), you can comfortably sit on top of a board while you work. This is great for heavy chisel work like mortises, or even a bit of hand planing.
Need to rip or crosscut a board? Hold it steady with a knee instead.
- Heavy chisel work
- Light hand planing
- Rips and crosscuts with a hand saw
A plane stop, at its most basic, is a little ledge on your workbench.
It can be as simple as a thin piece of wood screwed into your bench, or as fancy as a blacksmith-forged claw that fits in a wooden tenon and adjusts up and down.
Plane stops resist movement in one direction — which is perfect for hand planing board faces (hence the name).
Some have little teeth that grip the end grain edge of the board even tighter. You can even make your own plane stop with an old hinge and a file.
Plane stops won't resist lateral movement... unless you add the next workholding trick mentioned below…
- Heavy and light hand planing with the grain
A doe's foot is an awesome, old-school work holding solution that works in tandem with a plane stop.
It's easy to make yourself. Just cut a bird’s-mouth notch cut at the end of a strip of wood and you're done.
The mouth locks around one corner of the board (the corner opposite you and the bench stop), and the far end is locked down with a clamp or holdfast.
By some miracle of physics, the doe's foot lets you plane across the grain without the board budging. Even when it's at an angle
It’s so useful because you can quickly flip a board around to deal with shifting grain direction or inspect your work.
- Heavy and light hand planing with and across the grain
A bench hook is another great workholding jig you can easily make yourself.
It's made up of a flat board with two fences on opposite sides and faces. One fence hooks onto the side of your workbench, while the other works as a stop for your workpiece.
The idea is to provide resistance against the cutting direction of your saw.
For western push saws, make one that hooks onto the side of the bench closest to you. If you're using Japanese pull saws, a longer jig that hooks onto the opposite side of your workbench works better.
With this jig, you'll be able to make precise crosscuts while minimizing your setup time. And you won't have to power-hold boards down like they're rabid animals.
- Crosscuts with hand saws
Holdfasts are kind of like the old-school version of squeeze clamps.
They consist of a long piece of iron or steel with a curved top.
The stem of the holdfast sits in a hole in your workbench (called a doghole), and uses angles and friction for holding power. Just knock it down with a mallet to hold work steady, then hit it from the back to loosen it up.
You might want to place a leather pad or piece of scrap wood between the holdfast and workpiece to avoid marring the surface.
Just know that like clamps, they don't give full access to the top face of a board.
- Heavy and light chisel work
Vises are a workbench standard, and there are all sorts of styles.
Moxon vises, leg vises, tail vises. You get the picture.
These are ideal for holding boards vertically or sideways, like when you’re cutting joinery or jointing an edge.
You just want to make sure that the inner jaws of the vise won't dent or gouge your workpiece. A bit of cork or leather does the job.
- Hand cutting joinery
- Edge planing
Bench dogs are used with a vise to hold boards super securely.
They come in all sorts of iterations — but can be as simple as a dowel you cut into smaller pieces.
One or two bench dogs sit in dog holes on your vise while others are laid out along your workbench. As you tighten the vise, the bench dogs clamp around your board.
They're great because they leave the top face of a board fully accessible — but you need to be careful with thin boards. Tighten the vise too much, and the board can bend… which leads to some pretty wacky results after hand planing.
- Heavy and light hand planing with and against the grain
- Heavy and light chisel work
- Heavy and light router work
The clamping action is controlled with your feet while you sit, which lets you quickly release and lock boards down. This is super useful for spindles and rounded pieces where you constantly need to rotate and inspect your work.
Shavehorses are also a fun project to build — and even more fun to use.
- Drawknife and spokeshave work
Double-sided tape is a quick and easy modern solution to workholding.
Put a strip or two of double-stick tape on the underside of your workpiece and attach it to your bench.
It has an impressive amount of holding ability, making it a viable option even for light power tool work.
- Light router work
A rubber pad is a super simple way to keep boards steady for light-duty work.
I never go without one while sanding. On top of keeping my workpiece from bouncing around, it ensures no stray wood chips dig into the bottom.
You can also use them for light routing work, like small edge profiles.
- Light router work
This may be the highest-tech form of workholding, and it uses suction to hold boards steady.
Vacuum tables are mostly only used on CNCs, but there's no reason you can’t set one up on your workbench if you’re so inclined.
They can be a little finicky to get working well, and they're only going to work as well as your spoilsboard. So testing and improvement are key.
- CNC work
STEADY DOES IT
In the end, the best workholding solution depends on the type of work you're doing.
But there are clearly A LOT more options beyond just clamps.
A steady board means precise cuts and a safer working environment. So make sure you find the best method for your needs... and get to shaping.
Curious about clamps? Here’s 7 clamping tips for stress-free glue-ups.