All About The World Of Clamps

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  • All About The World Of Clamps

    *I will be updating this over the next few weeks with additional clamps such as the newer ratcheting style spring clamps, etc.

    Outline of issues addressed in order:
    • What types of Clamps are there?
    • How many Clamps do I need?
    • What is an F-Clamp? What is a Bar Clamp?
    • What is a Parallel Clamp, Parallel Jaw Clamp, “K-Body”, “Cabinet Master”, “Bessey”?
    • What is a pipe Clamp? What is a "Pony" clamp?
    • What is an Aluminum Bar Clamp?
    • What is a Steel Bar Clamp ? What is an I-Beam Clamp?
    • What is a Handscrew Clamp?
    • What is a Quickgrip Clamp?
    • What is a Miter Clamp?
    • What is a Strap Clamp?
    • What is a Spring Clamp?
    • What is a Clamp Guide?
    • I am a newbie, what’s the best clamps for me?

    What types of clamps are there?

    There is a whole world of clamps out there for practically every clamping need you will run into.

    How many Clamps do I need?

    It’s pretty simple: as many clamps as your given project demands. Having said that, there is an old saying out there that you can never have too many clamps. While this is obviously an overstatement, it is generally accepted that you will frequently run across situations that even given the depth of your clamp collections.

    What is an F-Clamp? What is a Bar Clamp?

    The F-Clamp or Bar Clamp, is often a beginning woodworkers first clamp purchase. Bar clamps are measured in their length of clamping capacity at maximum opening. The Bar Clamp is one of the least expensive of all clamps, though it has inherent weaknesses. The Bar Clamps pressure distribution is not very even, as there are only two small points of contact of the clamp with the project. Additionally, Bar Clamps typically have much lighter duty bars and are prone to flex, effectively reducing the amount of clamping pressure that one can apply with these clamps. it is commonly held that bar clamps longer than 18" have an unacceptable amount of bar flex. Alignment also becomes an issue for these clamps. So what does the Bar Clamp have going for it? As noted it is one of the least expensive clamps and it is quite effective in attaching utility application such as holding a fence in place on a router table or attaching a temporary sacrificial fence to a table saw fence. Many woodworkers purchase Pittsburgh brand Bar Clamps from Harbor Freight when they are on sale and in conjunction with % off coupons. They are certainly a decent bang for the buck.

    What is a Parallel Clamp, Parallel Jaw Clamp, “K-Body”, “Cabinet Master”, “Bessey”?

    Often referred to as “Besseys” or “K-Body”, the Parallel Jaw Clamp is among the favorites of todays woodworker. For clarification, Bessey is a manufacturer of all types of clamps. Bessey happened to introduce and/or refine the parallel jaw clamp, brand named K-Body, to the point that it has become the industry standard. Jorgensons Cabinet Master and Gross Stabils Parallel Clamp were the main competitor of the Bessey K-Body until the last year. Jet introduced a new Parallel Clamp which has some unique features such as built in bench dogs, rulers stamped on the bar and reversible handles for spreading pressure versus clamping pressure. Jet has raised the bar (pun intended) with their new clamps, though the pricing has yet drop to Bessey levels. Recently, Rockler and Woodcraft have had price reductions in the new Jet inventory and it should be expected that the Jet clamp will be competitive with Bessey. They are sold in lengths typically ranging from 12” to 72”, where length represents the opening between the jaws when opened as far as possible. On the matter of pricing, parallel jaw clamps are among the most expensive clamps. A typical 24” parallel clamp will run $30 - $40 per clamp. Purchasing these clamps in cabinet sets (set of 4 clamps one would use for a frame) result in a much lower cost per clamp. Often a cabinet set of Besseys can be had, including some plastic set up blocks, on for around $100. By closely watching, some forum member have bought the Bessey 2440 (2 – 24” and 2 – 40”) for less than $70. Harbor Freight and Woodcraft has introduced their own brand name of parallel clamps (with Woodcrafts being made by Bessey) however their street price is still above sale price of Bessey clamps. Watch for Harbor Freight sales and discount coupon opportunities. In my review of the HF clamps, they seem to be as functional as the Bessey.
    Enough about the back ground of parallel jaw clamps and on to why they are considered the best all around clamp. Parallel jaw clamps are designed to keep the large jaws parallel to each other when pressure is applied. These jaws show far more accuracy than any other type of clamp. All have steel jaws covered in plastic. The plastic resists glue and is less unlikely to damage your project surface. The cited weaknesses of parallel clamps include weight and difficulty obtaining extremely high clamping pressure using the small wooden handles, though some argue that pressure beyond that readily availiable in the parallel clamp would starve a glue joint. And of course they are the most expensive clamp.

    What is a pipe Clamp? What is a "Pony" clamp?

    The pipe clamp has been around the shop for over 75 years. They are sold as clamp fixtures, meaning that only the two pieces show on the top of the photo above are included. Typically one must provide their own pipe. This allows a lot of flexibility in the choice of length. They are sold in ¾” or ½” diameters. Forget the ½” . There really is not a point in the 1/2” other than saving a little money and a little weight. You are giving up a lot of strength for those small gains. Once you have obtained the clamp fixture, you go to your local hardware store and purchase pipe cut to your desired length. They will thread one end of the pipe for you so that the handle end will have a secure connection. The tail jaw is placed on the other end and is allowed to slide freely on the pipe. This play results in the tail being racked back to an angle greater than 90 degrees when pressure is applied, thus creating the clamping pressure. You can choose black iron pipe or galvanized steel. Steel is more expensive but less likely to mark your project. It is common for pipe clamps to cause the carcass sides of the project to bow under normal pressure, which can be corrected through clamping pads or cauls. When creating panels with pipe clamps it is a good idea to alternate clamps, one on top and one on bottom to keep the panel flat. Jorgensen is probably the best known of the pipe clamp makers. The Jorgensen No. 50 and Rocklers pipe clamps are among the lowest in deflection.
    The pros of the pipe clamp are their relatively low cost, around $10-15 for the fixture set and around $1 per foot of pipe, and the fact that you can use fixtures on multiple lengths of pipe including very long lengths unattainable by other clamps. The cons of the pipe clamp are the weight and the propensity of the user to over clamp. Additionally, having multiple lengths of pipe may reduce the number of clamps on hand resulting in a clamp shortage during a project.

    What is an Aluminum Bar Clamp?

    Aluminum bar clamps are an excellent value for clamps that have the characteristics of light weight, low deflection and lower cost. Aluminum bar clamps are constructed of an u-shaped aluminum bar which has a permanently attached end and a tail fixture that slides along the bar. The tail fixture can lock into the desired notch in the aluminum bar to create the appropriate length. These clamps are great for small projects where a heavy parallel bar clamp or pipe clamp could cause the project to flex. Things to look for in a bar clamp is the distance of the notches on the bar (closer is better), weight, how stable the clamp is when used on a bench for a glue up and price. Harbor Freight seems to really step up to the plate on aluminum bar clamps. Sale prices at HF are usually at least 50% off, often more, than their normal low price. In addition to standard aluminum bar clamps shown above, there are variations that include larger jaws for more even pressure distribution.
    As noted the aluminum bar clamp includes great characteristics such as low price and light weight with very good jaw squareness. They are particularly good for cabinet carcasses. One should note that some of the aluminum clamps have relatively small clamp faces. These clamps are typically measured in their maximum opening capacity, though HF measures the total length of the bar, thus the max clamping capacity will be bar length minus the length of the clamping fixtures. Coarse adjustment is made on the aluminum clamp by simply moving the clamp fixture to a snug position. Fine adjustment and ultimate clamping is accomplished by turning the handle on the fixed fixture. There are not a lot of bad things to say about the aluminum bar clamp and they are highly recommended.

    What is a Steel Bar Clamp ? What is an I-Beam Clamp?

    The steel bar clamps combines the mechanics of the pipe clamp with the a bar similar to the F-style clamp but much heavier duty. These clamps are the heaviest of the clamps shown in this FAQ. They have stiff bars and large crank handles capable of delivering 2000 + lbs of clamping force! They exhibit very little bar flex or jaw deflection. Problems noted with these clamps are users over clamping and starving glue joints, as well as the fact that the jaw faces are less than 90 degrees which can cause squareness issues compounded by extreme force. As noted these clamps are very heavy and make large assemblies very difficult and often considered overkill for a lot of applications.
    Pros are pretty much limited to 2000 lbs of clamping force (which often ends up being a negative). Cons include cost (only parallel clamps are more expensive based upon suggested retail), weight and crooked jaws.

    What is a Handscrew Clamp?

    Handscrew clamps come in two flavors: steel rods and wooden rods.
    Most commercially available handscrew clamps have steel adjustment rods. 100% wooden handscrew clamps are typically handmade. The jaws of the clamps are usually made of hardwood material. Large clamping adjustments are made by holding one handle in each hand and making clockwise circles. This closes the jaws relatively parallel to each other. These style of clamps are relatively limited in their application due to their size, however they are indispensible in certain jobs. They create a good deal of clamping pressure , however they will not mar the face of the items being clamped.

    What is a Quickgrip Clamp? Quick Ratcheing Clamp?

    Quickgrip is a trademark of Irwin. There are other similar models, but Quickgrip is the daddy. The quickgrip-style clamp is a one handed clamp using a steel bar and a fixed jaw and a movable “grip” jaw that slides along the bar. The clamp is tightened by squeezing the big trigger multiple times, there is a smaller trigger for releasing the clutch to loosen the sliding jaw and slide the jaw along the bar. The clamps are sold by jaw opening (6, 12, 24 and larger sizes), and by jaw size (standard, mini and micro). Versions of the standard are also available with reversible jaws so that the clamp can be used as a spreader. The great advantage of this clamp is that it is really easy to set with one hand (your other hand presumably holding the assembly in the places you want to clamp it) and it has non-marring rubber jaws. Prices range from $5 (four packs of minis) to $15 each. Higher in larger sizes. Note that the Harbor Freight ratcheting quick clamps is not that great.

    What are Miter Clamps?

    Miter clamps are used to square two surfaces during glue up or mechanical fastening. The photo depicts a Bessey brand miter clamp available in a few different sizes. These are usually acquired in sets of 2 or 4 for frame projects, cabinet assembly, etc. has come up with some innovative reinventions of the miter clamp that are highly flexible in application. The Woodpecker Box Clamp, Clamping Wedge and Miter Clamp Sets are all derivatives of the basic miter clamp.

    What is a Strap Clamp?

    As demonstrated in the photo, strap clamps are used to provide broad clamping pressure around the outside area of a project. These can be used on square projects as shown in the photo, however they are most useful on projects with 5 or more sides or round, oval etc. They allow even clamping pressure on these odds sizes, where typical clamps could not be applied.

    What is a Spring Clamp?

    Spring clamps are relatively simple clamping mechanisms that use the force of a coiled spring to apply pressure. They are excellent for small projects and fine clamping. They are measured by their maximum opening.

    What is a Clamp Guide?

    Clamp guides are used primarily to create a straight edge for straight cutting or routing. By using the clamping mechanism attached to the straight edge one can create a solid edge for reference. These are true clamps and can be used for panel glue up and general clamping, though they have relatively little clamping pressure. Clamp guides are measured by the total length of the edge which often includes measuring capacity. One helpful hint with the clamping guide is to attach blocks of wood to the clamping face. This allows the clamp to be more stable, as well as allowing you to pre-measure the distance from the clamp edge to your actual cutting or routing point.

    I am a newbie, what’s the best clamp for me?

    There are probably as many different recommendations as there are types of clamps. For general woodworking and cabinetry construction one would argue for pipe clamps, aluminum clamps and parallel jaw clamps. Parallel jaw clamps are generally considered the primo clamp for general woodworking and cabinetry construction, however they generally run anywhere from $20 - $50 per clamp. Given that our goal is to buy at least 8 medium sized clamps, this would put this set in the $200 - $300 range. Granted deals are out there and can be found. Buying parallel jaw clamps in “cabinet sets” of 4 is generally a much better value. Currently one can buy a set of (2) 24” clamps and (2) 40” clamps for around $100. Sets of Besseys have been had on Amazon for as little as $65, though these deals are far and few between.

    If you want a truly bargain set of clamps then one would likely look to aluminum bar clamps or pipe clamps. The author would very much favor aluminum bar clamps over pipe clamps. The jaws are better for parallel work and they are lighter. Pipe clamps are heavier and the jaws are not parallel, though they do over some flexibility in length based upon the selection of pipe that you keep in your shop. Threaded pipe runs about $1 per foot and you can change the fixtures from a 12” pipe to a 36” pipe, or even a custom length 29” inch pipe if you like.

    For the low cost entry level set of clamps (4) 24” and (4) 48” aluminum clamps should handle a large portion of clamping needs. Watch the pricing of aluminum clamps. Brand name aluminum bar clamps (Rockler, Universal, Jet) can quickly approach the price of parallel jaw clamps. For the basic set the Harbor Freight aluminum clamps are hard to overlook, particularly when they are on sale. As time, budget and needs increase then add a few sets of ¾” pipe-clamp if larger projects are presented. Otherwise, begin investing in parallel jaw clamps as your budget and projects demand.

    The ultra low cost entry level set of clamps would include an assortment of Harbor Freight Bar clamps with lengths purchased as demanded by projects. These clamps can be had on sale for very little money. Don't over look them just because they are cheap. While they have their weaknesses, many, many a fine project has been glued up using nothing more than these clamps and a properly applied glue.

    Good Luck! You will find over time that clamps are among your most important tools in your shop.
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