A Battle of Holdfasts

When I took a class on building a Windsor chair over a year ago I was first introduced to the holdfast. This miracle tool held my Windsor seat in place while I pounded and hacked the hollow out of the seat. Of course now that I am in the middle of building a Roubo workbench, holdfasts have been on my mind.

There has been a lot of press about how holdfasts work and whether or not they will work in really thick stock. When I was recently at the Philadelphia Furniture Workshop open house, I picked up a Gramery holdfast, having heard so much about their quality and effectiveness. Several points have been made about them not holding well in stock over 5 inches thick. My bench has a 4 inch thick top and 5 inch thich legs. I also have a sawbench on the drawing board that will have a top running around 2 inches thick. Obviously these thickness concerns were something I needed to address.

I read a Woodworking magazine article from one of their first issues about holdfasts and how they work. This article was weighing the difference between mass produced and hand forged. Phil Koontz and Don Weber were mentioned several times as blacksmiths who produced outstanding holdfasts. I was particularly drawn to the Koontz model, but realizing that this article was written almost 5 years ago, I emailed Phil to see if he was still producing holdfasts. He said that while he is still in business, his friend “Jake the Russian” had taken over the holdfast business and passed my email request along to Jake. Within minutes Jake Pogrebinsky had contacted me and I had placed my order for a pair of holdfasts. Both Jake and Phil admitted that holdfasts sometimes can be a mystery as to whether they hold or not. Their concession was that I was not to send them payment until I had put the holdfast through it’s paces and was completely satisfied. This is even more impressive when you think about the fact that this product was coming from a small town blacksmith in Alaska and not a conglomerate.

So test them I did. I wanted to make sure I could simulate the various thicknesses that I would encouter between bench top, bench legs, and sawbench. I have seen several people solve the problem of the holdfast not grabbing in thick stock by drilling larger than 3/4″ holes. I needed to get this right before I started drilling holes in my benchtop. So I took a test board that was long enough and wide enough to act as a small test surface.

Thick test board was 1.5″ thick and would be able to simulate my upcoming sawbench. I then duplicated this test board several times so that when stacked I could simulate 4″ and 5″ thicknesses.

Both the Gramercy and Koontz held very well in the 1.5″ stock, and they were dislodged just as easily with a firm whack to the back of the neck.

Both models held very well in the 4″ thick simulated benchtop as well. This test was looking to be a draw.

Finally I tested both in the 5″ thick stack to simulate holding power when using them in the legs of my Roubo. Again, both grabbed without incident. (I forgot to get a pic of the Gramercy) I was a little surprised seeing as I have heard from several sources that the Gramercy would not work in greater thicknesses. Maybe Phil Koontz was right and holdfasts truly are mysterious.

Long story short, I am a very happy customer with both models of holdfast. I must admit that I am partial to the Koontz because of the length allowing greater capacity and aesthetically they are very cool.

Ultimately, I believe I will keep my pair of Koontz at my bench and use the Gramercy when I need reinforcments and keep it full time on my sawbench.

7 Responses to “A Battle of Holdfasts”

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  1. Shannon,

    I have a couple of the Gramercy holdfasts, and just love them. My benchtop and legs aren’t quite as think as yours (3.5″). I don’t know what I would do without my holdfasts!

  2. Archiphile says:

    Wished I would have known you where in the market or these. I would have happily sold you a pair or two. Next time maybe.



  3. John says:

    I have a pair of the Koontz holdfasts and they worked great when I was building my Roubo style workbench. My workbend top is 4″ thick and they held my work great as i was building, but when I put a finish on the workbench (equal parts boild linseed oil, varnish, and paint thinner) as called out in Christopher Schwarz’s “Build an 18th Century Workbench”, my holdfast will not hold anymore. My holes in the bench top are 3/4″ and have since resanded the holes and also the holdfast iron and still will not hold anything. Do you know anything I can do to fix this problem.

    Thanks in advance,

    • Shannon says:

      John, take a close look and see where the holdfasts are actually catching when you seat them. You may be able to counterbore the bottom of the bench to allow for a little more kink in the shaft and therefore more bite. Counterboring is hard with the dog hole already set but if you stick a dowel in there to create a center point you should be able to do it. Its a lot of work after the fact though. The other thing is that there is a lot of flex in these holdfasts and you may have to hit them a bit harder if the finish is making them slip. The only finish on my bench his the stuff I have spilled over the years and these holdfasts hold like they are screwed down. The only thing I can say is that they are hand made and perhaps your angle is a bit different than mine and I know many people who have had success with the counterbore technique.

  4. James says:

    The very Irwin Quick Grip bar clamps you have in your photo holding the jig work perfectly as hold fasts themselves and require no modification, as shown on other websites for screw-type bar clamps. Quick Grip bars are 3/4 inch wide. Remove the non-adjustable end by sliding out the lock. Insert the bar into the dog hole, reattach the end under the bench, and voila, you have a ratcheting hold fast. These clamps are in nearly everyone’s shop and no further purchase is required. Yes, the head is a little bulkier than the traditional model.

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