Tool Talk #8: Clamps

Well over half of the emails sent to me are on the subject of tools. I have no objections to responding to them but I thought it would be beneficial to start a video library of sorts to briefly touch on what I think of a particular tool or set of tools. These won’t be in depth tool reviews as I know very few people are interested in that kind of thing and I really don’t want to go over all the details. Instead I’ll just focus on the things I like about the tool, things I don’t like about the tool, and would I buy it again. I have a huge list of “episodes” that can be made and plan on releasing one per week. Hopefully this will be helpful to some people.

Woodworking Clamps

The local store I mentioned in the video is Discount Tools in Starkville Mississippi. It’s hard to touch on every single pro and con for every type of clamp I have and have used so I’m just going to hit the high and low points of the things that stick out to me.

What I like:

  • I prefer Bessey 6″ F style clamps over the Harbor Freight F style clamps. Currently a 6 pack of Bessey 6″ clamps are $15 on HomeDepot.com. That actually ends up being less expensive than the Harbor Freight F style clamps.
  • The Bessey K Body clamps are the strongest clamps I have and create the most stable platform to begin a glue-up but are also the least convenient in my opinion.
  • I prefer aluminum bar clamps and 1/2″ pipe clamps over Bessey K Body clamps. They are waaaaaaaay less expensive and I reach for them more frequently in my shop. I can get 1/2″ pipe clamps locally for $6 and pipe at $1.20 per foot. That means a 1/2″ pipe clamp that is 24″ long is $8.50. Four 24″ pipe clamps or five 24″ aluminum bar clamps cost less than one 24″ Bessey K Body clamp and in 99% of situations I would prefer the multiple pipe or bar clamps. The aluminum bar clamps and pipe clamps clean up very fast from glue drips.
  • Irwin quick clamps have never let me down. I really like them.
  • Inexpensive 2″ spring clamps are handy. I’ve got some 1″ spring clamps that I don’t recall if I’ve used or not

What I don’t like:

  • I used to recommend Harbor Freight F style clamps to everyone. However, every single Harbor Freight F style clamp I own has something wrong with it. They still complete the task but not without compensating for a bend in the bar or the screw bending off to one side. They also have problems with the handles stripping. The best one word description of them is “frustrating.”
  • The Bessey K Body clamps are heavy, bulky, and hard to clean when glue drips on them.
  • Every non Irwin brand quick clamp I’ve used (a couple knock off’s and Harbor Freight versions) have broke.
  • Kreg sent me a few of their bar automaxx bar clamps. I can’t recommend them. I feel like the power isn’t there like in traditional F style bar clamps, the handle is going in the wrong direction, and overall just feel awkward when using them for some reason. I’ve had them for about a year now sitting in the same area as the rest of my clamps and I never seem to reach for them. They are also crazy expensive. I never looked up the price until writing this article and was shocked to see them priced higher than the Bessey K Body line.

What clamps would I buy to start over?

Over the past few years I’ve realized, for the most part, that you get what you pay for with woodworking tools. With clamps I don’t see that as a clear cut situation. I think clamps have a steady middle ground that just seems to work. Stay away from the low end and stay away from the high end. No need to re-invent the wheel here.

On the bottom you’ve got the super inexpensive Harbor Freight clamps that I previously recommended to everyone. They have since become more frustrating than what they are worth in my opinion. If you just need a couple clamps to get by with or you want to invest as little as possible then dealing with the frustrations of Harbor Freight clamps will probably be OK. If you plan on using them year after year and enjoy woodworking you will probably find them to be more frustrating than what they are worth. I would (and already have) pick up some better quality F style clamps if I had to start over.

The middle ground seems to be the sweet spot for me. My favorite clamps are my inexpensive 1/2″ pipe clamps. If I were to rebuild my shop tomorrow I would definitely stock up on 1/2″ pipe clamps first as I find them to be the best value for the money. They are relatively inexpensive, have plenty of power for what I do, clean up easily, and are easy to handle and use. Aluminum bar clamps are a close second on my list.

The “top of the line” is where I think the value diminishes quickly. First, I was blown away to find out that the Kreg automaxx bar clamps were the most expensive clamps I had. Even more expensive than the same length Bessey K Body clamps. The Bessey K Body clamps are very strong clamps with nice wide clamping faces but again are pretty expensive. Regardless of how well these two clamp product lines do or do not perform my biggest complaint with them is the lack of what you get for the money. When there is an alternative that allows me to get four or five clamps that work very well and are very convenient to use for the same price as one of these higher end clamps I’m going to buy, and recommend, the alternative every time.



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32 Comments

      1. Frank Gliha

        Great idea David! I bet that works like a charm. They’re my favorite type of clamp. I wish I could get the 48″ for the $6 price Jay was quoting. Even at HF, they are $14.

  1. Floyd Calderwood

    Jay,

    I couldn’t agree more with your take on clamps. Right on!
    You get what you pay for and I’d rather have good clamps working well with the cost of wood these days. I made a clean sweep of my shop just a couple of days ago and ALL my Harbor Freight clamps found the way to the trash. They simply won’t hold up or hold together. Those plastic screw heads are no good at all.
    I also agree on 1/2″ pipe clamps. I’ve used them for years (make them myself) with no issues and don’t see any need for the much more expensive 3/4″ clamps.
    Keep up the good work! Thanks!
    — FC

  2. Justin bonnell

    Never tried the HF F style myself, i was lucky enough to get a bunch of bessey/ jorgenson ones of various sizes from a former neighbor and grandfather. Got a full dozen of the bessey 6″ on sale years ago.

    HF alum bar clamps have done me well, after filling them with plywood strips.

    Also not a fan of the kbody price/usage ratio

    Acquired many 3/4 pipe clamps from forsaid neighbor and grandfather.

    Irwin Quickgrips, well lets just say i cant keep track of all mine of the 6-12″ size.

  3. Michael

    Jay I have used the Ervin clamps for a while, and personally I have broken one of them. Of course I probably used where I should have used a bigger clamp. As for the Harbor Freight Tools I have always use them. And none of them have broken. I use or have a couple of 1/2 in bar clamp.
    Enjoy you video’s, Thank you. Mike.

  4. Kevin

    I didn’t care for the best Bessy F style clamps because the wooden handle is small and it’s harder to torque down on the clamp. I use my 1 inch spring clamps for potato chip bags.😀

    1. P

      Tip I got from an old cabinet-maker. He drilled holes through the handle of every wood-handled clamp he had, and then you can use any screwdriver or I guess a bolt to really torque them down.

      One of the woodworking mags (might have been Wood) had a piece about coating them with cheaper heat-shrink tubing to provide better grip.

  5. Larry Cearlock

    Jay, I have found that using galv pipe with the clamps caused slipping bad so maybe try black pipe on the galv pipe clamps maybe you would use them more.

    1. P

      That’s a good note Larry, this might be why I’ve always had such bad luck with pipe clamps. I might have to try them out again at some point.

      On the other side, I can’t recommend DeWalt’s heavy duty quick-clamps highly enough. They have almost as much surface area and power as the K-body clamps, but without the finicky set up, and all the advantages of the Irwins.

  6. Richard

    Hi Jay,
    Thanks for the video and insight. You mentioned how you would remake your clamp rack if you were doing it over, any plans to do so? As alway, I love your content! Keep sharing!

  7. Robert Edwards

    Sure enjoy your stuff. Jay! Have you looked at the new Kreg automatic face type clamp.? No adjustments for different thickness

  8. Eric R

    The 6″ HF clamps work well as a bench hold down if you grind off the weld on the back allowing them to come apart.
    There’s a YouTube video on it.
    Also, the Irwin clamps are nice, but I’ve broken a bunch by accidentally squeezing them too hard.
    Pipe clamps are my clamp of choice due to price and flexibility.
    Thanks Jay.
    Eric
    central Florida

  9. Todd

    Jay,

    Thank you for your honest opinion with each tool review in addition to sharing your woodworking knowledge/experiences with the rest of us. In this video, you state that you are able to pick up the aluminum bar clamps and the 1/2″ pipe clamps “locally”. Is it a supply house that I may be able to order from online or one that might be up by me in Idaho?

  10. jim dudley

    I use the small spring clamps all the time – for closing bags. They are reliable and strong for closing bags of charcoal, fertilizer, dog food, and most anything else. Plastic “chip clips” from the grocery store just do not measure up, and break often, and we’ve mostly thrown them all out. The spring clamps are also good for holding down a table cloth in the wind, assuming the table surface isn’t too thick.

  11. Brian

    Can you give us some more information on the 1/2″ pipe clamp heads? Make/Model? I can’t find them for twice that price.

    1. Richard

      I stocked up on my 1/2″ pipe clamp ends at Harbor Freight when they were 50% off so mine cost $2.99. They sell for $5.99 all the time in California. Still need to buy pipe like Jay says.

  12. Michael Olsen

    Great review. Very well reasoned and clearly stated. Your insights and value appraisals are very helpful. I will be buying a number of clamps in the near future and this has greatly helped me in my decision making.

    BTW have you ever used band clamps and bowed cauls for clamping? I have found that a good set of bowed cauls can make for very effective clamping while greatly reducing the number (40 – 75 %) of clamps/straps needed. Also the straps tend to reduce, if not eliminate, twisting from the clamping, generally allowing me to clamp entirely from one side.

  13. Gary

    Why are you trying to put so much pressure on clamps that they break? If your wood is sized right then all you need clamps for is to hold it together till the glue sets. Heck you really don’t need clamps at all if the wood is machined right. All that is needed is a rubber band…………….

  14. John Cooper

    We agree on pipe clamps. I also have four of the Irwins but I won’t be buying any more soon because they are a little too expensive for my retirement budget. When I need more small clamps I resort to my now antique Jorgenson screw-type clamps. They’re awkward for some projects but for small clamping tasks they work fine. Keep up the videos.

  15. Floyd Calderwood

    One thing I didn’t mention in an earlier post is that while I don’t like the HF “f” clamps, I do buy the 1/2” pipe clamp working parts from Harbor Freight (posters were asking) and then buy 1/2” black pipe from Home Depot or Lowes. The HF pipe clamp hardware is cheap in price and I haven’t had any problem with them. A whole lot cheaper buying the bits and pieces and assembling what length of clamps you want.
    A good tip is to buy a few black pipe couplings and different lengths of pipe so you can easily add to the length of the pipe by using a coupling and more pipe. That allows you to reach those wide glue-ups or use a smaller length so you are not running into a long pipe extending over the edge of a bench.

  16. Wade

    I bought a brass wire wheel that goes in my drill to clean the bars on my k bodies makes it a lot easier and won’t tear the bar up since the brass is softer. I also put a good coat of paste wax on them keeps the glue from sticking to them only have to clean them every two years or so

  17. Tony

    Thanks for your advice Jay! One of the best pieces of advice someone gave me about buying clamps is: always buy in pairs.

  18. jeff

    Well I have a comment on the F style clamps. I have used the Harbour frieght clamps a cense 2005 and I have never had a problem with them I have them up to 24″
    One Christmas a couple of years ago Home Depot had the Bessey f style clamps. SO I thought I would try them. What I found when I go home was this when compaired to HF they looked identical. Both work well. I had me own cabinet business building custom cabinets and furniture. Retired in 2004 and sold every tool I used. they were all name brand power equipment , did not ever consider using anything from Harbour freight. Even went to work part time at home depot . I got hooked on antique boats and bought one. It needed a lot of wood work done. When replacing the wood you need a ton of different clamps. So not wanting to spend a lot of money on clamps that I might never use again I tried HF clamps and found them to be a great value for my dollar. I still have most of them today and that was 2006 when I bought them
    Jeff

  19. Eric Moorehead

    FYI, the Bessey 6″ F style clamps from Home Depot are a result of oversupply Christmas inventory. I couldn’t buy on-line. Went into a local HD store and a full pallet was stored in the seasonal section, since they were left overs. A great price for a set of 6 clamps that can be used for smaller projects.

  20. Nick

    I don’t have any experience with the HF F style clamps… I can admit to buying things at the HF stores though! With that being said, I know you can buy a few gems there if your not planning on daily use and long lasting. My own personal belief is, that if your thinking of going with HF and its going to be needed to perform a daily task you’re better off going down the road and buying a better quality name brand. If your just looking for a tool you only need here and there than it’s worth pulling the trigger on a deal. I refuse to buy anything with a cord on it from HF because typically the smoke gets let out too soon or the cheap bearings or brushes blow their guts too soon. But on a positive note typically the price is right and the collective thought comes to mind, you get what you pay for! IMHO to each their own, I won’t judge you… I do scratch my head from time to time when I see people at the counter buying certain items knowing it’s not going to last. But I guess the same could be said for certain tools purchased at big box stores these days. It’s totally sad that quality and craftsmanship have gone by the way side and most tools are cheap knock off’s

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