Holdfast Drilling Jig(s)

When making traditional-ish workbenches one of the considerations is making the holes for the holdfasts.  I might have said “To holdfast or not, that is the question,” but in my experience a woodworking traditionalist either decides to incorporate holdfasts from the start or comes around to using them eventually.

As a general rule the hole for the holdfast is a smidge bigger than the shaft of the tool so that when the top is pounded to induce flexing tension the holdfast grabs the bench top firmly.  As a practical matter virtually all of the holdfasts I know are available now use either a 3/4″ or 1″ hole.  Getting the holes perpendicular to the bench top on two axes can be a nuisance some times, and in the past I have made a couple of drilling jigs on the drill press.  However, over time both of these versions became wallowed out and somewhat less than fully helpful.

After returning from Arkansas where my older jigs got a serious workout I set to making another more robust and precision jig for fitting the Gramercy Tools holdfasts that I am so fond of.  My main modifications for this were to lift its base up off the workpiece with plywood feet to provide exit for the chips, and bronze bushing sleeves fitted to the 3/4″ drill bit.

I drilled the hole for the O.D. of the bushings, then epoxied them in place.  Finito.


Workbench Wednesday- #1, 1986/7

This is the first in an occasional series on the dozen-plus workbenches I have.  These are presented roughly in the order in which they entered my orbit. — DCW


1984 was a monumental year for us, as we finished up our time in college (my third try was a charm), both got jobs we wanted (in the same town!) and bought a little house just outside the Mordor Beltway on 3.7 acres to expand (the house, not the property).  Though I still had one more year of evening classes to graduate life was beginning to settle down from the maelstrom of a heavy college load and workto pay for college occurring simultaneously (I refused to borrow money for college).  I was a poor role model for my daughters’ friends, I took 14 years to get through college.

By late 1986 it was time to fashion a workbench for the small work space (10′ x 22′ x 6′-3″) I had carved out in the basement for household and furniture conservation projects for private clients who wanted to throw money at me.  We wanted to get ahead as much financially as we could before our family started.  Oops, too late.  Daughter #1 arrived that autumn.  Nevertheless it was time for my first real purpose built custom-made-to-my-specs workbench.  Until then I’d had “make do” with whatever I could scrounge together.

The process of bench design weighed several competing and complimentary considerations.  The manner in which I resolved and fulfilled them resulted in a workbench that is my third child.

First, I had very limited space, especially when you consider the amount of machinery I had stuffed into the space.  A unisaw, a 12″ radial arm saw, a 14″ combination planer joiner, standing drill press, large air compressor, etc., were all taking up residence there, along with a full-sized explosion proof solvent cabinet for my finishing and conservation supplies.  There was no way I could afford the luxury of an 8-foot patternmaker’s bench with an accompanying assembly table, which is what I’d had in the foundry, nor an 8-foot Euro bench like the row of them in the conservation studio at Winterthur and the Smithsonian, or the English wall bench from the Dominy shop.  I would be lucky to get four feet of bench in my basement workshop.  In the end the bench’s overall dimensions are 48″ long, 33″ deep, and 35 inches high.

Second, I was not going to be making much furniture in the basement, or anywhere else for that matter.  As it turned out the few pieces I did make in the coming years were assembled either on the front porch or out in the 15×25 barn-ish shed we had for the lawn equipment.  It wasn’t so much of a footprint issue as it was headroom.

Third, I was very much enamored, and still am, with the concept of the torsion box structure for workbenches and table tops.  I’d seen Ian Kirby’s version and really liked it.  Not the MDF part, but certainly the design simplicity for his workbenches.  I had not become persuaded by the planarity of the sides for many years yet.

Fourth, an Emmert K-1 vise had become part of my work vocabulary in my years at the pattern shop, and I had subsequently purchased a couple of fine vintage ones and was going to design the bench around them, or at least one of them.

Fifth, though I was not a chair maker and would never really become one I was attracted to the expanse of large twin screw face vise often found in their shops.

Finally, I was not the aficionado of hand-work that I have become so keeping hand work to a minimum was desired.

I purchased a pile of 12/4 and 8/4 white oak and a couple sheets of 3/4″ birch plywood and got to work.  Unfortunately I have zero pictures of the building process, all these come from much later.

Up until this time my “workbench” was a salvaged 36″ wide solid core door sitting on a pair of sawhorses, which makes for a lousy workbench but a great assembly table.

Cutting the 3/4″ plywood on the table saw I constructed the 24x48x5 torsion box bench top, fitting it into a rabeted perimeter of 8/4 oak dovetailed at the corners.

These were my first man-sized dovetails and the inexperience shows, especially in the corners where I laid out and cut the joint adequately but inverted the angles.  Think of a dovetail joint where the tails do not spread but rather taper at the same angle and you get the idea.  It’s not terribly made, but it’s not proper either.  It remains a constant reminder to be more careful and make sure I am envisioning things correctly.  I am neither proud nor dishonored by these corners, they were an honest representation of my joinery skills 32 years ago, and emphasize the different skill sets of a conservator and a furniture maker.  I have improved in the intervening years.

This top went over a simple trestle-and-stretcher base that was half-lapped on the radial arm saw and bolted together.  To attach the top to the base I drilled and screwed threaded brass inserts into the top and drilled the corresponding holes in the trestle top crosspieces, bolting them together.  The general assembly scheme has worked for the intervening years without a fuss.  Every now and then I crank down on the bolts when anything loosens up, but the unit has remained remarkably trouble-free.

It was in installing the Emmert that I realized a couple of mistakes that I could have corrected, one a nuisance and the other a fundamental problem I will eventually correct.  For starters the 5″ thick torsion box was way too thick for the Emmert configuration and I had to cut through the torsion box skin and ribs in order to make it all fit and work.  Fortunately this did not weaken the top appreciably.

But another miscalculation has required compensation ever since I built it.  Rather than fit the Emmert between the trestles I designed it to be outboard of the trestle at that end, rendering the whole thing unbalanced and susceptible to tipping when under load.  I’d thought that the weight of the 12/4 & 8/4 oak trestle structure would be enough, but I was wrong.  I really should have made the trestle longer to allow the vise to be installed in between the two ends.  I finally settled on something resembling a solution when I turned the bench base into a lumber storage unit.  The addition of several hundred pounds of counterweight does the trick, but a third trestle (or moving the current one) outboard of the Emmert would be even trickier.

On the long side opposite the Emmert I added a full-length twin screw face vise using hardware I think I bought from the bargain bin at WSJenks, a famed DC hardware store.  The movable jaw is 2-1/2″ x  5″  x 48″ in white oak with 32″ between the screws (zero flex), and it is a fixture that is used pretty much constantly.

Years later I made a wagon-wheel vise for the side with and aligned with the inner jaw of the Emmert, a project I chronicled in a Popular Woodworking article.  It is a useful addition, but since I have so many other options for the same function it does not get used much these days.

While not without flaws and limitations, this bench has remained my “go to” work station for more than three decades, and is only now grudgingly giving up its status as my one and only workbench.  It still gets my time and energies every day.


Workbenches Anonymous

My name is Don and I have a lot of workbenches.  It’s neither a confession nor problem, it’s just a recounting of fact.

No sooner had I returned home from Arkansas and delivered Bob’s bench to him (it was the prototype for the bench we built 7x at the workshop) I noted its absence from the barn and immediately set about to fill the void.

The finished unit went into the classroom, where I am trying to replace any sub-standard benches with first-rate ones.  I’ve got one more to go, maybe two especially if you count restoring a vintage one.  I’ve got about another hour of work to install the twin screw face vise on this Nicholson and then I’ll move on to something else.

It occurred to me that it might be amusing to udertake a chronological recitation of my entire extant workbench inventory, so beginning soon I’ll try to present “Workbench Wednesdays” (am I a marketing genius with slogans or what?) giving some history and a review of my benches (including the crapdoodle ones if they have not been “decommissioned” in the wood stove) until I get through the list.  As near as I can tell this will take several months of Wednesdays to complete.

Traditional Woodworking Workshop – Day 2


On the syllabus for Day 2 was to finish up the workbenches quickly and get started on the initial pair of pratica, namely the winding sticks and the planing stop.  But in the lull of battle preceding the gathering of the students I reveled in just walking around, admiring their productivity yesterday.

The benches soon received their finishing touches of holdfast holes and threaded aprons to accept the screws for the vises.  I learned after the fact that a good drilling jig would have been very helpful for these holes.  A few of them were slightly off kilter, and a good jig would have saved a lot of headache in the end.  I’ve already got the design in mind and will fabricate it as soon as I get home.

Soon the holes were drilled and threaded and the screws lubricated and tested in them.

The double-thick jaws were laid out and drilled with a drill press that was brought over from the shop and the vises installed.

After this the Moxon vises were a cakewalk.

The benches were  then given their first real workouts with the resawing, ripping, and crosscutting of the pieces for the winding sticks and planing stop.  All variety of saws were employed, with my giant c.1800 two-man frame saw the the new Bad Axe version receiving great acclaim.

One of my treats for the day was giving Cam a lesson on saw sharpening.  He’d finished up his work in the metal shop for the day and dropped in to see what we were up to.  Being a skilled metal worker Cam took to it like a fish to water and the results were gratifying.

This is one of my favorite images for the week, with husband and wife working alongside each other in their own tasks.  A profound model for us all.

Traditional Woodworking Workshop – Day 1

The agenda for Day 1 of the workshop was ambitious.  We first met for an introductory time and a review of the expectations and projects of the week.  I won’t say there was disbelief at the list of things we were going to do, but I could sense some skepticism.  Especially that part about everyone building a complete bench on Day 1, a heritage tool that would be up on its feet by the end of the day and ready to be put to work for Day 2.

And that is what we did.  I described and demonstrated the process of building the Nicholson bench and everyone got to work, with cooperation and fellowship abounding.  All the 2×12 SYP lumber had been pre-cut so it saved a fair bit of time and allowed for the students to work more efficiently.  As did the use of battery powered drills and decking screws.

Before lunch we had at least a couple of them up on their feet for the first time.  There are repeated up-and-downs with these benches as many of the subsequent steps occur (or should) while it is laying over on its side.

After lunch at Jane and Cam’s restaurant, the best one in the region by far, things got hopping as the tops were added followed by the second lamina for the legs going into place with decking screws and glue.

The front edges of the tops were planed flush with the front aprons and folks got the sense that a real live pile of workbenches was about to happen.

Before long the legs were being trimmed to length and the tops flattened, Round One.  I recommended that everyone wait until next summer for the final flattening of the tops.

Here are a final few pictures from the day as holdfast holes appeared in great abundance, making the benches fully functional even before the twin screw vises and Moxon vises were completed the following day.  It was such a roaring success that it resulted in total buy-in from the participants for the rest of the week.

Vise Screw Mass Production

The final large scale undertaking for the trip to teach in Arkansas was to make the wood screw sets for both the face vise and the Moxon vise, enough for ten benches.  There was nothing special about it other than the scale of the work, in total I made 20 long screws and 20 short screws.

Again I doused the tulip polar dowels with acetone-diluted epoxy  and set them aside, moving on to the octagonal knobs.

I ran off the 60 squares needed for the knobs (the face vise hubs were double layers) then moved to the drill press to punch the center holes into which would go the threaded dowels.


Once I had the requisite pile of holed blocks I returned to the table saw and octagonalized them.   I must say that drilling the holes first made it a lot easier to handle them in this process, there was always somewhere to grab to hold them firm against the fences for the miter cuts.

A pleasant by-product was a box of glue blocks from the off-cuts.  I’ll set that aside and will no doubt use them over the coming months and years.

I dealt with the long screws a little differently from the short screws at this point.  This had to do with the arrangement of the Beall thread cutter.  With the long screws passing through a double thickness of stock for the movable jaw I could get close enough to the thread cutter for the threads to work fine by making a split handle to hold and turn them.  This was not true for the shorter Moxon screws, so I fed them by using a small plumbers wrench as a grip to get the threads far enough toward the head.

Off to the thread cutter, where a couple hours of concentration and labor ensued.  Before long I had a large tub of thread stock.

I glued the knobs on them using yellow glue.


At this point the shorter screws were finished.  As for the longer screw’s doubled knobs I trued up the octagons with a Shinto rasp and drilled the pass-through holes for the handles they were finished, too.

Two full tubs of vise screws and it was time to move on to the next thing.

Nicholson Prototype “Moxon” Vise Construction & Assembly

Part of my motivation for adding an above-bench a/k/a “Moxon” vise to this ensemble was the knowledge that this tool was going to wind up at my friend Bob’s shop after I return from Arkansas.  Among other things Bob is a gunsmith and needs to have a comfortable work station while he is standing.

In the prototype I had the bench on its back to drill the holes for the face vise, and just left it that way for working on the Moxon.  I drilled all the holes needed for the Moxon on the drill press; 1-1/2″ on the movable jaw through which the threaded dowel could traverse, and 1-3/8″ in the fixed jaw to accept the threading.

I glued and screwed the fixed jaw to a base which would then be the means of affixing the unit to the bench top.

I used a similar approach on the screw hub/handle set-up with three differences.  First, the threaded screw as only 12″ long rather than the 16″ for the face vise.  Second, I used only one partially drilled 2x octagon for the handle itself so the profile of the until was more compact, and third, I omitted a doweled handle in-part for the same reason.

The only meaningful thing I learned in making this unit vis-a-vie the upcoming workshop was that the threaded screw only needs to be 8″ long for this vise.  Anything longer and you really need to use the face vise.

I found this accessory so useful it was earning its keep within a day.

So here is the finished prototype ensemble.  I was not displeased.  On to screw production for the workshop.

Nicholson Prototype Face Vise Construction

The vises I had in mind for the Nicholson prototype were simple in concept and construction.  The face vise was simply two pieces of SYP 2x stock leftover from the bench construction.  I glued these together with my typical clamping of deck screws and fender washers, then drilled 1-1/2″ holes for the screw-stock to pass completely through.

The threaded holes in the apron were drilled at 1-3/8″, then tapped with the tool provided in the Beale kit.  I already had an oversized tap handle from a set of giant taps and dies I’ve had since forever.

It seemed so simple, two holes in the jaw, two holes in the apron.  Sigh.  I somehow managed to drill one of the threaded holes in the apron directly into the end of one of the battens underneath the top.  D’oh.  I had to cut the jaw to remove that hole, and drill another hole in the apron for the new screw location.  That’s why you build prototypes.  Given that we were going to be building perhaps as many as a dozen benches in the Arkansas workshop, it was good to get this mistake out the of the way now.  I’ll leave that hole in place as a reminder of my own hubris.  Not exactly a Saint Jerome “Memento Mori” moment, but a humbling touchstone nevertheless.

Back to the construction and assembly of the face vise.

My strategy was to assemble the screw unit as a whole, hub and handle hole included, before cutting the screws.  That worked out pretty well.  For the handle hubs I made four identical pieces of SYP 2x stock cut 4″x 4″.  I drilled the 1-1/2″ hole in the center of each of these four pieces, on two the holes went all the way through, on two they went 3/4 of the way through.

I set up the miter gauge on the table saw to make octagons out of the squares.

I glued the whole unit together with yellow glue.

The 1-1/16″ hole for the 1″ dowel handle was drilled on the drill press and then I could use a temporary handle to turn the unit as I cut the threads on the Beale unit.

The handles were outfitted with rubber chair tips on the ends and the vise was put in its place.

Nicholson Prototype Vise(s) Construction – The Screw Stock

With the workbench itself completed it was time to move on to the two twin-screw vises for the unit, one face vise and one “Moxon” vise for temporary use on top of the bench.

My first consideration was the stock for the screws themselves.  For all the screw making on this unit I used 1-1/2″ tulip poplar dowels from Lowes; it was clear, straight, cheap and readily available.  But, in a previous undertaking of refitting my Roubo saw-bench with new screws, I had observed ferocious tear-out when using the Beall Wood Threader due to the softness of the wood.  I think the Beall system was designed for use on dense hardwoods like maple or tight-grain oak, but all that meant was that I had to turn tulip poplar into something that behaved like a harder, tighter grain wood.

My resolution of the “tear out” problem was to impregnated the dowels with a dilute solution of epoxy and acetone.  I mixed a small batch of epoxy, thinned it 50/50 with acetone and brushed it on the dowels.  It soaked in well, and was hard in 24 hours.  The result was to reduce “tear out” by more than 90%.

Even the “feel” of the impregnated screw stock was better when feeding through the cutter.  With this problem addressed I could charge forward.  Goo thing, as I not only had to make the four screws for the prototype bench but for another ten benches as well in order to get ready for the Arkansas workshop.

Nicholson Prototype Construction III

The final 90 minutes of construction for the Nicholson was to finish the legs and top.  It was all easy enough to do.

I wanted to get the top planks on first, and to do that I needed to achieve a crisp, straight edges for the center joint.  Were my big table saw or jointer up and running I would have simply run them through one of them to remove the rounded edge, but I have not yet installed those outlets in the basement shop (and have learned to live without those machines for more than four years).  Instead I clamped the boards one at a time to the front apron of the bench and planed them with a jointer plane until they were what I wanted.

I then screwed the top boards to the cross battens.  I made sure to bury the screw heads pretty deep so the top could be smoothed with a hand plane without any concern for hitting them and nicking the iron.

I then rolled the bench onto its back on top of my short sawbench type stools, and glued and screwed the outer leg lamina in place.  As with almost every undertaking of this sort, I used decking screws and fender washers as the clamping forces.  Once the glue is dry I simply back out the crews and pry off the washers and put each in their proper container for use the next time.

A minute or two planing off the lumber mill chatter marks and I was ready to drill the holdfast holes, for which I used this exotically engineered jig.

While the bench was on its side I trimmed all the legs to length.

Back up its feet, I checked to make sure the top was flat, albeit not really smooth as there was a bit of mill chatter. I touched it lightly with a smoother plane to get it, well, smooth, followed by a quick covering with the toothing plane.

I cannot remember exactly why I took this picture of the bench upside down, but it does give you a good view of the entire undercarriage.

After drilling the holdfast holes in the top, through the planks and battens, and the construction of the bench proper was finished.  Now it was time to move on to the twin screw corner vise.