In Rob Tarule's shop, the bench hold-down reigns supreme. Whether he's chapping mortises on one of his 17th-century reproductions, planing wavy boards or even cutting dovetails, Tarule relies on the power of a crook-necked iron hold-down to clamp the wood tightly to the bench. No vise needed here.

"For the type of work I do, the hold-down is fast," he explains. "And for chopping rough mortises as the 17th-century joiners did, no question, holding a workpiece to the benchtop with a hold-down gives me more support than a vise would."

While you might not be tempted to abandon your modern vise for the simplicity of Rob's ancient woodworking system, there are still plenty of good reasons to mount a hold-down on your workbench. A hold-down can grip a workpiece at the center of the bench where it's hard to apply force with a standard vise or bar clamp. It can hold a wide board so you can run molding on the outside edge. It can grasp an odd-shaped carving blank or cabriole leg so you can work it from several locations on the bench. And many hold-downs are quicker to adjust than a clamp or a bench vise.

An Ancient Tool

Hold-downs have been around since the time of the Romans, and they predate vises. The traditional hold-down was just an iron bar formed in the shape of a shepherd's crook. (See photo, page 62.) To use it. you dropped the shank in a hole in your bench and put the workpiece under the crooked end. Rapping the crook with a mallet caused the shank to jam in the hole and clamp the workpiece. Piece of cake.

In fact, the design worked so well that many of today's dozen-plus bench hold-downs are simply variations of this old device. But there have been some ingenious improvements, too. To see how the old and new hold-downs compare, I tested a group in our workshop. I checked how easy each is to mount to a 2-in.-thick bench-top. how well each grips stock of varying thickness and shape, and how quickly each clamps and disengages. Then, to see how well each resisted shock, lateral pressure and rotational pressure, I planed, carved and chopped dovetails, including working parallel to the bench to chop out the end grain. Specific comments appear on pages 60 to 62, but first let me offer a few overall observations: •In general, I found hold-downs that apply clamping pressure directly over the workpiece, such as the Jorgcnscn (see page 60), provide more force than those with long lever arms, like the Record on page 61. •A hold-down's profile will affect how easy it is to use. You can't use hold-downs with long shafts if you have shallow drawers directly below your benchtop, while models that extend far above the bench may get in the way when you're planing or carving. • If you plan to use the hold-down in several locations, you'll want to consider how badly you'll scar your benchtop when you mount it. Some, like the Record, require you to coun-terbore large holes and install permanent sleeves. Now let's look at the field:

KEVIN IRELAND is managing editor of AW.


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