The Millwright’s Apprentice

Tools of the Trade: The Holdfast
02
May

Tools of the Trade: The Holdfast

Now that we’ve covered sharpening and layout, one might think we’re ready to set to work, but first we must find a way to keep our workpiece from moving under our tools. For 18th-century woodworkers, this was done with a holdfast.

What is a Holdfast?

a tool used by joiners, carvers

According to the 1765 Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, a holdfast is “a tool used by joiners, carvers, &c. which goes through their benches, to hold fast such work as cannot be finished by its being held in the hand.”[1] It’s effectively a roughly L-shaped piece of iron, which can clamp anything to the workbench. Moxon, in his Mechanick Exercises, illustrates one (labeled b) set in the workbench, resting and ready for use.[2]

We use these almost every day in the Millwright shop, and they are certainly an essential piece of our tool kit. This is one that was made in the blacksmith shop at Newlin Grist Mill, based off of Moxon’s illustration.

How do they work?

The Hold Fast

Let’s first take a look at how Moxon explained their use–bear in mind, this is essentially a late 17th-century technical manual, so I’ve paraphrased what he said below the direct quote. Feel free to skip any and all of Moxon’s writing. I’ve included it as I feel it’s important to show where we’re getting this information, but I’ll always provide an explanation after.

[Holdfasts perform their] Office with the knock of an Hammer, or Mallet, upon the head of it; for the Beak of it, being made crooked downwards, the end of the Beak falling upon the flat of the Bench, keeps the head of the Hold-fast above the flat of the Bench, and the hole in the Bench the Shank is let into, being bored straight down, and wide enough to let the Hold-fast play a little, the head of the Hold-fast being [knocked], the point of the Beak throws the Shank a-slope in the hole in the Bench, and presses its back-side hard against the edge of the hole on the upper Superficies of the Bench, and its fore-side hard against the [opposite] side of the under Superficies of the Bench, and so by the point of the Beak the Shank of the Hold-fast is wedged between the upper edge, and its [opposite] edge of the round hole in the Bench.[3]

Essentially the holdfast acts as a wedged clamp; when you strike the head with a mallet, it creates three points of pressure between it and the bench. The hole needs to be slightly wider than the shaft, so that there’s enough play for that wedging action to occur. I’ve included the image below to help explain. The arrows point to where the shaft and beak are pressing against the bench or workpiece.

hold fast diagram

How they work in practice:

hole is just slightly larger than the diameter of the shaft

At rest on the bench, you can see that the hole is just slightly larger than the diameter of the shaft, allowing forto occur with just a quick mallet strike.

the wedging action to occur with just a quick mallet strike.

Here, the holdfast is clamped down on a piece (the smaller piece of pine is there as a sacrificial pad, the holdfast tends to leave dents on your workpiece if you’re not careful). You need a large mallet (like the one in the background) to really drive the holdfast home and get a good grip.

the wedging action

Here, the holdfast is clamped down on a doe’s foot (the board with a “v” notch cut into it), which allows you to hold a workpiece against a planing stop.

While essentially just a piece of bent iron, holdfasts are incredibly useful tools, allowing the worker to quickly and easily secure anything to their bench.

Again, I would normally invite everyone to come visit us in the Millwright Shop, but it’s currently closed due to COVID-19. We will be continuing to post here on the blog, and we’ll be doing more Facebook Live videos, so be sure to follow us on Facebook. Stay safe, and check back here next week!

If you’d like to take the next step and get involved in the shop once this has all calmed, please contact us at:

Email: info@newlingristmill.org

Find us on Instagram @newlingristmill1704

Look for us on Facebook @newlingristmill

Notes:

[1] Croker, Temple H., Williams, Thomas and Clarke, Samuel. The Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences Volume 2. London, 1765. Accessed April 30, 2020 “Hold-Fast,” Google E-book

[2] Joseph Moxon. Mechanick Exercises: Or, The Doctrine of Handy-works. London: D. Midwinter and T. Leigh, 1703. Accessed April 30th, 2020, Pg 68, Google E-Book

[3] Joseph Moxon. Mechanick Exercises: Or, The Doctrine of Handy-works. London: D. Midwinter and T. Leigh, 1703. Accessed April 30th, 2020, Pgs. 64-65, Google E-Book

Bibliography:

Croker, Temple H., Williams, Thomas and Clarke, Samuel. The Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences Volume 2. London, 1765. Google E-book, accessed April 30, 2020, https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Complete_Dictionary_of_Arts_and_Scie/uHNEAAAAcAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0

Moxon, Joseph. Mechanick Exercises: Or, The Doctrine of Handy-works. London: D. Midwinter and T. Leigh, 1703. Google E-Book, accessed April 13, 2020, https://books.google.com/books?id=t_IRCzjTf08C&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&dq=Joseph+Moxon&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Leave a Reply

You are donating to : The Newlin Grist Mill

How much would you like to donate?
$10 $25 $50
Would you like to make regular donations? I would like to make donation(s)
How many times would you like this to recur? (including this payment) *
Name *
Last Name *
Email *
Phone
Address
Additional Note
Loading...

Newlin Grist Mill’s trails are now open!

There are a few changes you need to be aware of before you visit:

  1. Open hours are 7am to 5pm. New gates have been installed at the entrance to Newlin Grist Mill. These gates will be unlocked at 7am and locked at 5pm daily. Please keep this in mind when visiting the park.
  2. Repair work is ongoing and not all trails are currently open. While the worst of the damage has been repaired, use caution and please be mindful of marked trails that remain closed while repairs continue.
  3. The parking lot by the log cabin will remain closed or partially blocked off, as we continue to work on completing repairs.
  4. Restrooms, visitor center, and historic buildings are still closed. Please be patient as we work to rebuild the visitor center and make repairs to our historic buildings.
  5. Please be respectful of our staff and volunteers as they work on repairs throughout the park.