Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | October 12, 2009

Woodcarving Vises, Clamps and Hold-down Devices

When one thinks of wood carving tools, one naturally thinks of knives, gouges, mallets and maybe certain power tools.  However, behind the scenes, there are a lot of other, very important tools.  One category of those tools are referred to as woodcarver’s vices, hold-down devices and clamps.  For the sake of this discussion, I am going to simply refer to the entire category as “hold-down devices.”

In my opinion, a good hold-down device is one of the most essential tools a carver can own and use.  A hold-down device acts much the same way as a vice does.  It holds your project firmly while you work on it.  One of the greatest advantages to a hold-down device is that it frees up both hands to work on your project.  A good hold-down device is one of the most valuable pieces of safety equipment that you can own.  It allows you to place both hands on your gouge or use a mallet and chisel together, keeping your hands out of harms way.  Hold-downs come in all manners of form.  Actually, a hold-down can be anything that holds your carving project while you work on it including wood clamps, screws, belts, or even a strong neighbor.

Carver's Screws

Carver’s Screws

Probably the oldest and most popular device is what is commonly referred to as a Carvers Screw.  One end of a carvers screw is tapered and sharp like a giant wood screw and is screwed into an appropriate location on your project.  The opposite end of the screw is what is referred to as “all-thread” like a ultra heavy duty bolt and is inserted through a hole on your work bench.  Carvers screws generally have a large wing nut on the all-thread end for tightening.  Dollar for dollar, this is your best bet.  I have three sizes of screws and I use them in conjunction with other hold-down devices discussed in this article.

In addition to the woodcarvers screw there are a myriad of other devices that are specifically designed to hold a carvers project; some good, some not so good.  Regrettably, few are great.  When buying a hold-down device, you want it to firmly hold your work in place.  You do not want it to move around, slip or overly flex.  Virtually all of the well known hold-down devices are guilty of one of the above.  Interestingly, the carvers screw is the simplest and generally the least expensive to purchase and works as good or better than most.  I seem to always be looking for a better mouse trap in tools and as such, I own a number of hold-down devices.  A few of them have been a great disappointment.   Before spending your money on one, ask around and find out what other carvers say.  And, do not believe the promises in the ads or by vendors.

Some years ago, I took a work shop with Ian Norbury on his first tour of the U.S.  The workshop was sponsored by national chain of woodworking stopres.  It was a great workshop by the way.  The store (in my case Tigard, Oregon) used a Veritas brand hold-down.  On the final day of the workshop, several of the devices broke at a weak spot where the handle and spindle connect.  This is not an inexpensive tool but it simply could not stand up to two days of what I would call light-to medium-duty work.

Wilton Power Arm

Wilton Power Arm

In the early 70’s, I purchased a Wilton Power Arm.  The Power Arm, I believe, is the only decent hold-down device on the market today with a 50 year history.  Others seem to come and go.   I think I paid about $70.00 for the thing and today it is selling for nearly $400.00.  I remember being irritated at the time I bought it as the price had just increased from $39.95.  It remains to be my favorite hold-down device.  It has a 70 lb holding capacity and it that is not enough for you, they make a larger unit that will hold about 150 lbs.  I have made several add-ons to this device for specialty work.  I mentioned Ian Norbury above…  he in fact, uses the larger Power Arm in his shop.  I should mention that you need to clean the ball and socket periodically as chips and dust can get in there and cause the ball to move when it should not.  Regular cleaning will ensure stability.

Carving Horse

Carving Horse

Another device that I have enjoyed is called a Carving Horse but alas it is not imported to the U.S. any longer and may not even be available in its native UK either.  This devise was a couple of hundred dollars and it is exceptionally strong.  The only draw back to it is its diversity in movement is somewhat limited.  In case you can find one in the secondary market, I would grab it.  It is/was made by Stretton of Coventry and I would argue that it was absolutely the best value of modern times… other than the carver’s screw.

Then along came the Jerry-Rig.  In fact, today, there are two Jerry-Rigs – the original and a follow-up, ball and socket version.  Both are “spendy” around the $400.00 level.  Plus with these there are several accessories that add even more to the expense.  I found the original to be “underwhelming” as it flexes way too much for its size and it has only pre-set locking positions.  In fact, it seems like only a larger version of the Veritas.  If you want a position other than their pre-sets, you are out of luck.  I do not own the ball and socket version and I have not tried it but I assume it is a good one as it works on the same principal as the Power Arm and the Carving Horse.

Super Jaws

Super Jaws

One more excellent holding device that I own is Super Jaws, manufactured in Australia by Triton.  This thing looks a little like a three legged saw horse but is actually a large clamp that will clamp anything up to about 16″ very tightly and almost as well anything from 16″ to 28.”  Its clamping action is the strongest I have seen; nothing moves.  Granted, when you are working on something quite large and applying a great deal of force, the entire unit is prone to slide but it is equipped with foot plates that one can stand on eliminating the unit’s movement to a large degree.  I cut and drilled three 4X4’s to different lengths.  I place one end of the 4X4 in the Super Jaws and insert wood carver’s screws in the opposite end and attach my project.  Doing so provides rock solid holding and also provides exceedingly easy adjustment and movement.  The Super Jaws are priced well under $200.00 and a large wood carver’s screw is about $30.00.  In fairness to this discussion, the Super Jaws are not something that you can throw in your tool box and haul around like a pocket knife.  They do fold up and are fairly easy to move but do weigh in the neighborhood of 50 pounds.  I own one and use it regularly would have a hard time giving it up.

Post script added 2/26/2011:  While I have enjoyed my Super Jaws, it has now broken twice and I have finally replaced it with a Rockwell Jawhorse.  After using the Jawhorse for a short time, I find it much more user friendly and to have better operating features.  It accomplishes the same thing as the Super Jaws but, in my opinion is a much better piece of equipment (safer and easier to use).

Carver's Vice

Carver’s Vice

Another handy holder is what is referred to as a carver’s vice.  This vice has all the appearance of a standard machine vice but comes with wooden jaws that each swivel.  By swiveling, the jaws can accept tapered and unusually shaped pieces.  Other benefits include the fact that the entire vise will swivel a full 360 degrees and will accommodate pieces up to a little over 6 inches.  I must admit, I even use this vice for non-woodcarving as it doubles for a great bench vice.  Unlike a standard vice, a woodcarver’s vice opens and closes with a comfortable, easy-to-use, hand crank.  It can be mounted to virtually anything you can drill a 5/8″ hole through.  One thing I enjoy about this vice is that as the jaws are wood; therefore, I can easily cut custom jaw pads to hold just about anything that I want.  I often use it to hold walking sticks, large wooden spoons and other unusually shaped projects.  The wood carver’s vice is priced just over $100.00.  When holding a piece that tapers, the vices pressure is prone to sweeze the piece out of the vice so I use a piece of rug padding to ensure a solid grip.

Traditional Carver's Vice

Traditional Carver’s Vice

Another long time and well known traditional carver’s vice is one from England (above).  This device is priced at well more than it is worth even in materials.  It is pretty handy to take out to a camp ground table or elsewhere as it quickly clamps to anything solid.  But “solid” the vice is not.  You can move your piece with any pressure at all and this is suitable only for the lightest of work.

A new device on the market, although apparently not in the U.S. is the Kelton Carvers Jig or Clamp.  I first saw a write-up about it several months a go and it looked good.  Again, like others, the Kelton is a ball and socket set-up like the Power Arm and the second version of the Jerry-Rig.  I contacted Kelton about its price and availability and received the name of a possible vendor in Las Vegas.  I attempted to contact the Las Vegas firm repeatedly by e-mail and telephone and received no response.  I then went back to Kelton for another option and was ignored by them.  So, if customer service is important to you, I suggest, you look elsewhere.

Many hold-down devices come with a selection of gizmos to attach to the carving and then onto the device itself.  These attachments are either similar to mini carving screws or plates that works in conjunction with the device itself.  Remember, hold-down devices are an essential tool that take a beating and you want one that will withstand a lot of punishment.

As with many things, I have a strong opinion about these devices because of my own testing or experience but you should include additional research in helping you make your own decisions.

You may also be interested in a more recent posting on Grip-all Jaws.

Keep Sharp and Happy Carving!  And, what ever you do… be carveful.

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