How many clamps do you REALLY need? Woodworking basics.

“You can never have enough clamps!” Is that really true? In fact, you can accomplish almost anything with just 9 key clamps. Plus, I’ll talk about 3 overrated clamps. I mean seriously, clamps can be super expensive and I’m a cheapskate. 

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Essential Clamps

Pipe clamps

Pipe clamps are probably the cheapest clamps you can own. You buy these jaws separately, then buy whatever length of pipe you want. These are sold to fit ½” or 3⁄4” black pipes which you can buy at most home centers, lumber yards or hardware stores with threads already on the ends. Some places will cut them to length and cut the threads for you. 

These jaws screw onto the threads, then this other piece slides up and down the pipe for quick adjustments. 

Mine are ¾” pipes, but I recommend saving money and just getting 1⁄2” pipe. There is no reason why you would need the extra strength of ¾” when clamping projects together. I find 36” pipes the most versatile, especially for gluing up panels. And they aren’t too bulky if you need to use them for smaller projects.  I recommend having 4 along with 4 sets of jaws. That way you can edge join boards with two on each side. 

I also have 4, 48” pipes for bigger glue-ups, tabletops and such and a couple short, and 2 16” pipes that sometimes come in handy. I have jaws for all of these, but really you can get by with 4 sets of jaws and just swap them out as needed. 

If you need to glue up something really long, just clamp two clamps together. Oh, and if you need to cover a little more surface make some clamping blocks to slide onto the pipes. They will also help protect the surface of your project. 

Bar Clamps

Bar clamps are easily my most used clamps. These 6 Bessey Style clamps probably account for 90% of all my clamping. They are simply that useful. I’ve had these for many many years and there is hardly a project they haven’t been used in. 

I have three different sizes, about 6”, 12”, and 24”…at least that’s about the effective working distance of the jaws. The handle broke off this little one a long time ago, but it’s still useful.

I use bar clamps for everything. From gluing just about anything, to holding stop blocks, to just providing a third hand. 

Strap Clamp

Lastly, and this might seem an unusual pick, but I consider a strap clamp essential. Any time I need to glue up something with four sides…say a box or a picture frame, a strap clamp is the best way to square everything up. And considering how many projects are based on a simple box, I’m always amazed at how handy this clamp is and how often I use it.

Those are my recommendations for essential clamps. If you are a beginning woodworker, these will serve you fine for years. Bottom line: 4 bar clamps, 4 pipe clamps and a strap clamp. You actually may not ever really need anymore. 

Of course, if you’re like most woodworkers, you will probably accumulate more clamps than the essentials. There are bazillions of different types of clamps, from specialty clamps to gimmicky clamps. It can be pretty fun and enticing to imagine them in your shop, but as with all tools, stop and consider if it’s really solving a problem you have or if it’s just something you think might be handy. If you’re itching to spend money, consider just buying some extra bar clamps. 

Overrated Clamps

I want to talk about three types of clamps that I’ve acquired over the years that I hardly ever use. I’m sure there are woodworkers who will strongly disagree, but remember…this is just based on my experience. 

Handscrew clamps

Hand tool woodworkers seem to be drawn to these wooden handscrew clamps. I’ve used this on a few occasions, mostly as a third hand to hold something in place, but overall, I’ve never had any specific need for it that I can’t accomplish with other clamps. Plus it’s kind of mind-boggling to figure out how to use. And they’re expensive. I must have been in a quaint kind of mood when I bought it. 

Spring clamps 

Spring clamps are mostly useful for holding things temporarily in place. Photographers might use them for holding up backdrops. Sometimes I use them for hanging sheets over the window if harsh sunlight is interfering with a particular video shot. But for woodworking they are just not very useful.

One problem is that the way these clamping heads pivot, it can cause glued boards to slip, unlike bar clamps and pipe clamps that provide straight horizontal pressure along the axis. This can be super frustrating.

Second, the larger spring clamps are, the more grip strength you’ll need to operate them one-handed. And even then, they might not provide enough pressure for glue-ups anyway. 

C-Clamps

Look, I know plenty of woodworkers who love using c-clamps, but honestly, I’ve never seen the point. There are very few times when a c-clamp provided the only solution to a clamping situation. Maybe that extra-wide mouth came in handy once or twice for having to over or beyond something. But mostly they are just time-consuming to use because of all the threads. Again, a bar clamp is just more efficient.

Let me know in the comments: what are your essential clamps and what clamps do you think are just overrated? 

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