The Curious Case of the Missing Holdfast


Nicholson’s workbench, from Plate 12 in “Mechanic’s Companion.”

We know the English knew about the holdfast by the early 1800s; Joseph Moxon shows it in “Mechanic Exercises” in 1683. Yet Peter Nicholson (who trained briefly as a joiner) neither shows nor mentions it in his 1812 book “Mechanical Exercises” (later titled “The Mechanic’s Companion”).

For workholding, Nicholson offers only a “bench hook” (we call it a planing stop), a “bench screw” (face vise) and a series of holes in the front board and leg “so as to admit of a pin for holding up the other end [of a long board], at various heights, as occasion may require” (p. 88).

“The bench hook is sometimes covered with an iron plate, the front edge of which is formed into sharp teeth for sticking fast into the end of the wood to be planed, in order to prevent it from slipping; or, instead of a plate, nails are driven obliquely through the edge, and filed into wedge-formed points” (p. 89).

So while the “bench hook” bites into the wood a bit at one point, there’s no holdfast to help keep things in place from the other end. Nicholson’s approach does work, but it requires skill and practice to keep a wide board balanced against a stop as you plane. I’ve tried it a number of times, but can successfully and reliably use this approach only with narrow stock – thick stock inevitably goes spinning off the stop if I can’t get my plane stroke directly toward it. I’d feel bad about myself…except that Christopher Schwarz and Adam Cherubini (click that link – he’s back!) have experimented at some length with finding the proper angle of attack with the plane to make it work – and they also find other approaches to be more effective.


Moxon’s workbench, from Plate 4 in “Mechanick Exercises” – note the holdfast (d) on top of the bench. (Image from “The Art of Joinery” (Lost Art Press)).

So either Nicholson missed discussing some common mechanism, or the English were (are?) simply better at this approach. I’m eager to find out in a few months from the guys at “Mortise & Tenon” what they think – they just finished building one almost to the plan.

Me? I’ll stick with my holdfast coupled with a “doe’s foot.” Luckily, it’s easy to bore holes as needed. (Although, if using thin stock as in the Nicholson, it’s best to do so on the “transverse bearers” – more on those and construction thoughts in general in a future post.)


Christopher Schwarz’s adaptation of Nicholson’s bench…with holdfasts. (And angled legs, square dog holes, a leg vise instead of a face vise, plus a wagon vise at the right end.)

But, as exhibited in Christopher’s 2006 bench above, it’s easy to adjust this simple English workbench to fit your bench theories and workholding needs – and you can do it mostly with home center stock.

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Cauls – Fancy Cauls – to the Rescue!


For no particular reason, I decided to make some shelves for the bathroom on which to store towels, extra toilet paper and the like. Sure, on my to-do list there’s a hallway linen cupboard in which those things can eventually go (and for now they’re variously in bins under my bed and in the guest bathroom), but I wanted a little wood to warm up the black, white and grey of the bathroom, and open shelving provides me an excellent excuse to buy new towels for the first time in more than a decade.

Really, I just wanted to build something.

So I raided the stash of cherry in the Lost Art Press basement and took the worst pieces that were wide enough – stuff I didn’t think was likely to be used for anything else – then sized everything to match the available stock, as close as I could get to my napkin-sketch sizes. I had to make a few adjustments, but so what?

But “bad” wood can be a challenge.

I’ve done battle with the two side pieces before – and I lost. They came from some wide stock I’d bought about 18 months ago for a magazine project, and when I surfaced it (properly – I swear it!), it decided what it really wanted to be was a potato chip (a Pringle, to be precise). Yet I hauled it away when I left last December, so I had to use it.

So for this project, I ripped about 3″ off both edges to remove the worst of the cupping, then planed the remaining cup from the middle. But it still cupped (again!) a little bit, and ended up shy of 3/4″ thick. But oh well; towels don’t weigh much.

The challenge was how to pull out the cupping while using Dominos to join everything. I probably could have pulled it flat if I’d through-dovetailed the top and used sliding dovetails for the shelves, but with no PTO, well, I didn’t want to spend that kind of time. So I oriented the convex side out (of course), and planned to use cauls to pull everything tight during glue-up.

But Christopher Schwarz offered a better solution: fancy cauls (if Southern yellow pine pulled from the trash can be called fancy). After I cut the scrap to the same width as the sides (11-1/2″), he ran the first couple of inches of either end over the jointer to create a raised middle section (or, really, lowered ends) on each caul.


With those clamped under the cabinet clamp heads, it put the pressure in the middle, right where it was needed to pull everything tight and remove the cup while the glue set  (I left it in clamps overnight).

Today, I cleaned everything up with planes and sandpaper, then sprayed two coats of “Super Blonde” shellac (I typically use garnet, but the blonde was already in the spray gun), followed by a light sanding then another sprayed shellac coat. After an hour to let the shellac fully harden, I gave the shelves a rub-down with kraft paper to remove any dust nibs. Done.

IMG_8861 copy

(Pay no attention to the glitter glue; no, I didn’t really use that.)

Sure, it was a few-hours’ hooky from “real” work (about eight hours spread over a couple of days), but it was a joy to make something for myself that wasn’t on my to-do list, wasn’t a great necessity, didn’t have to be done by X date for a magazine shoot, was fast and fun, and that no one asked me to make. Glorious!


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Anyone Free for Dinner in Syracuse, N.Y.?

I considered making the 16-hour drive from Cincinnati to Warren, Maine, in one day next week for the July 13-14 Lie-Nielsen Open House…but then remembered I’m almost 50 and one really ought not be that foolish beyond the age of 25 or so. So I think I’ll stop in Syracuse, N.Y., which is a little more than halfway. Anyone in Syracuse free for salt potatoes (which Google tells me is the local signature dish) on the evening of July 11? (And what are salt potatoes, and do I really want to eat them?)

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Woodworking in Literature (or, The Lazy Researcher)


An almost-finished joint stool…that has been almost-finished since 2011…

In “The Taming of the Shrew” Katherine calls Petruchio a “joyn’d stool,” to which he responds in a less-than-gentleman-like manner: “Thou hast hit it: come, sit on me,” among other salacious riposts that devolve into talk of tongues in tails. (A stool also appears in “King Lear,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Macbeth,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “2 Henry IV.”) There are handsaws in “Hamlet,” and crowbars in “Comedy of Errors (though for unmaking, not making).

In “The Odyssey,” Odysseus carves a bed from a living olive tree then builds the bedroom around it: “…cut away the foliage of the long-leaved olive,/and trimmed the trunk from the roots up, planing it with a brazen/adze, well and expertly, and trued it straight to a chalkline,/making a bed post of it, and bored all holes with an auger.”

In Adam Bede, the title character is a carpenter; in “Madame Bovary,” Monsieur Binet spends his time making useless things on the lathe.

Woodworking also shows up in such pre-20th-century literary works as the poetry of Walt Whitman, Thomas Dekker’s play “The Roaring Girl,” Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” Christopher Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta,” Ben Jonson’s “Eastward Ho,” and “The Epic of Gilgamesh.” And I think it’s woodworkers who start a riot at Lamarque’s funeral in “Les Miserables” – though I’m dreading re-reading Hugo to confirm that (it’s perhaps shameful, but I never could appreciate his novels).

I’m looking for more, in relation to a project on woodworking or woodworkers that appear in pre-20th-century adult literature (that is, not fairy tales or other children’s literature)…and I’m afraid I’ve forgotten some important one such as, I dunno, the Bible.

If any references spring to mind, please help me out by posting a comment below.

Edit: And “Robinson Crusoe,” as I was just reminded by the Saucy Indexer – I knew there was at least one major one I was forgetting!

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Owner’s Signatures

H2Leaf through “Mechanic’s Companion,” and you’ll find a signature at the top of some of the pages. Those are, I assume, the signature of the original owner (J. Hildebrand?) of the book I scanned to produce my printing.

So why didn’t I clean those up (i.e. erase them) as I was working on all the foxing? Well, I think they’re charming – and they don’t interfere with legibility, so I left them.

Today, it is more common to use a bookplate or sign one’s copy in the front of ones books to identify the owner. But it was fairly typical at one time to sign multiple times, and on the same pages in every book in one’s library. That way, if the cover and end sheets were damaged or removed, one could turn to the chosen pages and know to whom it belonged. A borrower (or thief) would be less likely to remove pages with necessary information!



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‘Mechanic’s Companion’ in Brooklyn & Canada


I’m pleased to announce that soon, “Mechanic’s Companion” will be available through Tools for Working Wood in Brooklyn, N.Y., and its website and at Lee Valley Tools stores in Canada and the company’s online store. Both also ship international. (I shipped boxes to TFWW yesterday, and am expecting a pickup for LV today.) Plus, I’m awaiting orders from a couple of other stockists (yes, I used “stockists” to elicit an eyeroll from Christopher Schwarz): one in England and one on the Continent. I’ll post updates when I get those, and add them to the “Where to Buy” page at

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‘The Workbench,’ à la Nicholson

IMG_8636Last week, 99 boxes of “The Mechanic’s Companion” arrived on my sidewalk, and one by one, I hauled about one-quarter of them up the stairs and into the house. Two by two, Christopher Schwarz hauled in the other three-quarters. (He is strong and generous.) I taught a class over the weekend, so I wasn’t able to get pre-publication orders packaged, addressed and in the mail until yesterday and today – but I’m delighted to report they’re now all on their way. And I’m ready to ship to select international and domestic retailers with whom I’ve talked about carrying it – more on who they are as I get those orders confirmed. (I do, however, have plenty remaining should you wish to order a copy.)

The die-stamp image on the book’s cover is the bench (with some of the lines removed so as to make a crisp stamp); it’s the first tool about which Peter Nicholson writes in his joinery section:

§ 2. The Bench. Pl. 12. Fig. 12.
Consists of a platform A B C D called the top, supported upon four legs, E, F, G, H. Near to the further or fore end A B is an upright rectangular prismatic pin a, made to slide stiffly in a mortise through the top. This pin is called the bench hook [planing stop], which ought to be so tight as to be moved up or down only by a blow of a hammer or mallet. The use of the bench hook is to keep the stuff steady, while the joiner, in the act of planing, presses it forward against the bench hook. D I a vertical board fixed to the legs, on the side of the bench next to the workman, and made flush with the legs: this is called the side board [vise]. At the farther end of the side board, and opposite to it, and to the bench hook, is a rectangular prismatic piece of wood b b, of which its two broad surfaces are parallel to the vertical face of the side board: this is made moveable in a horizontal straight surface, by a screw passing through an interior screw fixed to the inside of the side board, and is called the screw check [vise chop]. The screw and screw check are to­gether called the bench screw; and for the sake of perspicuity, we shall denominate the two adjacent vertical surfaces of the screw check, and of the side board, the checks of the bench screw. The use of the bench screw is to fasten boards between the checks, in order to plane their edges; but as it only holds up one end of a board, the leg H of the bench and the side board are pierced with holes, so as to admit of a pin for holding up the other end, at various heights, as occasion may require. The screw check has also a horizontal piece mortised and fixed fast to it, and made to slide through the side board, for preventing it turning round, and is therefore called the guide.

Benches are of various heights, to accommodate the height of the workman, but the medium is about two feet eight inches. They are ten or twelve feet in length, and about two feet six inches in width [about 12″ wider than my bench!]. Sometimes the top boards upon the farther side are made only about ten feet long, and that next the workman twelve feet, projecting two feet at the hinder part. In order to keep the bench and work from tottering, the legs, not less than three inches and a half square, should be well braced, particularly the two legs on the working side. The top board next to the workman may be from one and a half to two inches thick: the thicker, the better for the work; the boards to the farther side may be about an inch, or an inch and a quarter thick. If the workman stands on the working side of the bench, and looks across the bench, then the end on his right hand is called the hind end, and that on his left hand the fore end. The bench hook is sometimes covered with an iron plate, the front edge of which is formed into sharp teeth for sticking fast into the end of the wood to be planed, in order to prevent it from slipping; or, instead of a plate, nails are driven obliquely through the edge, and filed into wedge-formed points. Each pair of end legs are generally coupled together by two rails dove­tailed into the legs. Between each pair of coupled legs, the length of the bench is generally divided into three or four equal parts, and transverse bearers fixed at the divisions to the side boards, the upper sides being flush with those of the side boards, for the purpose of supporting the top firmly, and keeping it from bending. The screw is placed behind the two fore legs, the bench hook immediately before the bearers of the fore legs, and the guide at some distance before the bench hook. For the convenience of putting things out of the way, the rails at the ends are covered with boards; and for farther accommodation, there is in some benches a cavity, formed by boarding the under edges of the side boards before the hind legs, and closing the ends vertically, so that this cavity is contained between the top and the boarding under the side boards; the way to it is by an aperture made by sliding a part of the top board towards the hind end: this deposit is called a locker.


book covers


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