Bar clamps are an essential tool for many woodworking projects. Even though they’re quite simple, there is a big difference between good ones and bad ones. This guide will take you through the different types of bar clamps and some of my top recommendations.
What is a Bar Clamp?
A bar clamp is a simple woodworking clamp consisting of a long metal bar with two adjustable jaws. They are used in a wide range of woodworking applications to hold pieces of wood together, usually once they have been glued and they are drying. The hold is incredibly strong and they will keep pieces secure without any movement. Bar clamps are great for any large clamping applications but for small jobs, you may need to use a smaller clamp.
There are several different types of bar clamps available including T-bar clamps, pipe clamps, sash clamps, and quick-release clamps.
A sash clamp is the most common type consisting of a thin bar with two jaws. Both can be adjusted but one is attached to the end of the bar while the other slides up and down. A small peg is put into holes along the bar to fix it in place. A T-bar clamp is the same as a sash clamp but the bar in the middle is T-shaped, with a flat top that offers more stability.
A pipe clamp has a round bar in the middle instead of a flat one. They tend to be shorter and used for smaller projects.
Quick release clamps, often called trigger clamps, have a trigger that closes the clamp when squeezed. The mechanism can be quickly released with the press of another trigger for fast clamping.
Bar clamps come in a range of sizes including 4, 6, 7.5, 12, 24, 36, 40, and 48 inches.
What Projects are Bar Clamps Used for?
Bar clamps are used in any woodworking or metalworking project that requires securely fixing large pieces together. Items like doors, tables, and other pieces of furniture are usually fixed together using bar clamps while the glue dries. Examples of projects that bar clamps are used for include:
- Furniture Refinishing
- Furniture Construction
- Cabinet Making
What to Consider When Buying a Bar Clamp?
You’ll find lots of different bar clamps online and in hardware stores and, on the face of it, they all look much the same. However, there is a big difference in size, quality, and functionality, so you need to do your research before you buy. These are the key things to consider when buying a bar clamp.
The Length (Size)
The size is the most obvious thing to look at. The clamp needs to be big enough to fit whatever project you are working on, but it’s a mistake to just buy the biggest one you can find. Having a large excess bar hanging over the edge makes it awkward to manoeuver. Ideally, you should have a range of bar clamps in your toolbox but if you are working on a specific project, measure up and find a clamp that suits your needs.
There are plenty of cheap bar clamps out there that won’t last long before the mechanism fails. Considering how often they are used for woodworking, it’s best to invest in good quality clamps made from durable materials. A solid bar made from cast iron, high-carbon steel, or anodized aluminum will stand up to regular use without breaking. If it has a zinc and chrome plating on it, that adds durability.
Look at the quality of the mechanisms too. Some types of bar clamps have plastic mechanisms (usually trigger style clamps), which are less durable. As a general rule, it’s best to spend a bit more on better materials that will last for years to come.
Trigger vs Clutch Style
Trigger style clamps are very popular because they’re quick and easy to use. Instead of using the classic clutch style with the screwing mechanism and the pegs to hold the jaws in place, you simply squeeze the trigger to close the clamp. This is ideal for working one handed and allows you to easily hold two pieces together and operate the clamp at the same time. It also makes things much quicker too. However, they are usually more expensive and the complex mechanism is more prone to failure, especially as it is made from plastic.
The tried and tested clutch style works fine if you can easily get things in place and fix the clamp without holding it. But the trigger style can make awkward jobs a lot simpler, so consider the application and what would work best.
Naturally, you need your clamp to apply enough pressure to hold things in place properly. This is especially true when gluing things together. Most clamps apply enough pressure, but it’s important that you use them properly and avoid tightening too much or you could damage the clamp. A one-handed bar clamp with a trigger creates enough pressure to glue softwoods together when tightened fully. However, they are not strong enough for clamping hardwoods and you can easily end up overtightening. If you are working with hardwoods or metal, it’s probably best to use a normal bar clamp.
Finally, consider how many clamps you need to buy. You should always use at least two for extra stability and to stop any movement. However, bigger pieces will need more, so it’s always good to have multiple clamps to hand in case you need them. If you are planning a large woodworking project, get a range of different sizes with a few of each.
10 Best Bar Clamps for Woodworking
1. IRWIN QUICK-GRIP Bar Clamp (Best Deal)
The IRWIN QUICK-GRIP Bar Clamp is a very popular choice because it’s easy to use, strong, and great value. The simple trigger mechanism makes it easy to clamp pieces together and you get 140 lb of force, which is more than enough for most basic woodworking projects. The soft rubber pads also prevent any damage to the surface. That said, I always advise putting a piece of scrap wood between the clamp and the surface, just to be safe.
This clamp can also be turned into a spreader easily, but removing the jaws and turning them around. Spreaders are used for separating things and holding them in place. Having this extra function means you save money and space in your toolbox. Although these mini clamps aren’t suitable for every application, you’ll get a lot of use out of them. They come in multipacks of 2, 4, or 6, and they’re excellent value for money.
2. DEWALT Bar Clamp with Trigger (Best Quality)
DEWALT are known for making high-quality tools and their trigger Bar Clamps are no exception. The heat-treated steel bar is incredibly tough and the trigger mechanism is made from a reinforced nylon, which is much stronger than most plastic clamps. This clamp can also be converted to a spreader easily.
It is available in 3 sizes; 50 inches, 36 inches, and 6 inches. The large 50 inch option gives you an impressive 600 lb of clamping power. The 36 inch gives 300 lb and the 6 inch gives 100 lb. While they are not the strongest clamps available, they’re suitable for most home DIY projects. The excellent build quality means that they’ll last a long time too.
3. JORGENSEN Parallel Bar Clamps (Strongest)
If you want strength over everything else, try these JORGENSEN Parallel Bar Clamps. This is a standard bar clamp without the trigger mechanism. The high-carbon steel bar and heavy-duty jaws provide up to 1500 lb of force, which is far more than most normal clamps. If you are working on large pieces of furniture like tables, these clamps are perfect. They’re also strong enough for metalworking projects too. The mechanisms are all very smooth and they don’t get blocked up with gunk like some others. For a lot of woodworkers, these are the best parallel clamps on the market.
As well as the standard 36 inch version, there is a smaller 18″ set, and a 24”, 30”, and 48”. They come in packs of two, which should be fine for most applications but you may need more sets for big projects.
4. WORKPRO Mini Bar Clamps
The WORKPRO Mini Bar Clamps are a good option for smaller jobs. If you are fixing and refinishing furniture and gluing small pieces together, they’ll work just fine. They only provide 150 lb of force and they are only 6” and 4 ½” so you’re not going to put a wardrobe together with them, but for basic jobs, they’re perfect. The reinforced nylon and hardened steel bars give great durability and the mechanism is simple to use. It can also easily be turned into a spreader with a quick release button on the side of the jaws.
This set comes with two clamps in each size and they make a good addition to your toolbox. Consider investing in these and then buying a few larger clamps too and that covers most bases.
5. Bessey Clutch Style Bar Clamp
This Bessey Clutch Style Bar Clamp is a basic but effective bar clamp. It has a nice wooden handle to operate the jaws and a 24” solid zinc coated rail. The swivel head attached to the sliding jaw helps you get a tight seal easily. The clamp has a powder coated finish to protect it against chips and cracks too.
This Bessey bar clamp is not the highest-quality clamp out there, and it’s not the cheapest either. It’s a great middle ground between price and quality and it’s perfectly adequate for most standard home DIY jobs. If you are working with large pieces of furniture or you need a lot of clamping power, look elsewhere. But if you want some reliable clamps that you can use for most things, it’s worth picking up a few of these.
6. WORKPRO 12-Inch Steel Bar Clamps
This 2-pack of WORKPRO 12-Inch Steel Bar Clamps gives you 600 lb of clamping power, with a simple mechanism. The handle design makes it easy to tighten it and the anti-slip mechanism allows you to slide the jaws up and down and fix them quickly. While it’s not as quick as a trigger clamp, it’s still very simple to use and the quick release is handy. The pads on the jaws are made from a simple plastic that should prevent any dents or scratches to the wood, and they won’t slip when you tighten the clamp.
Considering the cost for a pack of two, these are great value and they work brilliantly. They aren’t as strong as some of the more expensive clamps, but you don’t usually need them to be.
7. Jorgensen One Hand Clamp/Spreader
This Jorgensen One Hand Clamp/Spreader is excellent quality and it has all of the features you expect from a good trigger clamp. It’s easy to use single-handed, and it can be turned into a spreader by changing one of the jaws around. But this also has a great feature that allows you to attach two clamps together to create a clamp that is twice as long. So, with the set of two 24” clamps you can make a large 48” one if you need it. You can buy 12” version and a 6” version too, both with the same feature. The two larger sizes have a maximum load limit of 600 lb while the 6” option has a max limit of 150 lb.
The build quality on these clamps is great and being able to fit them together is a brilliant feature. They’re a very versatile one-hand clamp that you can use for most of your woodworking projects.
8. Olympia Tools Quick Release Steel Bar Clamp
This Olympia Tools Quick Release Steel Bar Clamp is a classic, high-quality clamp available in a range of sizes (6”, 12”, 18”, 24”, 36”). The durable bar is fitted with a sliding quick-release clamp and a nice wooden handle that is easy and comfortable to operate. These clamps are very durable and well made, even if they don’t have a lot of the advanced features like trigger mechanisms. For easy jobs that require a straight clamp, these are ideal. But if you are working with something more intricate and difficult, a good quality trigger clamp might be better.
9. TEKTON 6 Inch Ratchet Bar Clamp
This 6 inch TEKTON Ratchet Bar Clamp is designed for craft projects and small woodworking projects. It can also be adapted into a 9” spreader too. It uses a wingnut rather than a release button to take off the pad and switch it to a spreader, which is more reliable. The bar is made from carbon steel so it’s very durable. You can get very precise pressure with the trigger mechanism on this clamp, so it’s perfect for fragile items.
10. Mr. Pen Bar Clamps
These Mr. Pen Bar Clamps are also best suited to delicate projects. They only exert 65 lb of force, so they are not suitable for clamping big pieces of furniture together, but they’re great for things like model making where you are working with thin pieces of wood. The soft PVC pads are easily adjustable so you can get the right amount of pressure without damaging the material. But even though they are built for delicate work, the bar itself is made from strong hardened steel to stop bending. You can also remove one of the jaws and move it to create a spreader.
While they are not suitable for an experienced woodworker who is building furniture, they are great for craft projects and small working projects, and the price is good too.
How to Use a Bar Clamp (Step-by-Step)
1. Choose the right clamp
First, choose the right clamp for the job. The pieces that you are trying to clamp together should fit comfortably between the two jaws without having to be forced in. But you don’t want lots of excess hanging off the end, so pick one that is just about long enough.
2. Set the clamp
Next, set the clamp and prepare it. It needs to be on a stable surface so the project is not shifting around as it dries. Put it on a solid workbench or table with plenty of space for the material that you are trying to clamp together.
3. Open the jaws
Open the jaws of the clamp, ready for the material to go in between. If you are using a standard clamp, this involves turning a screw or removing the pin and sliding the jaws along the bar. If you are using a trigger, there will be a small quick release trigger. Refer to the instructions as each clamp is slightly different.
4. Protect the material
Many modern clamps have specially designed pads that shouldn’t dent or scratch the wood when you clamp it. That said, they’re not foolproof and I would still recommend protecting it before you close the clamps, especially when working with softwood. Use a few pieces of thin scrap wood (plywood works well) to put between the clamp and the surface. You should also give the bar a good clean to avoid getting any grease on the wood. If you are especially worried, you can put a piece of wax paper or a cloth over the wood to stop any dirt and grime.
5. Position the piece
Now, you can position the piece between the clamps. Make sure that it is straight so the wood doesn’t shift as the jaws close around it.
6. Close the jaws
Finally, close the jaws. Start slowly and ensure that everything stays lined up straight as the pressure is applied. Keep closing the jaws until they are tight around the wood and it is well clamped. However, if you see the wood starting to compress, you have gone too far. It’s important that you don’t clamp too tightly because you can crack the wood.
How to Use a Bar Clamp As a Spreader
1. Convert the bar clamp
Stat by converting the bar clamp to a spreader. This involves taking the jaw off the bar and fitting it back onto the other end of the bar. There are different mechanisms for doing this – some have a simple button while others have a nut to unscrew. Check the instructions to find out how to remove it.
2. Protect the material
Even though the amount of pressure applied to the wood is usually lower, you should still protect it in the same way. Take a few small pieces of scrap wood and place them between the jaws and the material you are spreading.
3. Place between pieces of wood
Get the pieces of wood that you would like to separate and place the spreader between them. Again, make sure that you are using a suitable size that will fit between them and separate them as far as necessary.
4. Extend the spreader
Extend the spread in the same way that you would normally open the bar clamp. Use the same level of caution that you do with clamping so you don’t damage the wood.
How Long Does a Bar Clamp Last?
Bar clamps will last anywhere from 10-20 years or more. Their lifespan is dependent on a few factors including the quality of the clamp, how often it is used, and most importantly, how well you maintain it.
After using your bar clamp, you should always wipe it clean to remove any glue or built up dirt. If you fail to clean it properly, the mechanism can get clogged up and the clamp doesn’t function properly. Greasing it and buffing it with wax will also keep it in good condition and extend its lifespan.
Bar clamps are one of the most useful tools that any woodworker has in their toolbox. Whenever you are building something, you’ll probably need a clamp at some point. So, there’s no sense buying cheap clamps that you have to keep replacing every couple of years. Instead, invest in some durable ones that will last decades, and make sure you look after them properly.