• Gabriel Christy

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?

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?

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.

How they work in practice:

At rest on the bench, you can see that the hole is just slightly larger than the diameter of the shaft, allowing for 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.

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:


Find us on Instagram @newlingristmill1704

Look for us on Facebook @newlingristmill


[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


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,

Moxon, Joseph. Mechanick Exercises: Or, The Doctrine of Handy-works. London: D. Midwinter and T. Leigh, 1703. Google E-Book, accessed April 13, 2020,


Message to Our Community

As events develop with the COVID-19 virus, Newlin Grist Mill (NGM) continues to closely monitor the situation and follow guidance from the CDC and all levels of government including social distancing and restrictions on gatherings. The NGM has taken the following steps through May 31:

  • The NGM Visitor Center, Archive, Blacksmith Shop, Millwright Shop, and public restrooms will be closed;

  • All tours, programs and events have been postponed or cancelled during this period;

  • Pond Fishing will remain closed until further notice;

  • The Fishing Breakfast has been cancelled;

  • Rentals and photography sessions are being cancelled for this period of time;

  • There will be no Volunteer Wednesday Workdays;

  • The trails will remain open but parking is limited

Decisions concerning additional closings will follow based on the developing situation. Please check back for updates.

While the trails at Newlin Grist Mill remain accessible while the site is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we do want to remind everyone of a few things:

  • Continue to observe proper social distancing when you are on the trails. If you are ill or have been around anyone who is ill or has been exposed to the virus, please remain at home. If you arrive and find that the parking lot is crowded, please postpone your visit to another time.  

  • Please remember that all dogs must be on a leash that is held securely by the owner at all times. This is a township law, and it is to protect the health and safety of all park visitors (human and canine) and the wildlife in the park.

  • The park contains unique habitats that are home to sensitive plants and animals, some of which are being monitored through ongoing scientific surveys.  Please stay on the trails to avoid disturbances (wading, dip netting, collecting, rock throwing etc.) that could damage wildlife and vegetation. 

  • Remember that collecting of any kind, including plants and animals, is prohibited in the park.

We appreciate your understanding and support during this challenging time.

Newlin Grist Mill   l  219 South Cheyney Road   l  Glen Mills, PA 19342   l   610.459.2359   l   © Copyright 2014-2015 Newlin Grist Mill. All rights reserved.