Moravian Workbench #11: Simple Work Holding

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Blog entry by Tom posted 06-09-2020 12:43 PM 1520 reads 0 times favorited 0 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 10: The Iron Planing Stop Part 11 of Moravian Workbench series Part 12: Tool Storage »

I have been using the Moravian workbench for several months now. At first, I was not all that comfortable with the work holding methods, mainly because I have never used a leg vise. This was compounded by the leg vise needing to “break in” for a while. At first, it tended to be finicky moving it into position and would require nudging it with both hands. Also, I could not seem to find the best pin location for the size of the work piece and I would have to readjust. I have been using a quick release steel vise for several years which is easy to manipulate with one hand and it is very quick to move into position. By comparison, the leg vise requires a bit more manipulation and there is more stooping down to adjust. After while, the leg vise loosened up and stopped binding so that I can just wind it out to position with one hand and I got the hang of picking the right hole in the guide to align with the workpiece. Basically, I wind out the vise until the workpiece will just fit in the jaw and then wind it out a little more until the next hole in the guide opens up and insert the pin in that hole. Works every time.

The leg vise has some nice advantages. It can accommodate very large workpieces. It opens to at least 12 ” and it can handle wide boards since the screw is down low in the vise. It is good at handling awkward shaped and large pieces since it is big and accommodates some racking. Also, it has tremendous clamping pressure and with the leather, the workpiece does not move. I can hold long boards without supports and they stay in place.

On the original Moravian workbench, it appears that they only used planing stops and the vise for work holding. When Will Myers did his version, he added a custom made tail vise with dog holes along the front of the workbench. It is a real nice setup. He also added one or two holes for a holdfast which is very useful.

I decided to keep the work holding fairly simplistic on my Moravian workbench. For now, I am going to skip the tail vise option on this workbench. I have one on my other workbench and it is helpful at times, but I don’t use it all that often. For years I made due with a wood screw for a stop and a holdfast or clamp. Also, I am right handed and I want to be able to saw off the end of the workbench on the right side without a vise getting in the way. I really wanted the Moravian workbench for larger scale wood preparation and carpentry, but also for the occasional joinery project. For hand tool woodworking, the main tasks that I need to accommodate are:

1. Breaking down stock with the saw.
2. Cleaning up face and edge surfaces with the plane.
3. Joinery cuts with hand planes (rabbit, groove, etc.)
4. Basic work holding for joinery tasks (dovetails, dados, etc.) and wood shaping

The main work holding devices that I have on my Moravian workbench are the leg vise, the planing stop and the holdfast. Additionally, I can use a couple appliances such as the bench hook, sticking board and clamps where needed. The holdfast comes into play quite a bit. My holdfast has an 8” reach and I laid out my holes along the back of the workbench 3” from the edge. The main holes are spaced 16” apart and I have a hole 6” from each end to help with holding work for sawing off the end. Here is the layout that I established which also accommodates the drawer which I was careful to place.

So far, this arrangement with the holes along the back has worked out pretty well. They are back far enough that they do not interfere with the workpiece in the bench hook. So I can use the holdfast to help clamp the work for cutting or chiseling on the bench hook. Not a huge deal, but a nice thing sometimes. Also, the holdfast can reach to about 3” from the front edge, so I have pretty good coverage for holding work to the bench top. I like to avoid too many holes in my workbench and this arrangement seems pretty reasonable without turning the top into Swiss cheese.


As I noted earlier, sawing off the end of the bench was a priority for me. The 6” hole from the end is a great help to hold the wood for cross cutting and breaking down stock.

Ripping boards can be done along the front of the work bench and held with the holdfast. A couple holdfasts would be helpful for longer boards.

Shorter pieces can be ripped in the vise as well which opens up to 12”.

Smaller boards can be crosscut on the bench hook as shown earlier or in the vise as well.

Planing Stock

This workbench works great for planing boards. Face planing should really be done on the bench top, although I have seen it done in the vice as well for more modest sized pieces. For the most part I will face plane against the planing stop, moving the board as needed to keep it in place. If I need to go cross grain to flatten a wide board, I will use the holdfast to help keep it in place. The only issue is that you may need to move the holdfast around to different spots during the flattening process. Once it is flat, the holdfast can be removed and plane with the grain against the bench stop to clean it up. I will be honest and say that I don’t like this kind of work all that much and I try to avoid it by obtaining good stock to begin. Then I can just clean up the surfaces to smooth them instead of working them down to dimension.

NOTE: I tried using a doe’s foot or notched batten to hold the board for flattening across the grain. It really did not work very well for me because the top is only 14” wide and it left only a little room to clamp the batten at an angle with a holdfast. I think it could work if you are willing to add a bunch more holes in the top so as to find a suitable position for the holdfast, but I couldn’t go there. I abandoned the idea.

Planing the edge of boards works fine in the vise for smaller pieces.

Planing a long, wide board works well if you rest the far end on the holdfast in the leg.

Planing a long narrow board works well using the holdfast in the leg to clamp it to the top. The 8” reach on the holdfast is helpful here.


Planing grooves and rebates are a basic need for making boxes, drawers and doors. Planing a groove in a wide board is easy against the planing stop with a holdfast. The same setup can be done for a rebate.

Cutting a groove for a narrow board is a little less straight forward. It works pretty well to use a board across the planing stop to create a stop near the front of the bench. Clamping a long 2×4 with a couple holdfasts gives a fence to set the set the work against. With the work constrained, the groove can be cut without much trouble, but you can only push against the stop and then lift off to restart the cut, else the board will move back. I do not find this to be a problem at all.

Cutting a groove or rabbet in the edge of a narrow board for a cabinet door frame works pretty well in the vise if the piece is at least 2” wide to allow for the fence on the plane.

And of course, the vise is best used for holding the work when cutting dovetails.

I think that covers most of the basic workholding that I need. Every project seems to have some sort of work holding challenge if you are using hand tools, so a certain amount of ingenuity is required. I actually find that interesting. Maybe some day I will add the tail vise or add more dog holes. Time will tell…

-- Tom

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