Introduction: Improvised Woodworking Clamps

Picture of Improvised Woodworking Clamps

Real woodworkers always seem to have a ton of clamps lying around. I'm an amateur woodworker and have neither the storage nor the budget (clamps are expensive!), so I make do with all sorts of weird clamping set-ups. Fortunately, modern wood glue is amazingly strong and applying huge amounts of pressure can actually be counterproductive; Mattias Wandel has demonstrated that the weakest joints are those in which the joint is starved of glue, and the strongest are those with tiny gaps (0.3 mm, ~1/64") filled with glue between the workpieces. So really, clamping is mostly a matter of holding the two pieces of wood firmly adjacent to each other, and letting the glue do the work.

Each step describes different types of makeshift clamp. I've included photos of them in action in each case.

Step 1: Lightweight Spring Clamps

Picture of Lightweight Spring Clamps

If you're gluing small things, all sorts of household items can act as mini spring clamps. PVC pipe can be cut into C-shapes, and by adjusting the size of the pipe and the thickness of the ring you can change the jaw size and clamping pressure. Binder clips are cheap, come in many different sizes and can apply a lot of pressure. A rat trap is also essentially a spring clamp. Make sure it's clean first, though! (full disclosure: I've never actually used a rat trap as a clamp, so the photo is staged. But I read about the idea in the book Woodworking FAQ by Spike Carlsen, and it gave me the idea to compile this list. So it had to be in here).

Step 2: Caulking Gun

Picture of Caulking Gun

Caulking guns look a lot like a one-handed clamp and work like one, too. Use as-is, or better, with some sacrificial pieces of wood to avoid the jaws marring your workpiece.

Step 3: Tape

Picture of Tape

Unusually shaped or complex objects can be hard to clamp. Electrical tape is great for this purpose - it's easy to remove and is nice and stretchy. As such, it actively pulls the pieces together (albeit weakly) rather than just holding them adjacent to each other as masking tape does. Masking tape is still handy though.

decc1954 suggests using Vetrap® bandaging tape, which apparently is stretchy and sticks only to itself; granthams likes Scotch 8886 stretchable tape.

Step 4: Weights

Picture of Weights

Provided you can balance them satisfactorily, any source of weight makes for a good way to hold two surfaces together. I've used dumbbells, individual weights, paint cans, stacks of wood, cases of beer, various bottles and buckets and other containers filled with water, or really anything I have to hand. For one long skinny clamping job I even lowered my garage door on to the two workpieces.

Bennybenbenny uses brown paper wrapped bricks as small useful weights in the shop.

Step 5: Stretchy Clamps

Picture of Stretchy Clamps

Bungee cords work well in some contexts, but you need to take care that the metal ends don't mar any surfaces and they require care when using them (they're dangerous when they release unexpectedly). A personal favorite is rubber surgical tubing - it comes in long lengths, can be applied with differing degrees of force depending on how much you stretch it and how many times you wrap it, and can be tied off just by tucking the end under an earlier loop. On a smaller scale, looping together rubber bands can achieve the same end. And enough rubber bands can explode a watermelon...

Stewengrob suggests using rubber inner tubes in this context; GenerallyOdd uses stretchy hairbands; darklotus pantihose and elastic bandaging.

Step 6: Tie-downs

Picture of Tie-downs

Ratcheting tie-downs are particularly powerful and you sometimes have to be careful to not over-tighten them. Use waxed paper to avoid getting glue on your tie-downs, though! I didn't in the pictures shown and had some clean-up to do as a result. Lashing straps(third photo) are inexpensive and effective and I use mine all the time to fix loads to my roofrack. If all you have is rope, try a trucker's hitch.

The fourth picture shows londobali's interesting method of tightening ropes. Toga_Dan suggests using several wraps of cord, then putting a stick through loops at each end, and twisting the stick. This must be a good idea, because it was also suggested by schabanow, callhow and my dad!

Step 7: Pinning

Picture of Pinning

Gluing two surfaces together and then using fasteners to pin the pieces together is not really clamping because the pins are not typically removed afterward. Nonetheless, I include them here because I do this a lot even when the glue is doing the vast majority of the work. For example, using a nailgun allows you to quickly and precisely join two glued surfaces at the cost of a few small (and easily filled) holes in the work surface. The nails themselves have very little strength but the act of driving them in at such speed forces the two pieces together effectively and obviates the need for clamps. It also has the great virtue of allowing you to line up the two pieces perfectly and preventing them slipping (which can be a real problem with wet glue). I like using Miller dowels for the same reason - align and drill everything when dry, then tap together once you've glued it up - no clamps necessary. Pocket holes work similarly to draw the work pieces together, though you need to be sure the resulting ugly holes don't show.

Step 8: Vise

Picture of Vise

If you have a vise, you also own a handy - albeit fixed - clamp. It has the nice property of having really big jaws. I realize this is a bit of a no-brainer, but I include it here because I often forget this myself - I principally use my vise to hold things while I am working on them with hand tools, and so it doesn't always spring to mind when I'm looking for something to clamp with.

Step 9: Car Jack

Picture of Car Jack

A bit of lumber, an overhead beam and a car jack can apply a lot of downward pressure if you don't want to lug weights around. Just make sure everything is lined up well and that you don't overdo it. Remember that a car jack is designed to exert tons (literally) of force and you have Herculean amounts of leverage at your disposal. Distribute this force over the largest area possible by using a big hunk of wood.

You can also use a long narrow piece of wood in the same way - bend it like a bow to exert downward pressure. The third picture came from manxm who used this trick to glue in hardwood skirting boards.

Step 10: Loooooong Clamps

Picture of Loooooong Clamps

Pipe clamps are great but they're just one more thing to clutter up my 1/3-of-a-garage workshop. So on the rare occasions I need really long clamps, I instead use my one-handed clamps in spreader mode (see last 3 pictures, in case you weren't aware these clamps could do this!) and whatever long lumber is handy. Screw blocks into the 2×4 at such a distance that you can fit the clamp between the block and the workpiece, and tighten. This is unwieldy if you're doing this a lot, but it's fine for the occasional job and has the advantage that the lumber also acts to prevent the clamped material bowing under pressure. Note there is also a commercial product that converts 2×4s into pipe clamps.

Odie Sr.O uses lumber with 3/4 inch holes drilled about 3 inches apart and inserts a dowel where applicable to speed up set-up.

Final words

Hopefully this list will give you some ideas next time you need a clamp for a one-off job. My main advice: dry-fit it all together first. That will let you know if your MacGuyver-ed clamping set up is actually up to the task. If it doesn't hold everything in place and close all the gaps, you'll either need to apply more pressure or to cut your gluing surfaces truer.


audreyobscura (author)2016-05-11

So great! Thanks for sharing your clever ideas!

makendo (author)audreyobscura2016-05-11


fullclip765 (author)2016-04-28

I like the caulk gun and jack

studiogrynn (author)2015-12-24

For weights we use coffee cans filled with junk or gravel

Yonatan24 (author)2015-10-17

You can add huge transformers to step 4, they work as weights too...

One of "GreatScotts" videos show this idea

makendo (author)Yonatan242015-10-17

Sure, though I'm not sure many of us have huge transformers lying around...

dana-dxb (author)2015-07-31

I really enjoy ur posts i do the same for clamping !!! Will not all of them but yah moust of them u have great ideas

BennyOne (author)2015-07-02

These are all great!

I'd add - simple bricks wrapped in brown bag paper make great small weights for use in the shop, and have nice flat sides and hard corners. Got that tip from my grandfather, and always keep a pile in the shop. The photo shows them in use gluing d-rings into a leather strap prior to stitching, but they're just as useful on everything from small wood projects to patching delams on surfboards...

makendo (author)BennyOne2015-07-02

Great tip! Mind if I use the photo (credited) in the instructable?

BennyOne (author)makendo2015-07-14

All yours!

Raitis (author)2015-07-14

The last one!

Mind - blown. Going to get at least a pair of decent clamps like these just for the versatility.

makendo (author)Raitis2015-07-14

My favorite clamps, for sure. If I was starting a workshop from scratch, they'd be among the first things I'd buy.

HaraldS (author)2015-07-11

Great ideas - thanks for sharing!

Bazzatron (author)2015-07-11

I think this post just saved me about £50 in new clamps.

Thank you so much :)

makendo (author)Bazzatron2015-07-11

You're welcome. Mission accomplished!

lbrewer42 (author)2015-07-05

The car jack idea is brilliant - seeds ideas of other things which may take high pressure to acomplish.

makendo (author)lbrewer422015-07-09

Yep, it would make a good press for all sorts of things.

Was1x (author)2015-07-07

Try a hydraulic floor jack. Talk about tons of pressure. And a little bigger area.

makendo (author)Was1x2015-07-09

Yep, that would do it. Better have a strong beam above, though!

rjcullis (author)2015-07-05

Good ideas, and this does eliminate the glue starved joint problem.

buck2217 (author)2015-07-02

Great Ideas -- have voted

makendo (author)buck22172015-07-04


darklotus (author)2015-07-02

Great list! I've used many of these, but the PVC pipe is one that had never occurred to me - as with most clever ideas, it now seems obvious - and I'll definitely be using those in future. For smaller projects, I've also used good old rubber bands, clothes pegs, elastoplast, hair scrunchies, pantihose, bobbypins, non stretch surgical ribbon tape, elastic bandaging, dental floss and tape and even bbq and kitchen tongs! Adjustable spanners and pipe wrenches can also do the trick if in need.

I, too, have a small workspace and what this list did for me was to make me look around for other possibilities as well, which is always a good thing! Well done!

makendo (author)darklotus2015-07-04

Great suggestions!

Pothuset (author)2015-07-03


makendo (author)Pothuset2015-07-04


schabanow (author)2015-07-03

You have missed:

1. Thread / rope bandage windings (multiple turns removable)

2. Slightly oversized rope loop + twisting rod inside (chair repair etc.)

3. Lever + load = press system

4. Sofa / bed leg + floor = press system (shoes repair)


makendo (author)schabanow2015-07-04

Thanks for the tips! Good stuff

Stewengrob (author)2015-07-03

thank you - great tips - i have a variety of inner tubes lying around - bicycle, motor bikes and car tubes. I cut through to make rubber bands depending on the diameter I'm after and how wide according to the strength I need at the time. simple but very handy. Cut them as if you're slicing a loaf of bread !! thanks again.

makendo (author)Stewengrob2015-07-04

good tip, thanks!

hyperuben (author)Stewengrob2015-07-03

Great Idea, thanks for sharing!

curbdiver (author)Stewengrob2015-07-03

Bike tubes also make great bungee cords & well as chair rung straps

caarntedd (author)2015-07-03

Brilliant tips, voted and favourited. Thanks for sharing.

makendo (author)caarntedd2015-07-04


londobali (author)2015-07-02

Third picture, and for anything similar - wide sides, you can also put a couple of blocks in the center of the wide side, tie it down along with your work, then slide them toward both outer edge.. will give extra pressure, if needed..
Can't think of a way to describe it better.. i hope you understand what i mean?

makendo (author)londobali2015-07-02

can't quite imagine it - any chance you could post a picture?

londobali (author)makendo2015-07-04

Tried to sketch it up, hope this helps?

Moving the scrap blocks toward the edges will pull the rope/webbing tighter.

The blocks can be placed on one, two, or all sides of the project, if the shape allows. The more sides the more tight it will be, but two sides usually give plenty of tension in my experience..

It doesnt seem much, but it tenses the rope pretty hard if it was tied on properly before sliding.
Oh, another thing: the blocks doesnt need to go to the edge (it could start to slide inward if you push them too close to the edge), i usually put them at a distance from the edge : about the block's thickness long, making about 45deg on the rope.

makendo (author)londobali2015-07-04

Got it! Thanks for the picture.

oakdeneal (author)2015-07-04

I've used a door to clamp a strip of laminate at hinge area. Then used a wedge to hold the door. You must be careful of the huge force that can be applied and not to trap your fingers. Great ible.

Toga_Dan (author)2015-07-03

Another: several wraps of cord, then put a stick thru, and twist the stick. Heck, sometimes thats my whole fix. You can get mongo tension this way.

hyperuben (author)Toga_Dan2015-07-03

Great idea, a torniquet inspired clamping tecnique!

CarlBe (author)2015-07-03

I'll cut a 'U' out of plywood larger than the 'to be joined' pieces and use wood door shims driven in the void to apply pressure. You can make almost any size. Very versatile for odd shapes and sizes..

DanB7 (author)2015-07-03

the pipe clip can Also be done with a chopped up bed spring

giabzero. (author)2015-07-03

great ideas ;)

farna (author)2015-07-03

I saw some caulk gun style clamps, I think at Big Lots, and bought a couple years ago because I thought they were ingenious for light clamps. They have plastic pads. The trigger/handle/rod are exactly the same as a caulk gun, the body is straight instead of curved with a flat end.

FirstSpear (author)2015-07-03

Lots of goodies, but the PVC pipe is genius.

manxm made it! (author)2015-07-02

Great ideas! I have an idea I used when keeping glued-in hardwood skirting board in place while the glue dried. I had to be creative as we hand moved in and all I had was portable tools.

makendo (author)manxm2015-07-02

these are great! Mind if I use them (credited) in the instructable?

manxm (author)makendo2015-07-02

manxm0 seconds agoReply

I also used springy wood to hold up cornices as they dried on the ceiling corners. With the other end on the floor, against the opposite wall on the floor; it was in a narrow corridor.

manxm (author)makendo2015-07-02

Sure thing :)

About This Instructable




Bio: Analog maker dabbling in digital manufacture
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