How do You Say ‘Holdfast?’

02 Le pitture antiche d'Ercolano 1757

During the last year, Jeff Burks, Suzanne Ellison and I have been investigating the history of the holdfast. We’ve found some clues that this essential bench accessory is older than we first suspected.

It’s a long story that involves decaying frescoes, letters sent overseas, e-mails to Yale and lots of dead ends.

As we move forward in our research, we have a question for our multi-lingual readers: How do you say “holdfast?”

In French, we know it is “les valets.” But as we search databases around the planet, it would be good to have a more complete list of this common trade word in a bunch of languages, such as French, German, Dutch, Swedish and the like.

In English, we know the word goes back a bit. In 1575, G. Gascoigne in “Noble Arte Venerie lxxii” states: “You may take them out aliue with your holdfasts or clampes.” That’s the earliest reference in the Oxford English Dictionary.

But we think the tool is older than that.

Let us know. We thank you.

— Christopher Schwarz

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30 Responses to How do You Say ‘Holdfast?’

  1. toolnut says:

    Do we know if it wasn’t simply called a clamp (or “clampe”) way back when? i.e. That quote might be the first reference to the word holdfast, but not the device. In the above quote, specifically “holdfast or clampe” is he referring to two different appliances; or, is he using the “or clampe” to clarify the word holdfast? So maybe the search is for the earliest clamps and that might lead to the appliance we call a holdfast. (Trying my hardest to not be a wiener, but genes are hard to overcome sometimes.)

  2. Ian Knight says:

    Hi Chris,

    In the Netherlands we call it a ‘klemhaak’ (Dutch).

    – Ian

  3. Tom Dugan says:

    Don’t see it in “Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools” (ca 1400), but then it’s not really a carpenter’s tool, so I doubt that means much.

  4. Chris, in french a holdfast is “un valet”, you stated it in the plural form (des or les valets). Also we usually say “un valet d’établi” (établi = workbench), as the word “valet” by itself mostly means a male servant.

  5. mofjell says:

    Danish: Bænkhage
    Swedish: Bänkspännare

    Best of luck with the search.
    Peter from Denmark

  6. bloksav says:

    In Denmark it is either Bænkhage or klem-hage, but I would say that Bænkhage is the most usual even though I have never seen anybody use one.

  7. Steve Maritz says:

    In Afrikaans – a derivative of the germanic languages- the correct word is ‘houvas’. I would expect that the Dutch and Flemmish words would be similar.

  8. Mathieu says:

    In Dutch/Flemish we say ‘bankhaak’. Literarily this would translate as bench hook.

  9. In catalan we say “barlet”, in spanish they say “barrilete” or “siete”. This online pdf-dictionary could be of your interest (view page 37, figure 23):

  10. afromb says:

    Hi, in nowadays use as far as i know, the holdfast is known as “Niederhalter” or “Werkstueckniederhalter” in german.
    As this knowledge results in actual internet discussion, i made a quick cross-reading in the german translation / revision of Roubo by Seebass/Petutschnig from 1803.
    As far as i found out at a short glance, the author talks only about “Zwingen”(Clamps) and “Klammer” when it comes to fix workpieces to the bench. He also doesnt talk about a “Hobelbank” but about a “Werktisch” (Worktable) when he describes techniques such as rabbeting in detail.
    The terminology concerning plane types is very similar to nowadays used german words.
    I will have a further look later on, perhaps finding out more.
    Greetings from germany,

  11. This is interesting. I have posted about what it is called in Norwegian recently on my blog.
    As Norwegian might be hard to read for some of you I could translate some of it.

    The workbench that was on the Vasa ship, when it sank in Stockholm in 1628, seemed to have had holdfasts but they are not preserved. What they where called is not known. In inventorys of carpenters in Stockholm about 100 years later the name Stämhake is known. The word could translate to – stem hook, but I am not shure about that.

    In Norway there are several names for the holdfast.
    Kjellingfot – if translated to English – goat kid foot.
    Benkehake – bench hook
    Hallhake – hold hook
    Hake – hook
    Hallfast – holdfast
    Ronghake – crocked hook.

    These names are from a survey of 170 snekkere (carpenters, joiners and cabinetmakers) in the 1930`s in Norway.

  12. mbred says:

    I’ve heard in Klingon…its called a kling-on.
    couldn’t help myself

  13. dblang22 says:

    First off, let me say I just purchased all of your books yesterday with the exception of the two I already own. Always great quality and I look forward to reading them. On the subject of holdfasts, there is a triptych style painting by Robert Campin ca. 1427-1432, in which Joseph is building mousetraps. He is working on a bench without holes or a means of clamping. Maybe an indication of the era before holdfasts?

  14. Here are a couple of ways to spell bankhaak or klemhaak in Dutch. Actually this is is dictionary describing the dialect of Brabant, a region shared by Belgium and The Netherlands.

  15. Eric Erb says:

    Nevermind the holdfast, just get yourself a cherub to hold the work.

  16. Mike Siemsen says:

    The first holdfasts were probably made from crooks from trees and were therefore wooden. I wouldn’t be surprised that they could be made from bones and antlers as well. They are probably almost as old as the work bench they would go in to.

  17. Bernhard S. says:

    Two german terms I know are ‘Winkelhaken’ (angle hook) and ‘Niederhalter’ (down holder (aforementioned)).

    Best of luck
    Bernhard S.

  18. I asked my friend Andreas, and this is his response:

    The word is Tving is swedish, there are different types as well like one hand fasthold-en hands tving, or screw fast hold-skruv tving.

    • Swedish and Norwegian are very close related and as a Norwegian I know the Swedish word “tving”. In Norwegian it is written “tvinge”. It is a very normal and general term and in modern use it means vice or clamp. The word could be used to describe a lot of different devices. I do not think that the word “tving” are very good to describe a holdfast as most people would think of the more common modern versions.

  19. Tomas Karlsson has a fresh post on our blog about holdfast in Sweden.
    This is written in Swedish. I can translate a small summary.

    There are not a lot of books that mention holdfasts in Sweden. In the book “Träslöjd”, Hallén & Nordendal (1923), there are a drawing of a holdfast and the name: “bänkhållare”. That could translate to “bench holder”. In the same book you have the names “knekt” and the French name “valet”. “Knekt” is a general term in woodworking in Sweden and Norway and could describe a lot of different things.

    In inventories in workshops in Stockholm in the early 1700`s there is several mentions of “stämhake”. That could be the same as holdfast. It could translate to “stem hook).

    Tomas has also learnt the word “fans tumme”, that means “devils thumb”. That is a parallell to the Norwegian joiners “killingfot” (goat kid foot) and blacksmiths “bukkefot” (rams foot). Both refer to a goat foot and the goat and the devil are considered as related in folklore. The devil is usually equipped with rams horn.

    • lostartpress says:

      Thank you Roald!

      The animal references and “stem hook” are particularly interesting. We have a photo of a Roman tool – it might be a holdfast or clamp (or not) – that looks like a human finger. Complete with the fingernail.

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