Selecting Woodworking Tools For Kids Part 4: Clamps

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Overview

In part 4 of this series, we’re digging in to clamps. (Check out previous posts on Safety Gear, Pounding Tools, and Measuring, Marking, And Leveling Tools.) Clamps are useful tools in woodworking projects and other playful learning activities.

A clamp is a device used to hold something tightly. Think of clamps as extra hands. Not only do they hold things tightly, they also help keep real hands safe. For example, steadying a board with clamps while nailing or sawing keeps fragile fingers away from the business end of the hammer or saw.

We’ll look at 4 types of clamps:

  • Spring Clamps
  • Bar Clamps
  • C Clamps
  • Hand Screw Clamps

I think the first two are classroom Must Haves while the others are Interesting Variations that’d add some novelty to woodworking and other playful learning activities.

Spring Clamps

Spring clamps come in a variety of sizes and are made of plastic, metal, and even wood. They are called spring clamps because a spring located at the clamps pivot point holds its jaws shut and produces the clamping pressure.

Small Plastic Spring Clamps

Due to their small size and limited clamping power, small plastic spring clamps are pretty useless as woodworking tools, but they are awesome loose parts. We usually kept 3-5 dozen around the play space. Kids under about the age of two usually lacked the hand-eye coordination and strength to open these clamps–most got the hang of it sometime between their second and third birthdays. Among other things, these clamps were used:

  • To attach baby-doll-blanket capes
  • As people and animals in small world play
  • As jewelry (picture rings, earrings, nose rings, lip rings, eyebrow rings, and even clamps clamped together to make necklaces)
  • To hold up blanket forts
  • In block play to decorate structures
  • When playing house as cereal, noodles, tweezers, and more

The only downside we ran into with these small plastic spring clamps was that the plastic bits that pivot on the jaws could pop off with aggressive use. In over a dozen years of regular use, this was never a problem. The small bits went in the trash–not into mouths, noses, or ears.

That said, if you want to play it safe, I recommend DIY clamp surgery to removing them from the clamps before introducing the clamps into the play space. It’s simple–just grab the bit of plastic with a pair of pliers and give it a twist. The plastic bit will come off and you can slip the retaining pin from the clamp. It takes seconds per clamp–no fuss, no muss, no worries.

Metal Spring Clamps

These clamps are an all around beefier version of the the small plastic clamps. I recommend programs have them in 2 inch, 4 inch, and 6 inch sizes. As for quantities, ideally I recommend a couple dozen 2-inchers, a dozen 4-inchers, and half a dozen 6-inchers. A handful of the 2 and 4 inch sizes and a pair of 6-inchers are a good starting place if you’re budget is tight.

Although they are a bit harder to open, two-inch metal spring clamps can be used by preschool and older children in all the ways their slightly smaller plastic cousins can.

When it comes to woodworking, these clamps are ideal for helping hold wood in place while glues dries or while it is being sawed, nailed, bored, or sanded. Beyond woodworking, these clamps serve as helping hands. From holding up blanket walls during dramatic play, to keeping paper on the painting easel during craft projects, to keeping ramps in place during STEM play, these clamps are helpful classroom assistants.

Bar Clamps

Bar clamps have a fixed jaw on one end and a movable jaw that slides along a steel bar on the other. While some models tighten with a screw like C clamps (see below), I recommend the trigger design shown below. The big advantage of the trigger design is that they can be tightened with one hand.

These clamps come in many sizes and allow you to clamp wider objects than spring clamps. That makes them ideal for larger projects where a spring clamp just can’t do the job.

C Clamps

C clamps can do all the work that spring clamps do. They just do it differently. They apply pressure as the moveable jaw is tightened toward the fixed jaw. This means a lot of twisting of the clamp’s handle.

C clamps can apply a lot more force than spring clamps. In fact, they can apply enough force to cause marring of wood and other surfaces.

So, why not just stick with spring clamps?

You could. If you have a nice collection of spring clamps you can get along fine without C clamps.

And, I still think you should have some C clamps around for three reasons. First, they’re novel and that’ll make them interesting to some children. Second, because they operate differently, kids challenge their bodies differently when using C clamps. They require a twisting motion instead of a pinching motion, they usually require the use of both hands, and they tend to be more challenging for young humans to use. Third, since they can apply much more force than spring clamps, kids have to practice being careful/thoughtful when using C clamps. C clamp use is a chance for kids to practice their judgment–is this tight enough? Did I make it too tight?

These clamps come in a variety of sizes. I’d recommend building up a collection of half a dozen in the 2-6 inch range. These clamps will also probably require a bit more supervision than spring clamps.

One last note about C clamps that’ll come in handy next time you’re at a cocktail party chatting about woodworking tools: They are note called C clamps because they look like the letter C. The C is for Carriage. They were originally called Carriage Maker Clamps and used for building, you guessed it, carriages.

Hand Screw Clamps

These are my favorite kind of clamps. If I was stuck on a deserted island with only one kind of clamps, it’d be hand screw clamps. Like C clamps, hand screw clamps have been around a long time and your early learning program can get along just fine without them. Also like C clamps, I recommend having a couple around for their novelty and because they work differently. (Unlike C clamps, hand screw clamps are unlikely to mare the surfaces they hold together because of their wide and long jaws.)

These clamps are the most challenging to use when you are first learning to use them, but with practice they’re pretty easy to figure out. Here are a couple helpful videos if you want to learn more about these clamps.

I like them because their weight and size allows them to do things other clamps don’t do as well. Things like holding small parts and stabilizing big parts.

Clamp Safety

When given the chance to use clamps, at some point most kids will attempt to clamp at least one body part. It’s going to happen. A spring clamp on an earlobe. A C clamp on a forearm, a bar clamp on a thigh. Most kids (most of the time) stop when it starts to hurt–or at least when it starts to REALLY hurt.

I’m a big fan of allowing/supporting this kind of exploration when it is consensual. It helps kids learn about the tools and themselves (“That hurt, I lived through it, and was able to make it stop when I wanted it to stop.”)

That said, some kids have a hard time understanding consent and/or pain thresholds. These children should still be allowed to explore–with the necessary supervision to keep everyone safe.

Clamp Safety

Conclusion

Clamps come in handy when woodworking with kids and in many other playful learning situations when an extra hand or three would be beneficial. If your classroom is clamp free, you might want to plop a few of these useful tools into the play space and help kids explore how to use them.

To recap, spring clamps and bar clamps are the best place to start building a classroom clamp collection and the addition of C clamps and hand screw clamps down the road add novelty and exposure to machines that do the job of clamping differently.

As always, I’d love to see your questions and thoughts in the comment section below.

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Jeff is an early learning speaker, toymaker, podcaster, content creator, author, and founder of Playvolution HQ who is really bad at getting his picture taken.

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