Learn what trigger clamps are the best suited to your shop and for the work you do.
I need more clamps in my workshop. Sound familiar? In my workshop, I use trigger-style clamps the most because I repair furniture. These types of clamps are also called one-handed clamps and squeezer / spreader clamps. They have built-in pads to protect the finished surfaces I work on and they convert to spreader clamps, which are the best way to gently take furniture apart without breaking parts. Recently I looked at buying some inexpensive clamps online, but wondered if they would be a waste of money because they wouldn’t work well.
I tested out six different trigger clamps to understand how they work and to learn what the differences between them were. Trigger clamps are generally classified into four categories, depending on how much force they generate. The smallest versions are micro and are rated for 40 lb. of force. Medium are rated at 100 lb., large are rated at 300 lb. and extra large are rated for 600 lb. The large clamps are the most common and are what I looked at. In addition to buying two inexpensive clamps on Amazon, I was able to get samples of clamps to test from the major brands: Irwin Quick-Grip, Bessey, DeWalt and Pony Jorgensen. Having a good cross section to test is always a good approach.
The inventors of the Quick-Grip trigger clamp are Joe Sorensen and Dwight Gatemeyer from Lincoln, Nebraska. As an aspiring inventor myself, I was excited when Joe accepted my invitation for an interview to understand the background of this invention.
Joe explained to me that he was building a flat-bottom boat and was struggling to assemble parts by himself, so he went to the hardware store and asked for a one-handed clamp. He was told there was no such thing, and the idea for this invention was born. Joe’s friend Dwight is a machinist, and the two of them set out to create a one-handed clamp. Dwight suggested using a mechanism similar to a caulking gun, which they eventually worked into a bar clamp that became the Quick-Grip clamp in 1988, made by American Tools. The Quick-Grip clamp patent was eventually transferred to the Irwin Industrial Tool Company, which is the current-day Irwin Quick-Grip clamp.
There are several categories of trigger clamps that have evolved since the initial invention. The original design is a medium-duty clamp, typically providing about 300 pounds of pressure. There’s now a heavy-duty style clamp with about 600 pounds of pressure. There’s also a mini-version for small jobs.
When I started shopping around for trigger clamps, I discovered retailers sell the same clamp at different prices. To make it even more difficult to compare, I discovered prices changed from month to month. To compare the price of these clamps as fairly as possible for this article, I used the prices on Amazon.ca at the time I purchased my two clamps. The inexpensive clamps I bought on Amazon were the Home Handyman at $21.44 and the Tekton at $24.79. The next least expensive clamp was the Irwin at $29.99. The Bessey clamp was priced at $35.99, followed by the DeWalt at $44.98 (this is the MSRP as it wasn’t available on Amazon.ca) and the Jorgensen at $53.99.
I set up a testing bench with a 660-pound hanging scale and a frame made of 4×4s with half-lap joints. The labels on the brand-name clamps each stated the clamp provides 300 pounds of pressure. On the two clamps I purchased from Amazon, there were no details on the packaging about the amount of pressure they would provide. One by one, I squeezed the trigger of each clamp to get the most out of them on my testing bench.
The Bessey, DeWalt, Irwin and Jorgensen clamps all met their stated rating of 300 pounds of pressure. The inexpensive clamps had a disappointing performance. The Home Handyman was able to only produce 165 pounds of pressure, but the Tekton produced even less, just 50 pounds of pressure. I was so surprised by the drastic difference in performance, I did the test a second time to make sure of the results.
One feature I love about trigger clamps is their pads, not only because they prevent marks on finished furniture, but because they can clamp surfaces that aren’t perfectly square. On chairs, for example, I need to clamp legs that are sometimes splayed at a slight angle.
I tested each of the clamps on chair legs to see how well they could handle this challenge. The pads on the Home Handyman and the Tekton clamps wouldn’t allow me to clamp the chair at all; they were too slippery. The other four clamps had enough grip on the pads to clamp the chair legs and stay suspended off the workbench, meaning they were holding in place.
One interesting feature I noticed on the Irwin clamp was that one of its pads rotated slightly, providing slightly better contact with non-parallel surfaces.
Another unique pad design was on the Pony Jorgenson. It had larger pads, and they included a curved portion that extended to the inner faces of the jaw. This could potentially help spread out clamping pressure in certain situations.
Some woodworkers may not be aware that trigger clamps can convert to spreader clamps. One end is removed and attached to the other end of the bar. As a spreader clamp, they work well to take things apart gently (e.g., to take a dovetailed drawer apart or remove a spindle between two chair legs). I compared these six clamps to see how easy and fast it was to switch the end to convert it from a regular clamp to a spreader clamp. The fastest one was the spring-loaded end on the DeWalt clamp. It’s quick and easy to switch.
The Bessey, Irwin and Jorgensen were all about the same. They’re easy to switch, but they require one extra action to lock the head of the clamp in place compared to the DeWalt design. The Home Handyman and Tekton clamps use a thumbscrew and nut design, which takes longer to unscrew and reattach. Not something I want to do regularly in my workshop, but not the end of the world, either.
To judge the comfort and ergonomics of these clamps, I got some help from another Canadian YouTuber, Trena Reynolds. We tried each clamp and discussed how they felt in use, and there were some interesting differences. Trena noticed immediately how the Bessey clamp felt more comfortable. She has smaller hands than I have. When we looked at the handle more closely, we saw that it has a rounded grip shaped to allow all four fingers to engage the handle when it’s fully open, unlike the other clamps. This makes it easier and more comfortable to use.
The handles on the DeWalt, Pony Jorgenson, and Irwin Quick-Grip are all about the same reach front-to-back. The handles on the Bessey clamp are slightly closer together. It’s hard to compare the Home Handyman and Tekton clamps to the other four, as the style of handle is quite different. These two clamps have visibly identical handles and clamping heads, just in different colours, so they’re very likely made by the same manufacturer.
The Irwin clamp was a little different, in that it has edges that are very slightly more square, or angular, on a portion of the handle that can dig into your hand when squeezing the handle really hard. I have older models of the Irwin Quick-Grip clamp, and the handle is rounded, so this modification must be new. It’s not an unusable clamp, but it’s a contrast with the comfort of the Bessey clamp.
The surprising discovery was that the Home Handyman and Tekton clamps have what I would call a backwards handle. The grip is set up opposite to the other clamps. What it means is that you need to squeeze the handle away from the work, instead of towards the work. I tried it in a few situations and to me, it’s just… backwards.
One thing that was a unique feature on the Jorgensen clamp is that it allows you to connect two clamps together to make a longer clamp. This could be useful if you have a limited number of clamps and need to clamp a longer distance.
Applying pressure is one thing, but releasing it is another. There are essentially three different styles of pressure release on these clamps. The Irwin Quick-Grip and DeWalt clamps both release the same way; by pulling a lever located directly where your index finger is during use. The second approach is very similar, but instead of using a lever to release pressure, the Home Handyman and Tekton clamps use a small button. It’s easy to press with an index finger. The third approach is a little different. Both the Bessey and Pony Jorgensen clamps have a small lever, but it’s located on the stationary portion of the handle, closer to the user’s palm. I find it slightly less convenient to access, but I think I’m biased here because I’m used to the trigger mechanism on my current clamps.
I’m glad I tested these six clamps to compare how they work and feel. It’s not something I could have judged by looking at the product in a store or on a website. All four brand-name clamps work well. I wouldn’t waste money on the inexpensive clamps I bought online.
Based on my testing, the Bessey clamp is the best clamp for me. I found it to be the perfect combination of comfort, performance and price. My second choice is the DeWalt clamp. It performed well, and I love how fast and fluid it is to change it to a spreader clamp. I use this function a lot to disassemble furniture, so this feature really got my attention.
As the price of a specific brand of clamp can vary quite a bit (50% in one case) from store to store, I recommend shopping around. If you’re not in a hurry to expand your trigger clamp supply, perhaps wait for sales events or woodworking shows for better prices. The key lesson I learned from testing all of these clamps is that I won’t buy anything but a brand-name clamp.
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