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For my first real woodworking project, I'm trying my hand at making an end table. For the tabletop I'm using 1x6 planks with tongue and groove edges. To join the planks, I know that all they need is to be glued and held tight until it sets. However, I don't have any big clamps to hold the planks together. How can I keep the tabletop together while the glue sets without using clamps?

  • Have you thought about buying some pipe clamps? They are among the cheapest of the "big" clamps - $10 - $15 for the clamping hardware, plus ~$3 for the pipe. Depending on the size of your table, a couple clamps might be sufficient - and you would have them to use in future projects. – mmathis Jul 24 '17 at 17:07
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If you're using most modern glues you do need clamps*, or some substitute, here. Hide glue is the one exception since it can be used to create rubbed joints. Although some people use PVA-type glues in this way in limited circumstances hide glue is the only adhesive that you can really do this with and achieve a proper result at a large scale (that result being that the joint ends up stronger than the wood around it).

So you need 'clamp pressure' but you don't have clamps. There are two ways around this, first is to use a type of clamping board and second is to build your own wooden clamps which as you'll see below is not quite as daunting as it seems.

Clamping board
This is a jig that's like one big flat clamp, see Techniques for gluing thin panels? The tips in that Answer, as the title suggests, are primarily used for thin panels but similar methods can be used for thicker stock if needed (but they need to be made much stronger).

Make your own clamps
There are a great many versions, from simple to more elaborate, cheap to more expensive.

If you need clamps that costs the least and take little time to make this is probably the best basic design:

Wooden bar clamps

Original source unknown, possibly Wood magazine.

I'll also include a selection of others posted online that may be of interest:

Shop-made clamps

See the notes here on clamping pressure. Whatever you build it must be quite robust as you need to exert significant pressure for a good glue joint to form — your glue lines should be invisible or nearly so. In addition to looking so much better thin glue lines are much stronger than thicker ones using most adhesives.

Some related info that you may find useful:
Not-so-obvious disadvantages of butt joints
Panel Flatness During Table Top Glue Up


*There is a school of thought here that the correct answer is you should just go buy the necessary clamps. They don't have to be expensive to work well and they will have use in the future, you can be guaranteed of that. And in case you haven't heard it yet there is a common understanding in woodworking that you can't have too many clamps :-)

These days the best kind of longer clamp on a budget is arguably the extruded aluminium sash clamp. There are many makes and apparently most are virtually identical. They're usually very affordable and in some markets sets of four, six or eight are sold at a significant discount.

Where they're commonly available pipe clamps may also be worth considering since you can buy the clamp heads and then make clamps of almost any length by buying suitable pieces of iron pipe.

  • This is great, thanks! In googling, I've seen lots of suggestions for using tape, super glue (in addition to wood glue), or ropes/straps. Do you have opinions on those methods? – David K Jul 24 '17 at 12:09
  • Tape is useful for small-scale bonding where you don't need much structural strength. Where you need the joint to be strong though tape is completely inadequate (with most glues). Similar comments for superglue 'tack welds', as with tape the dots of superglue mostly hold the joint in place but don't provide anything like the pressure needed. – Graphus Jul 24 '17 at 12:51
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    Using twisted cord or ropes in a tourniquet manner can provide significant clamping force and even though it seems old fashioned they're still used widely in some applications, e.g. when assembling chair legs. While you can use them for flat things there's quite a bit of potential for the panel to be forced out of flat, so care is needed to prevent this. Pretty much the same for strap clamps, but here the maximum force that can be exerted may not be quite as high as needed — if it can squeeze out all the excess glue and give an invisible/nearly invisible glue line then it's fine. If not, no. – Graphus Jul 24 '17 at 12:58
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Other clampless options include:

  1. using pocket holes and screws (on the under side of the table) to clamp the boards together. The screws can be left in or removed once the glue dries, your preference.
  2. Using a cleat on the underside with angled screws that pull the joint together as they are driven.
  3. Drawbored loose tenons. See here for an example. Although this may seem like advanced joinery, the actual joint can be pretty sloppy and this will still be extremely strong. See here for some more nice things about drawboring.
  • The design I'm working from actually uses pocket holes, but I opted to use a tongue and groove joint instead of square boards. Can I still use the pocket holes with the tongue and groove? – David K Jul 24 '17 at 17:36
  • Suggest an edit to your no. 2 Aaron, the screws will constrain movement so need to be withdrawn after the glue sets. (Personally, I'd have two reservations about this method for a panel assembly. I wouldn't trust that this could equal clamping force without using the same number of cleats/battens that would otherwise be clamps. Second I'd hate that after this there were screw holes in the underside of my tabletop.) – Graphus Jul 24 '17 at 18:40
  • @DavidK Pocket-screw jig or not you need clamps, so to say they're well worth investing some money or time into is a bit of an understatement ;-) A version of the simplest type above are very quick to build, literally about 10-15 minutes for a pair (less if you don't care about aesthetics). So they're an excellent use of your time, and if made from 2x material they're super cheap. My first pair were made from pallet wood so they were actually free, not including the nails I used as pivots (didn't have any strong dowel at the time). So call it 2c for two 28" clamps, which ain't bad. – Graphus Jul 24 '17 at 18:40
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    @DavidK - yes, you can still use pocket screws. They probably won't hold quite as well, but you're relying for the glue to hold the joint closed permanently anyway. These'd be just for clamping the joint shut. – aaron Jul 24 '17 at 20:00
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    i'm still not seeing a cross-grain joint here, but in general I agree that screws should not be left in when joining cross grain! – aaron Jul 25 '17 at 11:59
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I had an antique blanket chest, mortise and tenon construction, with loose joints. I applied hide glue and clamped the entire thing with bungee cords (I put socks under the metal hooks to prevent damage to the wood) and it worked fine. In another instance, I weighted glued items down with cement blocks.

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