The Virtues of Bench Vises

Here’s a run­down on the dif­fer­ent types of vises, and which one or two would be best for your work­bench.


Be­come well-versed in vises as you learn the ben­e­fits of six types of workhold­ers.

Think of a bench vise as a tool that’s as es­sen­tial to your suc­cess as a hand plane, router, or ta­ble­saw. Al­though clamps might sub­sti­tute in some sit­u­a­tions, they tend to get in the way, and a vise gives you free­dom to do al­most any type of work.

Wood­work­ing vises dif­fer from met­al­work­ing vises in that they at­tach to the bot­tom of the bench sur­face or are built into it, with (typ­i­cally wood) jaws flush with the bench­top. Met­al­work­ing vises usu­ally mount to the top of a bench.

Wood­work­ing vises vary in price from about $30 to as much as $400. Gen­er­ally, once you de­cide on a par­tic­u­lar style of vise, the more you spend, the bet­ter the qual­ity and ef­fec­tive­ness of that vise. Now let’s take a look at the most com­mon types of vises for wood­work­ing.

As the name im­plies, th­ese mount to the front (long edge) of the bench, typ­i­cally on a left­hand cor­ner. Left-handed folks usu­ally pre­fer a front vise mounted on the right cor­ner.

Face vise

Th­ese come in two styles: one with steel or cast-iron jaws you can use as is or add aux­il­iary wooden jaws [Pho­tos A and C], and the other with no jaws, re­quir­ing you to build wooden jaws [Pho­tos B, D, and E]. The first typ­i­cally costs more, but in­stalls eas­ier. For both styles, mount the in­ner jaw flush with the bench­top sur­face and edge (or apron), so that you can se­cure long work­pieces in the vise and also clamp the board’s far end to the bench for added sta­bil­ity. Your bench­top must clear the bench base or legs for mount­ing. Make sure the mount­ing plate and rails won’t in­ter­fere with dog­holes made to use with an end or tail vise [Photo E].

Things to know:

A quick-re­lease jaw lets you move the vise in or out with­out a lot of turns of the han­dle.

A pop-up stop on some face vises elim­i­nates the need to drill a dog­hole in the mov­able jaw.

The longer the han­dle, the more lever­age you can ap­ply to the vise. But don’t get crazy here: Ap­ply only enough force so a work­piece won’t budge.

Most face-vise jaws toe in slightly at the top, then go par­al­lel un­der pres­sure.

Shoul­der vise

Found tra­di­tion­ally on Scan­di­na­vian-style work­benches, a shoul­der vise’s great­est ad­van­tage is open space be­tween the jaws, free of sup­port rails or a screw. The bench­top or apron serves as the fixed jaw, while the mov­able jaw trav­els on a sin­gle screw [Photo F]. Be­cause the outer jaw has a tongue that slides in a groove on the fixed arm, it has enough play to let you clamp un­even­shaped work­pieces.

Things to know:

Low cost: Be­sides wood, you only need the screw as­sem­bly, sell­ing for as lit­tle as $30.

Protrud­ing from the bench edge, this vise can be a bump haz­ard for your hips and legs. And high hu­mid­ity could cause the parts to swell and bind.

This vise does not eas­ily retro­fit to an ex­ist­ing bench.

Leg vise

As the name im­plies, this vise in­stalls into the bench leg, which some­times serves as the fixed jaw. Build the outer jaw from thick stock about three-quar­ters of the leg’s length. You can buy the hard­ware to make a leg vise for about $100. Things to know:

Th­ese can be built two ways: With an in­set leg [Photo G], you get more toe-kick space be­low. The fixed jaw is what you build it up to be (in this case, sim­ply the bench’s apron). With a flush-fit­ting vise, the leg it­self serves as a full-length fixed jaw. In both cases, keep the mov­able jaw 21∕2–3" thick to avoid de­flec­tion.

The pin and slid­ing guide rail keep the jaw par­al­lel for even clamp­ing force. Re­po­si­tion the pin for the work­piece you’re clamp­ing.

A low screw lo­ca­tion de­creases clamp­ing force and in­creases de­flec­tion, so in­stall the screw 8–9" be­low the bench­top.

A leg vise ex­cels at hold­ing long stock on edge; you can also clamp the work­piece to the bench­top edge for added sta­bil­ity.

With only a sin­gle screw, you can clamp boards ver­ti­cally on ei­ther side of the screw.

Scis­sor-type vari­a­tions re­place the slid­ing guide rail and main­tain jaw par­al­lel­ism, but cost about $100–$200 and work best with a f lush leg.

Th­ese can be dif­fi­cult to retro­fit to an ex­ist­ing bench, de­pend­ing on the leg style, size, and place­ment on your bench. (How­ever, you can build up some legs to make a leg vise work.)

BBuild­ing a new work­bench? Find plans for dozens of work­benches that will work great with one or more of th­ese vises. wood­ work­bench Dog­holes This vise hard­ware re­quires a shop-made outer jaw of 11∕2–3" thick hard­wood with dog­holes (if you so choose) for hold­ing stock with bench dogs. The bench­top’s edge or apron typ­i­cally serves as the in­ner jaw, fre­quently with an at­tached piece be­neath the top that’s flush with the edge to add more jaw sur­face.

E Guide rails Dog­holes for tail viseA cast-iron-jaw vise can be re­cessed into the bot­tom of a bench for max­i­mum strength and sta­bil­ity. A thick outer jaw dis­trib­utes clamp­ing force over a wide sur­face area. Note how the vise rails fit be­tween dog­holes for the tail vise lo­cated at the right end of the bench.

A Shim Mount­ing plate Rail Pop-up stop Bolt or screw this type of face vise onto an ex­ist­ing bench­top in less than an hour. You might have to shim it to flush the jaws with the bench­top and notch the bench­top to align the in­ner jaw with the edge. The cast-iron jaws have threaded holes for at­tach­ing wood jaws, and a pop-up stop works with a bench dog to hold stock on the bench sur­face.

D Fixed jaw (Mov­able jaw not yet at­tached.)

C Piv­ot­ing jaw Piv­ot­ing-jaw re­lease pin A piv­ot­ing-jaw vise holds ir­reg­u­lar-shape stock with­out rack­ing the jaws. You also can re­move the piv­ot­ing jaw for par­al­lel-jaw clamp­ing. Mag­net-lined wood jaw pads stay in place with­out screws.

F Tongue Vise shoul­der A shoul­der vise gives you floor-to-ceil­ing clamp­ing space be­tween its jaws. A threaded bush­ing mor­tised into the vise shoul­der (un­seen) keeps the screw on track.

G Guide rail Pin A leg vise moves via a sin­gle screw with a pinned slid­ing guide rail to main­tain par­al­lel­ism. The guide-rail pin rests against end-grain hard-maple pads that pre­vent com­press­ing the softer alder leg of this bench.

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