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.
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.
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.
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. woodmagazine.com/ 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.