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Bench Vises

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

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.

Front vises

As the name implies, these mount to the front (long edge) of the bench, typically on a left-hand 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].

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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.

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This vise hardware requires a shop-made outer jaw of 1 1⁄2–3" 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.

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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.

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A 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.

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

Add shop-made accessories to your workbench.woodmagazine.com/workbenchupgradesFound 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 uneven-shaped workpieces. 

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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.

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 212 –3" thick to avoid deflection.

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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.

•   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 flush 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.)

End vises

These mount to the end of the bench and typically work with bench dogs along the length of the benchtop. If you prefer rectangular dogholes, cut those notches in the boards before gluing them to the benchtop; round holes can be drilled before or after assembly.

Tail vise

A traditional tail vise [Photos H and I] consists of a rectangular or L-shape block of wood (the jaw) fastened to a steel or cast-iron fixture that slides back and forth in a cutaway corner of the bench. 

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A long mortise accepts the screw and threaded fixture, and the upper guide rail fits in the slot. (A lower guide rail, not shown, mounts beneath the jaw.) The tail vise slides back and forth along the guide rails, held in place by the screw assembly.

Things to know:
•   You have to space the vise and dogholes around the bench legs and any face-vise mounting hardware. 
•   You also can hold stock vertically between the movable jaw and the bench.
•   A quick release, available on some tail vises, speeds up big changes in vise position. n A tail vise holds long stock securely without any springiness. Too much clamping force, however, can cause boards to bow up.
•   Retrofitting one to an existing bench typically requires adding material to the benchtop to stay outside the legs or base.

End vise

Essentially a large face vise, this type usually spans most, if not all, of the benchtop’s width [Photo J]. Typically, you use two rows of bench dogs to hold long or wide stock.

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The timing chain on a twin-screw end vise syncs the screws. You can adjust either screw should the vise jaws get out of parallel. You can intentionally make the jaws unparallel for clamping irregular-shape workpieces.

Things to know:
•   The bench’s apron, or a built-up end of the benchtop, serves as the inner jaw.
•   A twin-screw vise has a large opening between the screws for holding wide stock or assembled drawers.
•   Planing long boards held in the jaws can move the bench sideways. Instead, capture the workpiece with bench dogs to take advantage of the bench’s full mass.
•   If an end vise spans less than the full width of the benchtop, install it flush with one edge (rather than centering it) so you can easily hand-plane stock held with bench dogs.

Wagon vise

A condensed version of a tail vise, a wagon vise [Photos K and L] holds long stock securely, but with less capacity (because a tail vise opens beyond the bench’s end). 

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Things to know:
•  The gap in front of the wagon can be used to hold narrow stock vertically.
•  A wagon vise can be retrofitted to an existing bench by cutting a notch for the wagon and screw, and attaching the mounting hardware. 

Sources for vises:
Lee Valley 800-871-8158
Rockler 800-279-4441
Woodcraft 800-225-1153
Highland Woodworking 800-241-6748
Yost Vises 616-396-2063
Lie-Nielsen 800-327-2520
Hovarter Custom Vise 810-545-6179
Benchcrafted
Wilton Tools 800-274-6848

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