American Woodworker

Important Information >>


All About Vises


All About Vises

Add clamping power to your workbench.

By Randy Johnson and Tom Caspar

A good vise is tool money well spent. It’s a solid investment in your workbench that pays off every time you need to hold a piece of wood.


Two Types of Vises

Everybody’s familiar with the standard metal-jaw vise,but there’s a second type of vise to consider: the wood-jaw vise. Here’s a quick comparison:

Metal-jaw vises are easy to install (Photo 1). To drop the jaws slightly below the top of your bench, make a wooden plate that fits between the bottom of the bench and the vise body. If you want the inner jaw of the vise to be flush with the edge of your bench (the set-up we prefer), you’ll have to cut a notch out of your benchtop. In any case, add wood cheeks.

Wood-jaw vises generally come as starter kits (Photo 2).You buy the metal Add clamping power to your workbench. hardware and make the front jaw, an optional lower rear jaw and turn or buy the handle. If you want a traditional look to your bench, this is the way to go. The front edge of your bench must be straight and square because it serves as the rear jaw.



Vises are built to last. Every vise we tested delivered plenty of clamping pressure and was robust enough to hold up to a lifetime of service. If you’re going to spend your woodworking career with one vise, it makes sense to buy one that’s a pleasure to use. Here are the features we feel make the most difference:

● Jaw Size. Large jaws offer more surface area to hold your workpiece.More surface area means more friction to keep your work from slipping. You can increase the effective surface area of any metal-jaw vise by adding oversized cheeks,but we prefer vises that start out with large jaws.

For a wood-jaw vise you can make virtually any size jaws.Use a stiff wood such as hard maple and make the front jaw 3-in. thick.

● Jaw Opening. Rarely will you open your vise all the way, but a deep capacity gives you more clamping versatility. The day will come when you’ll need it! Some metal-jaw vises have a huge capacity, but wood-jaw vises generally have shorter openings after allowing for the thickness of the jaws.

● Quick Release. Sliding the front jaw in and out without turning the handle is convenient but not a feature you’re likely to use often.Almost all the metaljaw vises offer one of two types of quick release. They all work well. It’s a matter of personal preference, but we like the lever action best (Photo 3).

Most of the wood-jaw vises do not have a quick release, but two offer the reverse action type (Photo 4).

● Vise Dog. You can hold work on top of your bench with the vise dog that’s found on every metal-jaw vise (Photo 5). Friction-fit, spring-loaded dogs are the easiest to use.

You’ll have to make your own dog hole in the front jaw of a wood-jaw vise. One pre-made kit includes the dog hole.

● Handle. You’ll be using it a lot, so a handle ought to be comfortable. Some metal-jaw vises have large-diameter handles that are easier to grip than the rod-type handles.

To fine-tune the amount of pressure a vise is exerting, a handle should have a long “throw” (the distance from the center of the screw out to the handle’s tip). Regardless of the amount of throw, all the vises have plenty of clamping power.

Choose your own handle length with a wood-jaw vise. The handle must be a fairly large diameter to fit into the socket.

Fig. A-C: Top-to-Bottom Racking

Fig. A: The Problem

Fig. B: Manufacturer's Solution

Fig. C: The Shop Solution

Fig. D-F: Side-to-Side Racking

Fig. D: The Problem

Fig. E: Manufacturer's Solution

Fig. F: The Shop Solution

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker October 2000, issue #82.

October 2000, issue #82

Purchase this back issue.

Click any image to view a larger version.

1. A metal-jaw vise is ready to go right out of the box. Add wood cheeks, bolt it to your bench and you’re ready to clamp.

2. A wood-jaw vise requires assembly. Make your own jaws and turn a handle of any length (or buy one).The front of the bench doubles as the upper half of the rear jaw.

3. Squeeze the lever on this quick-release mechanism to slide the front jaw in or out.The spring-loaded lever is connected to a bar that releases the nut from the vise’s screw. We prefer this type of quick release.

4. Reverse the handle one-half turn for another type of quick release.This action releases the nut.To engage the nut, turn the handle clockwise. One metal-jaw and two wood-jaw vises have this feature.

5. Hold a board on top of the bench with a vise dog. All metal-jaw vises come with dogs. Make your own dog hole in a wood-jaw vise.

Types of Handles

Large-diameter handles are comfortable to grip. One metaljaw vise comes with a short metal handle (below, left), while two others have longer wooden handles (below, right), similar to what you’d add to a wood-jaw vise.

Long metal-rod handles give you more leverage and a more sensitive adjustment (below, right).We find short metal-rod handles or those with capscrew ends (below, left) less comfortable.

The Wilton Vise

Two features set this vise apart from the others:

● Pivoting Jaw. It’s perfect for holding tapered work. Raise up the pivoting jaw to make a huge dog. Remove a pin, slide off the jaw and you’ve got a standard vise.

● U-Channel Guide Bar. You can place your workpiece very close to the screw, minimizing side-to-side racking. The channel also protects the screw from damage.

What's the deal with racking?

When your workpiece slips in a vise, blame “racking.”Before you tighten a vise, the jaws are more or less parallel, but when you apply pressure the front jaw can noticeably tilt or twist. That’s called racking, and it results in unbalanced pressure on your work (Figs.A and D).

Some amount of racking is present in every vise, but some suffer more than others.Vise manufacturers have two tricks up their sleeves to combat racking (Figs. B and E). Just as good are the solutions that woodworkers have used since the days of sloppy fitting all-wood vises (Figs. C and F).