V is for Vise

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V is for Vise

Ah, the humble bench vise. When I was looking around my shop for a tool that started with "V", my eyes initially fell on some vise grip pliers. Like the old saying goes, "If God had meant for there to be such a thing as an immovable object, He would not have created vise grips." However, the longer I thought about it, the more I realized that I while I use the vise grips every now and then, I use the bench vise all the time.

For the sake of completeness, let me offer what is surely an unnecessary explanation of what a vise does: it holds things in place.

All those overheated metaphors and similes about someone being held in a vise-like grip, or being crushed as though they were in a vise? Behold the headwaters of that concept.

When I first set up this shop, I didn't have a bench vise. I'd been making do with C-clamps, improvised bench dogs, compression slabs and knock-wedges. Why didn't I just go out and buy a vise? That's an excellent question, and it's one I've thought of off and on for a while. I think it's because, conceptually, a vise isn't supposed to be something you BUY... it's something you just HAVE. They are ubiquitous, foundational devices, one of the fundamental building blocks of the universe.

You don't go out and buy a nose, do you? Or take a trip to Mothers-R-Us and buy a mother? These are things you're just born with. If for some reason you DON'T have a nose or a mother, that's tragic and it sucks to be you, but you suck it up and make do.

I know, this is stupid crazytalk, since there's nothing mystical about a bench vise. It's just a tool, like a hammer or a radial arm saw. Anybody can slap down the plastic at any Home Depot or an online retailer and get any of a hundred different vises, from small to battleship-size. A bench vise is NOT something that defines you as a person or as a woodworker. It's NOT an extension of your body or your soul. I'm just letting you know how my mind works, OK?

Anyway, back to this vise. I got it for $5 at a garage sale. I felt more than a little weird buying another man's nose, but I got over it. With a few holes drilled through the workbench and some bolts to hold it in place, it's been a fixture ever since. More than a few holes, actually, since this isn't the first location I tried. Once I got settled in and knew my own workflow, though, I knew where I needed the vise to be.

This vise, like all vises, has a long bar on the tightening screw. This slides 8" left or right and gives you lots of leverage to get the vise super-tight. There's a bit of a trick to getting something clamped tightly enough that it won't move when you're working on it, but not so tight that you crack, gouge, crush or otherwise deform it. It also is mounted on a 180-degree swivel, so I can swing the jaws through any orientation from perpendicular to the bench (left-facing), parallel to the bench, or perpendicular right-facing. VERY handy for oddly shaped or exceptionally large pieces.

Little vises are all solid metal. Larger vises, like this one, have jaws with interchangeable faceplates. I say "like this one" only in a very loose sense, since the threads are stripped on the securing screws and I can't remove the faceplates. What do you expect for a $5 garage sale special? If I could remove them, I would be able to swap out the checked steel for faceplates of soft brass, hard rubber, plastic or even wood. Matching the hardness of the faceplate to the hardness of the workpiece would go a long way toward avoiding scars.

My vise also has a set of removable curved jaws that ride the main screw. Those are used for holding round stock, like pipes, rods and dowels. Flat jaws suck at holding round workpieces, but curved jaws rock. It's easy to overtighten, though, so you have to be easy with them.

That flat section at the back is directly over the mounting plate. It's sort-of useful as an anvil, but it's too small to really serve that function for anything but the smallest peening and metal shaping jobs.

I sometimes think about upgrading this vise. A newer one would have an enclosed main screw, so sawdust and metal filings wouldn't get down into the screw threads. One of the securing rods is bent. Being able to swap out the faceplates would come in pretty handy, as would a larger anvil surface for peening metal parts. A spiffy new vise would be about $60, maybe $100 if I splurged and got the Cadillac.

But come on... get rid of this one and get something better? Flaws and all, this is my nose we're talking about!

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  1. Put an impact driver on those stripped screws, that'll get them off. ;-)

    1. I don't have an impact driver, but I tried tapping with a hammer while turning. No good. I tried heating, penetrating oil, leverage... no good.

  2. Well there are people born without noses or who lose them to diseases or cancer. But there are also prosthetics.

    1. It's an imperfect metaphor. Witness the fact that I ended up buying a vise.


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