October 5, 2010

My shop is back to normal. It’s not just the clutter on the workbench; it’s the engineer’s bench vise. Nearly 30 years ago, shortly after I built my workbench, I installed a small vise at one end. It had all the prerequisitesa small flat anvil surface, swivel and jaws with removable steel faces. When working with wood, I could quickly replace the steel faces with wood, eliminating the certain marring that would otherwise have occurred.

I always intended to replace my little vise with a larger one, but year after year, it did its job. I did countless repairs with it, replacing tool handles, bending rebar and other jobs. It was the extra hand that I often needed in the shop.

Then it happened. Too much pressure and a cast iron member cracked. I salvaged parts such as nuts and bolts that might serve another use and recycled the rest.

I knew the replacement would be bigger and stronger, but how big and how strong? Vises range in size from tiny jeweler’s styles on up to commercial behemoths. Even the 4- to 8-inch home shop versions can range in price from under $50 to well over $500. Variations include jaw capacity, which is the distance between the jaws when fully open; jaw width; and jaw depth or throat, which is the distance from the jaw faces to the screw that attaches the two jaws. Other common features include type of face, swivel and pipe jaws. An anvil is less important, but nice to have for small metal-working jobs and repairs.

Next week, I’ll compare options and describe some of the guidelines I used in making my selection. I’ll also offer some pointers on general use of a vise.

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