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Learn How. Discover Why. Build Better. - Christopher Schwarz


 
 

Benchcrafted: American Vises that Defy Friction by Christopher Schwarz.  Copyright 2012.  Originally appeared in the Fine Tool Journal

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This family company
in Iowa picked up
the flag when the big manufacturers stumbled.

 

If there was a segment of the woodworking industry that should have resisted the manufacturing malaise of the last 60 years, it should have been the vise industry.

After all, you canít do much to a piece of wood until you can keep it still.

Sad to say, most vise hardware went the same way as the handplanes and chisels. Record closed its Sheffield plant when it was purchased (amusingly) by Rubbermaid. Vises that were once made in America were moved to Taiwan and India and produced by Shop Fox, Groz and Anant.

You can still find some good vises made by Jorgensen, but most modern vises arenít worth buying or even picking up from the curb.  Their mechanisms are sloppy and frequently jam.  The castings are as rough as a cob. Their wearing surfaces deteriorate quickly.

When I built a French-style workbench in 2005, one of my reasons for going back to an 18th-century design was that I was disgusted with modern vise hardware.  I wanted to see if you could build a good bench without a tail vise, and if you could build your own leg vise for the face-vise position.

The Benchcrafted tail vise, shown here on my French workbench, is superior in every way to the traditional tail vise.  The only part that moves is the block with the dog Ė that means you donít have to move an entire section of the bench.  Also unlike the traditional tail vise, this one will not sag.  Also, note that this vise uses a chromed wheel, which is no longer available. Benchcrafted now uses uncoated cast iron.

I found out that you could indeed work without commercial vises.  But as a result of building my French bench, I also ended up meeting Jameel Abraham of Benchcrafted, a family company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that makes the three best woodworking vises I have ever used.  And, just to be clear, Benchcrafted makes only three vises.

 

Abraham, a long-time woodworker and icon painter, had made his own French-style workbench.  And after being dissatisfied with commercial vise hardware, he decided to design and make his own.  He trolled the U.S. patent database for ideas. 

And after a lot of experimentation, Jameel hit upon the idea for his tail vise.  Itís different than the bulky L-shaped traditional tail vise in that there is only a single moving block of wood that is surrounded by the benchtop.

  Some early U.S. patents (and the La Forge Royal catalog from France) call this a wagon vise or a wagon-wheel vise.

Here you can see the metal rails below the bench that support and guide the dog block.  Installation isnít difficult as long as you take your time and double-check your layout lines before you cut into your benchtop.

The wagon vise has a lot of advantages compared to the traditional European tail vise, not the least of which is that a wagon vise wonít sag.  But the Benchcrafted design went beyond the patent drawings of the 19th century.  Jameel did everything he could to eliminate friction in the mechanism.  When installed, the viseís block moves left and right with minimal effort from the woodworker.


 
Learn how. Discover why. Build better.
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