A woodworking vise is a mechanical device used to clamp wood in place while it is worked on.
I suppose that’s not a very interesting answer is it? A more illuminating questions might be: how is a woodworking vise different from other vises (sometimes spelled vices)?
To answer that, we must first describe a woodworking vise.
Anatomy Of A Woodworking Vise
A woodworking vise has two jaws. One jaw is stationary and is attached to the main body of the vise. The other jaw is movable and is turned via a leadscrew which is attached to a handle. Turn the handle clockwise and the moveable jaw is moved towards the stationary jaw. Turn the handle counterclockwise and the moveable jaw moves away from the stationary jaw. The handle also provides mechanical leverage allowing the user to clamp the jaws tight without excessive effort.
The vise jaws themselves are rectangular shaped, and are larger than the jaws of a metalworking vise. These larger jaws allows you to spread the clamping force out over a wider surface area, which can help prevent you from damaging the wood held in your vise. The mathematical way of describing this is pressure = force / area. Spreading the clamping force over a larger surface area reduces the pressure at any one point in the contact surface.
This is important, as woodworking vise jaws are made of metal, which is harder than wood. As a general rule in material science: hard scratches soft. As woodworkers we don’t want our jaws scuffing up the wood we clamp. Hence why woodworking vise jaws are larger than what you would find in a metalworking vise or engineers vise. Woodworking vise jaws are also smooth faced, while metalworking vise jaws are serrated. Again, this is to prevent the scuffing of the wood we are clamping.
Additionally, many woodworking vise jaws have screw holes that allow you to attach a block of wood as a sort of “pad” or cushion, this provides even more protection for the work you clamp in your vise, and it can improve the longevity of your vise jaws. I have also seen these pads applied via magnets or glue. These pads have many colloquial names and can be referred to as cheeks, jaw covers, jaw pads, etc.
Finally, we have the attachment mechanism. Woodworking vises are mounted on the side of the table, and are meant to sit flush with the table top. This varies quiet a lot from most metalworking vises, as they are usually bolted on top of the table. Table vises and hobby vises will use a c clamp to clamp the vise to the table.
Most woodworking vises will have you screw your vise to the side surface of your table, and the underside of your table.
Many vises will have “dog” holes on the moveable jaw of the vise. A dog hole is made to contain a little piece of metal called a dog that “bites” into a work piece providing additional clamping functionality. Vise dogs will often work in conjunction with bench dogs, bench dogs are just a little piece of metal that sticks up from your bench. Some vises such as a pattern maker’s vise will have vise dogs on both the stationary jaw and moveable jaw.
Finally, some woodworking vises will have a toe-in feature. A toe-in feature is when you put the top of the movable jaw at a slight inwards angle. This is to help prevent top to bottom racking in your a vise. Top to bottom racking is when the vise does not clamp evenly from top to bottom – more specifically it is usually caused when the bottom of the vise near the screw clamps more narrowly than the top of the vise which is holding your work project.
Tail Vise, End Vise
A tail vise is a vise that is inside and flush with your table top. The moveable jaw has a dog on top of it, and across from the moveable jaw will be a row of pop up bench dogs at various distances. These are slick vises as they blend right into the table.
Another variation of the tail vise is the wagon vise.
A leg vise has a tall movable jaw that moves into the leg of the table for clamping. The stationary “jaw” of a leg vise is the table leg itself! The advantage of this design is it gives you a deep throat space within the vise for clamping large boards. The disadvantage is that it is prone to racking.
A shoulder vise is a vise that is usually built into the workbench itself. These vises stick out from the bench and have a moveable jaw which clamps back INTO the table itself. These vises have the vise screw BEHIND the moveable jaw rather than in-between the stationary jaw and moveable jaw. These vises are useful when you must clamp boards vertical, as there is nothing underneath the vise jaws to get in the way of your board. These vises are often found in Scandinavian style work benches.
What is a woodworking vise used for?
As the name suggests, woodworking vises are used for all things woodworking! This can include the following:
And so much more, the vise is used so often it is referred to as a “third hand”. It comes in *cough *cough handy, all the time!
What is a woodworking vise made of?
This can vary a lot between each model.
Most vises will have a main body made of either cast ductile iron, or cast gray iron. I have noticed that while metal working vises will often explicitly advertise which type of cast iron it is, woodworking vises do not. If I had to guess gray iron would be more common. If you are interested in more details on how this affects the strength and stability of your vise, I have an article on vise materials here, that goes into the specifics and the logic behind each material choice.
The lead screw will usually be made of high carbon heat treated steel. This is the ideal material for these types of screws, as low carbon steels* will be too soft and will need too much repair under heavy use. Any alloy with a higher carbon content will be too brittle and will fracture under heavy loads.
*Remember that heat treatments require a certain amount of carbon, so you can’t just harden a low carbon steel the same way you can a high carbon steel.
The material of the handle used to open and close your vise can vary a lot. A lot of times it’s just cheap aluminum, although some more expensive models will use steel. Some manufactures purposely build handles that will bend under loads higher than what the vise was designed for, so keep an eye out for this if you are not interested in this “feature”.
Material composition is not as important for woodworking vises as it is metalworking vises. Woodworkers are not generally interested in having as much clamping power as metal workers. This is because wood is so soft and really cranking your vise is a good way to scuff/mark up your work piece. In fact, some vises are made almost entirely of wood…
Scandinavian style workbenches
Scandinavian style workbenches will have a end vise and shoulder vise built into the table that are made entirely of wood – including the vise screw!
I provided a lot of details about wood vises in this article, but the wood vise is a very simple tool. It is used to clamp things in place while you work on them. That’s really all there is to it. If you are looking to buy a bench vise, you should check out my guide to the best bench vises; it is more focused on metalworking vises, but I will have a woodworking oriented one coming soon!
Credit for the title photo goes to nick fullerton on flickr.