What is an engineer’s vise?

An engineer’s vise (sometimes spelled vice) is a broad category of vises used for heavy duty vise work.

I say it’s broad category as there are many different models of vises (with different features and characteristics) that can be called an engineer’s vise. People tend to use these terms colloquially, and neither people nor companies seem to adhere to strict naming conventions.

With that pedantry about naming out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the key features of an engineer’s vise.

An engineer’s vise has a thick metal body and a large diameter screw. This metal body is usually made of either grey cast iron, ductile cast iron, or forged steel. The screw is usually made of hardened steel.

These features allow the vise to clamp with great force without breaking. These vises can vary tremendously in size. A good engineer vise will usually weight 40+lbs, but big ones can get as heavy as 200lb. In machinery, heavy is generally a good thing. Heavier vises will be able to grip larger pieces of work, and will be able to endure more abuse in the course of work without breaking.

The vast majority of engineer’s vises are designed to be bolted to a work table for additional stability. Heavier vises will need a larger and more stable table than lighter vises.

Engineers vises are also known as a machinist vise, a workshop vise, a bench vise, mechanics vise among other names.

What is an engineer’s vise used for?

The short answer: gripping stuff tightly so that it may be worked on. An engineers vise is designed to be used for heavier and harder objects such as steel. This means that a good engineer’s vise will have jaws made of serrated hardened steel. If the vise manufacturers used a softer material, the vise jaws would get worn out very quickly during their normal course of use.

While these serrated hardened steel vise jaws are great for working with steel or cast iron, they can be a bit rough on softer materials such as brass or aluminum. As a general rule of thumb: harder materials scratch softer materials. Which means there are many materials that your hardened engineer vise jaws can scuff if you clamp it too tightly.

So yes, you can use your engineer’s vise for materials such as brass,aluminum, brick, plastic, and even wood, but you may want to place a cover on the jaws of your vise for these materials.

Once you have your material secured in your vise jaws, you can then do a number of tasks such as:

  • Chipping
  • Filing and fitting
  • Sawing
  • Sanding and grinding
  • Holding two pieces of work together while glue dries
  • Marking
  • Measuring

Other Optional Features of an engineer’s vise

In addition to the vise jaws, many modern vises have additional features such as:

Quick Release Features

These features allow you to open a vise jaw quickly without having to slowly crank the handle to open it. This feature is incredibly handy in high volume production environments where you will be taking things in and out of the vise at a high frequency. I go into more detail as to how these work here.

Swivel Base

A swivel base vise can rotate the vise head in a circle. It does this by hiding an inner base plate inside the outer base plate.The inner base plate has two upwards pointing screws that poke through the outer base plate and are attached to a lock nut. Unlock the lock nut and you can turn your vise. Lock the nut and it will no longer be able to turn.

These swivel bases are super handy, but the do add a point of weakness to the vise, especially when it comes to shock blows.

Swivel Head

This allows you to rotate the head of the vise, usually along the verticle axis. These are really common on multi head or multi paradigm vises.

Multi-Head Engineer’s Vise

These vises will usually have another set of jaws in addition the the normal vise jaws. This additional set usually takes the form of a pair of pipe jaws. Pipe jaws are very handy as normal vise jaws are not good at gripping pipes – they tend to distort the geometry of the pipe in an attempt to clamp it still.

If you are interested in shopping for a engineer’s vise, check out my guide.