As they say, the tools make the job, and that’s certainly applies to a bench vise.
Types of Bench Vises
If you have handguns, rifles, or shotguns, a gunsmith bench vise will make maintenance and upgrades significantly easier.
A heavy-duty hydraulic bench vise is ideal for grinding, milling, and serious production work.
A multi-purpose bench vise has a rotating head with both round and flat jaws to handle different kinds of stock. Often the base swivels, too.
A self-centering bench vise makes repeatable and accurate precision work much easier.
A post vise draws force to the ground through a post, not a table.
If you do a lot of miter work, say picture framing or cabinetry, a miter vise can help with perfect corners.
Plumbers and metal workers use the round jaws of a piping bench vise to cut, thread, and join tubes.
Creating and repairing jewelry is easier with a jeweler’s bench vise.
There are many types of woodworking bench vise, however using both a face vise (front table edge) for primary work, and a tail vise to support additional length will provide support for a wide range of projects. A different end vise can go on the short edge of the table.
Bench Vise Jaws
Your bench vise will have two jaws that hold your materials; the static or fixed jaw, and the dynamic or moving jaw.
Jaws can be flat or curved, smooth or textured. Most jaws are metal, except for woodworking vises which are made of hardwood or hardwood backed with metal.
A number of models feature replaceable jaw inserts. This provides a way to replace damaged surfaces or switch styles, say from smooth to textured. This clearly adds to longevity and versatility.
Pads of various materials, frequently plastic mounted with screws or magnets, are sold to augment the vise jaws. They can provide a non-marring surface to hold irregularly-shaped or delicate items. Of course, the work space within the jaws will be reduced by the size of the pads.
The bar that moves the dynamic jaw is called a slide. It is not a hammering surface!
The screw assembly consists of the screw that tightens your vise, the nut that holds the screw, and the handle that turns it. A thicker screw is an indicator of strength, thus endurance.
Bench Vise Base Options
Most bench vises will permanently mount to your workbench with screws.
A portable bench vise can be stored out of the way or used for mobile work. Often it will have a clamp-on base.
A vacuum-base requires a smooth, clean work surface for a reliable hold of lightweight projects. It’s frequently temperature sensitive.
Elements that swivel or rotate can reduce user fatigue, allow for precision, or make better use of space. On the other, hand they can also break, get dirty, and lock up. Look at how clean your environment is (metal shavings, sawdust, adhesives…) versus the versatility. If you want movement, lean toward a slightly heavier duty unit.
A mechanic’s vise will sometimes come with an integrated anvil surface. Typically this anvil will be made of lower quality gray iron, so manage your intensity.
Mounting A Bench Vise
A bench vise can be temporarily or permanently mounted on the top, edge, or under a work surface, depending on any number of factors. As such, please carefully follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
Left- and right-handed users would put their vise on opposite ends of the workstation.
This is the time to leave creativity for your actual projects, rather than in mounting your vise. At tens of thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch (PSI), you really don’t want a heavy bench vise to shatter, fall on your foot, or fly across the room.
Hardware is rarely included, so check the packaging for requirements.
Bench Vise Duty Rating
A bench vise gets the vast majority of its strength from the type of material it is made of, followed by the sturdy construction and any joints. The duty rating is a reflection of the force that the bench vise can handle.
l Light-Duty: 20,000-30,000; Gray Iron or Aluminum
l Medium-Duty: 30,000-40,000; Cast Steel
l Heavy-Duty: 60,000-65,000; Ductile Iron (AKA nodular iron, or spheroidal iron)
l Heavy-Duty Industrial: 75,000+; Forged Steel
Be advised that a manufacturer’s “heavy-duty” model may be one of their more sturdy options, but it does not mean it has an official heavy-duty rating. Read the specifications carefully.
“Cast iron” is a process plus a vague material, not a type of metal. When it comes to bench vises, if cast iron is specified, it’s probably gray iron. Gray iron is a perfectly valid substance for light-duty projects; however it’s chemical structure forms in flakes rather than nodes. This flat microstructure causes it to be brittle under stress beyond its duty rating.
Bench Vise Safety
When working with tools, always wear safety equipment and use ventilation appropriate to your project.
Be certain that the vise is properly secured to a workbench and also that the bench is strong enough to handle any force or vibrations.
Refrain from adding torque to a handle by extending it. This will cause stress beyond the duty rating and cause problems for you.
Be suspicious of distressed or welded equipment. Fractures, or stubborn parts that don’t respond to simple cleaning, is a clear retirement message.
In the same vein, a bench vise is not something to shop for secondhand as unseen damage is quite possible. Aside from antique tool collectors who don’t actually use the equipment, older bench vises are valued at scrap metal rates.
Choosing The Best Bench Vise
In conjunction with your typical range of projects, the following primary criteria should be taken into consideration when buying the best bench vise.
l Duty rating, in PSI.
l Maximum and minimum jaw opening, width, depth, shape, surface texture, and insert options.
l Degree and location of rotation, if any.
l Mounting system: portable versus stationary, mounting location.
l Overall construction quality.
The best bench vise is often a high quality multi-purpose tool that fits your work style, quickly becoming your new best friend.