2017 April 17    Metal & Shop  


This article contains a few shop tips for installing and using a bench vise.  (Metalworking can be dangerous;  please read the Disclaimer.) 

So, here we go. 

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In This Article

1.  Vises and Plywood

2.  Vises and Metal Filings

3.  Vise Without a Workbench

4.  Wooden Jaws

5.  Uneven Clamping

6.  Cheater Bars

7.  Oil and Grease

8.  More Gripping Power

9.  Additional Work Surface

10.  Vise On A Metal Table


1.  Vises and Plywood

Plywood, particle-board, and MDF are often used for workbench surfaces. 

Problem is, the physics of a vise can be a bit much for these materials.   The mounting bolts might break out of a single thickness if you're really torquing on something.  MDF is probably the worst;  it's notoriously bad at holding lag bolts and screws.

Solution:  distribute the forces.  Get a flat piece of 1/8" steel plate, and drill bolt-holes in the correct alignment for your vise.  Put the piece of steel plate on the underside of the table surface.  Use through-bolts instead of lags. 

Better yet, reinforce both the top and the underside of the work table with steel.  This link should take you to some choices in 1/8" steel plate;  last I checked, you could buy small pieces on there for three dollars or so.  There are cheaper ways to buy steel (in bulk), but I doubt there are more convenient ways to buy it.  Buy what you need, and then you don't have to contend with big, heavy sheets of steel.

If you can't get steel plate or you don't feel like dealing with it... use wood.  Scraps of hardwood flooring are great.  Earlier I said plywood is not that great for mounting vises, but if you have extra layers, it becomes OK.  Use washers with your through-bolts to distribute the forces.  Shown here on a plank top workbench where it's probably not as necessary, but there it is:

2.  Vises and Metal Filings

The better vises have the screw threads enclosed in a channel.  This keeps metal turnings and filings out of there. 

If your vise doesn't have an enclosed lead screw, simply cover the vise threads with a disposable rag or a shop towel.   Carefully transfer the rag or shop towel-- along with the metal chips and filings-- to a waste bin when you're done.

If you don't have a vise yet, try to get one that has the enclosed channel.  It's highly worth it.

3.  Vise Without A Workbench

Get a log.  Not a whole tree, just a short section of log.  About one foot in length, and about one foot in diameter. 

The ends should be cut parallel.  They should be as perpendicular to the sides of the log as you can manage. 

If you just bolt a vise to this, it will fall over when you put any torque on it.  My solution was to give this a much wider footprint so it won't do that.

I found an 8-foot piece of 4x4 lumber sitting around.  This I cut into a couple of 40-inch lengths.  Next I made half-lap joints in the center, allowing them to be fashioned into an "X" that will lay flat. 

It's possible to make half-lap joints with a radial arm saw, a sliding compound miter saw, or a circular saw.  A chop saw will work if you really know what you're doing (careful!!).   I've done this, but I'd recommend getting a sliding compound miter saw to make the job much easier and probably safer. 

A general-purpose blade should work for this.  Saw a bunch of parallel cuts so there are wood "fins" where you want to make the cutout for the lap joint.  The cut depth should be exactly 50% of the thickness of each 4x4.  Offhand I think that's going to be a cut depth of 1 3/4 inches.  Use a wood chisel to remove the fins that remain after you make the parallel cuts.   

The "X" made of 4x4's should then be centered on one end of the log.  There it's anchored securely with lag bolts. 

For this I used 3/8" diameter lag bolts.  I made sure they were at least two full inches longer than the thickness of a 4x4 section.  Just going by memory here, I think the lag bolts would have to be at least 5.5 inches.   

You might want to pre-drill and countersink the wooden "X" so the lag-bolt heads will be underflush.  That's because the wood has to be able to sit flat on the ground.  I used a spade bit;  measure apex-to-apex across the hex bolt head, then select a bit that's about 1/4" larger than that.  Basically you want to make a hole that's big enough to accommodate a socket wrench.

Finally, go ahead and lag-bolt the vise to the other end (i.e., top) of the log.  Here again, you'll need to pre-drill.

Now you've got a portable (sort of) vise.  Heavy, but ridiculously strong.  And it frees up workbench space (or, maybe you don't have a workbench yet.)  You can sit in a chair while working on it.  (Caution... you or someone else could trip over the 4x4's, so do this project at your own risk.  And when you're not using it, store the whole thing under a large work table or something.)

4.   Non-Marring Jaws

Get a scrap of suede or leather.  Keep it near the vise.  This makes it possible to use a metalworking vise to clamp hickory handles and other woodworking projects.

Scraps of 1x4, 2x4, etc., are also useful.  You will probably find it's worth it to have several different materials.  For some uses, ready-made jaw liners are the best choice.  These vise jaw pads are popular for a reason.  Magnetic, so you can remove them easily. 

5.  Uneven Clamping

When you have to clamp something in one end of the jaws only, put an equal thickness of wood scraps in the other end of the jaws.  Or, if you have to clamp a bolt in one end, put an identical-diameter bolt in the other side of the jaws, too.  This will keep the pressure even on both ends of the vise jaws.  Not only does this give a better grip, but it also keeps from damaging your vise.

For clamping tapered objects such as wedges, use a piece of wood that counteracts the taper:  thick where the object is thin, and thin where the object is thick.  Basically, you're putting two wedge-shaped objects together to make a rectangle that fits in the vise.

6.   Cheater Bars

Cheater bars apply more leverage than the handle would normally supply.  Putting too much leverage on a vise can ruin it in short order.  Either the vise will crack, or the threads will strip out. 

Long cheater bars have broken many a vise.  Shorter ones are sort of iffy;  very often they won't break the vise or strip out the threads, but who knows?  If what you're clamping is not staying put, then what you really need is a bigger and better vise.

Cast varieties of iron, especially gray or white cast iron, tend to fail suddenly;  they just break.  Ductile iron might have some "give" to it, but it can probably still break under extreme conditions.  If for some reason you're bent on extreme cheater-bar use (I think that was a pun, whoops), you might want to look into a forged-steel vise like this one, this one, or this one.  I'm not saying to use a cheater bar... I'll just say that I know people do this from time to time.  (Face shield a good idea.)

The Yost FSV series are also made of forged steel.  Their 4" vise is reasonably affordable.

Still, I would prefer a big US-made ductile iron vise.  These usually have handles that are designed to bend before any damage happens to the vise.  Some of the larger USA-made vises can provide upwards of 10,000 pounds of clamping force... without a cheater bar.  See this article for how to choose a stout vise.

7.   Oil and Grease

Oil the lead screw so it's easier to open and close the vise.  Gear oil works well. 

If you clean the lead screw to remove metal turnings, be sure to re-oil it with gear oil (etc) when you're done.  An extreme-pressure moly grease would probably work well, too;  any oil or grease is better than none.

Oil or grease will actually make the vise last longer.  The main screw is what allows the vise jaws to close;  maintain it well.

8.   More Gripping Power

If your vise jaws are worn smooth, try this... only if the jaws cannot be replaced.  Cut cross-hatches into the vise jaws with an abrasive wheel. 

I've found this makes a huge difference.  If you value the vise, have a machine shop make the crosshatching for you.

Here's a tip if your vise doesn't have pipe jaws.  To get a better grip on round stock, tubing, and pipe, try this.  Get a scrap of 4x4 lumber about 4" to 5" long.  Mark the exact center of one end.  Make a round hole lengthwise through the block using a spade bit and a drill press.  (It really helps if you use a large drill-press vise for this...)  Then, saw the block in half lengthwise.  You should have two identical pieces, each with a semi-circular channel.  You'll need one set of these for each size of tubing that you plan to clamp.

Line the channels with something that increases friction.  I haven't tried this yet, but I thought about gluing some 400- or 600-grit sandpaper in there.

9.   Additional Work Surface

Get a scrap of steel T-beam.  Or, weld one up yourself from scraps of steel plate.  Another alternative is to use a scrap of big angle-iron.  The idea is to clamp this in the vise so that it presents a horizontal work surface, on top of the closed vise jaws.

Why bother, you might ask, when you can just use your workbench?  Well, this has some advantages.  One, it elevates the workpiece, which might be convenient for you.  Two, the flanges allow you to use C-clamps and that sort of thing.  So, if you happen to have built yourself a Vise Log (see photo), you now have a work surface that didn't exist before. 

The T-beam will slip down in a cheap vise.  A vise like this one would be a better choice for this technique. 

10.   Vise On a Metal Table

Somewhere-- I think it was Garage Journal-- I read about milling the base of a vise flat before bolting it to a work table.  If you torque down the bolts, and there's even the slightest bit of unevenness on the underside of the vise, theoretically it could crack the lugs.

I actually seem to recall, many years ago, that I saw a vise lug broken because of this.  That's why I mention this here.  And it might not have been a metal table, either. 

If you don't have a milling machine (I don't), one easy solution is to put a piece of thick leather between the vise and the work table.  Drill the bolt holes through it, or use hole punches to make them.  Use leather conditioner to keep the gasket pliable.  Then when you bolt the vise down to it, the leather will compress some places and fill gaps in others.

Another solution:  if you have any big, junked inner tubes, cut a piece out of that.  Use it as a gasket.  If the vise has a slightly uneven base (or your table is not perfectly smooth), this will lessen much of the strain on the mounting lugs.

With a cheap vise I would not bother with this.  But if I were putting a really good vise on a metal welding table, I'd probably use a gasket;  the base on that is probably machined perfectly, but the table surface might have some lumps.


This has been an assortment of shop tips for installing and using vises. 

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