A workbench without vices is just an ugly buffet table.
But quality vice hardware is expensive, as you can see by visiting Benchcrafted and checking their prices. Woodcraft sells a more traditional set of hardware that will still set you back the cost of a few good chisels. I lucked out. I stopped at a local shop called Conny’s Constant Clutter and my eye caught an old leg vice rotting in the elements amidst a pile of ahem… “reclaimed” wood in front of the store. I left with everything I needed to install a leg vice on my workbench including the metal hardware, oak jaw and horizontal guide, for ten dollars.
Of course, now I had to restore it.
Restoring an Antique Leg Vice
Before I could do anything else I had to disassemble thevice and decide what could be salvaged. Once again I got very lucky and felt like I had struck gold, or at least struck cast iron with a little surface rust. All of the metal components were rusty but in good condition. The two wooden components, the jaw and wooden horizontal guide, were weather worn and had pretty significant twist.
I decided to scrap the wood and make something new. This gave me a chance to at a little foreign flare to my domestic hardwood bench by making the jaw out of bubinga.
I loosened and disassembled all the pieces with a little help from my good friend, WD-40. Then it was time to clean up the screw components.
I Remember the Days When Screwing was Dirty!
How’s that for a click-bait-title?
Next I had to clean up all of the metal screw components. When I’ve got large pieces of rusted metal to clean, I use a process called electrolysis. The short explanation is that you submerge the metal in an electrolyte solution and apply electricity to the piece to be cleaned and a sacrificial piece of metal. Through the magic of science that I really don’t understand, the rust moves from the metal to be cleaned to the metal to be sacrificed. Yay, science! I have a video explaining electrolysis, so check that out if you’re curious.
After I removed all of the metal components from the electrolysis bath I dried them up and gave them a good polish with a wire wheel chucked onto my angle grinder. Yeah, I know, in the video I’m not wearing gloves. What’s not seen in the video is how bad I regretted it later. Always wear hand and eye protection when using an angle grinder if you value your delicate skin and eyeballs.
Designing the New Jaw
I might have been able to salvage the original oak jaw on the vice, but I used this as an opportunity to add a little flair to my workbench.
I decided to make a new jaw by laminating douglas fir and bubinga, but doing so meant I needed to design and mill the new piece. The new jaw needed holes bored for the hardware as well as a mortise to accept the horizontal guide. The decision to use douglas fir on the inside and bubinga on the outside was intentional. Bubinga is foreign, interesting, and incredibly hard. It’s a great show piece. But my concern was that bubinga is so hard that it could leave impressions in the work I lock into the vice. For that reason I laminated it along with a piece of douglas fir fitted to the inside of the jaw.
When I was restoring the vice it was still too cold outside for wood glue, so I brought the jaw pieces inside for the glue-up. A little Titebond 3, six quick clamps, and a few hours later the new jaw was ready to be cut to it’s final form.
Shaping the Jaw
In my design, the jaw is the same width as the workbench’s leg at the bottom and flares out to about twice the width towards the top. The easiest way I found to make that cut was to draw it out with a pencil and follow the line with my circular saw.
After cutting the jaw to the final shape I used my low angle jack plane to remove the saw marks and smooth the sides, then added a roundover to the edges the whole way around the jaw using a block plane.
Modifying the Leg
Because the workbench’s leg becomes the back half of the vice, it needed some modifications. First it needed a hole to accept the screw. The tricky part is that the hole must be larger at the back of the leg where a metal piece gets inserted to catch and lock the screw in place.
The way I solved this problem was to trace a line around the leg that represents the center of the hole. At the back of the leg I begin by drilling with a 2” Forstner bit to the depth of the hardware I need to install. Then I finish at the back using a 1” Forstner bit drilled to about half of the leg’s thickness. Then I started from the front of the leg and drilled until the holes met in the middle.
By drilling only halfway from either side I limited the amount of error in my angle, and I prevent any blowout from my bit exiting the surface of the wood.
Next I needed to chop a mortise at the bottom of the leg to accept the horizontal guide. This was by far the most difficult part of the whole process and could have been made easier by dismantling the bench and working from an easier angle. I started by drilling out a rough opening for the mortise my making several holes with a ¾” forstner bit. Then I squared up the hole with chisels, rasps, and a metric crap-ton of test-fits and patience.
Installing the Hardware
It was finally time to install the hardware that connected the leg to the jaw. I pounded the metal piece into the back of the leg that caught the screw.
I had a few more modifications to make to the leg. I drilled a hole in the front for the screw and fastened the front hardware with the original wood screws. I chopped a mortise the the bottom of the inside of the jaw which accepted the horizontal guide. I flared the mortise out at the bottom and added wedge to the end of the guide. For a better understanding of wedged mortise and tenon joints check out this Popular Woodworking article. I thought this was a more elegant solution than doweling it into place like the designer of the original hardware had done.
After I installed the hardware into the jaw I installed the assembly into the workbench’s leg. I slipped the screw into the hole in the leg and the horizontal guide into the mortise at the bottom. It everything was cut correctly the screw would turn freely and the horizontal guide would glide through the mortise.
It didn’t. But about a half hour of fine adjustment later, the vice glided as gingerly as a young Brian Boitano. Or maybe even an old Brian Boitano. I can honestly say I don’t know what that guy is up to.
Sanding and Finish
Now that the leg vice was functional it was time to tweak the form. I removed it from the bench and sanded it to 220 grit with my random orbit sander. I used a belt sander to delicately trim down the top of the jaw to match the top of the bench, and then I used the sander to trim down the bottom of the jaw so it didn’t scrape the floor. I wiped up the dust and then I applied a few coats of teak oil, which is the same finish I used on the rest of the bench.
Like I said at the beginning: a workbench without a vice is just an ugly buffet table. It’s a workbench’s ability to hold your work in place that makes it useful, and for that you need things like vices, dog holes, and holdfasts. Installing the leg vice has literally changed the way that I woodwork. I spend far less time figuring how how to secure lumber to my work surface and far more time actually working with it.
Whether you buy a top of the line BenchCrafted vice kit, the economical version from Woodcraft, or you luck out and find a great hand-me-down vice that you can retrofit to your bench, the important thing is that you have one. And before you settle on a particular vice, I really recommend reading Workbenches by Christopher Schwarz. This is a great book on designing traditional workbenches and has a long section discussing the various types of bench vices, the pros and cons of each type of vice, and plans on how to integrate them into your workbench.