A workbench is only a success if it can keep itself still and provide means to hold your work.
A vice is not an essential feature of this.
Typically though we can expect to see two vices on a workbench today.
One will be installed on the front of the bench, towards the left.
We tend to call this the face vice.
The second will be at the end of the bench, on the right.
We can refer to this as the tail vice.
(These two locations can be flipped for a left-handed set up, although it’s rarely done.)
Workholding & Work Flow
A vice assumes that we need to hold our work still.
It doesn’t ask if we’d like a bit of assistance, it wants to take things entirely off our hands.
And because they’re designed to hold in this rigid way, vices are either holding or they’re failing to hold. There’s no middle ground.
Some jobs such as engineering and using power tools demand this sort of holding solution.
When something fast and sharp comes at your work, you want to be certain it wont shift.
A slip could be bloody and expensive, all within a moment.
But workholding isn’t always measured by an ability to offer a gorilla grip.
With hand tools we’re more interested in the flow of our work.
In some cultures the floor can be the workbench.
And the craftman’s toe his means to hold stuff.
I’ve not given that one a go, but I aim for methods that are just as natural.
There’s a lot of processes when working by hand.
Our work can’t simply sit in the same position while we progress.
It will be in our hands as much as on the workbench. We’ll check for square, sight for twist.
We’ll saw whilst it’s vertical, then chop while it’s laid flat.
Our work needs to be available to pick up as quickly and frequently as possible.
The Trouble With Woodworking Bench Vices.
Getting enough grip between two vice jaws risks damaging and distorting our work, and it’s a process that takes time.
It’s surprising how much time can be lost.
It’s not just closing and opening the vice.
You’ll probably need to open and close again for adjustment.
Then for re-adjustment, as tightening has a habit of shifting your work.
The Two Woodworkers Bench Vice Types
The two vice positions on a workbench offer us two different means to hold work.
They aren’t restricted by this, but as a general rule we’ll use the face vice to hold work against the front of the bench, while a tail vice gets used to hold work down to the bench top itself.
I recommend keeping the face vice.
It’s a great location for your ‘hold it tight solution’, and it offers a lot of versatile clamping options that would be less easy to achieve without it.
It’s the tail vice that I would do without.
If choosing or building a bench for myself, I would never install a tail vice.
If it’s job is to hold work down to the bench top, then let gravity do that for you. It’s unlikely that your work will start floating away.
What we really want our tail vice to do is resist the force that we throw at it. We don’t want to have to chase our wood across the bench top every time we take a shaving.
A tail vice achieves this by clamping the work between two stops.
With thin work pieces there’s a good chance that the wood will flex, cup or ‘pop out’ before you’ve satisfactorily held (squashed) it in place.
With out of square work, it may twist out as soon as you start to plane.
There are many impracticalities with a tail vice, but the real issue is this:
Tail vices teach the poorest of planing methods.
People who learn to plane with their work held in a tail vice will have poor technique.
Hand planing is all about feedback, and fixing your work down removes all of it.
Instead Of The Tail Vice
Why have a second stop behind your work when you just want to stop the wood moving forward?
A single stop is far more effective all round.
People love the idea of tail vices because they want everything to stay still. But in reality I find this de-evolves you.
Working against a stop may be nerve wracking, but the lack of support is the real beauty of it.
A single stop is a teaching aid.
The pressure you apply, the speed of your stroke, the sharpness of your edge.
The stop will tell you if you have any of these wrong, because your wood will move.
As you correct to keep things in place, you’ll be perfecting your planing technique.
With a tad of time you’ll fall in to the right mindset, and the stop will work even better as you start to plane with confidence.
Opt For A Planing Spike.
Stops can come in all shapes and sizes.
A row of bench dogs down the length of your top is versatile as you’ll be able to position a stop wherever you need it. The holes are also handy when it comes to holdfasts.
My favourite kind of bench stop though is a planing spike.
These provide a nice broad face to butt your work against, and that face is toothed to offer some grip in the edge of your boards.
A planing spike is perfect for giving more rigidity when you’re really going at it with some heavy shavings.
A planing spike in my opinion should always be made. They’re very simple to make out of an old paint scraper or a gash hardpoint saw, and these DIY ones are in my experience the best.
Another thing that’s great with a single stop is you can be choosy about where to position it.
The Perfect Stop Location For Work Flow.
Generally I’ll locate my planing spike around the area of the face vice.
I’ll plane the face of a board against my spike, then stick it in the face vice to plane the edge, all without taking a step.
That’s another benefit over a tail vice.
A holdfast and a few sticks can be used alongside your stops.
This combination will do everything, and do it far more elegantly and swiftly than a tail vice.
Workbench Design & Negative Space.
Fancy designers will talk about negative space, and how the blank areas are actually a part of the design.
I think this rule should also be applied to the design of workbenches.
Don’t install a tail vice just in case it could come in handy. That arse end of the bench is far more useful left blank, so you can cut off it.
There seems to be a temptation when building a bench to plan for all eventualities. (I used to get requests for benches with four vices.)
A far better approach is to do the opposite.
If you “might” need it, it doesn’t go on.
Unless it’s ‘use all day every day’, its not needed. The only extra my bench has is a nail in the end for hanging a brush. I use that nail all day, every day.
As always I’m talking form the perspective of using hand tools only.
Fixing work down to the bench top could be more beneficial with power tool use, though if you’re using power tools solely I wouldn’t go for a nice traditional workbench.
What About The Face Vice?
A face vice certainly isn’t essential, but I use mine daily.
There’s a fair few options with the design, so I’m going to cover this in a future post. Look out for that in the coming weeks.
If you’re planning on building your own workbench then here’s a couple of posts you might find useful:
And if you’d like to follow a bench build step by step, then take a look at our English Workbench Series.
We include PDF plans together with the detailed build videos. It’s a traditional bench, perfect as an accessible hand tool build needing only minimal tools.