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.
I’ve written more on using holdfasts previously, so you can check that out here.
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:
Choosing The Best Wood For Your Bench Build
The Planked Top – The Simplest Design For A Sturdy Workbench
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.
Richard – I totally agree – I drank the cool-aid and build a rouboesq bench 4 years ago and since then have use the tail vice maybe a handful of times – I did add a toothed planing dog and that has worked great. I also find that my work flow has become more efficient – no longer am I having to walk the 2m length of the bench 🙂
thanks for your great post!
Tony Sheehan says
I agree with most of what you say Richard. You are always a paragon of common sense. But as Roger Smith said apropos of something else “it’s better to have and not need than to need and not have”
Richard Maguire says
It’s never the case with a bench 😉
TIM Wild says
We build stuff, if you need it build it, if you don’t need it it’s in the way
Tony Sheehan says
The hardware for my tail vice came from a cheap old workbench I used to have so I thought I may as well utilise it. I don’t use the tail vice often (just like there are certain tools I don’t use often) but I find it handy when I do use it. I regularly cut wood off this end of the bench and the vice causes me no problems.
I must say here that I’m not disagreeing hugely with what’s being said here (I mostly use dogs, does foot, etc, myself ) it’s just that, for me, the whole tail vice thing is no biggy either way. If you’re building yourself a new bench and are trying to keep costs down I’d say spend your money elsewhere
Hi Richard, I’m just starting to build a planked top workbench from your video serie and will use a holdfast and batten instead of tail vice. I used that method on my earlier “workbench” and it’s just a brilliant and cheap way to hold your workpiece.
All the best!
Richard Maguire says
Great to hear you’ve got on with the holdfast and batten. If you install a spiked stop on your new bench, you may even find you start ditching the battens a fair bit as well.
I am planning to install a planing stop and that spike seems a very useful.
It’s nice to read a bit of sanity on this subject. I went with a single face vise because it was all I could afford. That was five years ago. I’ve never felt the need for anything more to this day.
Ooh, very timely post. Ta very much. Midway through your bench build and I’d been dithering over trying to put in a flip stop, but “If you “might” need it, it doesn’t go on” sounds like a very good rule. No need to overcomplicate while I’m learning.
I’ll look forward to the next one too – still struggling to decide on the type of vice and it’ll be decision time soon. Would love a leg vice, but not sure I’ll want to be moving a pin once I’m 65 with creaky knees! I don’t have the skill to build one of the fancy ‘no pin’ solutions, so front vice it might just be.
If you get the chance, it would be great to hear your thoughts (if any) on sourcing screws. I think you were the only place in the UK (that I know of) to get wooden screws like those in your video, and I’ve no idea what factors should influence my choice between the metal ones available.
Richard Maguire says
We’ve got a load of posts on this subject lined up so hopefully you should get most of your answers shortly.
As a quick note for wooden screws, Lake Erie Tool Works make some nice big ones – I haven’t used them personally but I think they’re quite widely available.
Joe W says
Hi Richard (and Mike),
I am actually now running into the same problem – though for me it is the thought of chopping a mortise through 10cm (4″) of pine at the moment (yeah, I know, it is not that bad if the chisel is sharp…) rather than the kneel-down-and-shift-the-bloody-pin issue. (I have also glued up the trestles already, so chopping from the inside of the leg will be inconvenient)
I also need to think a bit about the placement of the legs and the vise – the room in the basement is small and crammed full of stuff already (and we just moved in – bloody hellfire!). The “traditional” spot around the left leg might be problematic because some stuff is stored there – and the bench will end up flush with the wall. So I guess I need to move the leg in a bit more than in the plan, so that there is about 50cm (ehm… 20″?) space. Mounting the spike inwards of the leg would then leave about 2ft to the wall, so I don’t throw the plane into the stonework (don’t ask how I know that this is a problem…)
Oh, and the vise… right. I might have to mount it more to the centre of the bench, because it might be more convenient (i.e. not having to move stuff out of the way all the time). Is there any disadvantage to that?
Total bench length will be about 180cm (6ft -ish, a bit less).
Another thing: I really like your videos. They are well presented and well made and worth every penny! If somebody reading this is wondering about sharpening or the bench build: Get the videos! They are fun to watch and the methods work, even (especially?) for a beginner like me. Once the bench is made I will build the spoon rack, it looks like a good project to learn on (small and not too scary, except for the dovetails).
(Oh, last thing: I first read that “you can saw it off” instead of “you can saw off it”…)
Nathan Dick says
Hi Richard, most of this makes a lot of sense, I just wonder about fenced planes. A tail vise seems like the simplest way to hold a piece so that the edge is flush with the front of the bench.
Richard Maguire says
In theory, I always thought this too. But in reality the tail vice has it’s limits and there are so cases that you need another method anyway – such as working on something narrow where you can’t get it to reach the edge of the bench whilst it’s clamped between the dogs.
A holdfast, batten and spiked stop will do the holding here just as well, and you can work on infinitely narrow pieces.
You could also use a bench knife (this is one of my new favourites) – https://www.development.theenglishwoodworker.com/arnold-and-the-bench-knife/
Or my forever favourite, just craddle between pinch dogs in the bench top.
Jaime Clifton says
I have an inset tail vice – use it all the time. Went for a long time without one but wouldn’t want to be without one now.
I’m not sure it gets in my way: it sits flush with the bench top. I can’t saw off the end of my bench but I’ve got a pair of saw horses for that. The work is butted against a veritas planing stop so I can just pinch the workpiece enough to stop it moving without any distortion to the piece being worked on.
Maybe my technique is poor (as you eluded to). But if my skill and technique level is even nearly close to that of Tom Fidgen or Cosman who also use a tail vice in their hand tool work I will be a very happy man and I won’t feel like I’m a poor woodworker for it.
Richard Maguire says
Don’t worry, no one’s saying that if you use a tail vice then you’re a poor planer.
I’m saying that if you’re learning to plane in a tail vice, then you’ll suffer with lack of feedback.
If something works for you, then I’ve always said don’t let someone else’s opinion take that away – particularly mine.
But this is the advice that I would certainly stand by for someone who’s learning, or someone who’s looking to build a workbench and are feeling stuck at the expense, options or difficulty of installing lots of fancy vices.
I thickness all of my material by hand, and have never needed a tail vice. So it certainly isn’t essential but it could be a luxury.
You could give it a go, ditch the wagon vice, get yourself a spike and you’ll be planing twice as good as both your teachers in half the time 😉
Agree on the poor training aid, I pay attention more when I’m planing against a stop , I’m new at this.
But I like my wagon/tail vise for other things like clamping down my bench hook / shooting board or saw vise.ect.
wouldn’t have left it out
Am going to have to make a toothed stop
Thanks for all your post and video’s
I just finished building an English Workbench from your fantastic video series. It was my second woodworking project ever, so anyone can make this bench. Seriously! Mine is probably a wee bit long at 3.4m (I just couldn’t bare to cut the boards more than necessary) and solid as a rock. The only minor changes I made to your design was to put on a leg vise (I splurged on a Benchcrafted Classic Crisscross) and two rails to reduce the chance of any racking. No tail vise, no other doodads. Not needed. Maybe something will come up where a tail vise might be handy, but I can’t imagine what. I just use one or two holdfasts and a batten (to stop lateral movement as you showed in another great video). And you’re also dead on about planing. I did struggle early on with just the planing spike, but the constant feedback you get in using only the spike ensures you keep correcting until you do it right. The other great advantage, which you also mentioned, is the ease and speed you can shift a piece from the bench top to the vise. Even with long pieces (I’m building an outside door at the moment) I’ve only been using one holdfast, a batten and, periodically, the leg vise.
Richard Maguire says
Good on you for keeping it long – you’ll never regret that!
I can promise you you’ll never need a tail vice. Any problem that may require one you can solve with a bench knife, a holdfast, a stick or a pinch dog.
Congratulations on getting your bench finished, I’d love to see some photos with the keg vice installed!
Matthew John McKinnon says
Spoken like a true English woodworker. The French would surely agree; the Germans and Scandinavians not so much.
And if you really need to hold down your work to the top of the bench, the doe’s foot is an elegant little assistant.
Love the site.
Richard Maguire says
Ha, you’re right, our preferences always comes from who’s taught us, and where we’re from!
Derek Cohen says
Richard, the combination of a planning spike (or planing stop) and Doe’s Foot is a match made in heaven. Not long ago, I converted one of my bench dogs into a planing stop by attaching a serrated spike, which was easily filed from O1 steel. Since all my bench dogs are identical, the spiked stop can be positioned anywhere along the bench. I was introduced to the Doe’s Foot on these pages. Thank you. If one has a series of holes for a hold down, the combination is extremely flexible. I have a great tail vise, which is used, but could live without it now.
There is a description of the parts on my website for thise wanting to make their own. And of course, credit was given to you. http://www.inthewoodshop.com/ShopMadeTools/PlaningStop.html
Regards from Perth
David Clark says
I just followed your link and you answered all the questions I would have normally asked. thanks
Richard Maguire says
Thanks Derek, very clever idea!
I appreciate the link, I’ll have a little look through that.
Salko Safic says
I have the commercial version and I never use it for one reason I’m too darn lazy in reaching for the screwdriver to raise and lower the spikes. As for the tail vice I’ve never owned one and forever wish to install one in my next bench build. But will I? I know deep down I don’t really need one as I’ve worked wood for this long without one, but there is that odd occasion where I thought, darn I wish I had one. I think it always boils down to each individual’s need. Mary May a carver in the US which I’m sure you all know uses a tail vice. Another person comes to mind is Larry Williams the famous plane maker also uses one.
I can offer only the experience of a relative newcomer to woodworking, but I too have built “an English workbench” after being inspired by Richard’s video series (excellent value for money!) and have fitted a wooden threaded face vice and a tail vice (because I’d bought it on eBay before making the bench.). The tail vice is almost never used and when it comes to planing, the face vice doesn’t see much action either. Instead I find myself using Veritas aluminium planing stops in combination with the Doe’s Foot-with-holdfast and/or the Veritas bench dogs. The latter can be used as a substitute for a tail vice and have the additional flexibility of being usable anywhere along the length or breadth of the bench (where you have a holdfast hole of course). When it comes to planing thin stock, I have collected a supply of thin slips of plywood, rectangular and then sliced diagonally to make pairs of wedges; these I use as backstops, preventing the plane from dragging the work back from the planing stop in between forward strokes. The wedges need be only finger tight and are far quicker to release the work (when I pick it up to check progress, for example) than winding any kind of screw in and out. The wedges (and the Doe’s Foot) are also useful for keeping metal hardware away from my planes!
Joe W says
Look at Roman work bench designs. I think I saw an episode of The Woodwright Shop (or so… too lazy to search right now) where this is shown. No vises 2000 years ago, they used a number of pegs and wedges to hold the work. Sounds very similar to what you are doing.
Yes I vaguely remember seeing that – and also the Mike Nielsen video Terry mentions – a bit of ingenuity goes a long way!
Edit – Mike Siemsen of course! (Was that a Freudian slip – do I have Lie-Nielsen planes on my mind?!)
Great blog Richard. You may find this You Tube video by a chap called Mike Siemsen who seems to get by using only holdfasts and side supports. https://youtu.be/yvhn-PAfEW4
Russell Spees III says
Perfect! Just for nudging my planked top bench. No vices yet, though perhaps a face vice to make the edge planing quick. I was trying to decide where to put my planing stop. Thanks for the advise.
Russell Spees III says
Auto correct got me…just finishing my planked top…
Andy Reynolds says
Any thoughts on face vice jaw width? Mine is about 19″ and I spend a lot of time avoiding racking. Thinking my next bench’s face vice might have cast iron jaws with same-width hardwood facings like Paul Sellers uses. I suppose twin screw is also an option but no doubt many workpieces would be just too wide to fit between the screws!
My trickiest work-holding problem is using a plough plane on thin stock. Still working on solutions for that. Tips welcome!
I think I know what you mean – and it can be a problem in two ways. First, if the stock is shallow i.e. it doesn’t drop far enough to allow the chop of the vice to grip it and still allow the plough plane fence to pass above the vice chop. And second, if the stock is narrow (e.g. grooving a frame edge to accept a panel) and the plough plane body hits any holdfast you might otherwise use to clamp the stock to the top of the bench. This is where the Veritas plane stops help – I put a short one in two dog holes at right angles to the bench edge and slide it far enough out to nearly reach the bench edge – this stops the front of the stock. I then use a Doe’s Foot, pinned by a holdfast, on the back inside corner of the stock. This keeps the stock aligned along the top edge of the bench, with nothing to impede either the plough plane body or fence. (Hope that makes sense!)
Andy Reynolds says
Thanks Peter. I do use a Veritas planing stop, but for thin stock I need to put something under the stock to prevent the plane iron from hitting the stop. I will have to try the doe’s foot idea. I suppose I could also use over-length stock and screw the ends down – i.e. plough the grooves before doing the end joinery. Or design a jig…
One vice? That’s too many. Lol, I managed for ages with a collection of home made wedges which I find better to hold wood steady especially when doing mortices. Also a couple of Sloyd bench hooks pretty much sort me out. I wanted to show pictures of them here but can’t work it out so I’ll flash them up on instergram. Search for cobwobbler . Cheers,
I built your bench and gave the spike ago .its a game changer for me and yes the feedback from the plane lets you know when to sharpen .what I love about it is your stood in the one spot and between the spike and face vice work is very smooth .
I don’t have a tail vise, but I do have a second face vise at the end of my bench, oriented like a tail vise. I use it a lot. Sometimes, it is because there’s something in the main vise and there’s a quick second job to do. Sometimes it because it gives me different access to something being sawn or held. What’s most important of all, though, is that it’s where my daughter works. Well, it’s where she works unless she gets to the bench first and takes the main vise. Right next to this second vise is a planing stop. If I could only keep one of the two, I’d toss the vise and keep the planing stop, but I’m glad no one is forcing me.
William Lial says
I agree with you fully. I also think that vice tail is unnecessary. Although some say they love it, most should have it only by tradition in Western banks.
Your text is very clear and honest. I really liked it, especially in that part:
‘As you correct things in place, you’ll be perfecting your planing technique.
‘With a tad of time you will fail in the right mindset, and the stop will work even better as you start to plan with confidence. ‘