Recently I wrote a post about why you don’t need a tail vice on your workbench.
now we’re looking at the other end of the bench and going through my favourite options when it comes to choosing a face vice.
What Do We Want From A Workbench Vice?
A face vice should be strong, dependable and quick to use.
Fancy often means temperamental, so I’d say simple is the best route.
We want to throw work in, get the job done and rag it back out again without having to be too precious.
It needs to grip without having to cinch right down.
It can’t be tiny or delicate.
Available Workbench Face Vice Options
Traditionally face vices came in a few types, but you’d generally have a nice big screw, a hefty jaw and some means of keeping it all in line.
After making and using many styles I came to the conclusion that the simple, single screw style I have on my bench now can’t be beaten (it’s also the one I started with).
Though to appreciate this type of vice you really do need a nice large wooden screw.
I’m discussing two types of vice in the post.
There’s the route I’d take if using a wooden screw, and the alternative.
Building With A Wooden Screw
Building a vice from scratch is certainly daunting.
It sounds like you’d need a full engineering workshop, fancy metal parts and the know how to go with it.
But in reality it’s simple, or at least it is if you have one important ingredient. That lovely large wooden screw.
We’re talking about a diameter of around 2 – 2 1/2″ (50 – 64mm)
These traditional screws are the key to a beautifully simple face vice.
The large diameter and thread provide reference, speed and smoothness all in one.
Building a vice with the screw is basic woodworking. You’ll need a jaw, a runner and a few wooden guides.
We go through the whole vice build step by step in our Workbench Vice build video, so if you’re interested in more details, you can find that here.
What’s So Special About The Wooden Screw?
There are two main reasons I would opt for a wooden screw.
Firstly, they are a genuine pleasure to use.
I know many people would agree with me here, once you’ve used a wooden screw, you always have a wooden screw.
They’re fast and I like to be touching wood.
Contrary to an engineer’s thoughts, these vices get better with age.
Many people would laugh at how rickety my vice looks after so many years of use. But it’s just flipping ace.
It’s better than anything else I’ve used because it’s so worn in. It feels like the vice has limbered up and is always ready to go. Like a lovely worn in engine.
Another reason to take the wooden screw route is you’re in control of the build.
Being able to dictate the layout of your face vice has its benefits.
I like to position the guide rail around the same height as the screw, so I can thow in long lengths of wood and balance them level across both these parts. For even longer lengths I can rest them and pivot on the guide while I grab a holdfast for the other end.
You wouldn’t want to do this in a metal vice, you’d get oil all over your stuff.
Buying A Wooden Screw
Wooden screws are a challenge to make, which means they can be pricey and difficult to get hold of.
At the present time, we still haven’t fired back up with our own production, but there are a few options out there.
Lake Erie are one that come to mind. I believe these are turned on some pretty top end machines, so very accurate (where ours were hand threaded), but the diameter is very similar to what we produced and I understand they’re also quite well distributed.
I haven’t held or used one of these screws personally to offer anything further, but I hear they’re very good.
Can I Make My Own Wooden Screw?
We’re often queried on this, but I’m afraid the answer is going to be no.
It’s possible, but the tooling is drastically expensive once you get to threads of this diameter. And making the tooling is a sod.
Even then it takes a lot of time and effort to pull of.
Our first wooden screw took many attempts and much wasted timber.
Will we ever make them again?
I’m not sure.
The Alternative – The Metal Face Vice
If wooden wasn’t an option, then I’d turn to a cast metal vice for the front of my workbench.
If I had the luxury, I’d go for an old one, a big old Record would be ideal.
These things have been made for decades and offer a simple, robust solution.
What To Look For
You’ll want a nice big one, and personally I’d opt for the quick release.
Quick release does takes away from the simplicity so may be a little more temperamental, but small metal threads are slow to open, and that mechanism will save you from messing with a lot of winding back and forth.
These cast vices are popular through many industries so whilst there’s a lot to choose from, they’re not all equal.
As a simple rule – they don’t make them like they used to.
Any of the big, old iron vices were very good. If you can source one in usable nick, then any brand should suit.
Record is notable here, but only if it’s old.
Today Record don’t make Record vices. They’re a new company now.
If you’re going new, then I can recommend looking at York.
I’ve used many of their vices (up until a few years ago), and only have good things to say about them.
I believe that York now have the original patterns for Record (don’t quote me on that), so that makes sense.
Installation Tips For A Cast Vice
Installing a Record as a face vice requires that it’s both well secured and well located.
Securing it is fairly easy.
If you’ve got a good thick hardwood top then lag screws will hold it beautifully, just make sure they’re good A2 ones, not those cheap ones that snap when you tighten them.
You don’t need to worry about bolting right through as you’re not going to be hammering in to this thing.
On a thinner top though bolts are the way to go, and you’ll need to look at packing out underneath the vice so it sits where you need it to.
I like to install these vices so that you aren’t clamping between the metal jaws.
This means adding a wooden jaw at the front, and morticing in to the bench top to allow the back jaw of the vice to slip behind. The front of the workbench then becomes the back jaw.
This is a bit of a clat, but you can pack out underneath the vice so that the mortice doesn’t need to be stupidly deep.
I’d also recommend using some timber strips to sit between the bench top and the vice runners. These are to prevent the thing from dropping as it opens, and makes a huge difference in use.
Using Your Face Vice
Don’t over tighten.
A good vice won’t ever need replacing so long as you use it right.
So don’t be one of these that really nips the thing up to get grip.
Put some suede in the jaw as that way you only need light pressure and it really is the best thing you can do for any vice.
Dealing with vice rack.
Either of the face vices I’m recommending are frowned upon for racking, which can in turn lead to a lot of over tightening (or over thinking).
In hand tool work, a bit of vice rack is your friend and certainly isn’t the devil it’s made out to be.
I’ve written about vice rack more here if you’re worried, but a good bit of suede lining goes a long way.
Don’t Welly In Your Vice.
There is no reason to ever be pounding down on work that’s held in your face vice.
Morticing for example should not be done here, you have a bench top for that.
Any wellying in the vice will soon bugger it up, you’ll go through them like there’s no tomorrow.
Other Face Vice Options.
If I were picking with my heart then I’d likely go with a leg vice built with that same wooden screw. I just love these things, and they certainly make a great option.
But it’s the look and feel of a leg vice that I love, and when it comes to getting stuff done, my single screw face vice is king.
It’s not the bending or worrying about a pin that makes the difference to me. That is a consideration, but the real reason is due to that limbered up feeling of my worn in vice. It’s lovely and loose giving a vice which opens and close with the roll of a finger.
The tolerances on a leg vice would have to be tighter in order to work well, so it never quite feels as nice. Plus I prefer to work in the wider jaw.
Ultimately I’m saying select the components for your workbench with your head, and ignore the heart.
That’s coming from a man who’s dedicated much of his life to arsing about with workbenches.