Design a Useful (and Simple) Bench? Why a huge front vise?

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Forum topic by curliejones posted 05-02-2012 11:47 AM 4573 views 0 times favorited 4 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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178 posts in 2260 days

05-02-2012 11:47 AM

I’ve been studying benches for some time now and sure, they are beautiful. Perhaps if I’d been struggling with hand tools I’d see the wisdom in a top shelf (just kidding, nobody can hardly move these with 3” thick tops let alone put them atop a shelf) hardwood workbench. One of the most appealing to me so far is Ian Kirby’s approach where he incorporates a couple of stops into the top rather than clamp two ends or sides into a bench top. He gives his reasons re: his methods which make plenty of sense to me. With all the pictures I’ve seen of benches and huge vises, I have only seen one pic where there is actually a short board clamped into the front vise to hand cut dovetails. If I’m going to spend as much on a vise as most of the bench, I want to know more about how to use the front vise. I see the practicality of a front leg vise easily. But a vise mounted to the front edge of a workbench top, hhmmmm? I understand that some vises have a pop-up dog that’s to be used in conjunction with dogs in the bench top and other vises are often faced with thick hardwood with dog holes in the front face, together serving to hold a project to the benchtop. Can’t a couple of C-clamps or hand screws hold the work down as well? Not as sexy, I know, but practical! Please, please, I want to build a bench and have a few years before I have regrets (and build another). I use power tools and think I will for some time. I understand about massive – good idea no matter what. I see the wisdom in a front leg vise. But the huge front and tail vises – are they simply convenient. And how does a front vise help hold a project to the workbench very well when it is not centered or recessed into the bench a foot or so? Are we going to buy a forty pound vise for the front when we only really use the pop up dog to hold a project to the bench top? Can anyone refer me to pictures showing the “joy” of a good front vise before I undertake this bench-building project? Is it all about building using hand tools? I’m not a complete novice, although my questions seem to indicate that. I designed and built a fine home from mostly re-purposed lumber. Nice cabinets and furniture, using inexpensive power tools. The simplicity of Ian Kirby’s original and simple workbenches really intrigue me. THANK, LJs!

-- Like Guy Clark sez - "Sometimes I use my head, Sometimes I get a bigger hammer"

4 replies so far

View David Kirtley's profile

David Kirtley

1286 posts in 2992 days

#1 posted 05-02-2012 01:30 PM

The main purpose of the front vise is to hold workpieces perpendicular to the bench. This would be for things like dovetailing, cutting tenons, resawing small pieces.

You don’t have to have one. It just makes life easier. The current Schwarz-ism that people are clamoring over is the moxon vise which is something that you can put on the bench and take off. That is a cool accessory and it doesn’t have to cost that much to make. No reason you can’t to the same thing with a couple clamps.

Before screw vises, people had a nice thick apron on the front of the bench that you could just use holdfasts in. That works too.

My personal choice is a knock-off patternmaker’s vise. It has the extra benefit that it can tilt and swivel. Nice if you are doing stuff at odd angles instead of just rectilinear stuff like frame and panel construction.

No matter what you choose to start, you will want something else later as your workflow develops. Benches are a really personal decision with lots of variables that depend on both you and the kind of work you do.

-- Woodworking shouldn't cost a fortune:

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile


15342 posts in 2612 days

#2 posted 05-02-2012 01:40 PM

Curlie, I’ll add to David’s excellent comments re: don’t have to have one. I used a classic cabintmaker’s bench with face vise in my shopspace for about eight months and was able to evaluate it based on the leg vise’d Roubo I use every day. In short, didn’t have to have it, moved that bench out of the space (gave it to my dad). I’ve always been confused by the pop up dogs in face vises, too. I work stuff along the front of the bench, and not front to back. But I digress.

The moxon makes alot of sense to me, especially because it can bring the work of dovetailing closer to my eyes. But until (if?) I make one, I’ll continue to use the leg vise to hold work for dovetailing without issue. Lots of blog entries in my profile show how I work, if you’re interested.

Good topic, for sure. Thanks for posting, excellent thoughts.

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. -- OldTools Archive --

View gfadvm's profile


14940 posts in 2684 days

#3 posted 05-05-2012 02:33 AM

I too didn’t want to spend a fortune on a vise so I made a Moxon vise that is a part of my bench. It has worked well. If you are interested, look at my projects for pics and description.

-- " I'll try to be nicer, if you'll try to be smarter" gfadvm

View Loren's profile


10373 posts in 3642 days

#4 posted 05-05-2012 04:06 AM

My guess is pop-up dogs come from application in 4-sided student
benches in schools: big square bench with a vise on each corner
shared by 4 students.

The place where I studied lutherie had such benches. I don’t
remember dog holes but I’m pretty sure the vises had dogs
just the same.

Dogs hold work for surfacing with hand planes so c-clamps won’t
do. With some skill and brains a simple end stop can substitute
for dogs in surfacing and this is the approach Kirby teaches. For
applications like shaping a cabriole leg the work is held between
a dog in the bench and one in an end vise. Kirby subsitutes
a pipe clamp held in the face vise.

These things evolved over a long time. The old bench designs
go back to biblical times.

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