Thursday, December 12, 2013

Finally, a vise ...

installed in my bench.  I haven't had one since I built my Nicholson bench several years ago, indecision that benefited me greatly as I have learned a lot about traditional ways of work holding that are often as good or better.  I didn't know what I wanted and thought it would be just as easy to add a vise later (which I now don't think is true).

I would probably have gone on indefinitely without a bench vise were it not for a related decision.  As I've posted before, I am 6'2" with long arms and I built my bench 34" high following the expert guidance I read at the time.  The net result was that I did much of my work on a bench raiser and a Moxon vise on top of the bench.  I wasn't comfortable working on the bench itself.  It wasn't until I read several blog posts by Paul Sellers strongly arguing that the right bench height for someone my height is 38-40" that things changed.  I put my bench up on 4x6 blocks as an experiment and was instantly convinced.  I am not trying to convince you; all I am telling you is that for this woodworker he is absolutely right.  Now that the bench is high enough for me, having a vise on the bench makes sense.

Having spent a lot of time thinking about vises and using a Moxon vise exclusively convinced me that  a twin screw vise is right for me (which isn't to say it is for you).  My first choice has always been to build one using the huge, beautiful wooden screws from Lake Erie Toolworks, but at $418 plus shipping and handling I just could never justify it.  Were money no object, this is what I would do.  They look great and are in keeping with the historical character of the Nicholson bench.  I explored making my own wooden screws but, for various reasons, decided against it.  As a result, I turned reluctantly to steel screws.

There are three ways to go with steel screws that I considered:
  • Just buy two steel screws like these.  Inexpensive, straightforward, effective but the two screws operate independently;
  • Buy the Lie Nielsen twin screw vise.  Elegant, expensive, complex, seemingly difficult installation;
  • Buy the Lee Valley Veritas twin screw vise.  Less elegant, less expensive, less complex but still involved installation.
From using my Moxon, I know that having the screws linked together is an advantage, not absolutely essential but really nice in a bench vise, so I decided against the first option.  I have been looking at the Veritas twin screw vise for several years.  At $229, it's a good value and it works really well.  I've seen pictures of a woodworker who made his own wooden cover for the vise instead of using the black aluminum one that comes with it.  I decided to buy the Veritas vise.

The next question was whether to mount it as an end vise or a front vise.  Bob Rozaieski of The Logan Cabinet Shoppe installed a twin screw face vise on his Nicholson and I see a lot of advantages to using the skirt as the rear jaw.  This is the traditional position for a vise on the Nicholson workbench.  On the other hand, Lee Valley clearly thinks their vise works best as an end vise, I have used it that way at their booths and I liked it.  A disadvantage is that it basically forces you to locate the bench away from a wall, but that is what I like anyway.  The Nicholson bench design easily accommodates this vise on the end and I like keeping the skirts open.  As I will explain, an end vise installation essentially fits my bench like a glove.  I don't think I will ever again use a vise as much as most woodworkers do because I have gotten used to working without one for a lot of what I do and prefer it, so an out of the way location is fine for me.  Knowing that it can be removed with almost no trace, I decided to try it as an end vise.

If it sounds like I am uncertain about all of this, it's because I am, but it was time to make a decision.  I knew it would work great, but I wasn't sure it would look great on a Nicholson workbench and that bothered me a lot.  In the end, I think that it is a tribute to the Nicholson design to see how well it accommodates new technology.  In fact, I think the vise works better on a Nicholson that it does on Lee Valley's own bench.  You'll see why in the next post.

The lengthy directions that come with the Lee Valley vise contain an admonition to follow them exactly stronger than anything I have encountered since my third grade teacher Miss Shults.  Here is a sample:  "It isn't a lot of fun to follow instructions exactly but this is one time when it will save you a lot of grief."  The entire last page is taken up with a flowchart of what to do if the vise doesn't turn well after it's installed.  I think the day job of the guy who wrote these instructions is machining Lee Valley's planes, because he has exacting standards of precision.  I suspect the directions result from dealing with customers whose installations didn't go well but, having completed my installation, I think they are a bit overwrought.  After all, the vise is designed to skew one full turn and you are directed to make the jaws 3/16" out of parallel, so there clearly is some tolerance.  Nevertheless, the directions are clear and carefully written, so it is a good idea to pay attention to them.  Worked for me.

I am writing a separate post with pictures about the installation.  As for those of you who think this is a terrible thing to do to a Nicholson workbench, I understand where you are coming from.


  1. Ah, the bench too low syndrome. I'm a half inch taller than you. I worked for years on an old Sjobergs (did I spell that right ?) I found at a garage sale that I believe was 33" tall. One day about five years ago I got mad and raised it to 36". Life was so much better. In the spirit of if a few inches is good more must be better. I eventually ended up at 42" which is just about waist height for me. It seems to work well for the occasional thickness planing, frequent molding and smoothing planing and the hand sawing I do along with a bit of assembly. Don't have a Moxon, just use some bar clamps. Over the years I've become adept at the circus act. I think it would be too tall for a Moxon anyhow. Someday I hope to build a real bench and a double screw vise is high on my wish list! Hope you enjoy the Veritas, that's been my likely choice as well. I'm looking forward to reading how it goes.

    1. I think I understand the rationale for a low bench if you are planing rough stock with wooden planes. If you plane rough stock occasionally with metal planes I don't understand the logic at all. As an expert pointed out recently, little downward force need be applied to a metal plane and the forward force is more comfortable, for me anyway, applied higher. Bench height is a compromise given the different operations performed on it and most operations are best performed on a higher bench in my opinion. I just think the experts are wrong about this, at least for me.

  2. Sellout!! :-) I put an end vise on my Nicholson last year, using a couple of shop-made wooden screws and a 2x6 fir jaw. It's very crude, and only gets used for resawing and for cutting a tenon when I don't feel like dragging the Moxon out or clearing space for it. After a couple years of use, I wouldn't trade the crochet for a face vise, so what you're doing makes sense to me.

  3. Adam,

    I am the same way, except I call my crochet a vertical planing stop because it is an English bench. :)

  4. When I built my workbench I read for months before I started. I saw that there were two better ways to chose the height. Walk up to the workbench and let your front thighs bump against its edge. Let your arms drop to your side and the affix your hands in one of two positions: 1. Make them into a fist with your hands down and in front. Where the flats of your knuckles are is one way to get the bench top's height. 2. Instead of clinching you hands into fists, open your hands and extend your fingers straight out so the palms of your hands are touching where the bench top will be. The first way is lower and the second way makes the bench higher. I chose measuring my palms down height which makes the bench top higher. It's also easier on my lower back not to be in a longer and lower arch while working. I'm 6'-1".