This family company
in Iowa picked up
the flag when the big manufacturers stumbled.
If there was a segment of the woodworking
industry that should have resisted the manufacturing malaise of
the last 60 years, it should have been the vise industry.
After all, you canít do much to a piece of wood
until you can keep it still.
Sad to say, most vise hardware went the same way
as the handplanes and chisels. Record closed its Sheffield plant
when it was purchased (amusingly) by Rubbermaid. Vises that were
once made in America were moved to Taiwan and India and produced
by Shop Fox, Groz and Anant.
You can still find some good vises made by
Jorgensen, but most modern vises arenít worth buying or even
picking up from the curb. Their mechanisms are sloppy and
frequently jam. The castings are as rough as a cob. Their
wearing surfaces deteriorate quickly.
When I built a French-style workbench in 2005,
one of my reasons for going back to an 18th-century design was
that I was disgusted with modern vise hardware. I wanted to see
if you could build a good bench without a tail vise, and if you
could build your own leg vise for the face-vise position.
tail vise, shown here on my French workbench, is superior in
every way to the traditional tail vise. The only part that
moves is the block with the dog Ė that means you donít have to
move an entire section of the bench. Also unlike the
traditional tail vise, this one will not sag. Also, note
that this vise uses a chromed wheel, which is no longer
available. Benchcrafted now uses uncoated cast iron.
I found out that you could indeed work without
commercial vises. But as a result of building my French bench, I
also ended up meeting Jameel Abraham of Benchcrafted, a family
company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that makes the three best
woodworking vises I have ever used. And, just to be clear, Benchcrafted makes only three vises.
Abraham, a long-time woodworker and icon
painter, had made his own French-style workbench. And after
being dissatisfied with commercial vise hardware, he decided to
design and make his own. He trolled the U.S. patent database for
ideas. And after a lot of experimentation, Jameel hit upon the
idea for his tail vise. Itís different than the bulky L-shaped
traditional tail vise in that there is only a single moving
block of wood that is surrounded by the benchtop. Some early
U.S. patents (and the La Forge Royal catalog from France) call
this a wagon vise or a wagon-wheel vise.
Here you can see the
metal rails below the bench that support and guide
the dog block. Installation isnít difficult as long
as you take your time and double-check your layout
lines before you cut into your benchtop.
The wagon vise has a lot of advantages compared
to the traditional European tail vise, not the least of which is
that a wagon vise wonít sag. But the Benchcrafted design went
beyond the patent drawings of the 19th century. Jameel did
everything he could to eliminate friction in the mechanism. When
installed, the viseís block moves left and right with minimal
effort from the woodworker.
ďAfter looking at all these patents, I always
came back to square one,Ē Jameel says. ďIíll have a gut idea
about something, hash it out and talk to people about it. But I
always come back to the first instinct whether it is a design
for a piece of furniture or a tool design.Ē
When Jameel told me about his tail vise, I
bought one immediately and installed it on my French bench. It
took about eight hours to retrofit my bench for the hardware
(installations on new workbenches are much faster), but I donít
begrudge one minute of the effort. I would do it again.
After years of working with the Benchcrafted
tail vise I can say without reservation that it is the best tail
Iíve ever used.
Who Needs More Vises?
But thatís not the end of the story. Jameel is a
big fan of leg vises on workbenches, and he wanted to see if he
could apply the same ideas from his tail vise onto a leg vise. The result was the Benchcrafted Glide vise, a mechanism that
blended traditional with wildly unconventional.
First, the traditional: Jameel kept the screw
mechanism and parallel guide from the old-school vises. What Jameel did was try to engineer all the friction out of the
mechanism. He put a bushing on the Acme screw that moved the
viseís jaw. And then he went one step further: He used
roller-blade wheels to support and move the viseís parallel
guide. This took the weight of the jaw off of the screw-feed
The result: The jaw moves like itís riding on
oily snot thatís on a duckís back.
ďIf I open the thing, it takes effort,Ē Jameel
says about the traditional leg vise mechanism. ďI wanted to
remove as much effort as possible. Thatís what we try to take
out of the equation Ė so as much of the effort as possible goes
into holding the work.Ē
Once again, I bought one of these vises and
helped install it on a friendís bench, and Iíve installed a few
more on benches owned by my students. The results exceeded my
expectations. So Benchcrafted was batting two for two.
Benchcrafted Glide vise features a larger wheel than
the other two vises. And it has to move a lot more
material in and out. Yet it operates swiftly with
the spin of a finger. And it locks down like crazy
on your work.