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Without a reliable way to hold your work for woodworking we’ll quickly become frustrated. Whilst I’m a firm believer that a lot can be achieved with an old nail stuck in to your bench top, I have always felt that a good face vice is key to being productive. A poor face vice on the other hand, is no more than a hindrance.
At this point you’re probably thinking about the dreaded rack.
Your vice nips firmly at one end, but is wide open at the other. The harder you try the worse it becomes.
You’re suffering from a racking vice and your work is slipping even though you’ve barely started the cut.
Is this a fault of the vice, or is the vice being used wrong? Chances are it’s a combination of both, and it’s an issue that will only get worse. Fortunately it can often be solved quite easily. In fact there’s little reason to dread it at all.
Rack is natural to all face vices but is perhaps most noted and feared with the traditional horizontal types like I opted to for on my own English bench. Unless your work has any specialist requirements then I always feel that a face vice of any style will serve you well and most good bench designs will be compatible with them all, so you should feel free to choose.
I went with the traditional style on this bench because I like it. It’s easily as capable as any vice, looks a charm and gave opportunity for a lot of teaching throughout the build.
At no point did rack give me any concerns. So long as you give some clever thought within the design and fit your vice robustly, the rack will be controllable and very minimal. And so long as you use the bloody thing correctly that small amount of rack will become your friend.
It should be noted that there is such a thing as a shite vice. Generally these will have a very skinny steel thread with guide bars either side that prevent you from getting your work piece close to the screw.
Adding friction may be your best bet if you’re looking for an improvement. Simply lining the jaw with suede will help, it’s not a big job and to be honest I would never use a vice that wasn’t lined. In most cases I’ll just line the jaw and not the bench.
A good vice will have a large screw which you can get close to. Whilst wooden screws are old, traditional and look like one of those beautiful but inconvenient features bettered by modern technology, they’re actually brilliant. They’re more like one of those traditional features at it’s peak but replaced by something whose manufacture is cheaper and quicker. Or at least that’s true as far as woodworking vices are concerned.
I love their huge diameter and coarse thread which engages and grips with minimal movement. Wooden screws aren’t essential, but they are almost certainly better for a big robust face vice, and much better where racking is concerned.
I should mention quickly the usefulness of rack. When we have a tapered leg for example we’ll be miffed off when the whole vice is rigidly square and refuses to grip, and as a hand tool woodworker, stuff is rarely perfectly square or parallel on all sides.
In my experience though a well built vice suffering from rack is a signal for poor usage. We are woodworkers and don’t need to squeeze the soul out of every work piece or get it immobilised ready for the torture of our tools. Instead, refine your technique.
Before blaming your vice for its unforgivable rack you may want to check that you’re not in the following vicious cycle:
- Over tightening your work (as though squeezing blood from a stone).
- Over wearing and damaging the vice’s components with every tug and pull of the handle.
- Increasing the rack inherent to your vice through over wear.
- Over tightening your work that bit more to compensate for the new wear. (Return to 2.)
Poor practice is probably the biggest cause of our obsession with power gripping vices and the fault goes beyond overtightening or even positioning the work away from the vice screw (always position work close to the screw – that’s it’s job.). I’m thinking also of the tasks that we consider the face vice rack to be useful for, and understanding how we can help it to be our aid.
There’s very little reason for example that you should put a piece of work in to the vice and then mortice it. And face planing in a face vice… Your bench has a top for a reason, and a woodworker with very little practice will soon be able to plane against a stop.
And why saw along the length of the bench with a piece held vertically in the vice? With nothing preventing it slipping from side to side, other than the jaws grip?
When you can turn the piece, and yourself 90 degrees, and saw against the bench top, requiring very little grip from the vice.
Once you realise that a slight change to your working habits or practice, is completely changing the dynamics of what your face vice is needing to do, you will open up the possibilities to such a wonderful array of beautiful vice forms.
Build it well, treat it well and stop loosing sleep over a racking vice.
Building A Face Vice Rack?
In our English Workbench Series we go through the design and installation steps for building a traditional face vice rack.
Click for full details of the English Workbench Series.
patrick anderson says
That saw is a beauty mate!
Richard Maguire says
There’s certainly a whiff of testosterone about it 😉
Sam Thompson says
I can’t wait to get started on my bench, i am completely sold on the wooden vice, they look fantastic, and they make all the rite sounds when they’re being used. and you don’t get horrible black marks on the side of woods like oak when you’ve left the wood in the vice for more than 2 minuets. not over tightening the vice was always a matter which my trainer struggled to teach to other students, particularly as all the vices we had where steal record vices, which are just too easy to over tighten. it was also difficult to teach the advantages of surface working in the collage environment as the benches where shared with the carpentry class and ended up completely destroyed, to the point that my bench had a surface like driftwood.
fantastic advice as always Richard. i will post pictures of my version of your brilliant english bench on the facebook page when i finish. all the best. Sam.
Richard Maguire says
Ah yes, the driftwood bench top. That’s when a Record really comes in.
I look forward to seeing your bench progress, all the best with your build.
John Thomas says
Some good advice, thanks. I was looking at Benchcrafted leg vises and have come to the realization that don’t need one and mortising it into the leg would be stupid. I am going to look for nice wooden screw and go from there.
Richard Maguire says
Hi John, please don’t let me sway you… I can certainly vouch that the Benchcrafted are most excellent vices. Then again you won’t regret a wooden screw.
Vices are a bit like sharpening stones, a wise man will invest in the best he can afford, and it will continue to repay you.
Jeff Murray says
I found a leg vise at a flea market for $18. I did a slight amount of rework to make it fit my workbench. It was painted with barn red paint and once it was removed, birds eye maple emerged
Haha, this sounds a bit like a therapy session for the dejected neanderthal. Not me, but hey I do feel better, cheers!
Richard Maguire says
Ha… or maybe I need a therapist 😉
Stephen Melhuish says
Richard, not racked off by this article at all in fact it held my attention beautifully!
A well considered piece, never force anything on the bench, if you are then something’s wrong with the way you’re working.
Much appreciated words.
A means of preventing racking is to have a series of realitivly small blocks of wood, all cut to differn’t widths. Finding the closest size to match piece of wood you are working on. Inserted into the opposite side of the vice you are working on.
Keeping these block linked together via string, and stored close to vice.
This is not a original idea, read it some where. All the best Peter
Yes, this works wonders.
Veritas sells this as “Vise Rack Stop” – even simpler.
Just a stack of identical plastic shims with a metal pin through them.
Making your own from thin plywood and tough cardboard is as easy as 1-2-3.
Auto-Correction: It’s not Veritas branded, but is sold by Lee Valley Tools.
Anyway, making your own is quicker than even placing an order.
I have mixed feelings about vices. I’ve worked at several benches equiped with them, and every one had shortcomings. The last shop I worked in producing pricey studio furniture did not have a vice on any bench. Between holdfasts, handscrews, and flexibility, I can’t say I missed them much. I’ve got a new bench in mind, and think I’ll go viceless. I can always add one when I’m proven wrong. 😉
You can design the rack into the vise.
By using two screw spindles. Without a chain link.
Closing it requires some planning – you’re a hand short – but oh, that death grip…
My workspace is a small balcony in downtown Singapore (which reaches 96% humidity). So my humble bench cannot have a regular or wooden vice, one would rust and the other would swell and warp. I truly appreciate your videos and examples on using the batten/holdfast and planing stop! As a beginner limited to hand tools, it’s encouraging to see your builds and projects come together using limited kit and proven skills.
Jim Linn says
Never mind the vise, where did you get that saw? I’ve been looking for one like that. Please, where d’you get one?
I got mine at Woodjoytools.com. The last time I checked they had two sizes and several blade options. It looks like Richard has a Japanese blade on his which is an option at Woodjoy. Although I’m still getting used to mine, it’s a well made saw.
Richard, where can one get a wooden vice screw in the uk? I can’t find any, only american ones.
Paul Fowler says
I do not know but Richard, used to make the most beautiful
wooden screws, I have two!
I finished my face vise a few weeks ago and after lining the jaws with cork, it’s killer! It has a ton of holding pressure and I’m not really afraid to plane in it (or maybe even chisel!). My version, I accidentally built two two differences: The parallel guide I cut in the shape of a symmetric trapezoid (45 degree on both sides) and accidentally built it in a way where it sits about 1″ higher than the screw. I get very little sag and haven’t put in some supports for the screw yet. I expect to get very little sag when this is done.
Somehow the way it came out, all the pressure is on the edge closest to the screw. I’ve lucked into it coming out like a sideways leg vise that needs to pin. Theres just a tiny amount of rack. The jaws are poplar and I’ve overtightened if the jaw starts flexing – there’s still a large amount of holding power at this point. Once I put the cork lining it, it has a death grip on everything. Rack is a non-issue and gives me the tiny bit of rack for weird shaped pieces when needed.
The other design choice I made was to put a 1″ cheek so it sticks out from the rest of the bench. I’m employing some of Paul Selller’s techniques to holding things using pipe clamps instead of benchdogs or holdfasts. I don’t care about clamping it against the side of the bench and prefer to have the extra room to maneuver.
Flippin’ ace indeed.
I’m considering going back to my original leg vise from several years back. I never had anything with so much holding power with so little effort. Of course mine was an ugly beast made of a well knotted 2X piece of lumber and just a heavy threaded steel rod but the torque it could develop with near no effort at all was/is phenomenal. I still have it stashed somewhere among all my cast off timbers and assorted junk.