Guide to the Types of Bench Vises
If you’ve spent any time looking at the bench vises on the market, you probably realized quickly that there’s a whole world of different styles and types available. In order to determine which one will suit your workshop and your projects the best, you need to know what each type of bench vise is designed for. So we’ve created this guide to introduce you to the three main styles of bench vise—benchtop, front, and end vises—depending on where the vise is meant to be attached to your workbench. Then we’ll describe all the different types of bench vise out there and tell you which projects they’re best suited to.
Three Styles of Bench Vise: Benchtop, Front, and End Vises
There are three styles of bench vise that all the other types fall under. The styles are determined by where the vise is affixed to your workbench, and certain ones are best for certain types of work.
Benchtop vises are sometimes called machinists’ vises, and this style is attached to the workbench at the top. Some benchtop vises can be clamped to the workbench and moved as needed from one spot to another, while other benchtop vises are more permanently attached with bolts that go through the table. Although you cannot move a bolted benchtop vise from its spot on your workbench, it is more securely attached and will stand strong in its place. Benchtop vises are a versatile tool due to the strength of their jaws and power of their clamps. They are built to hold your materials up so they do not touch the surface of your workbench, making a benchtop vise well suited for wrenching or welding projects. Benchtop vises also work well for metalworkers and mechanics, although they are not the best choice for woodworkers.
While benchtop vises attach to the top of the workbench, front vises are attached instead to the front of the workbench. This style is especially useful in woodworking, as there is plenty of room to maneuver long boards for projects like dovetailing, planing, or routing without the wood protruding into the rest of your workshop. Some front vises have a rapid action feature (which is sometimes called quick release) that make it easy to adjust the vise to hold new materials and clamp the jaws in place with just a turn of the vise’s handle. If you are left-handed, a front vise is likely your best option, mounted onto the right-side corner of your workbench.
The basic types of front vise that you can choose between include face vises, shoulder vises, and leg vises. You can choose a face vise that has its own cast iron or steel jaws, and if you wish you can add your own auxiliary wooden jaws to these. Some face vises do not have their own jaws, and you will need to add wooden jaws yourself. Sometimes the edge or apron of your workbench can serve as the vise’s inner jaws on one side. While those with steel or cast iron jaws are normally more expensive, they are also simpler to install. Both varieties of face vise should be placed with their inner jaws aligned with the surface and edge/apron of your workbench so there is plenty of room to work with large materials and you can clamp your materials to the bench at the far end to make them extra secure.
Shoulder vises offer lots of empty space between their jaws, without the need for screws or support rails in the middle. That means there’s plenty of room to clamp your projects between the jaws of a shoulder vise. Just one screw is used to adjust the movable end of the jaws, while the top or apron of your workbench functions as a fixed jaw on the other side. Shoulder vises are especially handy when you need to work with oddly shaped materials. They are also an extremely affordable option, though the way they stick out into the workshop may mean you bump your hip on the vise a time or two before you get accustomed to it being in your space.
A leg vise is made to fit onto the legs of your workbench, and on some models, the workbench leg will function as the fixed jaw on one side. Most of the time, leg vises are built to fit on the particular workbench where they will be used.
An end vise is, as you may have guessed, made to be mounted at the end of your workbench. Materials are clamped to the surface of the workbench with dogs at the top of the vise’s jaw, with matching dogs set in holes in the surface of the workbench. Otherwise, end vises are quite similar to front vises, although they are better suited for projects when you need your materials held perfectly still, like surface planing or flattening. Some tail vises offer quick release to make jaw adjustments quick and easy. Aside from the surface planing and flattening work we’ve mentioned, end vises aren’t convenient for most projects because of the way materials held in an end vise will stick out into the middle of the workshop.
One end vise option is a tail vise, which is made to fit in a cutaway section at the corner of the workbench. Wagon vises are another style of end vise that are made to keep a secure hold on long materials, although the wagon vise has a limited capacity since it opens past the end of the workbench. Wagon vises are easier than many styles of bench vise to retrofit onto the bench you have already.
While the main types of bench vise are the benchtop vises, front vises, and leg vises we’ve just discussed, there are some other specialized styles that may be the best choice for your work. We’ll quickly review those types of benchtop vise next.
Chain vises are made to hold pipes inside of a V-shaped notch, secured by a chain that encircles the pipe. A chain vise is an especially good choice if you will be working often with unwieldy shapes of pipes or other materials. Their working range and holding capacity tends to be greater than many other styles of vise, since it is only limited by the length of the chain. Their only real drawback is the time it can take to carefully thread the chain between the vise’s jaws when you are securing your materials.
You may hear metalworking vises referred to by other names, such as combination vises, engineer’s vises, machinist’s vises, mechanic’s vises, or tradesman vises. They are made for holding metal securely in place while it is filed and cut. Metalworking vises may be made of steel, cast iron, or a combination of both materials. Jaws are often a separate component and can be replaceable as well. For delicate projects, you can use softer jaw covers made of aluminum, copper, plastic, or wood. Most metalworking vises come equipped with a swivel base, and they may also have a small anvil affixed to the back of the body. They attach to the workbench with eyelets on their sides and back. The dynamic jaw hangs over the edge of the workbench and will hold materials either vertically or horizontally.
Pipe vises are designed especially for plumbers, and they’ll keep a strong hold on pipes or tubing while you cut and thread it. They’re capable of holding pipes as small as 3 mm and on up to 200 mm. You can choose between mounting your pipe vise on your workbench or fitting it on a mobile tripod stand, which comes in especially handy when you’re working outside of the shop. If you are working with especially long pieces of pipe, you may need to use more than one pipe vise to hold them. Pipe vises can be folded up, making them easy to transport from the shop to the job site.
Woodworking vises also go by the names of Roubo vises or Nicholson vises. They got these monikers from the designers who created them in the 18th and 19th century. They tend to have metal jaws, which you can add wood or another material to so they don’t scratch the piece you are working on. The jaws are made to be replaced after the vise has been used for a long time and the jaws become worn. Some woodworking vises are made to be used as an anvil as well, though many are not, and many vises that attach to the top of your workbench come with a swivel so you can turn the vise wherever it’s needed. You can choose between heavy-duty and medium-duty woodworking vises, depending on the projects you will use the vise for.
You’ll sometimes see yoke vises referred to as adjustable jaw vises or hinged vises. A screw clamps the pipe down while it is held between a moving upper jaw and fixed lower jaw shaped like a V. Both the jaws are serrated to keep a secure hold on the pipe. Yoke vises are normally made from cast iron, and they can either be attached to your workbench or held on a tripod stand, for times when you need to use your vise outside of the workshop.