What to Look for and Avoid in a Secondhand Bench Vise
Whether you’re a collector who’s looking for a cool vintage bench vise to add to your collection or simply have chosen to buy a used bench vise instead of a new vise for your work, there are some things you should be aware of to make sure you get a quality bench vise that’s in good condition for a good price.
People like antique, vintage, and used bench vises because they can get a tool of excellent quality for a lower price than a newer tool that may not be up to the same standards. In general, bench vises (along with other types of tools) that were made in America during the period from the 1930s to the 1970s can be depended on to use high quality materials and have excellent workmanship. After that point in time, it’s more hit or miss as to which of the bench vises you’re considering are a truly high quality option.
But even within that category, there are red flags you should be vigilant against as well as marks of a quality used tool to look for when you’re assessing secondhand bench vises. Here’s a list of considerations to keep in mind when you’re looking for a secondhand bench vise to make sure you get exactly what you’re looking for.
Look for Trusted Brands to Ensure Quality
It can be difficult to tell whether a newer vise is of high quality because even top brands have cheaper options on the market that may not be held to the originally high standards of a respected brand. You’ll see this reflected in the price of newer vises, as the lower quality options have a price that’s scaled down to reflect the longevity and workmanship of the tool. What this means is that, particularly with newer used bench vises, you shouldn’t necessarily jump on a real steal from a brand you associate with high quality tools if you see a used bench vise listed at a low price. It may be one of the brand’s lower quality models.
However, if you keep your search to the period from the 1930s to the 1970s, there are a few brands that you can pretty much count on to produce reliable, quality bench vises. Of course, that doesn’t mean the tool has been treated well over its lifespan and has escaped damage or repairs—but we’ll get into ways to detect that in a moment. Here’s a list of brands that are commonly recommended by people who make a habit of purchasing used bench vises.
- Athol or Athol/Starrett
- American Scale
- Parker (also known as Charles Parker)
- Desmond Stephan
- Erie Toolworks
- Rock Island
The Wilton Bullets are an especially popular used option, but if you’re in search of one, be prepared to pay a premium for it. And of course, not every single bench vise made by the above manufacturers is a good buy used. You’ll need to check out the other considerations we’ve listed here to make sure you’re getting a quality product.
Choose the Right Size for Your Work
It sounds like a no-brainer, but this can be an easy consideration to forget when you’re shopping for a used bench vise. Remember that the jaw opening of your bench vise is a limiting factor for the projects you’ll be able to hold with the vise. If you know you commonly work with odd sizes or shapes, you’ll need to select a used bench vise that can accommodate what you need it to hold. For most general projects at home or in the garage, a jaw opening of three and a half to four and a half inches should suffice.
Weigh Price Against Quality and Features
If you do your research and are willing to shop for a while, it’s entirely possible to find a quality secondhand bench vise for between 10 and 50 dollars. However, as is the case with the Wilton bullet vises, there are desirable quality tools available that will cost you a great deal more. If you’re dead set on a certain brand or certain features, like the bullet shape or a double swivel, be prepared to pay extra for those features. If you’re more open to other brands and types, you’re more likely to find something you’ll be happy with at a bargain price.
Check for Signs of Repairs and Damage
One of the top things you should keep your eyes open for when you’re assessing vintage and antique bench vises is evidence of prior damage or repairs. If you have the opportunity to see the product in person before you make a purchase, look it over well for the signs we list below. Even if you’re purchasing a used bench vise online, sight unseen, having plenty of photos to examine that show you the vise from all angles is one way to check for the signs we list here.
- If a secondhand bench vise you’re considering shows signs that it’s been welded or brazed, it’s probably one you should move on from. It’s probably not worth the time or energy it would take to restore it. Not to mention, except for the most sought-after and rare bench vises out there, one with signs of welding or brazing won’t hold its value. It’s also less likely that a brazed or welded vise will hold up for many years of use. Brazing is easier to spot because it tends to leave filler material like brass behind, unless it’s been cleaned up and painted over.
- A used bench vise with cracks or components that have broken off is unlikely to be worth repairing. Cracks may have been welded or brazed, as mentioned in the last point, so check for those signs too. The most common spots for this type of damage to show up are on the slide (the piece that moves in and out) at the jaw support, or at the place where the slide connects to the dynamic jaw. It’s common for cracks to show up here after too much stress, or for the front half of the vise to break completely off. Also check the ledge that juts off the main body of the bench vise to support the dynamic jaw once it’s moved forward for cracks and breakage due to stress. These types of damage tend to indicate that an object was held in the vice and struck with a hammer at a force past what the vise could handle. Hammering damage can also occur when someone has used the slide like you’d use an anvil, and you’ll see this manifest as cracks or a complete split at the end of the slide. This last type of damage can be repaired by drill stopping the crack and then welding it shut to restore functionality, but the vise will take a big hit to its value after this type of repair.
- Check the slide itself for signs of damage. Especially examine the corners to check that the edges are sharp, and look for a slide that’s shorter than it should be. The condition of the slide can be a watermark that tells you how the bench vise as a whole was treated. A slide that’s too short can indicate that it was cut off after a piece was broken off initially. While the vise will continue to function with a slide that’s too short, its jaw opening will be lower than it should be, which is one way you can identify this type of damage. You may also notice when this happens that the slide isn’t sticking very far out of the back of the vise when its jaws are shut. When you’re considering a used bench vise, you should do a bit of research to determine how far the jaws are supposed to open so you can check that this type of damage hasn’t occurred.
- Worn threading devices are common, and a bench vise with these can be finagled into working, but they can be an annoyance.
- A bent handle is the most common type of damage you’re likely to see on a used bench vise. While it’s possible to repair a bent handle if it’s a mild bend, it can indicate that the bench vise you’re considering has lived a bit of a rough life. If you see bent handles, examine the rest of the vise carefully for the types of damage and repair we’ve discussed. If the bent handle is the only damage on the vise and it’s not possible to repair, you can replace the handle if you can find someone to do it.
- More signs of a vise that isn’t worth your time and cash include chips on the anvil, misaligned jaws, or notable rust on the vise.
Inspect Used Vises for Missing Parts
In addition to damage or repair, another major issue secondhand vises can have is when parts are missing. Here’s what to look for to make sure your vise comes with all the parts it should include.
Many people want a swivel base, so look for one if that’s an important factor to you. The base should be whole and solid, without any of its mounting tabs missing or cracked. The swivel base itself should also be free from cracks. Turn the bench vise over and check the swivel base’s internal components to look for cracks or signs of repair, too. It’s common for the center bolt that keeps the vise affixed to the swivel base to be missing, replaced with a nut, or removed, and these are difficult to replace, so if your bench vise should have one, check that it’s present.
Examine Jaws for Wear and Research Replacement Possibilities
Damaged jaws aren’t necessarily a dealbreaker on a used bench vise, but if the jaws are damaged, you’ll want to be aware of that before your purchase. Don’t just assume that you will be able to replace the jaws if they’re damaged, as they can’t be replaced on some vise models. Do your research if the jaws of the vise you’re intending to buy are damaged to make sure that the style of jaws for the model you’re considering are available and you’ll be able to replace them. Also check the price of doing so to make sure there won’t be any surprises after you make your purchase. It may be better for you to move on and keep looking for a vise with undamaged jaws instead.
Test Vises You’re Considering for Full Functionality
When you’re able to physically handle a used bench vise before you purchase it, you’ll want to test a few things to make sure it’s in full working order. If the vise you really want is listed online, you can always ask the seller to take a video of themselves performing these tests to send to you.
- Back the movable jaw as far out of the vise as it will go so you can check for damage on the nut and lead screw. This test will also show you if the slide has been damaged to the point that the jaw can’t be removed.
- Screw the vise so the jaws move all the way out and all the way in. It should take less than a full turn from the time you start moving until the jaw begins to move. If it takes more than a full turn for the jaws to begin moving, then a part is either missing or loose, such as the collar or split ring inside the jaw. These are easy fixes, but you’ll want to be aware of them so they can factor into your negotiation.
- It should only take one finger on the handle to open and close the vise. More pressure than that could simply mean that the vise needs lubrication, or it may need to be touched up with a file, which are both easy enough to fix. However, the alternative is that the vise could be damaged. Check to determine what the problem is and include it in your assessment before purchasing a used vise with this issue.