Wooden Tail Vise

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Wooden Tail Vise

Upgrade
your bench and
your woodworking by
adding a classic vise.

By Steve Bunn

You can do without a tail vise. But you can do
much more with one. That’s why woodworkers have
depended on tail vises for over 400 years. A tail vise can
be used to clamp boards of all sizes horizontally or vertically
for planing, sanding, carving, routing, gluing, etc.
Modern versions employ metal screws and guide plates,
but I prefer the traditional all-wood construction shown
here, partially because it’s beautiful in both form and
function, and partially because you don’t have to buy
any vise hardware, only a thread box and tap, which can
be used over and over (see Sources, below).

This vise can be mounted on virtually any workbench,
although modifying the base is almost sure to
be a part of the project. A bench with a trestle-style base
and a top that extends beyond it at the front and on the
right side, as shown here, is ideal.

Like any clamping devise, a tail vise has two main
components, a fixed jaw and an adjustable jaw. Both
jaws accept bench dogs (see Sources), so that in addition
to clamping between the jaws, a tail vise can also
clamp above them. This dual capability is the key to a
tail vise’s versatility.

The fixed jaw is a laminated beam that’s glued and
screwed to the front of the bench top and reinforced
by a solid beam—called an end cap—that’s attached
to the end of the top. The adjustable jaw opposes the
fixed jaw. It’s a complex rectangular frame that mounts
against and underneath the bench top, supported and
guided by another end cap. The screw that operates this
jaw threads through the same end cap.

 

Start with the end caps

The end caps (A and B, Fig. A, below, and Cutting
List, below) anchor both jaws. They also keep the
bench top flat. Start with two 1-3/4″ x 3-3/4″ maple
blanks that are about 6″ longer than the width of the
bench top. Use the tablesaw to cut a 7/8″ wide dovetail-
shaped groove on the inside face of each end cap
blank, starting 5/8″ from the top edge. Tilt the blade
9˚ to cut the angled shoulders. Then install a dado set
to remove the waste. Clean up each channel and drill a
single countersunk shank hole for a 3/8″ x 6″ lag bolt.

The end caps must be wide at the front to support
the vise jaws, but they can be narrower at the back.
Cut notches on the bandsaw or by making a series of
stopped cuts on the jointer.

Dovetail-shaped keys (C, Fig. A) simultaneously hold
each end cap tightly against the bench top, yet still allow
seasonal movement. Make two key blanks on the tablesaw
with the blade tilted 9˚ and set at 1″ height. Stand
a 1″ x 4″ x 24″ blank on its edge and make two passes,
resetting the fence between passes to determine the
key’s width. Make a third pass with the blank on its side
to cut out each key. Each key blank should tightly fit
the end cap’s grooves, but slide without binding. It must
also sit flush with or slightly below the cap’s face.

Cut the blanks into 4″ long keys and use a jig to screw
them to the bench top (Photo 1). The jig is simply a 2″
wide offcut from one of the end beams with a fence glued on top. Slide a key into the jig and position the jig
on the bench. Drill a countersunk pilot hole through
one end of the key and into the end of the bench.
Install a screw. Repeat the process on the other end of
the key. Then remove the jig. Space the keys about an inch apart, starting 1″ from the front of the bench top.

Finish and install the end caps one at a time. The
left end cap (A) extends 1-1/2″ beyond the bench top
and is dovetailed to the fixed jaw. Lay out and cut this
lapped dovetail on the front of the cap. Rub paraffin in
the cap’s dovetailed groove and then drive it onto the
keys and into position on the bench top. Install the lag
bolt and finish by trimming the back end flush.

The right end cap (B) extends 3-1/4″ beyond the
bench top to support the sliding jaw and anchor the
wooden screw. Use one of the keys to fill the front end
of the dovetailed groove. Mark the center point of the
screw and drill a 1-1/4″ dia. pilot hole. Lay out and
cut the notch at the front and the mortise. The notch
allows the adjustable jaw to ride over the end cap as it’s
opened and closed. Similarly, the mortise accommodates
the adjustable jaw’s guide bar, which slides under
the bench top. Make this mortise large enough for
the guide bar to freely slide through. Use a 1-1/2″ dia.
threaded tap to cut the threads in the bench-screw pilot
hole (Photo 2). Then follow the procedure described
earlier to install this end cap.

 

The wooden screw

Make the screw (D, Fig. B) from a 24″ long maple blank
turned to a 3″ dia. cylinder (Photo 3). Lay out and
turn the head and the 2″ dia. x 1-3/4″ collar. Turn the
shaft to 1-15/32″ dia. and finish by cutting a 1/4″ deep
groove in the collar for the garter.

Clamp the turned screw in a vise (the vise on your
other workbench) and use a 1-1/2″ thread box to cut
the threads into the shaft (Photo 4). Turning the shaft
to just under 1-1/2″ dia. keeps the shaft from binding in
the thread box as the threads are cut.

Use a V-block and a drill press with a fence to drill a
centered 7/8″ dia. hole in the head of the screw for the handle (E). Turn the handle from an 18″ long maple
blank turned to a 1-1/4″ dia. Turn the shaft to 3/4″ dia.,
with a knob on each end. On one end, next to the knob,
turn the shaft down to a 9/16″ dia. tenon. Remove the
handle from the lathe and cut off the knob that’s next
to the tenon. Clamp this knob in a hand screw and drill
a 9/16″ dia. stopped hole for the tenon. Slide the shaft
of the handle through the hole in the head of the screw
and then glue on the knob.

 

The fixed jaw

Determine the fixed jaw’s length by subtracting 16″
(the length required by the adjustable jaw) from the
overall length of your bench, including the two end
caps. For the 80-1/2″ long bench shown here, the fixed
jaw measures 64-1/2″. This jaw contains equally spaced
holes for bench dogs (Fig. C). It consists of notched,
angled fill blocks (F) that are sandwiched between two
rails (G). Make sure to have your bench dogs in hand
before you build, so you can size the dog holes to fit.

Mill blanks for the two 1-1/2″ thick rails and the
3/4″ thick fill blocks. Cut the blanks 3-13/16″ wide and
allow extra length for trimming. Set the miter fence to
5˚ and use the tablesaw to cut the fill-block blank into
nine 4-3/4″ long blocks and two extra-long blocks to go
on the ends of the assembly. Cut a 1/4″ x 1-1/4″ notch
in each fill block to allow the head of the bench dog
to seat below the top surface. Drill a pair of countersunk
pilot holes in each fill block and glue them on
one of the rails, using spacers to create 1″ gaps (Photo
5). Make sure all the notches face up and to the right.
Clamp each block until you drive in the screws; then
remove the clamps. After all the blocks are fastened,
remove the screws. Then glue and clamp the remaining
rail. When the glue is dry, level the top of the laminated
jaw and mill it to final 3-3/4″ width.

Square the jaw’s right end 4-1/2″ from the first dog
hole. Then square the left end at the assembly’s final
length (flush with the outside edge of the left end
beam). Clamp the jaw to the front of the bench, level
with the top and snug against the end beam’s dovetail.
Transfer the dovetail onto the end of the jaw. Then
remove the jaw and cut the dovetail socket in the end.
Drill countersunk holes for the three 3/8″ x 6″ lag bolts
that anchor the jaw to the bench, in the middle and 3″
from each end.

Install the fixed jaw (Photo 6). Apply glue to the
edge of the bench top and to the end cap’s dovetail. Lightly clamp the assembly in position. Then use a
dead blow mallet to seat the dovetail joint. Level the
assembly with the front of the bench and then tighten
the clamps. Drill pilot holes through the three countersunk
holes in the jaw and then install the lag bolts.

 

Modify the base

Adding the two jaws makes the top front-heavy. To keep
the bench from tipping forward, you’ll probably have
to modify the base. On the trestle base shown here, the solution is to shorten the top rails (Photo 7). This allows
moving the base forward under the top until it butts
against the fixed jaw. You’ll also have to cut a slot for the
adjustable jaw’s guide bar. It’s best to make this cut later,
when you’re installing the adjustable jaw.

 

The adjustable jaw

The adjustable jaw (Figs. D–G) looks like a narrow box,
but it’s actually a rectangular frame consisting of a front
block (H), a rear rail (J), side and top pieces (K and L),
a guide bar (M) and a cross brace (N). The front block,
rear rail, side and top form the box that’s the business
end of the jaw: It houses a bench dog and the wooden
screw that applies the clamping pressure. This box is
supported by the right end cap and kept level with the
bench top by a tongue (P) that’s attached to the front
block. The guide bar and cross brace slide under the
bench top. The guide bar, mortised into the rear rail,
housed in the end cap and supported by a rub rail (Q),
holds the adjustable jaw against the front of the bench
as it slides. The cross brace completes the frame by connecting
the guide bar to the front block.

The biggest challenge in building the adjustable
jaw is cutting the angled dog hole in the center of the
front block (Fig. E). The trick is to make this block in
two pieces (Photo 8). Cut a pair of identical 1-7/8″ x
3-3/4″ x 3-3/4″ blocks. Then cut a precisely centered
1/4″ deep x 3/4″ wide dado across the grain in each
block, using a dado set and a miter gauge with a fence
and a stop block. Clamp the blocks together with the
dadoes facing each other and lay out the ends of the
angled dog hole on the top and bottom faces of both
blocks. Use these depth marks and a hand saw to cut
the angled shoulders. Clear the waste with a chisel and
cut the notch on one end. Then carefully glue the two
blocks together, using a spacer to precisely align the
dadoes.

Cut dovetails on both ends of the adjustable jaw’s
side (K) and top (L). (Note that the side’s front-block
dovetails are longer than its rear-rail dovetails.) Transfer
the dovetail locations to the front jaw. Then cut the
sockets and fit the joints (Photo 9).

The front block’s back face has a tongue and a mortise
(Fig. F). The tongue (P) holds the block level with
the bench top as the ajdustable jaw opens and closes
(Photo 10). It slides in a groove created by a rabbeted
cleat (R) that’s attached to the bottom of the bench
top. The mortise in the front block houses a tenon on
the cross brace (N). Fasten the rabbeted cleat under
the bench top and then attach the tongue with glue and
screws and chop the mortise.

Cut the rear rail (J, Fig. G) to length and width. Routing a profile on its back end is optional—a matter
of taste. Lay out and cut the dovetail sockets on its top
and front end and chop the stopped mortise for the
guide bar (M) on its inside face. Cut the guide bar and
fit its tenon to the mortise in the rear rail. Cut and fit
the cross brace (N). Note that it’s rabbeted to fit around
the rabbeted cleat (R).

Lay out and drill holes for the wooden screw in the
front block and rear rail. To make sure these holes align
with the threaded hole in the end cap, dry-assemble the
adjustable jaw’s side, front block and rear rail and position
the assembly on the bench. Mark the hole in the
rear rail after butting it against the end cap. To mark the
hole in the front block, slide the assembly back until the
block butts against the end cap. Before marking each
hole, make sure the top edges of both pieces are flush.
Drill a 1-1/2″ dia. x 3/4″ stopped hole in the front block
and a 2″ dia. through hole in the rear rail. Re-assemble
the adjustable jaw, add the guide bar and cross brace,
and test its operation on the bench (Photo 11). Make
sure there’s a small gap between the right end cap (B)
and the real rail (J) when the jaws are tightly closed.

 

Final assembly and mounting

Turn the adjustable jaw upside down to locate the mortise
for the garter that holds the wooden screw (Photo
12 and Fig. G). Butt the head of the screw against the
rear rail and center its collar over the hole. Transfer the
locations of both garter groove shoulders to the jaw and
use these marks to chop the mortise. Make the garter (S).

Glue the adjustable jaw together in stages. Start by
gluing the dovetailed side, top, front block and rear rail
to create the body. Mount the body on the bench. Then
work from underneath to glue and attach the guide bar
and cross brace. Install the wooden screw by threading it
through the hole in the end cap until it seats against the
jaw’s rear rail (Photo 13). At the other end, the screw
will be housed in the hole in the front block. Tap in the
garter to lock the screw in position. Finish by fastening
the rub rail (Q) to track the guide bar as the vise opens
and closes (Photo 14). On this bench, the rub rail reinforces
the notch in the base that houses the guide rail.
If your installation doesn’t allow notching the base, this
rub rail is essential for the vise to track properly.

Sources

Note: Product availability and prices are subject to change.

Woodcraft, woodcraft.com, 800-225-1153, Woodthreading Kit,
1-1/2″ x 6 TPI, #12T17.

Lee Valley Tools, leevalley.com, 800-871-8158, Veritas Square Bench
Dogs (pair) #05G02.01.

Cutting List

Wooden Tail Vise_cut list

Fig. A: The End Caps

Wooden Tail Vise_fig a

Fig. B: The Wooden Screw and Handle

Wooden Tail Vise_fig b

Fig. C: The Fixed Jaw

Wooden Tail Vise_fig c

Fig. D: The Adjustable Jaw

Wooden Tail Vise_fig d

Fig. E: Front Block
Cross-Section

Wooden Tail Vise_fig e

Fig. F: Bench Top Cross-Section at Front Block

Wooden Tail Vise_fig f

Fig. G: Rear Rail

Wooden Tail Vise_fig g

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker October/November 2011, issue #156.

Click any image to view a larger version.

Wooden Tail Vise_clamp horiz

Clamp horizontally.
Clamp long and short boards on top of
the bench, fully supported for planing.

Wooden Tail Vise_clamp work

Clamp for work.
Hold furniture parts for chopping, carving
and routing. Hold jigs and fixtures, too.

Wooden Tail Vise_clamp vert

Clamp vertically.
Clamp freely between the jaws. Unlike
a face vise, there are no screws or guide
bars to get in the way.

Wooden Tail Vise_1

1. Start by
installing end
caps
on both
ends of the bench.
They mount on
dovetailed keys
that are located
using a jig made
from an offcut.

Wooden Tail Vise_2

2. The right end cap contains a
threaded hole
for the vise’s
wooden screw. A
woodthreading
kit contains a tap
to thread this hole
and a thread box
to cut threads on
the screw.

Wooden Tail Vise_3

3. Turn the wooden
screw.
Finish by
cutting a groove
for the garter in
the collar. The
garter locks the
screw in the vise’s
adjustable jaw,
but allows it to
revolve freely.

Wooden Tail Vise_4

4. Use the thread
box
to thread
the shaft of the
wooden screw
all the way to
the collar. These
threads fit the
threaded hole in
the end cap.

Wooden Tail Vise_5

5. Create the fixed
jaw
by gluing
notched fill blocks
between two
rails. Use screws
instead of clamps
to streamline
the process. The
spaces between the segments become holes for bench dogs.

Wooden Tail Vise_6

6. Install the fixed
jaw
with glue and
lag bolts, making
sure it’s flush
with the existing
bench top. The
board glued on
the bottom of the
fixed jaw supports
the Federal-style
double-screw face
vise.

Wooden Tail Vise_7

7. Modify the
bench base
by
cutting off the
fronts of both
top rails. This
allows moving
the base forward
to center it under
the widened top.
You’ll also have to
cut a notch for the
adjustable jaw’s
guide bar.

Wooden Tail Vise_8

8. Make the
adjustable jaw’s
front block
in two
pieces to create
its angled dog
hole. Cut a shallow
groove across the
grain in each piece.
Then saw the
angled shoulders
and clear the
waste.

Wooden Tail Vise_9

9. Glue the front
block
together
to create the dog
hole. Then drill
it to house the
wooden screw,
dovetail it to
fit the side and
top pieces and
mortise it for the
cross brace.

Wooden Tail Vise_10

10. The front block
slides in
a
groove created
by attaching a
rabbeted cleat
to the bench. A
tongue fastened
to the jaw fits the
groove and keeps
the jaw flush with
the bench top as it
slides.

Wooden Tail Vise_11

11. Install the
partially
assembled
adjustable jaw

to check the
alignment of the
three holes for the
wooden screw.
Then install the
top and test the
jaw to make sure
it slides smoothly.

Wooden Tail Vise_12

12. Locate the
mortise
for
the garter that
secures the
wooden screw
in the adjustable
jaw. Position the
screw with its
head snug against
the jaw’s rear rail.
Then transfer the
garter groove’s
location.

Wooden Tail Vise_13

13. Mount the
adjustable jaw

and thread in
the screw until
its head seats
against the rear
rail. Install the
garter and then
test for smooth
operation.

Wooden Tail Vise_14

14. Flip over the
bench top
and
install a rub rail
against the guide
bar to ensure the
adjustable jaw
remains parallel
to the front of the
bench top as it
opens and closes.