Ever since the minute I built my first leg vise, it has been my vise of choice. It is simple, offers lots of room for clamping and it doesn’t have horizontal guide bars that get in the way.
Its downside? Most people would say it’s the parallel guide that is below the vise screw – specifically the pin that needs to be adjusted when you switch to a piece of work that is significantly thicker or thinner.
I have yet to complain about stooping down to move the pin, but my back is still in good shape. People with bad backs have let me know that moving that pin is a real pain in the… back.
There are solutions out there for people who never want to stoop. Let’s take a look at three of them that I like.
1. A spinning footplate. This solution appears in some historical benches, though you don’t see it much on surviving benches. I’ve seen this more on benches in books and old magazines than in real life. I wrote a little about this vise feature when I showed off Eric Mortensen’s workbench from Woodworking in America (check it out here.)
The threaded post passes through the leg of the workbench. It does not engage the leg at all. The spinning plate is threaded on the post and can be moved quickly in and out to provide different leverage positions for the vise’s chop.
What I like about this solution is that it is infinitely adjustable. And, of course, you don’t have to stoop to adjust it. The downside is that it’s more complex than a simple pin and parallel guide. I’m sure I’ll put this on a bench some day. Not sure I’ll make my spinning plate out of brass, however, probably just hardwood.
2. The cross. This appears in the literature as a St. Pierre’s Cross. Some Christians have given me grief about using this historical name and have even suggested that they are talking about the wrong saint. Anyway… I’m going to call it by its new commercial name: The Crisscross.
The Benchcrafted folks are just about to start shipping these out. Raney Nelson of Daed Toolworks had one at Woodworking in America in Covington, Ky. I’ve worked with a prototype and an historical example. It is a novel and excellent solution – surprisingly smooth and strong. See a historical one in action that I wrote about here.
You don’t see this solution much on surviving bench examples, though it is more common than the spinning plate solution discussed above.
I’m going to install a Crisscross on my 2005 French workbench with a vintage iron screw. It should look awesome and (I hope) work well. You know that I will let you know how it goes.
3. A rod in a hole. This solution is novel but it requires a deal of precision in its installation. In essence, you turn the lower part of your leg vise into a holdfast. How?
OK, the back of the vise’s jaw has a long wood or metal dowel sticking out toward the read of the bench. This passes through a closely fit hole in the leg.
When you move the jaw in and out, the dowel also moves in and out of the hole. But when the jaw encounters a piece of work, it racks the jaw ever so slightly. This racking causes the dowel to jam in the leg like a holdfast. When it’s jammed, it immobilizes the bottom part of the jaw and provides clamping force to the top of the jaw.
Professional bench-builder Richard Maguire has developed this technology to a high art and sells it both on his workbenches and separately. Check out his video of the “pinless” vise here. He’s also discussed it on his blog where he notes that the jaw remains quite parallel when in operation and clamping. Very cool.
I’ve only seen this type of solution on one historical workbench and it was in wood – a wooden dowel and a hole in a wooden leg. Maguire uses metal, which obviously will not deform over time like wood would.
A variant on this idea is to use a parallel guide that is traditionally shaped and then sheathe it in a close-fitting box behind the leg. This is (I believe) what is going on in this photo from the leg vise on the Cutty Sark (hat tip to St. John Starkie who took the photo).
In addition to this example on the Cutty Sark, I’ve seen it in the wild a couple times.
As cool as all these solutions are, all of them (combined) show up less frequently than the good old pin-and-parallel-guide guide mechanism. That doesn’t mean the pin is the best solution. It just is the most popular one and it was used by a population that was probably younger.
— Christopher Schwarz