Almost every day I get some sort of question about the ‘Moxon vise,” a double-screw vise that I wrote about for the December 2010 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. It’s an ingenious portable vise that has been around for almost 400 years, yet it still generates controversy and questions whenever it is in the limelight.
I know this blog entry won’t stop the questions, but it might help you decide if it is something you should make for your shop.
1. Did Joseph Moxon invent the vise?
Absolutely not. As far as we know, Joseph Moxon wasn’t a woodworker. He was a globe-maker, printer and maker of mathematical instruments. He described the double-screw vise in the first English-language book on woodworking, “Mechanick Exercises.” Here’s what he wrote:
“Sometimes a double Screw is fixed to the ſide of the Bench, as at g; or sometime its farther Cheek is laid an edge upon the flat of the Bench and faſtned with an Hold-faſt, or, sometimes, two on the Bench.”
The double-screw vise shows up in other works, such as the Randle Holme’s “Academy of Armor” and Andre Felebien’s “Principes de l’architecture.” And it could have been a jig that is even older – I haven’t dug deep on this issue.
2. Was it intended for dovetailing?
Hard to say. Based on Moxon’s description, we have no evidence how it was used. Andre Roubo featured this vise in his 18th-century masterwork (read all about it here). My crude translation of the text goes something like this:
“We use these presses on the workbench with the rip tip, either for work or work to stick. In one or other of these different cases, we stop the press on the bench with two (holdfasts so) that it (will not move).”
So these vises could be used for a ripping operation. Perhaps tenon cheeks, dovetails or something else entirely.
3. Does the front jaw have to be wider than the rear jaw?
In my article on the vise in 2010, I made the movable front jaw a smidge wider than the rear jaw. This was to make the vise easy to perch on the front edge of a benchtop. It is not an original detail from an early source. So if you want an authentic double-screw vise, skip this detail.
4. Are your dimensions correct?
Here is what Roubo wrote about this vise:
“These presses are composed of twin (chops) AB & CD, which are 5 to 6 inches wide, (and) about 3 to 4 inches thick, because of their length, which varies from 2 to 4 feet….”
5. Why don’t we find a lot of these vises “in the wild?”
Shop appliances don’t seem to survive as well as tools or workbenches. Shooting boards are rare finds. Have you seen many 17th-century bench hooks? Most have been used up or discarded. Some portable vises do show up, but they are not as common as anything that has a steel cutting edge, such as a plane or chisel.
6. Should I make my own screws, buy the ones from Benchcrafted or do something else?
This is your call. I have made about 200 wooden screws for these vises using the sub-optimal Taiwanese/Chinese tap and wood screw kit. These cost good money and work poorly. If you really want to make wood screws, consider the Beall wood-threading kit. It works very well. But you have to have a router and spend the $100 for the kit.
If you aren’t planning on making lots of these vises, the Benchcrafted kit is a great choice. For $149 you get the handwheels and screws. No need for a threadbox, tap or lathe.
I have the Benchcrafted hardware on my vise and could not be happier. Yes, I paid full retail for the hardware, blah, blah, blah.
7. Why do you call it the ‘Moxon vise?’
Double-screw vises have been invented and re-invented many times during the last 400 years. You can call them whatever you please. When I finally figured out the vise for myself, I was reading Moxon’s description of it. So that is the name I gave it. Feel free to call yours “Randle,” “Andre” or “Tipplewait.” The name is insignificant compared to what it can do to help you cut joinery.
— Christopher Schwarz
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