The Mystery Twin-screw Device | Popular Woodworking Magazine
 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Schwarz on Workbenches, Woodworking Blogs

Here’s a piece of curious woodworking equipment spotted by Corey Wilcox of Richfield, Wisc.

spotted this vise in an antique shop in Silverton, Colo., in June and
took some photos and made a sketch. This week he sent me an e-mail to ask if I
knew what the vise was used for. I’m a bit baffled.

The vise jaws
are about 3″ thick, 12″ wide and 28″ long. The whole thing stands about
24″ high on its four turned legs. I think it’s likely a piece of
woodworking equipment because the top is scored by many fine kerfs,
likely from a backsaw.

These kerfs suggest to me the user faced
the front of the vise to use it. Yet, this looks a bit like the
veneer-sawing bench shown in André Roubo’s 18th-century woodworking
books. That bench was about the same height (just above the knee when
measured from the floor), but it is more substantial than this Colorado
vise, and Roubo’s veneer vise was used differently. The two operators
stood at either end of the twin-screw vise.

My best guess (and
it’s not a good one) is that this vise was used on top of a bench or
other work surface and was designed to bring the work up close to the
operator’s face for some sort of fine operation.

Other than that, your guess is as good as mine.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 20 comments
  • Mark

    Probably not a coincidence that Silverton, also happens to be the home of one of the best known distributors of all things related to old printing presses (ie platen, letterpress, etc…)

  • I’m not sure what it is, but I am about to make a similar vise to hold large pieces of wood that are too big to bandsaw so I can rip them into workable sized boards.

  • Tom Conroy

    It looks like a binder’s press to me, but that may be because I’m a binder. I have made about 60 presses, though, and have studied and drawn many others. I think the deciding factor is that it is free-standing, which to me says "binding;" there is no way to fasten it firmly to a woodworker’s bench. Notice that the Roubo veneer vise is part of a substantial immobile bench, not a free-standing, easily moved piece of equipment. Most of the puzzling factors about the mystery device are things I have seen on binder’s presses, though not all on the same press.
    > The saw kerfs: In the 19th century the signature of the book were sewn onto crosswise cords, and to keep the spine smooth the binder would cut two or three or more saw kerfs into the spine of the book, holding the book spine up in a finishing press while making the cuts and sinking the cords into these cuts. In the early 20th century newspaper binders and blankbook binders would sometimes hold the pages together with hide glue alone, and would increase the gluing area by cutting many kerfs in the spine. A careful binder wouldn’t cut into his press when doing this; but you could say the same for a careful woodworker.
    > The size: For binding account-books and newspapers, some finishing presses were made very big; I have one 30" long with cheeks 4" square, the American Bookbinders’ Museum has two more, and I have seen others. Some lying presses were made rather small: many are as little as 22" long overall. To me, the coarse threads and tommybars for putting on greater pressure mark this as a small lying press rather than a large finishing press, but the categories are somewhat blurred and this press could not be used for some of the lying press’s functions— strikingly, it couldn’t be used for ploughing (trimming the edges of the pages even).
    > The legs: Legs are definitely known on 20th century finishing presses; there is an example on Timothy Moore’s website:
    > Usually, I have to admit, legged presses are small; the legs raise the height so that the book can be held deeper in the press, with less protruding. The long legs on this press, combined with the high cheeks, suggest that it was used on a low table rather than the usual high binder’s bench.
    > The house-roof crossection: Nowadays this is probably the commonest crossection for finishing presses, though I haven’t seen it in 19th century sources. There is an example on Timothy Moore’s website.
    > I would guess that this press was used by a 19th-century account-book binder or newspaper binder, who may have had it made for him by a local woodworker. Some of its details suggest an English-style binder rather than a French-style or German-style binder. But I wouldn’t be surprised if my guess were wrong.
    > Tom Conroy
    > American Bookbinders’ Museum
    > San Francisco

  • Carl Yetter


    I would say it was definitely a free-standing press for bookbinding. A "lying press" often had a separate stand or cradle that would allow the body of the book to stand clear of the table. The book block is placed to fit between the screws. The sloped faces, however, are normally found on finishing presses. Looks like this was rather multi-purpose.
    The saw kerfs in the top of the press are likely from a process called "sawing-in". The cords that are used to support the binding are recessed or sawed-in by literally cutting kerfs in the spine of the book. This would lead to a smooth spine rather than the pronounced rings on a book with raised cords.

  • Robert C.

    I was also thinking of a saw sharpening vise, perhaps like the style in the Roubo plate.

  • Mark Harrison

    I initially thought the same thing as David (saw vise) however I think the vise screws would get in the way. Most of the pit saws and cross cut saws I’ve seen would be too broad.

  • Clay Dowling

    Bookbinding is definitely entertaining, but the modern cloth-covered hardbound book is a fairly decent bit of engineering. I found it easier to produce good dovetails with a cheap ryoba than to bind a hardcover book that was correctly sized and closed properly.

  • John Cashman

    Bookbinding sounds like great fun to me. I’ve always been interested in it. Maybe some day I’ll take a class.

  • David

    Chris – There’s another possibility, and the beveled tops on the vise jaws are the clue. It’s quite possible that you have a very early saw vise for saw sharpening – specifically, very large saws such as pit saws or 2-man cross cut saws. The kerfs in the top could easily be file marks instead of back-saw marks, and the legs are meant to hold the vise clear of the ground and the saw teeth at a convenient height while a workman sat on a log to file the teeth.

    If that’s what it is, you’ve a rare item indeed. To my knowledge, only 2 or 3 have been found from the 18th century that could be positively attributed to that purpose.

  • Pedder

    Hi Christoher,

    The leg disturb me but otherwise I would say it is for bookbinding. The sa is used to make little grooves for the threads (strand,wire).

    a german vidoe, go to min.3:40


  • robert

    You are all sadly mistaken.

    In my travels through India, I saw these many times, once even in use. The device is used to castrate elephants. How this is accomplished, I will leave to the gentle reader’s imagination. Though omitted by the OED, the English phrase "We’ve got ‘is nuts in a vise now!" actually originated in Colonial India.

  • R francis

    I think the bookbinder in the image is ‘ploughing’ the pages and using the device for that. This comes after the signatures have been sewn and before drawing on the cover.
    Common in 17th century Europe I think to plough in this way. This vice sits on a table or the floor.

  • Michael

    I was thinking along the lines of Glen. A little something to hold the defendant in place at trial.

  • Ed Furlong

    An addendum–those claims records would likely have been in large (quarto, folio) sizes and thus a larger bookbinding backing vice makes sense.

  • Ed Furlong

    A Bookbinding backing vice in Silverton CO–found this very interesting indeed, since Silverton is known most for it’s central role in the mid-late 19th century silver and gold rushes in Colorado. Perhaps this was used to bind the mining claims etc that would have to been kept on record.

    Great find, and an interesting example of the traveling life of tools.


    Evergreen, CO

  • Glen Van Cise

    After reading your prior post on Moby Dick, all I could envision is a sailor’s head held tightly as the Carpenter removed the problem tooth.

    I think the bookbinding makes more sense.

  • Christopher Schwarz


    Makes sense. I guess the kerfs threw me.

  • Clarke Green

    Looks like a backing vise for bookbinding

  • Wm Claspy

    Here is a woodcut of a bookbinder sitting at such a device.

  • Wm Claspy

    Could also be a bookbinder’s finishing press. Definitely on the large side for such a device, but it’s possible. There are some big books out there! Here is a modern version


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