Having a handsome and sturdy bench as the centrepiece of your woodworking life is indeed a satisfying thing—but it’s a mouth without teeth till the vice is properly set up.
The first consideration is which one to buy. Economise here and there’ll be tears at benchtime. The convenient quick release vices have almost totally replaced threaded vices with their tedious winding in and out. The mechanism on my old Record 52-1/2 D has already given over 20 years of trouble free service and I reckon if I keep it clean and lubricated it will be good for another 20. We’ll come to the use of the dog shortly but first let’s give the vice a facial.
Either ply or straight-grained hardwood facings will make the vice jaws kinder to your woodwork. If the facing is robust enough you can also widen the vice with some overhang on each side. You want the steel of the vice to be at least 5mm below the level of the bench top to reduce the chance of clipping it, particularly when planing. The facing will be level with the bench top.
Allow for a 10mm gap between the vice shafts and the bottom of the facing. It’s easier to keep clean, and when you are planing a long board you can locate a strip of ply on the shafts to avoid marking the workpiece when resting it on the bottom of the vice.
In the photo above the vice is fixed onto, rather than into, the edge of the bench. The 30mm messmate extends the jaws by 40mm each side and is cut out for the back jaw.
In the photo below the 12mm ply only just protrudes at the sides and has worn down to almost level with the top of the vice, so it is definitely due for replacement. The vice has been set into the bench so that the ply of the back jaw is 2mm proud of the front of the bench to be sure of not bending a long workpiece. Note that both vices are faced with leather. This enhances the grip as bare wood and ply tend to become compressed and shiny. Leather is also less likely to bruise softer work. Contact glue will adhere to the shiny face of the leather better than PVA, giving you the rough back of the leather to grip the workpiece.
For the vice to sit below the benchtop you will almost certainly need to glue thicknessing wood underneath. Use hardwood for this. A softwood such as radiata pine will compress in the kind of work expected of a vice and a wobbly vice makes for wobbly work. Use coach screws as thick as the fixing holes in the vice will allow and as long as they can be without coming through the top. Drill tight pilot holes and wipe paraffin wax on the threads to help seat them.
Just as important as having the bench top truly horizontal is making sure that the face of the vice is vertical. Check it with a spirit level or at least make sure it is square to the bench top. You will save yourself from exasperating errors, particularly when planing for jointing.
I find vice dogs such as those shown in the photo above very helpful. With several dogs in the bench facing the vice, for example, and a plane stop to one side, it is very easy to hold a drawer when planing it to fit. The dog often sticks out on a new vice so you’ll need to grind it till it’s flush.
If you rout out a rebate and inlay a strip of hardwood, such as the 19mm brushbox flooring used here, it will provide a more durable endgrain surface for the dogs. Holes are drilled then chiseled to a snug fit for the dogs. Those in photo 2 are 35mm x 25mm. The drawing shows how the dogs are supported flush with the bench when not in use. A thin cleat, maybe a strip of 6mm ply screwed to just overhang the holes, is sufficient to support the dogs when they’re pushed up and put into work mode. You can make the dogs various lengths to accommodate jobs of different thickness.
You can also buy purpose-made metal dogs. As the bearing surface of these brass dogs is small and likely to mark your wood it’s a good idea to use a strip of scrap wood as a pad.
The planing stop shown, as well as performing the task it is named for, acts as the third point in this holding group. A length of hardwood, again 35 x 25mm is fine, comes through the benchtop next to the leg. A bolt goes through the leg and a slot in the 35 x 25mm hardwood. The stop is held at height by a wing nut and the slot finishes so that the stop rests flush with the bench top when not in use.
Removable Metal Vice
Every so often you need to hold metal, to hacksaw a bolt to length for example, but not often enough to justify a fixed metal working vice. A simple solution is to bolt the metal work vice to a solid piece of wood, say 40mm thick, then hold this in your woodworking vice whenever it is needed.