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You need a leg vise

Not many “outsiders” see my woodworking bench, or even the inside of my garage for that matter. My pitiful little excuse for a workshop notwithstanding, when a “stranger” does happen to get a peek, one of the first questions usually asked is “how does that vise on your bench work?” My workbench happens to have a leg vise, and when viewing a leg vice from a distance it doesn’t necessarily look like it should work, at least not very easily. But in truth, a leg vise is simple to operate, and one of the more versatile and least expensive vises a woodworker can install on a workbench.
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Leg vice and its companion, the board jack…

Leg vises look complex but they are not; in fact they are dead simple. Anybody who has ever used a crow bar is familiar with the concept of leverage, and a leg vise is little more than a lever. On a leg vise, the lever in its basic form is a wood or metal dowel inserted in a parallel guide. A parallel guide is a board which is perpendicular to the vise chop that is attached at the bottom with a tenon. The guide is bored with off-set holes and runs along a through-mortise in the leg of the workbench. The dowel is placed in a hole corresponding to the width/thickness of the board which the user is attempting to clamp. As the vice screw closes and contacts the board being clamped, the parallel guide continues into the leg of the bench, the dowel contacts the leg and the chop levers the clamped board fast. This leverage offers a high-level of clamping power.

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Parallel guide and the dowel/lever

So what makes a leg vise so versatile?

First thing is its cost. Decent screw hardware for a leg vise can be purchased new for usually under $50. The chop (or clamping face) of a leg vise is usually shop made. As an example, the chop on my vise was made from a 2 x 10 piece of construction lumber. Cost: less than $10.
Secondly, the configuration of the chop adds to the vise’s flexibility. The chop can be made from nearly any wood species (I prefer 1 1/2 to 2 inches thick), and a width of 10 inches or more is not unheard of (mine is 7 inches wide). This extra width allows for incredible clamping power yet the vise itself remains unobtrusive. In fact, a leg vise is one of the few bench vises that I’ve worked with that does not get in the way of the work. They excel at holding boards for joinery tasks such as dovetailing or sawing tenons. And their clamping power allows a woodworker to raise a board higher than with a typical quick release vise, yet still offer stability because the clamping face of the vise runs the length of the workbench leg-the more surface area the clamped board comes in contact with the better. Which leads to the third merit of the leg vise: the screw.

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A leg vise easily clamps wider boards…

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Or narrow boards…

Typically, bench vises have two screws along with guides which provide clamping power. The width of a clamped board is beholden to the placement of those screws. The wider the placement the better is the general consensus, as it will allow a woodworker to clamp a wider board through the vise without the screws getting in the way. But the price of the wider screws is a vise that takes up more space (and usually costs much more to purchase and/or make). But even wide-set screws don’t necessarily allow a woodworker to work on the edge of a long, wide board. This leads us to merit number four: the screw placement.

The screw of the leg vise on my workbench sits approximately 12 inches below the top of my workbench. What does this mean? With that placement, I can easily work on the edge of a board 16 inches wide yet have nearly the entire face of the board clamped fast to the bench. This offers maximum stability and clamping strength. I know of no other vise that can say the same. Now there is some ambiguity on where exactly to place that screw. I’ve seen recommendations anywhere from 6 inches below the top to more than a foot. I don’t know the correct answer. Perhaps a decent mechanical engineer could tell you what the optimal placement of the screw would be relative to the width and length of the vise chop. I can only say that I’ve never had a problem with the screw placement on my bench.

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This open space between the vise screw and the top of the workbench allow wide boards to be clamped easily…

So what are the drawbacks of having a leg vise? They are not necessarily easy to install. The vise on my bench required boring a hole in both the vise chop and the leg of the workbench. It also requires a through mortise on the workbench leg for the parallel guide, a mortise to hold the vise screw guide/hardware, and a mortise in the vise chop itself (the tenon is on the parallel guide). Needless to say, for the vise to work properly it helps a great deal that this joinery (for lack of a better word) is as accurate as possible. During operation, the top of the leg vice chop needs to close before the bottom for it to work properly, and if your joinery isn’t accurate this will not happen.
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A leg vise clamps from the top down…

Another drawback is the parallel guide itself. Because the parallel guide is where the dowel (or lever)  correspondent to the width of clamped board is placed, the woodworker using the vise will continually need to change the place of that dowel when clamping boards of differing widths. Fortunately, this can be easily worked around by clamping your boards in sequence.

While on the subject of a parallel guide, there are also no hard and fast rules on how long that guide should be. To again use my workbench as an example, the vise on my bench can theoretically clamp a board that is nearly 13 inches thick (this is the last hole on my parallel guide). Since I can’t really imagine ever using a board close to that thickness, or needing to clamp a board 13 inches wide “face-up”, I made my parallel guide just over 14 inches long. This relatively short length improves the balance, and in my opinion also improves its functionality.

Lastly, a leg vise works best on a workbench with legs that are flush to the bench top. If your workbench has an overhang, or offset legs, there are ways around it, but it will make the installation more challenging, though in my opinion the added effort would be worth it.

So who should install a leg vise? If you are like many woodworkers and you use hand tools it is a great choice. As I said, it is one of the most inexpensive joinery vises you will ever find. IF you happen to be constructing a new workbench a leg vise is a ideal because it is far easier to build into a bench than to retrofit it (though that can be done as well-it just takes a bit longer). The best part about a leg vise is that you don’t need to be married to it. Once assembled, almost all of the components of the vise are part of the chop; you need only back it off all the way and it is removed. The screw guide is mortised into the back of the vise leg and does not interfere with anything on the bench itself. And it is just as easily re-installed.

So don’t let the leg vise detractors scare you. Nearly six years ago I installed one on my workbench with almost no tools and very little woodworking experience. It was only a few months ago that I replaced the chop with a wider board and new parallel guide, and those were replaced as much for aesthetic reasons than for anything else. The original chop was still functioning. In fact, if I were building a new workbench today, the one thing I would not change in the least is the leg vise. Without it, my workbench is little more than a fat table.

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I made a dowel

When I came home from work this afternoon I found myself a little restless. Usually when I work on Saturdays I come home from work and try to unwind, in particular after busy days like today. Today was different. Maybe it was because I had gone to the gym and I was all wound up. Either way, I was full of what my mom would call “nervous energy”.

The first thing I did was clean and wax my table saw bed. That didn’t take long, as I try to keep on top of it to begin with, and since I’ve been using DampRid in my garage that has helped as well. Next thing I did was a little sharpening: a few chisels and my jointer plane iron. That wasn’t enough to ease my unease, and then I recalled an exchange I had with fellow woodworker and blogger Wesley Beal. He had mentioned making tool handles etc. as good projects for the winter months. Great minds must think alike, because back at the beginning of the summer I had purchased some wood to do just that. Today, I wasn’t necessarily in the mood to make a tool handle, but I did want make a new handle for my leg vise.

When I made the new chop for the vice a few months back I had saved some of the cut offs because they had very nice, straight grain. One piece in particular I had felt would make a good handle for the vice. So that was the board I decided to use.

Way back when I took my first ever woodworking class with Chuck Bender at the Acanthus Workshop. After Chuck bored us for an hour by rambling on about “the craft” things actually got interesting. One of the things we did was make a dowel from a board that was out of square. We had to first plane the board square, we then had to turn it into a dowel. At that point, I had never really planed anything, but if I remember correctly, I did a pretty good job of not only squaring up the board, but turning it into a respectable dowel that rolled evenly across the workbench top. Though that was five years ago, I remembered the lesson, and today I put it to use.

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The first thing I did was cut the board to length with my home center Japanese Ryoba saw, which I chose for no other reason than I hadn’t used in a while. I then squared the board, used a compass to mark the diameter of the circle (which I copied from the original vice handle-though I made it a hair larger). I then continued to plane the board until I was very close to the arc on all four sides. Before I went any further I drilled in two 1/2″ holes on either end with a forstner bit for the stops.

Making the dowel is fairly easy. It is basically chamfering the corners, then making chamfers which meet the other chamfers, then easing over the edges. All in all, it took around 30 minutes to get the dowel formed and rolling cleanly across the bench, which I’m happy to say it did (Chuck was a good teacher).

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I then began the final fitting, which took around ten minutes. For that I set the block plane to take a very fine cut, and gently eased of any high or rough spots. I won’t sit here and tell you that the dowel is a perfect circle, because it’s not, but it is certainly close enough.

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For finish, I added a coat of boiled linseed oil, let it dry for a few hours, and then coated it with some furniture wax. I cut off two short pieces of a 1/2 oak dowel to use as the stops, and with that the new handle was finished.

The truth is I didn’t need a new handle, the original worked just fine. I’m not a particularly anal person, but I did want the new handle to match the vise chop, which it now does. And I didn’t do this just for nothing, I made the new handle four inches longer, which will make it a bit easier to use. But the best part was after I attached the new handle, I had a brief sense of accomplishment. I then cleaned up the huge mess, sharpened the block plane to a razor’s edge, and suddenly I was no longer restless.

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Coming around again.

This past summer has not been a good one for the Slightly Confused Woodworker. It started off with much promise, and the weeks leading up to Independence Day were great. But, inevitably things began to crumble, at first slowly, and then quickly. Sure enough, circumstances mostly out of my control, including work, health, and weather, started to take their toll and the summer soon slipped into a meaningless void of lost hopes and nostalgic longing. Last summer, maybe the worst of my existence, was lost in much the same way, the only difference being the weather was much nicer. I had the first health scare of my life (I wasn’t actually scared, more like pissed off), and as that summer faded into history I vowed to never lose a another again. Sometime, early in July, that vow was broken. It was not my finest hour.

Though I didn’t plan on doing much woodworking this past summer, I did plan on thinking about it. I actually purchased for myself a nice sketch pad and artists pencils and supplies so I could draw some decent renditions of the furniture I would like to build. Among the things I drew were a wall clock and a bookcase, but that is where it stopped. I had hoped to have at least ten or so sketches of future projects in that pad, what I have is two. Still, there may be a little bit of hope peeking its annoying head over the horizon.

September rolled in with the hottest weather of the season, and on Labor Day I wasn’t going to woodwork, but I woke even earlier than usual and decided to do what I enjoy doing for a change. Back at the beginning of the summer I purchased a 2 x 10 piece of Douglass Fir to use as the new chop for my leg vise. Because it was still wet when I purchased it, I sawed it in half and stickered it in my garage, every few days alternating the two boards. Thankfully, both boards dried nearly flat, so I chose the one which looked best and went from there.

To start, I removed the original leg vice from my bench and used it to mark the hole for the screw as well as the parallel guide. I drilled the hole with a 1 inch forstner bit, and then laid out the cut lines. I then used the table saw to cross cut the board to final length. For the shape of the chop, I’m sticking with the traditional “crutch” shape, with the top being wide, and the portion of the vice under the screw being the same width as the leg of the workbench. I’m not really doing this for any particular aesthetic reason, only to keep the weight of the chop down.  The top of the vise will now be flush with my bench top, which is the whole reason behind this change. So I once again used the table saw to rough out the shape, sawing as far as I could, then finishing the all of the cuts with hand saws and a chisel to clean it all up. I had thought about adding some decorative touches to the chop, but I will likely add just simple chamfers. Leg vises take a beating and there is no need to ornately decorate a piece of soft wood that will get punished every time it is in use.

New leg vice still in rough form.

New leg vice still in rough form.

I only have to plane the chop smooth and make a new parallel guide and the vise will be ready to install (Ironically, I will need to re attach the very leg vise I’m replacing to do this). I will once again glue a piece of leather to the chop face to help with grip (it really does work). To finish the vise, I’m going to use a two coats of linseed oil and a coat of wax. With luck, and a few spare hours, it will be finished and installed this weekend, and while this little project may not mean much in the grander sense, it was pretty nice to go into my garage and woodwork for a few hours unhindered nonetheless.

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