How to Use a Bench Vise


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Sep 24, 2023

How to Use a Bench Vise

Gear-obsessed editors choose every product we review. We may earn commission if you buy from a link. Why Trust Us? This workshop workhorse helps you saw, drill, file, grind, and even bend metal. A

Gear-obsessed editors choose every product we review. We may earn commission if you buy from a link. Why Trust Us?

This workshop workhorse helps you saw, drill, file, grind, and even bend metal.

A workshop isn’t complete until it has a bench vise. Without it, you’ll find yourself struggling to hold things you need to build, repair, modify, and maintain. One of many examples: It’s difficult to hold a lawn mower blade in position for sharpening. With a bench vise, it’s easy: clamp the center of the blade in the vise and get to work.

Like any workshop tool, however, there are some simple tricks to help you get the most out of it. But before we get to those, maybe you’re new to owning and using a bench vise, and you want to know what’s going on here. That’s perfectly okay with us. Everybody has to start somewhere.

A bench vise is a large clamp bolted to a work surface. Using it is easy. Turn its handle to the left to open its jaws; turn its handle to the right to close the jaws. To tighten down on a workpiece, hold it in the vise’s jaws and keep turning the handle to the right. As you turn the handle, you also turn the lead screw to which the moving jaw is connected. The lead screw’s diameter and the length of the handle provide the tightening power. As the lead screw is turned, the movable jaw bears against the workpiece, forcing it against the fixed jaw. The two jaws (fixed and moving) provide tremendous clamping force. The more you turn the vise’s handle, the more clamping force you provide.

By tightening a workpiece in the vise, you hold it in such a way that you can saw, drill, file and grind it. You can also use the powerful clamping action to bend metal, crimp parts together, crush something (like to break off a part that’s weak or damaged and salvage a piece of it that you want), or hold a workpiece in place to cut it with a cold chisel. And the anvil on the back of the vise forms a useful work surface for pounding.

This is pretty simple stuff. But there are three fundamentals that help you get the most out of the vise while you’re doing any of the operations listed above.

Measure to the center of the vise jaws mark it—scribe a line with a sharp awl, use a Sharpie pen, or cut a small notch with a triangular file. Why bother? Think of it as a quick reference to help you center the work in the vise’s jaws.

Of course, it’s not always possible to work in the center of the vise jaws because the workpiece is too long, too large, or its shape doesn’t permit this. If you have to grind, file, or saw at the far end of the workpiece, you may find that the workpiece flexes as you do this. The solution is obvious: move the workpiece so that where you are performing some operation is close to the center of the vise’s jaws. This reduces the piece’s tendency to flex where you are applying force to cut, grind, or file.

Bench vises are often called on for use in bending a piece of metal. You do this two ways: hit the metal with a hammer or apply gradual bending force by hand.

This raises the question of whether it’s better to hammer bend light metal toward the back or fixed jaw of the vise, or to hammer bend it toward the front (the movable jaw). Our intuition causes us to bend metal toward the back of the vise and the fixed point, but we put that question to Vince Morabit, a mechanical engineer since the early 1960s (aside from being one of the smartest guys we know, he’s also the inventor of the Aero-Flex trimmer head).

When hammering metal to bend it over, Morabit says, be sure the vise is qualified to take any real pounding. Don’t use a light-duty vise for this. He confirms our intuition in that it’s best to direct your blows to the back of the vise (not toward the movable jaw). The fixed portion of the vise and the bench have more stability to absorb the shock created by the hammer pounding onto the metal. This is particularly important when using a bench vise that is mounted on a heavy free-standing work bench and not bolted to the floor or wall. Directing your blows to the back of the bench, Morabit says, allows the rest of the bench to form a large lever arm to resist the overturning force created by hammering in that direction. Pounding metal toward the front of the vise has the opposite effect and could easily cause the bench to tip. This is also a powerful argument for bolting a bench to a floor or wall.

In most cases, however, you get more control and better accuracy bending metal gradually using leverage.

Bending metal by leverage is a bit more nuanced, Morabit advises. The vise’s mounting bolts keep the vise anchored to the bench, while the vise’s mounting pad transmit force and spreads it onto the bench’s surface (wood or metal). The parts work together in keeping the system stable during bending, and in most cases this system will be most stable with bending forces directed to the back of the vise and bench. On the other hand, says Morabit, you have to do what is most practical. In all but the most unusual cases, he says, the vise and its mounting pads, the bolts, and the bench itself (if properly secured) are more than likely strong enough to take reasonable bending forces–and an exact analysis of these forces is complex and unnecessary. Translation: for heavy-duty bends, bend to the back. Light-duty bending can be done toward the vise’s front or its back.

A high quality bench vise has an anvil behind the fixed jaw. This is a handy feature for small jobs that require pounding, cutting with a cold chisel, or for center marking with a punch.

To get at that anvil, rotate the vise so that the anvil is facing the front of the bench.

Now you have unhindered access to the anvil.

Keep the vise clean, the lead screw oiled and the turntable greased. You can get some sense of how a vise is disassembled from our article on the topic of rescuing a vise that was a cast off. Lubrication basics can be found here.

In terms of buying advice, there are lots of great products out there, but I prefer a bench vise that has auxiliary pipe jaws below the main jaws.

Finally, like most people, I tend to have at it when I’m trying to get things done, but sometimes a slower and more deliberate approach ends up saving time overall on the project and improves the results.

For example, getting a piece of metal leveled in the vise before cutting will help you cut straighter and more neatly, You can place a bullet level or the body of a combination square on the workpiece to assess for level. In this case, the ends of the workpiece have been carefully ground square to the sides. A quick check with the square’s body indicates that and we’re good to go for a hacksaw cut down the length of the workpiece.

Roy Berendsohn has worked for more than 25 years at Popular Mechanics, where he has written on carpentry, masonry, painting, plumbing, electrical, woodworking, blacksmithing, welding, lawn care, chainsaw use, and outdoor power equipment. When he’s not working on his own house, he volunteers with Sovereign Grace Church doing home repair for families in rural, suburban and urban locations throughout central and southern New Jersey.

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