Thursday, May 3, 2012

Vises: Are They Necessary?

If you're an ancient Roman, the answer is "non, nunquam."

Recently I read Old Ways Of Working Wood by Alex Bealer. In it, he mentions the Romans' methods for securing workpieces to their benches without the use of vises.

With all the recent talk about vises—as many woodworkers are in the midst of or have recently finished their bench builds—it's an interesting idea to think that we might not need them.

I omitted an end vise on my new bench because I realized that in 20 years, I have never used the one on my old bench.

We can figure out how the Romans face-planed boards, as many of us use planing stops, but how did they edge join without the use of a vise or crochet?

According to Bealer, they drilled two parallel rows of holes into their benchtops. The workpiece was placed on-edge between the holes, and tall pegs were slipped into the holes. In between the workpiece and pegs, they placed thick wedges.

I had to try it.

The cheapie workbench I've been using for two decades came equipped with board supports, so I dropped two of them into the dog holes on my benchtop, on either side of my workpiece.  Then, I placed one thick wedge in between a peg and the board.

It held fairly well. If the tall pegs were thicker and had longer dowels to drop into the dog holes (mine are only an inch and a half long), and if two wedges were used instead of one, I think it would work better.  In lieu of those things, I put a planing stop in front of the workpiece and then the system worked great.

It's worth considering. Even if your bench is loaded with vises, you never know when a little ancient ingenuity will come in handy.


upriver said...

I have no real vise, not because of lack of desire, but because I have been trying to make do with a built-in bench until I can make a French-style bench like you just did. Turns out, it is working out so well that I am not in a rush.

For edge jointing, rather than a crochet, I just screwed a 1/2" thick stop vertically at the end of the bench. I also drilled several dogholes along the front apron. the board to be jointed rests on holdfasts or dogs/pegs in the holes, and is held in place with holdfasts. It works wonderfully unless the board is less than about 3" wide, in which case I do break down and use the "bench on bench" or moxon-like vise which I put onto the bench with holdfasts.

I have also been enjoying just putting nails into the bench where and when needed. This is incredibly liberating, although must be done with care to prevent planing over the nails.

Vic Hubbard said...

You don't actually need a bench. It's just really awesome to have one!! ;o) I LOVE the little conveniences of life and look forward to the day I just call out what I want to eat and it appears in my replicator, not to mention the hours of fun I'll have in the Holodeck!

Robert Sanford said...

Actually for the time being I work with a wonder pup from Lee Valley and wonder dogs. I do have a couple of metal working vises (plus a few vices we shall not discuss)but no good woodworking vises.

Tom Stephenson said...

Great food for thought Kari. I chose not to install a tail vise on my new bench based on: 1. I've never had one and didn't know what I was missing 2. Your experience 3. Lonnie Bird's counsel that you don't need one. There are lots of ways to hold work. Tail vises are great for those who want them, but you can get by without a vise of any kind.

Dyami Plotke said...

Great assesment of vise use. I still plan to incorporate a tail vise, but it's nice to know I can get by without it if necessary.

Kari Hultman said...

I love coming across these little tidbits of woodworking ingenuity in old books and online.

It's an interesting discussion about convenience. At what point do we have so many gizmos that do things for us that we lose our talent for resourcefulness and ability to trouble shoot/think outside the box.

But, yeah, the holodeck. I am so there.

Vic Hubbard said...

YES!! Let's have a great adventure!! How cool would that be?!?!

Jason said...

HI Kari:

I didn't put a tail vice on my Roubo bench either. I planed the edges of the parallel guide for my leg vice by resting the wood against a plane stop. If you plane the wood with good balance, it won't tip over and will leave an exact 90 degree edge. Robert Wearing mentions this as a way to improve a person's planing technique. It works! One less thing to buy for the shop. Very liberating.


Scott Longley said...

That cheapie workbench looks familiar! The one I'm getting ready to replace appears to be nearly identical.

Thanks for this new info. I've been racking my brains to see if I dare forgo vises on the next bench. Between this, crotchets, leg-mounted holdfasts, clamps, wonder-canines, etc, I'm almost convinced.

Anonymous said...


I remember once telling Scott Landis that I viewed a workbench simply as a platform from which I hang vises. I am not sure I am abandoning that view just yet, but my thinking has certainly expanded backwards (in history) on this. The old guys got a lot of stuff right, and I continue to explore their emulation, and recent ongoing incorporation of holdfasts into my work, perhaps I will end up. As a confirmed Jameelaterian Emmertoholic I doubt I ever go completely vise-free, but you have certainly given me much to think about.

BTW I am not sure if I adequately expressed my in-person admiration for Greta. She is glorious!

Don Williams

Rudy X. Desjardins said...

Hi Kari,

I chose to go after a vise-less setup when building my new (very rough) bench... partly due to cost, but mainly because I like the idea of simple workholding and elegant solutions to this kind of thing... there's a lot of power in a simple Wedge ;)

Anyways... after some related posts recently on the Old Tools mailing list, I prototyped a very basic wedge-based front vise using a piece of 2x4, and also built a 'birdsmouth' type wedging vise to hold things on the top of the bench, ie: not-too-wide boards on edge for jointing, etc.

Combined with planing stops and holdfasts (of which I have none yet - this is really the only deficiency)... my simple stop-and-wedge-based workholding system is working really well, and thus far I don't see a need any time soon for adding a proper vise!

mokusakusensei--woods teacher said...

Cari, I just finished 9 drawer's bottom grooves that would not be possible w/o an end vice. I use my plow plane to cut these grooves faster than I could by setting up my router. (much quieter also). I am sure the need/no need is dependent on the type of work that is to be done.

Anonymous said...

The simplicity of this concept reminds me of Joshua Finn’s workbench. A simple bench using a few clamps and friction to hold work pieces. Fine Woodworking Winter 2008/09 No. 202, or if you have an online membership:

Thanks for the insightful article,


Kari Hultman said...

Jason, that sounds like a really good exercise. Thank you for posting it.

Scott, that bench cost $139 from a big box store 20 years ago. It's served me well although it's not the least bit steady or flat.

Don, when I first got into woodworking I couldn't figure out why workbenches were so important. They looked just like a table with two vises. Live and learn. And the more I learn the more I realize how little I know. It was great to see you at the meeting. I'll pass your compliment along to Greta. ; )

Rudy, sounds like you have a great set-up for workholding. Planing stops are fantastic and you can make them in different thicknesses depending on your project. I haven't found the need for holdfasts yet, believe it or not. I do have a couple, but my other jigs have covered all the bases so far.

McKay, I secure drawer bottoms between a bench dog and a Veritas Wonder Pup (which acts as an end vise). It would be tricky to cut grooves without it. I suppose in the "old" days they used two dogs and wedges. I've tried that but it doesn't work very well.

Thanks for the link, Dean!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

If a wedge is added is that not a vice, a holding device?


Anonymous said...

You’re welcome Kari. If you get a chance to read through Josh Finn’s article “Forget What You Know About Workbenches” please let us know your opinion. Thanks Kari.


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Anonymous said...

I have that some bench too. Christmas present from my folks after buying my first house 15 years ago. Yes, just a bit wobbly, but I doubt I'll ever get rid of it.

Seamus said...

When I first saw it years ago
in a FWW article,
Rob Tarule's interpretation of
Roubo's joiners bench
struck me as the solution to
the problem of paying for
a woodworkers vise.

Don't buy one!

At the time a vise purchase
was out of the question for me.
Tarule used holdfasts, battens
and a planing stop,
just as Roubo described,
although he did add the leg vice later.
Still, the epiphany of holdfasts...
what a revelation they were!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the system would work better if the bench dog was actually one half of a folding wedge instead of a straight piece?.

While I do like my vices(pun intended!), I am a fan of the more traditional workholding methods so thanks for sharing another one for us Kari!