Vises with vices…

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that a good saw vise is hard to find. It’s not a matter of quantity…finding one is very easy…they are everywhere on ebay, antique shops and tool dealers. The problem is finding one that functions well.

As I learned to sharpen saws early on, my experiences with saw vises paralleled very closely with my experiences with women. At first, I didn’t know what to look for, so I would just buy everyone I found and stick my saw in it to see how it worked. Soon enough, in addition to lots of sub-par vises (and unsavory ex-girlfriends) I ended up with a very clear idea of what was required of a solid, functional vise. It wasn’t until then that I was finally able to find a great vise that could serve all of my needs, because until then, I never knew what I needed.

So, now I know exactly what I require in a good vise (and in a good woman! 😉 )

 And what it all boils down to is that because I do a lot of retoothing by hand, I need a vise that is as solid as a Nazi bunker. When you’re retoothing a 4 or 5 point rip saw, any weak point in the vise will flex with your file stroke…and this robs your file of its work. Not good. So I can now look at a vise and tell if its going to be any good without even picking it up. 

Now before you start lauding me with praise, I should probably tell you that being able to tell a good saw vise from a bad one is not rocket science. In fact, it’s probably common sense for your average second grader….in most cases, bigger equals better. Why it took me so long to figure this out, I don’t know (I never was very smart anyway). Perhaps, just like those many ex-girlfriends, I wasn’t paying attention to the right….details. 😉

Anyway, I figured I would share my experiences and critiques with each vise I’ve been enamored with over the past few years.

It all started 8 or 9 years ago the first time I sharpened a saw. At that time, I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as a saw vise, so I did what any power tool woodworker would have done and used my Black and Decker Workmate. With two pieces of MDF as vise jaws, I clamped my vintage Disston dovetail saw into the Workmate and had at it….with surprisingly good results. The Workmate performed admirably, and if all I ever needed to sharpen was back saws, then this would probably be all the saw vise I would ever need. The jaws held the work more securely than you’d ever need, it was easy to operate, and didn’t deflect under my file stroke at all. Again, I was filing a 15 point DT saw, so the stroke had minimal force behind it, but this set up could easily handle anything up to an 11 or 12 point saw with no problem. Go figure!

Alas, the burgeoning saw disease was destined to soon metastasize to my brain and completely take over my life, so when I started to file hand saws I quickly outgrew my Workmate. I did try to make it work, but the poor bugger just didn’t have the mass to pull it off, and with its splayed steel legs, getting a stool close enough to the vise for long filing sessions was an exercise in futility. Oh well….who doesn’t like an excuse to buy a new tool?!?!?

Here’s the point in the story you all know so well…..your first love….and boy, was she a looker! A vintage, turn of the century Disston #2…you know…the one with the raised lettering proclaiming her father’s name…

Ahhhhh…I can still remember the moment I saw her on the table at an antique tool auction…she looked at me, and I at her, and that was it. $20 and she was mine. The first few times with her were life changing…she was beautiful, firm and responsive. Wait a minute….what are we talking about again?!?!?! 😉

Anyway, back to saw vises…when I found this Disston #2, the  cam lock had plenty of life in it, the jaws were straight and true, and the screw mechanism that holds the vise to your workbench was solid. Truly, this vise changed the way I looked at saw filing…it was great to be able to stand up and file at a comfortable level. And once again, if all I ever needed to file was smaller saws, this little gal would be fine….but there in lies the rub.

Because this vise has the common design that elevates the saw high off the bench, it kind of turns the whole unit into a sky scaper….and you know what they say about the top of skyscrapers in the wind. Well just imagine the toothline of your saw is the top floor of the Sears Tower, and your file stroke is the wind…you can do the math.

So, unfortunately, this beautiful tool was limited in its function….it just gave too much deflection with larger files and work. I would say the limits of this vise are in the 9 to 10 point range. I can remember filing a 20 inch Disston #7 panel saw with 10 points and being very pleased with this vise. But I can also remember a week later when I tried to file a 6 point Atkins rip saw in it and that was the moment that my eyes started to glance longingly at other women…I mean vises.

Enter the Sargent #95….this vise is one of those fancy ones with the ball and socket that lets you turn, bevel, and slant the saw any which way you please. It also had more mass than the Disston, and it had a screw closure, as opposed to the cam lock for the vise jaws. That meant I could dial in heavier clamp pressure on the saw plate….

Once again, all was well in saw filing land….my new love was solid and oh so flexible. Sweet! I really fell for the ball and socket mechanism too…not only was this just a damn cool feature to play with and look at, but I didn’t have to unclamp the saw to file from the other side of the plate for saws with fleam. I’d just unclamp the ball in the socket and swing it around…voila!

But, just like the others, this romance wasn’t meant to last…the now glaring issue of retoothing the big saws came roaring back with a vengeance. No matter how hard I tightened that socket (NOT A GOOD IDEA!!! OLD CAST IRON IS BRITTLE!!!!) I couldn’t counter act the skyscraper effect….deflection with the heavy files. Oh well…..back in the mix of cheap bars and disco-techs I went….still determined to meet my dream girl.

And here’s where the story gets interesting. At some point, I remember reading Joel’s blog at Tools For Working Wood about his old Wentworth vise….I was intrigued. Could this be? A saw vise that delivers?

Luckily enough, I was happy to score a box lot of saw vises at local tool auction that included one of these Wentworth vises…..sweet! One of the cool things about this vise is that it has an integral rubber liner on the clamping jaws that help to prevent the dreaded screeching of the file across the teeth. Not only that, but they help keep the saw firmly in the jaws. But the real selling point of this vise was the compact nature of jaw fixture to the point where the vise clamps to your bench…

Here’s the reality with saw vises: the shorter the distance from your bench top to the vise jaws, the more stable your vise is going to be in use. And this vise by far had the shortest distance of any I’d seen. And what a difference it made! Coupled with the rubber jaw liner (which I did replace as the original was all dried up and crumbly) this vise was a real winner! It was short, which made is solid, it was easy to operate and clamp thanks to the cam lock, and it was easy to store do to its compact size. I loved it. And yes….it handled big saws and big files just fine. 🙂

The only down side to this vise was the short jaw length….at 1o inches long, it required two repositionings to file a full size hand saw. Not a deal breaker, but certainly a nuisance when you’re in a filing groove….it just turns into a hassle to unclamp, move, line it up and reclamp over and over. Call me picky, but at this point in my life, I wanted it all in a partner. 😉

But honestly, I was resigned to accept this vise as my mate for the long haul. I didn’t think it could get any better….at least not without shelling out $150 for Joel’s wonderful GramercyToolsVise. (And thus far, I have held out on selling a kidney on ebay to finance that one…)

But, like all those before, this little lady was ultimately doomed as well. I just got tired of the unclamping…clamping…unclamping…clamping dance and decided it was time to move on.

So, much like the two enterprising young men in the John Hughes 80’s teen classic WeirdScience who decided to make the perfect woman, I decided to make the perfect vise….

And what it turned out to be was nothing more than a simple hinged saw carriage for use in my Moxon twin screw vise….two scraps of plywood, two strips of hardwood for the jaws, a couple brass barrel hinges and….

Held to my bench with hold fasts, you could drive a Hummer into this vise and it wouldn’t move….let alone deflect it with a saw file. The only limitation? In order to fit my already existing Moxon vise, I had to limit the length of the saw carriage to 24 inches to fit between the screws. That means if I had to file a saw longer than 24 inches, I had to remove the tote. Not cool.

So, how does this story end? Well, it doesn’t. In fact, another recent chapter has been added very recently. A brief stop on my way home from work a few Fridays ago at a local antique shop yielded this most amazing saw vise…

She’s big, she’s brawny and she’s a solid as a brick house. I had to tap in a new screw to clamp the jaws closed, as I had to drill out the original (it was rusted solid). But without a doubt, this is the biggest saw vise I have ever found in the wild. The jaws are 14 inches wide…very big for vintage iron! The castings are HUGE…this thing weighs a ton!!!! It is amazingly solid….the file deflection is minimal and certainly the slightest I have ever found in a vintage vise. I have no idea who made this vise, as it has no markings of any kind….but it is old…very old.

Anyway, for now, it seems my search for the perfect vise is at a still point…..

We’ll see…


Published in: on May 2, 2011 at 8:00 pm  Comments (15)  

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15 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Matt enjoyed your Journey and really thought you were coming up with a larger plywood box. Really a neat story so are abandoning the plywood and moving to your new found cast iron, or use both.


    • Hi Steve
      I actually use both…the iron for back saws and the Moxon for hand saws.

  2. Matt,
    Wow, that was an awesome story. It was also certainly the dirtiest woodworking blog post I have ever read. I like dirty. How much did those big 10” files deflect that svelt little Sargent 95 again? I also loved that you were still trolling antique stores looking for upgrades when you had slightly imperfect but wonderful shop made vice at home. I said vice…

    Long story short, thanks for the information about how to select a saw vice and keep up the great work on keeping us all informed about the ins and outs of wielding our awesome hand saw tools.
    — Cyrus

    • Thanks Cyrus…glad you approve.
      The Sargent did well enough, but once I got into regular taper 7 inch files, it really started to dance.

      I really should point out that if you were just touching up a well filed saw in the 6 or 7 point range, the Sargent would be fine…but as I said, its in retoothing, i.e. heavy filing, that these vises start to come apart at the seams.


  3. Good article Matt!


  4. Matt,

    For all the time and money spent on the less-than-perfect vintage vises, you should have just purchased a Gramercy vise and been done with it.

    • Well Guy, between all my saw vises (that includes all those here and the many more in boxes not mentioned) I have a total of $55. That’s still a hundred bucks shy of the Gramercy….

      • Hmmm… $55? Really? With $20 for a Disston means for $35 you got the other three mentioned here, the timber and hardware for the folding version, the time to make it, as well as ‘many more’ vises in boxes. Plus you’ve skipped the gas, the time, and the frustration (all of which contribute to value) you had with all the others.

        And total all of that up, and $100 to avoid it all is the equivalent of selling a kidney?

        Hyperbole goes both ways. No criticism of your methods, but your crazy if you think $150 to avoid all of that (8 or 9 years dealing with this?) is the equivalent of ‘selling a kidney’.

  5. “(And thus far, I have held out on selling a kidney on ebay to finance that one…)”

    Give it time…

    Best regards,
    Albert “Afghanus” Rasch
    The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles™
    Clean and Repair your 10/22 Magazine!

  6. Hey Matt,
    I just noticed that you replied to my comment on WK Fine Tools. I was thinking it would notify me when you responded so I never checked back until now.

    I’d be interested in some apple for repairing my handle. Email me back and we can discuss specifics.


  7. What did you use to replace the jaw liner on your Wentworth? Mine has a triangular profile that no one has in stock.

    • Hi Chris

      I cut a piece of rubber washing machine hook up line lengthwise and split it in half…then i cut it to just over the width of the slot in the vise and glued it in the slot with a little contact adhesive. Worked like a charm!


  8. I found a saw vise at a garage sale. It looks really old but has a kind of vise-grip type arrangement to work the jaws. I tried it once and when filing the teeth in the middle of the jaws, the whole thing squeaked like crazy. I realize the jaws are curved a bit so that when you clamp down, everything is evenly clamped but I think mine are a bit too much.

    • Hi Greg
      Saw vices at garage sales are quite rare…nice one! As for the squeaking, it could be lots of things. Vintage vises can be finicky…tuning them and getting to them to top performance can take a little time…but keep at it!

  9. I enjoyed your story on vises.I wasn’t aware that there was that much difference in them. But then again I mostly used my vise gor automotive work not making or sharpening saws.

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