For woodworkers, metalworkers, jewelers, clockmakers, and even plumbers, a good vise is essential to doing a job right. Vises hold raw materials in place, allowing craftspersons to plane, carve, cut, or drill a piece of wood or metal to precise specifications, limited only by their skill with their tools. Some vises are handheld, others are built into workbenches, and then there are vises designed to repair other tools, such saw vises, whose wide, parallel clamps hold a saw blade in place so it can be sharpened, one tooth at a time.
Hardware and hand-crafted devices designed to stabilize a piece of material so it can be worked on are not new, but the vise (or vice) as we think of it today did not appear until 1750, when the first parallel vice with movable jaws appeared. By 1830, English manufacturers were making parallel vises out of cast iron, which improved their strength over wooden vises in many, but not all, cases. Soon, cast iron and machined metal vises in all shapes and sizes were being produced, each designed for a specific application and need.
Probably the most familiar metal vise is the bench vise, made by Bonney, Sargent, Alford, Simpson, and other manufacturers. Bench vises are often bolted to the surface of a workbench from above or held in place by compression from below. Such vises tend to be used by metalworkers and jewelers, in sizes that correspond to the materials they are working with. One type of bench vise, the blacksmith’s vise, has a long descending leg, whose purpose is to absorb the shocks caused by repeated hammer blows by a blacksmith. Some bench vises feature bases that can be swiveled, while others are designed to cut miters, or corners, in decorative trim. There are also vises that include a small anvil built just behind the inside jaw—these are sometimes used by jewelers.
Woodworking vises are a different animal, in that their top surface is flush with the surface of the workbench they are built into, which means they only need one moving jaw. Some woodworking vises are anchored to a workbench leg, while tail vises are added to the end of a work surface. While many woodworking vises are made entirely of wooden components, including the screw that is turned to tighten the vise’s wooden jaw to the table, others rely on metal hardware, with the exception of the wooden jaw. Woodworking vises are sometimes referred to as Roubo or Nicholson vises, which take their names from their 18th- and 19th-century designers.
Finally, there is the family of handheld vises, which range from the common Vise Grip made by Irwin Tools to wooden clamps made by companies such as Hempe and Jorgensen. Though wooden clamps are not vises per se because they are used mostly to hold pieces of wood together while the glue between them dries, clamps are sometimes employed to secure a piece of material to a surface so it can be worked on, therefore serving a similar purpose as a vise.