The vise royal flush

Should the vise be mounted flush with the apron, or with a spacer? This is a topic that are discussed from time to time, so I’ll give my stack of dimes on the subject.

Browsing through my image library, I find a lot of images of my Eclipse 9” quick release vise in use, but only a few of them focusing on the vise itself. But such is the lot in life for indispensable entities – those who we rely on the most are most often overlooked.

The pandemic has shown us a few things in this regards, and here is my message on that subject: Show appreciation for the ones you overlook! During the pandemic, certain people has been even more vital to the society than medical staff (which are crucial!).
Grocery store workers and cleaning personell.
For the victims of the pandemic, the health care system and its employees have been the most important. But for the vast majority, modern life simply could not function without the people working in shops and the people cleaning those places. Without them, the society would grind to a screeching halt in a hurry.

So smile to them. Maybe even thank them for doing the often underrated and belittled type of work. If everybody was engineers, woodworkers or politicians, we would starve to death… Think about that for a second!

The Eclipse 9” quick-release metal woodworker vise is a vital component, and it makes the work bench work efficiently. It is fast to use and it holds anything with a death grip – nothing comes loose from that thing lest you untighten it!

My strop being held in the vise

The subject of controversy (if there is one, but for the sake of this article – let’s say this is the big one) is: should the vise be mounted flush with the apron or not?

NOTE: We are discussing metal woodworking vises here, as depicted. Not vises that rely on the apron or bench top as one of the jaws, although the topic is relevant for those too.

PRO FLUSH(?)

The advocates of flush mounting states that using the apron as a vise jaw will make it easier to clamp long pieces, as the apron will support the work piece along the entire length of the bench.

True.

But utterly useless most of the time, mesa thinks. How often do you think you will really need that? And what support are we talking about? By clamping the piece to the apron at one end, either with a clamp or a holdfast, and the other end in the vise, the piece is supported vertically at each end (if the holdfast holds…) and only laterally in the middle. If the work piece needs vertical support all the way along its length, toss it on top of the bench. I can think of just one or two scenario where full lateral support would be needed, and those are pretty far fetched.

To achieve the exact same result with a non-flush mounted vise is easy. Any piece of wood with the same thickness as the inner jaw can be used to fill the gap where you want to clamp the piece to the apron. You can make an “apron hook” similar to a bench hook, or even make a long batten with dowels that could be inserted into the apron – take inspiration from the Veritas planing stops. In a pinch, you could even use painter’s tape to hold a spacer in place (I use painter’s tape all the time. Great for clamping small glue ups).

A flush mounted vise is also harder to install – it involves quite a lot of work to recess the vise into the apron. Of course, you could just mount the stationary jaw behind the apron, but then you’ll loose a lot of the width between the jaws. On a bench like mine, with a thick top, this is not an option.

The best way: non-flush. IMNSHO.

In my not so humble opinion. This is the easiest way to mount the vise. Cut the hole, slap the vise in and bolt it to the underside of the bench top. Then install a liner for the inner jaw (with spacer blocks on the sides, extending the vise from 9” to 11”. Or from 22.9cm to 28cm). For the moving jaw, a thick piece of good quality plywood or hardwood. Line the moving jaw with leather, suede side up. You’ll get tremendous gripping power!

Sort of like holding the planks between the thumb and the index finger, really!

I cut the legs for our fire pan benches by flushing the blanks on the bench, then into the vise. Just like the image above. I could really bear down on the saw – the leg blanks did not budge!

But the main reason why you should not mount the vise flush, is this:

You cannot hold the piece like this when you secure it in the vise, with a flush mounted vise!

The quick release vise is incredibly fast to use – no spinning of a handle for a minute and a half to move from closed to fully open. Just press the lever and slide the jaw to where you want it. Fast and easy – but if you need to do acrobatics to hold the work piece against the apron while you adjust and secure the vise, you are on the wrong path.

Take another look at the image where I sawed the leg blanks. After I cut the taper, I grabbed the legs on the left side and held them firmly while I re-positioned them in the vise for a couple of swipes with the smoothing plane to remove the saw marks. A flush mounted vise would’ve make that operation very hard to do. In such cases, you want the work pieces to be as low as possible in the vise to ensure that they are squeezed together near the top. Fastened too high, and the blanks could easily fan out at the top. By having the ability to place things in the vise with the fingers between the apron and the work piece, this is very easy to do.

About 4cm (about 1 5/8”) of space between the work piece and the bench

I’ve thought a lot about this setup, and I’ve found through use that I need the space between the work piece and the apron for my hands, all the time. It is more natural to use over- or underhand grip on any work piece when inserting it into the vise. It is more secure than pressing a piece against the apron while tightening the vise, or holding the piece with just your fingertips.

And as evident in the image above: when sawing in the vise, you can make a full cut by angling the saw upwards (which you should do anyway to guide the cut), without damaging the edge of the apron. Too much…

I might make a long batten which I can mount on the apron for securing longer pieces with a holdfast. The same result could be achieved with an “apron hook”. But I will still keep at least a two or three hands wide opening next to the vise. The ability to grip the work piece as depicted above is indispensable to me.

Someone once proposed a removable inner jaw to a flush mounted setup. It might be a good idea for one or two, but for the most part it is just a complication for a problem that’s not really there to begin with. I would rather spend time making an “apron hook” than recessing the vise into the apron. The apron hook would take considerably less time, and I can whip one up at any time – should the need ever arise! Which I really doubt it will, based on my experience from other areas in life. It is easy to overthink…

Other arguments against flush mounting the vise:

  • The apron could warp, making it impossible to close the vise or get even grip. This could happen with a setup like mine, but that is very easy to fix comparably.
  • You cannot slap a sash-clamp in the vise for added flexibility in work holding.
  • You cannot hang any saws or other tools on the apron for easy access, as you would bang into them all the time with longer pieces.

For long and sturdy pieces, the need for support is often exaggregated. Just look at the following image:

A tad over 150cm (4’11 1/16”) in length, the table top for my support table was held secure in the vise while I jointed the edges and made a spring joint for the two planks to form the top. Note the distance between the plank and the bench. I held the plank under my arm with my hand between the plank and the work bench while securing it.

Pristine, at the time of installation. Not that pristine anymore, but with patina! NOTE: the moveable jaw was lined with leather shortly after the image was taken.

I am in good company here. Just read this article from Mr. Paul Sellers. However: In the end, each woodworker should decide for herself or himself what to do. Only YOU can give the definitive answer to what will work for you. But I’ll say this: there is often a reason to the madness from times gone by. The methods and solutions used by old masters was developed based on countless hours of experience at the bench. If it did not work, it did not last. Different styles and different needs dictates different solutions. The best example would be the bench height – you need a low bench for prepping boards and hand planing, or your back will go out. For joinery, you want a higher bench in order to bring the work up close to your eyes (or you could kneel or squat at a lower bench in a pinch). It depends on what you do the most. For the once-in-a-blue-moon instances, improvise there and then.

If you work with very long pieces all the time, maybe a flush mounted vise would benefit you – but what about the shorter pieces? I bet most of us works with short pieces most of the time.
In any rate, if you have a flush mounted vise – mount a “spacer jaw” of about 25 – 40 mm (1 – 1 1/2”) in thickness and use it for a month or two to really test it out. If you still do not like it, remove it. But I’ll bet it will stay!

In my opinion: Making a royal flush will be a royal pain unless aces are involved…

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