Best Bench Vises

Updated December 2021
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Buying guide for Best bench vises

At first glance, a bench vise seems a straightforward item. Basic, robust engineering, with a simple function, and intuitive use. However, go looking for one, and you'll find you have a harder choice than you expected.

The wide variation between size, materials, jaw options, and more means there's a bench vise for nearly every application. Suddenly, it's not such a simple purchase.

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Check your bench is sturdy enough to support your chosen vise, and the kind of work you intend to do. Reinforce it if necessary.

Types of vises

The tool we're talking about here goes by several names: metalworking vise, engineer’s vise, machinist's vise, mechanic's vise, or workshop vise. They all fall under the umbrella of bench vises, so for the sake of simplicity, we'll use that term.

There are several other kinds of vise:

  • A woodworker's vise is built into the bench. Jaws are steel or iron, but usually have wooden faces, to prevent marking the workpiece. The front (moving) jaw meets the rear jaw at the same level as the bench top. The mechanism is underneath the bench.

  • A post vise – or blacksmith's vise – is a strange beast. Partly fixed to the bench, like a carpenter's, partly over the bench, like a machinist's, it also has a leg that extends to the floor, so it can support greater weights.

  • Handheld vises come in many varieties. There are machine vises (not to be confused with machinist vises) for use with pillar drills and milling machines.

  • Small, lightweight vises, frequently called jeweler's or watchmaker's vises, are miniature versions of the bench vise, but may be able to clamp at multiple angles. Some have suction bases. Jaws are often plastic or nylon so they don't mark delicate components.

Bench vise construction

All metalworking vises share a similar construction. The rear jaw of the vise is part of the base. It has two, three, or four bolt holes to fix it to the bench. The rear jaw does not move forward or backward, but the whole assembly may rotate. An anvil area is often incorporated.

The front jaw is fixed to a slide (sometimes called a beam), which is normally of square section, but with the bottom missing – like an upside-down “U.” Concealed within this slide is a long, heavy-duty, threaded bar. A winding handle is attached, in front of the jaw. Rotation of the handle moves this jaw, closing or opening the vise. Occasionally the beam is a round tube, with the threaded bar inside, though this is not common.

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For your safety
Even a relatively cheap bench vise is a heavy object — thirty pounds is common. A big, heavy-duty model could be twice that. Be careful when you lift it, and when you fix it to your bench. It's a good idea to have someone to lend a hand.

Bench vise materials

A bench vise has to exert considerable grip, and because it performs numerous tasks, it usually takes quite a pounding. Though you shouldn't strike the vise itself with a hammer, it often happens. So, it needs to be tough.

Steel: Low-cost bench vises often use steel, which is light and cheap. It's fine for light duties and for hobbyists, but it doesn't have the high resilience a professional would need.

Cast Iron: The best bench vises are made of cast iron, and two variants can be found: gray iron and ductile iron.

Gray Iron: This material's name isn't about color, rather it's used to indicate the presence of graphite flakes. It's the most common form of cast iron, used in everything from vises to stove tops. It's highly resistant to wear, doesn't rust easily, and isn't affected much by heat. Its only drawback is a lower structural strength than ductile iron. It doesn't take impact well, and in extreme cases can fracture.

For this reason, anvil sections on this kind of vise are often made of a steel plate, welded on. Steel will absorb impact – hammer blows, for example – without cracking, though it is possible to dent it.

Ductile Iron: This also contains graphite, but the particles are round. This gives it considerable extra strength and high ductility – hence the name. As a result, ductile iron is resistant to cracking, and anvil sections can therefore be made from the same material as the main body.

Bench vise jaws

Except in the very cheapest bench vises, jaws are removable. They come in many different shapes, sizes, and materials.

  • Serrated jaws give good grip, but can mark surfaces.

  • Nylon jaws are less likely to mark delicate or polished surfaces.

  • Pipe jaws have a V-shaped indent, to grip round tubes or bars.

  • Engineers may make their own jaws, to suit specific tasks.

Jaw covers are also available. These can be wooden, plastic, or nylon. They simply slip over the existing jaws for different gripping applications. As with replaceable jaws, engineers often make their own.

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Did you know?
A bench vise will, of course, hold things far bigger than the width of the jaws, or the depth of the throat, but working too far from the main area of grip can cause flexing, which often leads to mistakes.

Bench vise capacities

Bench vises can hold all objects of all shapes and sizes, but there are some restrictions:

The width of the jaws

Jaws start from just two inches wide, but four inches is common for an entry-level bench vise. It's a good size for a hobbyist's tool. Sizes increase by half-inch or one-inch increments depending on the manufacturer. Six-inch jaws are probably all most home engineers will need, though eight-inch jaws are widely available.

How far the jaws can open

Jaw openings vary enormously. Mostly, they depend on the length of the slide. This can be a major restriction on the size of the item you can hold, so it's important to get it right. Some DIY bench vises only allow an opening of four inches. Professional-grade tools with reversible heads can open as wide as eleven inches.

The distance between the top of the jaws and the slide

This is referred to as the throat depth. Because of the way a bench vise is constructed, throat depth varies little. Even a cheap bench vise will have a throat depth of between two and a half or three inches, yet only a few top-quality models exceed four inches.

Bench vise features

Though a bench vise is an uncomplicated device, there are a few features that make life easier.

Quick release

Many bench vises have a quick-release feature. A finger-operated lever, attached under the front jaw, releases the screw thread. This allows the jaw to slide back and forward freely, and therefore more quickly. Releasing the lever re-engages the thread. The vise can't be fully tightened until this is done.

Swivel base

This is a common and useful addition. It makes it easier to position different parts of the workpiece in front of you, rather than having to move the piece itself. Beware, however, while some rotate through 360°, others may offer considerably less movement.

Rotating head

A few vises have rotating heads that can carry two sets of jaws. This gives fast access to the second set, saving you the time it would take to change jaws completely.

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Always check that your vise is securely bolted to the bench. There's danger of a serious accident if it comes loose.

Safety tips

  • Never wind the front jaw/slide all the way out. They can be very heavy. If they become detached they can fall and cause injury. They can also be extremely difficult to re-align.

  • Never leave a vise closed when not in use. Doing so causes stress that can lead to fractures.

  • Never use extension bars on the handle. The supplied handle will apply the maximum pressure intended. Trying to exert more can potentially damage the vise, or cause injury to the user.

  • When you've finished work for the day, open the vise jaws slightly and leave the handle in the vertical position. If you leave it horizontal, it can catch you at hip height when you pass, leaving a surprisingly painful bruise.

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Whenever possible, position your item such that the working area is close to the jaws of the vise. This reduces flexing or vibration, and gives you greater control.

What does a good bench vise cost?

There are some very cheap bench vises around, but bear in mind that these tools exert a tremendous amount of pressure. Metal fatigue and stress fractures are common with poorly cast models.

You can get get a perfectly good four- to six-inch vise for between $50 and $100, which is not a lot of money for a tool you'll probably never wear out.

If you need greater capacity, or you want to invest in something that will take a lot of punishment, top brand bench vises run from around $150 to $250.

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