Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wagon Vise

A commenter asked about the wagon vise. Since I think it's a great addition to my bench, I thought I'd share a few thoughts about it.

The general concept is an old one, and I first encountered it from first Chris Schwarz's blog over at Woodworking Magazine (see blog roll on left), and then again in his workbench book. (which you should buy, right now. Go ahead, I'll wait......Back again? good)

The details of execution I came up with myself. I didn't want to do a bench bottom installation, and I thought, since I was designing this from scratch, and could incorporate it any way I wanted, I'd design it to be built-in to the bench itself. This allowed me to keep the design very simple, which is a benefit for an amateur like me.

The essential design is a block of wood (the chop) attached to the end of a small bench screw. The screw is fixed at the end of the bench, and the chop slides along a pair of grooves cut into the faces of the adjoining boards.

My top is made up of a series of 7/8 thick boards glued together. Board 1 is at the front of the bench where I stand, and board 14 is at the back. Board 1 is full length. Board 2 and 3 are short, thus creating the gap for the wagon vise. Board 4 is full length. There is a groove cut into the inside faces of boards 1 and 4 down which the chop moves. At the end of boards 2 and 3 is a block through which the screw passes and into which I inset the nut of the screw. This block is just glued face-t0-face with boards 1 and 4.

Here's a bad copy of the Visio drawing I made of it.

Update: I realized the I forgot to point out that my original drawing had the vise only one board wide, but when I got past measurements, and got to the real objects, I realized that I needed to make it two-boards wide. You must always be ready to change design in the face of reality. At least those of us as bad at design as I am.

Here's a photo of it installed. You can see the groove and the tabs on the chop that slide in the groove. You'll notice that I made the chop so the grain went the opposite direction of the bench top. I did this because I had to laminate the chop together to encase the pad of the bench screw.

Perhaps this is a good time to revisit how I built it. (you can read my account at the time in an earlier post)

First the chop. I had to make this several times as I kept learning and screwing up the layout dimensions. I also started to go down the path of a half-dovetail design for the tabs and groove, but realized what a total pain that was going to be to cut in the hard maple. So I went with square, which works just fine.

First I cut out the three pieces and then ganged them together to cut the tabs.

Now, this is what the screw looks like.

It's a press screw for book presses or cider presses. The pad on the end has no built-in means of affixing it to a chop. I decided I didn't want to drill holes in it since I wasn't sure how all of this would work, and if I'd need to change the screw, and if the holes would weaken the already small pad. So I designed a means to encase the pad in the chop in such a way that i could take it out if necessary.

Here's the back-most layer of the chop. The keyhole shape is to allow the collar of the pad to stick through, and the slot in the bottom allows access to the bolt that holds the pad to the screw.

The middle layer of the chop I cut out a recess to accommodate the pad.

It was at about this point that I decided not to make the pad removable. I still needed access to the bolt to affix the pad to the screw, but I left the recess for the pad in the second layer just big enough for the pad. I then glued it all up.

Here it is all glued up and ready for mounting.

Here it is with the screw installed. The piece of scrap you see shows my initial thoughts on a half-dovetail design for the tabs.

The dog hole in the chop goes towards the end.

After that, it was time for the grooves.

After careful layout, and a lot of trying out prototypes (both of the design, and the technique to make such big stopped grooves), I cut the grooves. The grooves are about 1" wide and about 1/2" deep. All I had was a 1/2" pigsticker mortise chisel, a great big mallet and ear protection.

Here you can see how the chop slides in the grooves.

Making the block at the end that holds the nut for the screw was also a bit of a challenge, mainly because drilling out a large enough hole through end grain of hard maple is not a fun thing. I tried a bunch of different ways with what tools I had and ended up doing the e pluribus unum technique, "out of many holes, one" approach.

You'll notice the final hole is not exactly round, but not as distorted as it appears in the last picture. But it was good enough.

I tested it for length. (I learned, the hard way, to leave the boards all a little too long on one end and cut them off at the end rather than try and cut them all to perfect dimensions. There are no perfect dimensions)

And in the end, after gluing up, screwing up the glue-up and having to reglue (read back a bit in the blog for all the fun), I ended up with a great little wagon vise. It seems small, but it really holds quite well. I could pick up my bench, if I was strong enough, by a handle squeezed in my wagon vise. And I ended up using mainly wooden bench dogs made out of lengths of dowel with a little ball catch inset into the side to make sure the ill-fitting, cheap dowels don't end up on the floor too easily. I was afraid these wooden dogs wouldn't work, wouldn't hold, but even the soft, poplar-like ones from China just end up distorting a little bit to make a flat side, and hold like the dickens.

Even when I stick the dogs up high, it holds like a champ.

And for narrow stock, less than 3 1/4", I can clamp it directly and then nothing is moving when I do that.

I find that sometimes putting a wide piece of scrap in between the dog and the piece I'm working on helps to distribute the load and makes it clamp more securely.

Overall, I really like my wagon vise. It took a lot of fiddling to get it right, mainly because of my lack of skill or design sense, but once I figured out what I wanted to do, and how to do it, it was fairly straight forward. If I had a larger bench, I'd love to use one of the shorter shoulder vise screws used in European workbenches. It would be totally overkill, and would take up a fair amount of your bench, hence you'd need a big top for it to work, but it would be really cool.

And one more comment. When Chris Schwarz talked about his original wagon vise, he mentioned that he was concerned about all that force on just a small block at the end, so he put an end cap on his bench top. I decided to risk it, and I know it's still quite new, but so far it seems like it's doing just fine. It is about 12 square inches of face-to-face glue surface on each side, so that should be pretty strong. And it seems to be working.

Give it a shot on your own bench. Once you get the concept, it's not that difficult.



  1. Awesome desription - thanks for the info!

  2. Really enojyed your blog. Loved the post about the work bench. Please check out my blog and give me any feedback you can. The blog is in its early stages so keep checking for weekly updates.

  3. I did it a little differently.
    I drilled the pad for four screws, used an end cap, and made the bottom of the groove removable so I could service the vise in case of degradation of the works. I also used square benchdogs. If you wish I can send pictures (

  4. I hope you still read comments from old posts!

    Hey, how do you think it would work to put the hole for the screw directly in between two of the laminated boards, and before laminating you cut some grooves in the middle of both boards to recieve the screw? You'd end up with a square hole but would it really matter? Grooves would be way easier than boring through end grain. What do you think?

  5. I believe that would work well. The shape of the hole for the screw is not as important as making sure it's the right size and that it's centered.

    Layout is key for this. But I'll tell you, after using my wagon vise for a while now, I love it. Actually, the whole bench is fantastic.

    I was carving out the handle for a froe club yesterday. I started with a quarter log of white oak. I hacked out a flat on the inside point and had roughly hacked out a fair amount with my broad hatchet while outside at my stump. I was then able to come in and finish up the handle by putting the whole log in my leg vise. The leather-lined leg vise held the awkward-shaped log just fine. It has such wide jaws, and tremendous holding power. As does the wagon vise as well. I was flattening a wide board of sapele just last weekend. I don't think a thing of putting a wide board into my wagon vise, and planing across, diagonally and then with the grain. The board just does not move, at all, even when traverse planing. It's great.

    Good luck!

  6. That's great, thanks for your input. I'm actually considering laminating my benchtop from 4/4 stock instead of 8/4, so maybe I'll "create" the groove by leaving a void in the lamination. I'm also planning on voids for mortises in the legs (to receive the long stretchers) and in the top (to receive the through tenon legs). I know it's a bit tricky but seems like it'd be less work overall than all that drilling and chopping!

    Hey, do you think a 12" screw is long enough for a wagon vise? The threads themselves are 12". I'm trying to figure out how to balance having a big enough open space versus having enough "meat" between the gap and the end of the bench.

  7. I'd say a 12" screw is plenty long. Since this is a family blog I won't point out that it's hard to have too much screw for your vice, but you can have too much screw for your vise.

    Sorry. Anyway, you really don't need too much movement in the vise. I figured 8" would be ideal, but 12 would be fine, especially considering the block at the end of the bench.

  8. I just discovered your blog today as I searched "wagon vise" looking ideas or inspiration for a easy way to put one in a bench I am planning. I have both of the books by "The schwarz" on workbenches and and he only did a wagon vise on the nicholson bench. while I love the way it seems to work all of the others in both books include a metal vise in the tail position. I have an old garage sale metal vise & a 9" press screw and I go back & forth debating which will be better & which will be better. Your blog post has made up my mind. thanks

  9. Really enojyed your blog. Loved the post about the work bench. Please check out my blog and give me any feedback you can. The blog is in its early stages so keep checking for weekly updates.


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