The story of this Wilton 450SJ (4.5″ swivel jaw) isn’t as much a story about a restoration, or a purchase, as it is about a little bit of luck combined with having a good network of friends.
We’ve all been there right? You’re talking to a friend and they say “oh, if I only knew, I saw one of those yesterday” as your heart sinks because you missed an awesome opportunity. This time the friend knew, sent me a note, and an awesome opportunity turned into an awesome purchase!
Since this isn’t really about the vise itself, let’s get the details out of the way first. A Wilton 450SJ is actually marked “9A450SJ” on the side. It has 4.5″ wide jaws, weighs about 70 pounds and is mounted on a swivel base. The rear jaw is mounted on a large pivot bushing and there is a hole and tapered pin just behind that pivot. If you want the rear jaw fixed in place, put the pin in the hole, tap it down, and you’re done. If you want the rear jaw to pivot, pull the pin, and it will move as needed. For obvious reasons, swivel jaw models aren’t as strong as normal vises, but they are very handy for securing irregularly shaped objects.
For folks not familiar with this model, all you really need to know is that they’re rare. Thinking back over the past year or so I’ve seen only four show up on eBay, Craigslist, or various other auction sites. Some people claim very few were made to start with, and others claim the fact they aren’t as strong as standard models mean many were broken and wound up in the scrap pile. Probably somewhere in between is true, but I suspect the total production numbers were quite low even if many of them did break. I’ve known about them since I started buying vises, and friends who collect and restore vises warned me that if I ever found one, not to tell anybody about it until it was in my possession. I figured I would never find one, but sometimes that’s the easiest way to find something!
So how did I find this rare creature? It was just lucky! I woke up on a Saturday morning, got my coffee, sat down in front of my computer, and pulled my phone off the charger. I saw I had a text from a coworker that said “Need any more vises?” and then came the pictures. The very first picture was of a steel workbench covered with vises, almost all Wilton bullets of one form or another. In the center was a 2″ jaw Wilton Baby that still had the original paint and sticker mounted on a Pow-R-Arm Jr that I wrote about not long ago: https://mivise.com/2017/03/wilton-baby/. About a foot to the left of the Baby was a Wilton 450SJ. I was literally looking at a picture with two vises I never thought I’d find, but there they were. I should point out the rarity of the Baby was just the original paint and stickers, not the model.
It turns out my coworker (he’s also a good friend) was driving near his house that morning and saw signs for an auction at a gunsmith’s shop that was closing and decided to check it out. He’s in the market for a few pieces of machinery, but when he saw the vises he sent me a text. In addition to the luck of my buddy driving by and letting me know, I was extra lucky because it was only about half an hour away, and the machinery wasn’t going to be auctioned until later in the day, so I had time to get there.
I went online to the auction website to check the terms of sale for buyer’s premium, acceptable payment methods, etc then jumped in the truck and headed to the auction. I got to the auction, worked my way through the maze of people, equipment, a tent, and more equipment than you can imagine to find my buddy and get to the registration table. After registering we walked over to the table with vises and they were even better in person than the picture showed.
I got out my notebook, wrote down each of the vises I was interested in, and came up with a price limit so I didn’t get too carried away while bidding. For some things my limit is a true hard limit, and I simply won’t go over it, but for other things I’ll leave myself some wiggle room since it’s something I might want to keep. In this case there were about eleven vises on the table, and I planned to bid on all of them, but knew the Baby and SJ had to some home with me. I figured anything else I managed to get was just a bonus, so I didn’t plan to push hard while bidding on the other vises.
I set myself up in a position next to a shelving unit that was behind the table of vises. I did that partially to get out of the traffic moving around the bench to look at all the vises, but also to make sure I was in a position where the auctioneer would be able to see me, which isn’t always easy. I also hoped it would make it where not everybody bidding could see me. I’ve been to enough auctions now that I recognize a number of the same folks bidding on vises, and have to assume a few of them recognize me as well. I don’t know if it would help, but figured it wouldn’t hurt if they didn’t know who they were bidding against.
Luckily, the bidding started on the vises I was least interested in, so I stuck to my limits exactly and let other folks have them. It seemed most of the people bidding were folks buying them to keep and use, not flip or restore and resell. That drove the prices a bit higher than usual, but it also meant it wasn’t a bunch of vise collectors willing to pay crazy prices. My theory was that each vise sold to someone else was one less person likely to bid on the two vises I really wanted. There is no way to know if that’s what happened, but it was worth trying.
The bids were pretty normal until we got to the Baby and as the number went up on that one, there were a few “wow” type comments from the folks around the table. When I won that one there was a little murmur because it was the highest bid on any of the vises so far, and it’s tiny. Up next was a normal 4″ Wilton that I got right at my limit and there were only two vises left at that point. There was a very modern model 400S in nice shape and then the 450SJ. Bidding on the 400S went up pretty quickly, and I stopped bidding at my number. It’s a common vise, and I had one just like it, but already restored ready to sell.
Finally, we got to the 450SJ, which was on the far corner of the table, so it wound up being last. The number started pretty low, so I jumped the bid quite a bit, which caused another rumble from the group. I don’t think anybody really knew what it was at that point. After the big jump, it was down to probably three of us biding, but I wasn’t looking at anybody but the auctioneer. The bid went up another series of bids very quickly, and my strategy was to very quickly respond to each increase so any other bidders would know I was serious. If you start to pause, and waiver, they know you’re near the limit, or maybe over what you planned. As luck would have it, things just stopped and as much as the auctioneer tried to get another bid, nobody would bite, and it was mine. I actually wound up getting it for $10 under my limit and I think I was $15 over my ballpark limit for the Baby, so it really worked out well.
About a week after the auction, something really interesting happened when my phone rang. The caller had seen an ad I have on Craigslist, and he was calling to see if I had a particular model Wilton vise. After talking a bit I mentioned he should have been at this auction, because two just like he wanted were sold. It turns out, he was at the auction, and had bid on them, but got discouraged at the prices. He then went home did some research and realized he should have bid higher. I didn’t have what he was looking for, but we talked quite a bit, and there was actually more to the story. He was a gunsmith, who had served as an apprentice at that gun shop 30 years prior. He sent me pictures of his old bench at the shop, as well as several others, and then told me what each vise I bought had been used for.
Based upon the condition of the SJ, and the fact it had homemade soft jaws, and a coating of sawdust, I figured it was used to hold gun stocks for shaping them. It turns out that was exactly what it had been used for and that it was on the owner’s bench, rather than those of the apprentices. I suspect based upon the condition, the owner bought it new and it stayed in his shop until I bought it. The slide is marked as a 1975 production date, which fits with the information the caller had. I’m still trying to find the vise he’s looking for, and if I do, it’ll be at cost because I’m just thrilled to know the backstory of this Wilton 450SJ!
I guess this whole story is a way of saying that networking can be more effective than scouring eBay, Craigslist, yard sales, auctions and estate sales. If your friends and coworkers know you’re looking for something specific, your odds have gone up exponentially, but a little luck never hurts!
This was the view from where I was next to the shelving unit. You can see the 450SJ at the very lower left and I actually got the vise just to the right of it as well. Near the far end of the table you can see the Baby with the sticker on the front.
Here are some pictures of the day’s haul, along with more of the 450SJ. Note all the sawdust on it!