As a few more folks have found this site, and seen the vises I sometimes list for sale on Craigslist or eBay, a trend has started to become obvious and it has to do with bench vise size considerations. The calls or e-mails usually go something like this “Hi, I’ve been using an imported 6″ vise that I bought at a big box store, and I just broke it. I don’t want to spend money on another vise I’m just going to break, so I was wondering if you have something available that might be suitable. I’d like a 6″ jaw vise with a swivel base, but could probably use a 5″ jaw model as well.”
What these folks aren’t aware of is that jaw width isn’t directly related to how large the vise is, or how much clamping force it has. They also don’t realize that there are 6″ vises like the kind you find at a big box store and then there are quality 6″ vises that are very different and much larger. It’s really just a matter of them never having been exposed to the higher quality vises to see the obvious differences. With this article, and a trip to a local big box store you can arm yourself with the knowledge to pick the right bench vise size and buy something that will last a lifetime.
So how do you pick the right bench vise size for your shop? There’s probably no one answer for everybody, but let’s go through a quick comparison as a baseline. Most folks have access to a Home Depot, or Lowes, so I’m going to pick vises they normally carry in the store so you can go see one in person.
Home Depot offers a Bessey 6″ vise on a swivel base that weighs 44lbs. It opens 6″ and has a throat depth of 3″. That’s a pretty typical big box store vise, and is actually on the large side of what they normally offer. If you only have a Lowe’s nearby, they offer an Irwin 6″ mechanic’s vise that has very similar specs (6″ opening and 3″ throat depth) but only weighs 31lbs.
With that as a baseline, let’s take a look at some numbers from quality vises. I’m going to use Wilton for comparison because they’re still making all the models I’ll mention.
A Wilton 350S is a 3.5″ jaw model on a swivel base. It has a maximum opening of 5.25″, a throat depth of 2.75″ and weighs 44lbs. So a “little” 3.5″ jaw vise is almost the match for the Bessey 6″ vise in every way except for jaw width. I don’t have a Bessey to compare, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the spindle diameter and handle dimensions are similar to the 350S, which could make them have very similar clamping abilities, assuming the Bessey uses an Acme thread on the spindle to keep things similar. In short, the two vises are very similar, but one sounds like it’s a much smaller vise because the jaws aren’t as wide.
If you were only able to look at the 6″ Irwin vise at Lowe’s it’s actually closer to the body size of the 3″ Wilton if you add a swivel base to the 3″ in the picture below.
For most folks, that leads to an obvious follow up question, right? If a 3.5″ jaw Wilton is as big as a 6″ big box store vise, how big would a 6″ jaw Wilton machinist vise be? If we look at a Wilton 600S, it has 6″ jaws, a swivel base, opens 10″, has a throat depth of 5.5″ and weighs….wait for it….155lbs!
Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I managed to stage a lineup of Wilton machinist vises that only missed two sizes, the 2.5″ jaw and 8″ jaw models. The vintages vary a little bit between the models, but the oldest is from the 1967 (the 2″ baby) and the newest is a recent production model (the 5″). Generally speaking, the new versions are slightly larger and heavier than the older versions, but the changes weren’t all that drastic and don’t alter the overall concept.
From left to right we’ve got a 2″ baby on a Pow-R-Arm Jr, 3″ fixed base, 3.5″ on a swivel, 4″ on a swivel, 4.5″ on a swivel, 5″ on a swivel and 6″ fixed base. Now mentally imagine that 6″ Bessey vise having the same size body as the 3.5″ Wilton and you’ll get an idea of just how big the difference is between quality vises and what you find at big box stores.
With all of that as a background, I’ll offer up what I tell most folks when they’re trying to decide the appropriate bench vise size. Assuming we’re talking about a quality vise, most people never need more than a 4.5″ jaw model. I’ve noticed that most welding and fabrication shops seem to buy 4.5″ and 5″ models because that’s big enough. If you’re working on heavy equipment or big trucks, a 5″ or larger model might make sense, but there is one major consideration with the big vises you’ll want to take into account, and that is height.
One thing that often gets overlooked with the big vises is how tall they are. Many of them are 10″ or taller, and if you aren’t a really tall person, they can put the work piece too high for comfort. In many cases people buy or build dedicated stands that bolt to the floor, or build a short bench just for the vise to put it at the right work height. In the pictures above, the 5″ vise is 10″ tall and the 6″ next to it would be 12″ if it was mounted on a swivel base. Here’s a picture of a Wilton C3 to illustrate just how tall the larger sizes can get. The C3 has 6″ jaws, pipe jaws, 9″ opening, 6-5/8″ throat depth, weighs right at 200lbs and is 13.5″ tall. This is one serious vise!
After I added this picture I thought it would make sense to show another Wilton 6″ vise that also has pipe jaws and a swivel base to even further illustrate how two 6″ jaw vises can be vastly different. This is a Wilton Tradesman 1760 that has 6″ jaws, opens 6″ wide, has a throat depth of 4″ and weighs 70lbs. This is a great vise, but is obviously not remotely similar to the C-3 above even though they have the same jaw size and features.
I think the best way to summarize this topic is to simply say that jaw size doesn’t really translate well to vise size, or capability. With that said, I won’t knock somebody for buying the biggest, baddest vise they can afford. I’ve had people tell me they simply want a monster vise for no other reason than they think they’re cool, and I can’t argue with that one bit!
Hopefully this will help you pick the right bench vise size for your shop, but I will warn you that it can lead to buying more than one!