One of the questions I get from many people is what to look for when considering a used vise. Obviously there isn’t an easy way to make a comprehensive guide, but this should cover the basics you’ll run into most frequently. Here’s the process I use when evaluating a used vise:
The first thing to cover is the topic of what brands are “good” and which aren’t as desirable. 50 years ago the answer would have been much easier, but the waters have gotten murky over the past 20 years or so. In order to compete with inexpensive vises being imported and sold by big box stores even the best brands have started to have their less expensive models made overseas. What that means is that just because brand X makes some expensive vises, doesn’t mean that all of their vises are high quality. Brand X likely has one or two lines made in the U.S., a line or two made someplace like Taiwan, and then the rest made in China. The price will vary dramatically, but so does the quality.
I’m sure I will miss a few, but the following companies made, or sold, high quality vises that were made in the U.S. and are worth considering: Athol, Athol/Starrett, American Scale, Chas. Parker, Columbian, Craftsman, Desmond Stephan, Erie Toolworks, Hollands, Littlestown, Morgan, Prentiss, Reed, Ridge, Rigid, Rock Island, Starrett, Wilton and Yost. Last I knew only Wilton and Yost were still making vises in the United States.
If you want a vise to restore for your own use, the answer is pretty easy. Pick one that you think is the right size, and looks appealing to you. It’s really that simple. If you start using it and find it’s too big, or not big enough, you’ll figure it out pretty quickly, and can start looking for another one. For general homeowner or garage work, something with jaws that are 3.5″ to 4.5″ wide is usually sufficient. If you want to buy vises to restore and sell, it gets a lot more complicated, and you’re going to have to do some research to learn the market. Some brands are more popular than others, but there are specific features that can make a vise from a less popular brand very expensive. For example, most folks reading about vises know about Wilton machinist vises, often called “bullets” because of their shape. Everybody knows they sell for good money. On the other hand, Chas. (short for Charles) Parker vises are nowhere near as popular, but are extremely high quality. If you happen to find a Parker 474, called a double swivel because the base swivels and the entire vise rotates, it’s going to be worth more than all but the biggest Wilton bullets.
With the matter of brands handled, let’s cover how you evaluate a vise. This is simply a way to determine if it’s worth the time and effort to restore. Obviously, if the vise has sentimental value, that decision process can be very different than if it’s something you bought off Craigslist, or at a garage sale.
The #1 thing to look for is damage, and repairs. If a vise has obvious signs of welding or brazing, it’s probably not worth restoring. It might function fine, but the value is gone for all but the most unusual and rare models. Also, if you find cracks or pieces broken off, there’s a good chance the vise isn’t worth repairing.
There are three fairly common areas you’ll find cracks or evidence of their repair by welding or brazing. One is where the slide (square or round piece that moves in and out of the main body) meets the dynamic jaw towers. Essentially, the front half of the vise breaks off the slide, or develops a crack from being overstressed. Another is the ledge that sticks out from the front of the main body to support the dynamic jaw as it extends forward. That area also cracks, or breaks off from being overstressed. Both of those failures are normally the result of someone putting something in the vise and hitting it with a really big hammer. Bench vises aren’t designed for that kind of stress, and it shows when they break. Often you’ll find a weld or obvious brazing in that area which is a telltale sign it cracked and was repaired. Lastly, you will often find vises where the end of the slide has cracked and split open. This is often caused by someone using the slide as an anvil and hammering on it. Some brands are more likely to fail there, but it can happen to any brand. Of the three, the cracked slide is the least significant, and you can drill stop the crack and weld it closed if you know what you’re doing, or you can take it to someone experienced in welding cast iron/ductile iron, but it will still be obvious after being fixed. My welding vise is a Reed 105 that had a cracked slide. I welded the crack closed and it’s completely functional, but it’s really not worth anything if I were to sell it.
There is one other type of slide damage I should mention and it can be really easy, or really difficult to spot. Sometimes a vise will get dropped, or someone will use the side of the slide as a hammering surface, and a section will get broken off of the side. Left alone it’s always obvious, but sometimes people will shorten the slide by cutting it just shorter than where the damage occurred. That will give you a vise that works properly, but it won’t open as much as it normally would have. If you look at the vise when the jaws are closed it’s often obvious because there isn’t much slide sticking out the back of the body of the vise. When in doubt, try to find a reference for how far your vise should open, so you can open the jaws all the way, measure and compare to what it should be.
The next thing to look at are the jaws. Some vises were made with jaws that can be replaced, and some were made with the jaws integral to the jaw supports. Some jaw patterns for vintage vises are readily available while others would require contacting a machine shop and having them make a custom set, which will likely be cost-prohibitive. Unfortunately, it’s not even as simple as narrowing it down to a single manufacturer. Some brands changed their jaw style over the years and only certain styles are available, so don’t assume that just because jaws for model A from brand X are available you can get a set for model B. For vises with jaws that are cast in place and integral to the jaw supports, it’s technically possible to machine them for new jaw inserts but that would only be worthwhile for a very rare vise, or something that was a family heirloom. There might be a few people in the country doing that sort of work, but the only one I’m certain of is Kevin at http://www.benchvisejaws.com
At this point we’ve looked at the vise for welds/repairs, checked the jaws, so we’ve got the big things covered, but there are a few more we should touch on briefly. If the vise has a swivel base, check that the base doesn’t have missing/cracked mounting tabs/ears. Check that the swivel base itself doesn’t have any cracks. Flip the vise over and make sure the internal parts of the swivel base aren’t cracked, damaged, or repaired. Many models with a swivel base will have a large center bolt that keeps the main body of the vise centered on the swivel base. Sometimes people lose, or remove those center bolts, and finding one is next to impossible. If you can find a kind soul in the vise collecting world you might be able to get drawings, or an example to take to a machine shop for duplication, but that’s going to take some luck, and can get expensive. In many cases the swivel locks go missing, and people use common nuts to lock the swivel, but that looks terrible, and replacements aren’t always available.
If all of those things check out fine, screw the vise all the way in, and all the way out. From the time you start turning the handle, to the time the dynamic jaw starts moving should be well less than a full turn. If it takes more than that, something is missing, or loose. Some vises use a collar on the front, like Parker and Wilton, to secure the spindle that the handle runs through, while others use a collar or split ring on the inside of the dynamic jaw, and you can see that from underneath. It’s not uncommon for the collar, or split ring on the inside to be loose, and that’s normally an easy fix. If it’s really bad you might be able to close the vise with the handle, and have to pull it open by hand. That isn’t a deal-breaker, but is a good negotiating point if you’re the buyer. One thing to look for is when you unscrew the vise all the way, some will start to bind. Some brands, like Reed, were fit really tight, and often require dressing the edges with a file to remove the slide, but many have just had the slide used as an anvil enough that they’ve spread out at the top. Again, this isn’t a deal-breaker, but something to be aware of in case you’re negotiating. Generally speaking, the vise should open and close with no more than one finger applied to the handle. If not, you want to investigate; it might just need to be lubricated, it might just need a quick touchup with a file, but it could mean something is damaged.
The last thing to cover is the most common damage of all, bent handles. Bent handles look terrible, but really aren’t all that serious. If the bend is mild, you can often place the handle on a flat surface and hammer it close to flat, or some folks will put them in a vise and clamp down to remove minor bends. I’ve had good luck using a couple of pieces of shim steel and a shop press to remove bends. You simply put the shim stock on either side of the bend, put the high side under the ram and lower until it’s just past level since it will rebound a bit. I made two pieces of shim stock with U-shaped channels so the handle doesn’t roll around so much, but even flat stock will work.
It’s often not possible to get the handle really straight, and if you want to do it right, you may want to simply replace the handle. I’ve heard that there are a couple of people making handles, but the best I’ve seen in person come from Kevin at http://www.benchvisejaws.com I’ve mentioned Kevin several times in this article, and other places, and while I have no formal affiliation with him, I can tell you that his work is fantastic, he is a super guy, and you shouldn’t hesitate for one minute to call him if you’re trying to fix an old vise. If he doesn’t offer the part or service, he’ll know if anybody else does, and he won’t mind sharing that with you.
I think this will cover most things you’ll run into when evaluation used vises, but if I missed something, or it wasn’t clear, don’t hesitate to contact me so I can help answer the question, update the article, or both.