This is where I’m going to document the typical vise restoration process I follow. This will take a while to write up, so I’m going to work through it in stages, but didn’t want to postpone making something available. Pictures will be added after I’m pretty sure I have the text figured out. Here’s the working draft:
So you’ve got a vise that you want to restore, but have no idea how to go about it. Luckily, most of it isn’t too difficult, so let’s get started!
The first two steps pretty much happen at the same time: disassembly and evaluation. Some of the evaluation normally happens before you start, but some things you won’t know until you get it disassembled and have most of the dirt knocked off it.
On vises that have removable jaws I normally take those off first because you sometimes have to lean on the screws/bolts pretty hard, and it’s easier when you have the extra mass of the vise to resist the torque. If they’re really tight I’ve used a clamp to secure the vise to the bench so it won’t move around while I’m working on it.
Some vises have pipe jaws below the normal jaws, and they can be held in place by pins from the side, a bolt/screw from the front that threads into the jaw supports, or even a spring clip that isn’t visible. Generally speaking, they’re easy to remove, so you can take them out whenever you want, but I tend to remove them right after the normal jaws.
After removing the jaws the next step depends upon the brand somewhat. Some vises, like a Wilton machinist or tradesman, have an exposed collar that secures the spindle to the dynamic jaw. In that case, I remove the collar, and then remove the spindle. After that I’ll simply pull the dynamic jaw out of the static jaw, and set it aside. Parker also used an exposed collar that is very obvious and only held in place by one or two screws.
More commonly, vises have an internal collar with a set screw, or a heavy clip on the inside of the slide that needs to be loosened before you can remove the spindle. A few models use a washer that has a spring putting tension on it, and that is held in place with a small pin. You have to compress the spring a bit to be able to remove the pin, and then the spring and washer will come off. On these types of vises I usually remove the dynamic jaw from the main body by unscrewing the spindle all the way. At that point I flip the dynamic jaw upside down to get at the collar or whatever is holding the spindle into the dynamic jaw.
As with most things, there is one notable exception and that is with many Reed vises. If you have a Reed, look at the side of dynamic jaw, just back a bit from the spindle. You may find two holes that are pretty obvious. One is an oil hole (and marked as such) while the other is a set screw. The set screw needs to be removed to get the spindle out of the dynamic jaw because it secures a split collar that holds the spindle in place. Remove the set screw, then use a screw driver or something small and pointy to unscrew the odd looking split ring that you will be able to see where the spindle connects with the front of the dynamic jaw. The split ring will come out in two pieces, but it’s not broken! With the split ring out, you can remove the spindle by unscrewing it.
With the dynamic jaw removed I’ll start on the main body of the vise. It it has a swivel base, I’ll remove that next. With some models all you have to do is loosen one or two swivel locks until they separate from the bolts underneath but some brands also have a large center bolt (shoulder bolt for us terminology geeks) that needs to be removed. Some require a large socket, and some are designed with a slot that accepts a drag link which looks like a huge flat-bladed screw driver bit. In a pinch you can weld a piece of flat stock steel to an old socket to work like a drag link, then use a ratchet or impact gun to loosen the bolt.
With the swivel base removed it’s time to address the nut, which is threaded female part the spindle runs through. On what I would call conventional vises, the nut looks like a tower/wedge shape with a threaded part at the top. It fits in a channel cut into the main body of the vise. Normally they are held in place with a pin that is hammered into a hole at the back of the channel. Usually all you need to do is use a drift pin or punch and a hammer to hit it from below and pop the pin loose and the nut will slide out the back of the body of the vise. The one common exception to this would be Wilton vises with round bodies like the Machinist , Combination, or Tradesmen series. Most folks call them all “bullets” as a generic term, but some folks will argue only the Machinist and Combination vises are true bullets.
If you have a Wilton with a round body, the steps to remove the nut are a little different. The first thing you’ll need to do is use a dowel or steel rod that will fit through the nut, from front to back, and use that to knock the dust cover out of the end. I keep a piece of round stock handy that I’ve already rounded off to generally match the contour of the dust cover. If you use something with a flat edge, it’s going to dent the dust cover from the inside, which won’t hurt how it works, but will be visible later unless you smooth it prior to painting.
After removing the dust cover you will be able to see the nut, which is a round tube that fits inside the main body and has a couple of locating tabs at the back to keep it from rotating when you turn the handle of the vise. The nut is also held in place by two 1/4″ dowel rods that are commonly called “pins” and can be seen on the side of the vise near the back. Depending upon the vintage of the vise there can be slight differences. Earlier models have a tail cap that slides into the main body of the vise that comes out when you remove the nut, and later models have just the main body and the nut held together by the pins, but disassembly is the same. The pins don’t protrude into the center of the nut because that’s where the spindle will be when the vise is closed. Removing the pins is sort of it’s own subject, and might get you using “colorful” language, but it’s not impossible.
There are a couple of things to know about removing the pins before you get started. One problem with removing the pins is that the holes don’t always line up from side to side. If they don’t, and you won’t know for sure until you try, you wind up with one pin all the way across, but not hitting the other pin, and no easy way to remove it. You may have to use a torch, or sawzall with a small blade to cut the pin in half.
If you’re lucky, the pin holes line up from one side to the other. If that’s the case, you can use a punch and hammer to drive one pin through to the point it makes contact with the pin on the other side, and drives it out. At that point you can grab it with vise grips and pull it free. Then you switch sides and use the punch to drive the remaining pin back out until enough is exposed to pull free.
If the pin holes don’t line up, or you’re not sure, it’s a good idea to pick another method of getting the pins out. Some folks use an allen wrench that just fits inside the nut. They make sure the short end is in the pin hole, and then they tap on the long end with a hammer. The key will rotate a bit, and push out on the pin. They then add a shim to effectively make the short leg longer, and repeat the process. Sometimes it takes a third try, adding a second shim to get the pin exposed enough to pull it free.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and a video is even better! Check out Brad’s video explaining his method for removing those tricky pins from your Wilton vise:
At this point, regardless of what type of vise you’re working on, you should have it broken down completely and ready for a better evaluation of what you’re working with. Sometimes you’ll need to do a little bit of cleaning to have a good plan, but most things are pretty obvious at this point.
Generally speaking, I’ll set the main body of the vise and the dynamic jaw aside and then gather up the small parts and spindle. I put the small parts in a box, and set the spindle on top of it. This is where you have a couple of decisions to make. I’m going to proceed as though our fictional vise is a swivel base model, since you can always skip those parts for a fixed base model. Are the jaws in good shape, or are they in good enough shape you can simply clean them up a bit with a sander/grinder, or do they need to be replaced? The same can be said of pipe jaws if the vise has them. How is the handle? If it has minor bends it can be straightened with varying degrees of success based upon the technique and how bad it is to start with. Are the swivel lock handles straight, bent, or missing? Are there any other parts that are damaged or missing?
If nothing is damaged or missing, you can jump forward to stripping/cleaning the body of the vise and the dynamic jaw/slide, but you’ll have a couple of decisions to make there as well that we’ll address in that section.
If you have damaged, or missing parts, it can get complicated pretty quickly. Some parts are readily available while others simply aren’t available anywhere short of making them, or having them made. There are so many variations of what is, and isn’t, available I’m not going to spend much time on it, but I’ll point out a few of the more common pitfalls as well as a few things that shouldn’t be of much concern.
Generally speaking, handles and swivel lock handles aren’t a problem to source. There are a couple of people who make handles to order for vises, and it isn’t overly expensive. Barring that, you could walk into nearly any machine shop and see if they’ll make one for you since it’s a pretty simple part. Swivel lock handles can often be made with round stock, a torch and a hammer. In a pinch, an appropriately sized nut will work in place of a swivel lock. It won’t look elegant, but it will get the job done. I’ve even seen a vise that had a large nut welded to the spindle because the handle was missing and the owner used a wrench on the nut to open and close the vise. Again, not elegant, but functional.
Replacement jaws are sort of a mixed bag in that some are readily available, but others are essentially non-existent. If you have a Wilton bullet, depending on the age, you can get jaws from Wilton, from one of a couple of people who sell them on eBay (look for user Autopts) or Kevin at http://www.wiltonviseparts.net. For some Yost, Morgan, Ridged and Reed models you can still get them from the manufacturer. For some of the more popular vintage brands/models you can check and see if http://www.benchvisejaws.com offers them. That site is a companion to wiltonviseparts.net and is also owned by Kevin. Almost everything else will require having them made and that can be expensive. Of all the vintage vise brands, one poses more of a challenge than the others, and that is Charles Parker. Parker jaws were made of fairly soft steel, so they are often worn out, and they were all semi-hand fit, so there’s no way way to buy direct replacements. The only person I know who will tackle that job, and do it properly, is Kevin mentioned above at benchvisejaws.com and that normally requires you sending the vise to him, which can get expensive quickly. I mention the issue with Parker jaws only so you know that a Parker vise with damaged or missing jaws is worth a fraction of what it is with good jaws.
Now we get into the real problem areas. If you need a new spindle, nut, swivel base assembly or swivel base center bolt you’re very likely going to need some luck. You might find the actual part listed on eBay, and there’s a chance it will be available from the manufacturer if it’s one of the few still in business, but that isn’t likely. You might have to find a donor vise that has some other sort of damage/missing parts so you can combine the best of the two to get a working vise. A machine shop would be able to turn a new spindle for you, and cut the threads if you had a broken example for them, but it would almost certainly cost more than it would to buy a working example of the same vise. Similarly, if you need a new swivel base center bolt it’s possible to have one made, but it better be a family heirloom, or a really valuable vise to make it worthwhile. Sourcing a replacement swivel base assembly for a Wilton bullet is usually easy, but almost any other brand can be a challenge. You might get lucky and find one on eBay, but you might have to wait a while. Swivel bases with missing/broken feet are pretty common and more often than not it was a drop/fall that caused the damage. If you still have the broken foot, and know someone who knows how to braze cast iron, they might be able to get it back on, but it will still be structurally compromised and won’t be as strong as it was originally.
At this point we’re going to assume you have the vise broken down completely, all the parts have been examined, and you either don’t have any damaged parts, or they have already been replaced/repaired.