Canadian Woodworking

Build a tall vise

Author: Steven Der-Garabedian
Photos: Steve Der-Garabedian
Illustration: Len Churchill
Published: June July 2020

Raising a small- to medium-sized workpiece that you’re working on will allow you to see it more clearly, and will ease the stress on your back.


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Tall vise illustration

I’ve been wanting to do this project for quite some time. While I have a Moxon vise that I built more than five years ago, I don’t seem to use it as much as I thought I would. The Moxon vise raises my work above my bench, however, I wanted to hold my work a bit higher, hence this tall vise.

I also wanted to prove that it could be made this way. In fact, I made a couple versions out of standard 2x4s that proved my theory and got me excited. Most shop-made versions have a post or indexed bar at the bottom of the jaws in order to keep them parallel. We’re going to go a different route and make ours using a mechanism sometimes called a St. Peter’s cross. The scissor-like action has been utilized in keeping all manner of items parallel for a very long time.

Cross Pieces
The magic parts that makes this vise work properly are the cross pieces that keep the jaws parallel during use. Start off by taping them together and drilling a hole in the center of the pair.

Oil Helps
Drilling metal is similar to drilling wood, but with a few main differences. Oil will help lubricate the bit. Also note the clamp that will act as a stop if the metal parts grab the drill bit and cause the metal to spin out of control.

Round Their Ends
As these metal cross pieces will be rotating when they're fixed in place, their ends need to be rounded to allow for the rotation.

Rub Plate
Just because you're already at the drill press, it's a good time to drill a screw clearance hole as well as counter sink the hole in one end of both the rub plates. Again, notice the workpiece positioned against the clamp in case the bit catches it.

Marking the Mortise
Lay out the mortise location on the workpieces so the likelihood of a mistake is reduced.

Create the Mortise
Making multiple passes, Der-Garabedian used a router table to create the mortises in the two main wood workpieces. The rub plate will eventually be fixed in place at the base of this mortise.

Thread Hardware
Holes to accept the thread hardware are now marked. To determine the depth of these holes requires a bit of math.

Cotter Pin Hole
In order for the chop to open every time the thread is rotated counter-clockwise, a washer needs to be held in place on the thread with a cotter pin. Der-Garabedian bores a small hole now to accept the cotter pin.

How Thick?
With the cotter pin holes drilled in the thread and the washers in place, you can measure the distance between the inner faces of the washers. This should be the thickness of the material left between the washers in the chop.

Pin Locations
A pin, which extends through the full width of the chop and leg, will hold the upper ends of the two cross pieces in place. Der-Garabedian is marking the pin locations here, and will drill them on his drill press.

The Cleat
Clamp the cleat in place, ensuring it's perpendicular to the leg before drilling clearance holes for the bolts. When the pilot holes in the leg are drilled, apply glue and bring the two parts together for good.

Tidy Things Up
A small amount of waste needs to be removed between the tip of the mortise and the hole. This waste gets in the way of properly installing the cotter pin.

Bend it Like Der-Garabedian
The cotter pin can be slid in place and bent into position. This secures the chop to the thread during use.

Reduce Friction
At this point the rub plate can be screwed into place inside the routed mortise.

Drive in the Pin
Der-Garabedian inserts the pin through the sides of the two main sections of the vise, fixing the top of the cross parts to the chop and leg.

Soften the Grip
Cork, or another softer material, can be applied to the working faces of the chop and leg. Although you can skip this step, it will help ensure the workpieces you work on down the road won't be marred while in the vise.

What's in a name?

I think this might be a good time to put names to our parts. These labels are nothing new and you’re probably familiar with them already. The wooden part of the vise that is on the inside and doesn’t move is called a leg. The matting piece is typically called a chop. The scissor-like pieces we will call a cross and the thin plate that sits in the mortise, and that the bottom half of the cross presses against, we’ll name the rub plate. Lastly, the cleat is how we will attach this tall vise to our work surface.

Where wood meets metal

We will need four pieces of flat steel and a short piece of round bar. My home centre didn’t have the exact sizes I needed, but give yours a try. I ended up at Metal Supermarkets and the staff there were very helpful to a woodworker who knows very little of their world. I did a bit of research and ended up settling on hot-rolled steel, which is not as precisely milled as cold-rolled, but very close. We will need two pieces, 1/4″ x 3/4″ x 9″. These will become our cross pieces. We will also need a pair of 1/8″ x 1/2″ x 6″ pieces for the rub plate. Lastly, purchase a short length of 1/4″ round bar, enough to get two 4″ pieces. The cost of all these pieces came to less than $12.

At the hardware store, I picked up some other needed items, including a 5/16″ x 1″ carriage bolt whose head we will cut off. I wanted to find a matching washer but the normal washers seemed to be a bit on the thick side so I wandered through the bulk section until I found a metric washer that was slightly thinner. You’ll also need a 5/32″ cotter pin, a pair of 5/8″ fender washers, a pair of 5/16″ lock washers, one regular 5/16″ washer and a pair of 5/16″ x 2-1/2″ lag bolts and washers.

For the main screw, I had a leftover Shop Fox veneer press screw available from woodworking stores or Amazon. I’ve seen these screws as low as $12 and as high as $30. While the action of the acme threads on these screws is not perfect, they worked extremely well for this application. Another option is to use a bench vise screw, although the ones I found seemed a bit on the long side. A second option is to buy a length of acme threaded rod and matching nut and make your own handle.

Finally, we are also going to need some wood. I found a nice 4′ piece of European beech that gave me all the parts for this vise. You’ll need two pieces that are 1-3/4″ x 4″ x 18″. You’ll also need a cleat that will let you attach it to your bench that is 1-3/4″ x 2-1/2″ x 12″.

Get to work

We will first work on our cross, and it is easier and more accurate if we temporarily join them. Flush up the two pieces and simply wrap masking tape around both ends. Now that’s my kind of metalworking. Find the center, and using a center punch, create a dimple for a twist bit to settle on. Drilling metal is not quite like drilling wood. I’ve had pieces grab and rotate on me so I locked down the drill press table and also set up a clamp that would act as a stop should the drill bit catch. I found a piece of scrap hardwood and clamped the bar to it perfectly centered under the 5/16″ drill. You may find it easier to drill a smaller hole before drilling the larger hole. This helps keep the location exact.

By using some oil and a sharp bit, the drilling went smoothly. Cut the head off the carriage bolt, leaving it as long as possible for now. Run the regular nut at the opposite end of the cut and thread it through to straighten out any bent threads. Next, place a lock nut on one end, then both pieces of the flat bar. Lock it in place with the regular nut. You can also leave the tape on.

My grinder came with a wheel that was not good for anything to do with woodworking until now. For the cross to work smoothly, and for clearance, we need to round both ends. Grind these radiuses, checking your progress often, and dip the ends in cold water as they get hot. The curve doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect, but get it as close as possible. A file will refine it a bit more as well as remove any burrs that develop from drilling and grinding.

Next, we are going to need a 1/4″ diameter hole with which to pin the top of the cross to the wooden vise pieces. Locate this hole 3/8″ down and center it across the width of the components. With them locked together, use a center punch to mark the location. Drill the hole using a 1/4″ twist bit along with some oil. Remove the regular nut and one of the cross pieces. Place the thin washer between the two pieces and lock it in place with the remaining lock nut. Trim the length of the now decapitated bolt flush with the nut.

While you’re at the drill press, drill the holes needed at one end of each of the rub plates. The diameter of this hole needs to be 11/64″ and countersunk for a flat head wood screw. Drill this hole centered across the plate and 3/8″ down from the end.

Back to working wood

Mill up your chop and leg pieces, as well as the cleat. Use the cabinet maker’s triangle to keep track of which part is which, as well as what is the inside, outside, top and bottom of the pair.

Start off by marking the mortise that will house the rub plate and cross. This mortise is centered across the width and starts 1″ from the bottom of both the chop and leg. It will be 9-3/4″ long. Find and mark the center one inch of this line. Create a dimple for the point of a 1-1/4″ Forstner bit using an awl. This hole is for the pivot point of the cross, needs to be 15/16″ deep and can be drilled now. Using your router and a 1/2″ wide bit, create the 15/16″ deep mortise along your mark on the chop and leg. This should be done with multiple passes.

Next, mark the location of the hole for the main screw, but don’t drill it quite yet. We will start off with the larger hole for the inside fender washer on the chop. To determine the depth, drill a hole in the main screw for the cotter pin.

The combination of the fender washers and cotter pin act as a garter, pulling and pushing the chop back and forth. Without it we would manually have to pull the chop open when opening the vise. Using a drill vise, clamp the main screw and drill a 5/32″ hole in the center, 1-1/2″ down from the inside of the handle. Use oil as before and proceed slowly. Put the two fender washers and the cotter pin on the screw. Measure the distance between the two washers. This number (in my case 1-1/4″) needs to be subtracted from the thickness of the chop, which is 1-3/4″, to determine how deep to drill the clearance hole for the fender washer. In my case, it was 1/2″ deep using a 1-7/8″ diameter Forstner bit.  Center this hole 1-1/4″ above the top of the mortise.

Drill a 5/8″ hole for the main screw in the chop using the Forstner bit’s centre point as your starting point. The nut on the leg side needs a 1-1/4″ through hole once more centered 1-1/4″ above the top of the mortise. Secure the nut using two #8 x 1″ screws with the flange located on the outside.

A couple more holes

Transfer the center of the 1/4″ holes in the cross to their side. Seat the cross in the chop’s mortise and transfer this mark to the chop. Carry this mark around the side and, using an awl, dimple a mark 7/16″ back. Repeat this process for the leg. Next, using a 1/4″ bit, drill a through hole for the two pins. My drill press doesn’t have the drilling depth to go through a 4″ wide piece. To work around this, I drilled the hole as far as I could, then moved the table up a couple of inches, allowing me to drill right through. You may also find that you need a long series drill bit to finish these holes.

Almost there

To allow a bit more access to the item being clamped, we’ll need to remove some of the squareness at the top of the vise.  I ended up cutting a chamfer, although an ogee would work just as well. This can be initially cut on the bandsaw then smoothed with a block plane or even with sanding.  Be careful not to thin the top too much. I started the cut 1” back from the inside and finished it at a point 1-3/8” down, creating a roughly 30° angle.

I chose to place the cleat 11-1/2″ down from the top of the leg. Normally a cleat like this sits on top of the bench and the whole assembly is secured with clamps or hold-downs. With a lower placement of the cleat, I can secure it below the bench or above if I want a bit more height. If I need it a little lower still, I could place a filler piece between the top of the cleat and the bottom of the bench. Temporarily clamp the leg to your work surface and determine what works best for you.

Take care in securing the cleat perpendicular to the leg. Find your center points on both pieces and clamp it in place, double checking its alignment with a square. Drill clearance holes for the washers and finally pilot holes. Remove the clamp and create clearance holes in the cleat with a 5/16″ bit. With some glue and the pair of bolts, attach the cleat to the leg.

In order to insert and bend the cotter pin, cut the sliver of wood between the top of the mortise and fender hole on the chop. Using a sharp chisel, carefully remove this material. Place a fender washer on the main screw and push it onto the chop. Place the other washer on the screw and secure it all with the cotter pin. To help cut down on friction, place some wax between the washers and the chop. At this point we can also install the rub plates. Secure them in each mortise with a #8 x 3/4″ flat head wood screw ensuring they are pushed towards the bottom of each piece and bottomed out in the mortise.

Start clamping

Stand the chop and the leg assembly and thread them together about an inch or so. Insert the cross and pin one side to the chop and the other to the leg using the 1/4″ rods. I cut mine just shy of 4″ so they would be slightly recessed. I used a pair of PG Series clamps from Bessey Tools to secure the vise to my workbench.

The full opening of the clamp is just over 4″, although I haven’t really clamped anything wider than 3″. This tall vise works extremely well and I found I could actually move my bench after securely clamping a piece of wood in the vise. While the chop wiggles a bit when not clamping, once a piece of wood is placed between the jaws, this vise bites down hard. I found the perfect tension is about a quarter turn past the point where the jaws first contact the wood.

When looking at the vises on my bench, I noticed that the top of the jaws would touch slightly before the bottom. I found this to be the case with my tall vise as well. If this is not the case for you, remove some material from the bottom of the chop, either with a hand plane or with some careful sanding.

I lined the jaws with PSA cork, but leather or even leaving it raw will also work just fine. If you plan on holding round or odd-shaped objects, some V-notches might work for you. My plan after assembling and testing the vise was to take it all apart and spray paint the metal parts to inhibit rust and even help the cross slide better. However, I’ve found it handy and have been using it so much that I don’t want to take the time to stop.

A number of years ago I tried making a leg vise in the same manner, but I found with the longer cross pieces they flexed quite a bit. I was never truly happy with the results. That’s not an issue with the shorter pieces in this tall vise.

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