On the Hunt for Studley-esque Vises

c-leach-3

For much of the past week I have been traipsing around New England doing research and photography for the late-2014 book “Virtuoso: The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley.” More precisely, I was tracking down the four known bench vises with similarity to the two exquisite examples on Studley’s bench. (To understand fully the import of this trip, consider that 1) I dislike travel, 2) I was skirting blizzards the whole trip, and 3) my perception as a native of Flyover Country is that anything north and east of the Schuykill River is noted on maps with the warning, “Danger! Thar Bee Dragons”).

My first stop in this trek was at the home of famed ironmonger Patrick Leach, whose Blood & Gore site emits his monthly e-mail dose of vintage tool addiction. Most of you have parted with lucre in Patrick’s direction, and spending a few hours with him was an unmitigated pleasure. The workbench in his office holds two vises similar on the outside but distinct on the inside compared to Studley’s vises. One fascinating modification of Studley’s vises is the (retrofitted?) inclusion of a moving, housed dog on the end vise. Still, the similarities lead to some intriguing speculations.

Next I met with Tim Cottle for breakfast in southern Maine after he drove a couple of hours from his lair upstate. Tim acquired his vise in a swap with a neighbor who received four shop light fixtures in return. I offered to double his investment, but he declined with very little deliberation. Cottle’s vise is especially important to my inquiries as it is the only one of the six that is currently not attached to a bench, and Tim’s passion about the project led him to loan it to me for detailed study. The mechanism of his vise appears to be identical to Studley’s, and it only has one jaw, the movable one. I need to triple check very closely to make sure Studley’s vises are the same on my next visit later this month.

Finally, I spent some time in the well-organized shop of Dan Santos out on Cape Cod. He has a bench vaguely similar to Leach’s, with only the face vise remaining and the end vise missing. While the overall form and function are identical to the vises on Studley’s bench, there are some idiosyncrasies. The largest difference is the dovetailed ways for the moving carriage with the single jaw, with the rear unmovable jaw being a metal plate affixed to the bench. Santos’s vise is so finely tuned that a simple twist of the massive wagonwheel causes the jaw to move several inches simply on the inertia of the wheel, clamping a workpiece firmly based solely on that.

The vises in the aggregate are tantalizing, both for their similarities and their differences. It is clear that the general form was known in the piano-making trade, yet these are four distinct interpretations of that form. Admittedly, a sample set of six is hardly statistically valid, but they are 100 percent of the known iterations. They are all roughly the same size, they all have massive ~9 pound wagonwheels, they all have ~1 Acme-thread screws. Yet, four of the six have sliding platen/carriage construction, while two have round ways to guide the moving jaw. And the jaw profiles are not the same and the dimensions of the jaws – especially in thickness – vary widely, from about 1/2” thick to well over 1”.

Leach told me that Leominster, Mass., was once a thriving piano case-building city, and he speculates that these vises may have been built in the piano factories themselves based on a well-established form. It makes sense especially given the character of the wheels and screws, but given the number of piano factories producing astonishing numbers of pianos (c. 1900 it seems like nearly every household in America aspired to have a keyboard instrument of some kind) why are there only six of these beauties around? You would think that there would be more, many more. He recalls that the scrap metal drives of the two world wars melted down a lot of historic iron.

I became so impressed with the beauty and effortless precision of the vises on Studley’s workbench that I revised the book outline to include a chapter on them. Further, I have been fabricating foundry patterns for them and hope to have at least the patterns at Handworks in Amana, Iowa, and if I get lucky with time, perhaps an aluminum prototype. I also expect we will have Cottle’s vise at Amana. Eventually I will have a pair cast for me in bronze (except for the thread screw) and if the planets align, turn the patterns over to Jameel Abraham of Benchcrafted for manufacturing.

Over the weekend I was lecturing and teaching for the Society of American Period Furniture Makers’ New England Chapter and the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking, including updates on the half dozen books I have in progress. Afterward, three attendees approached me with information about similar vises they either owned or knew about, and I invited them to send me pictures and written description and accounts. I extend the same invitation to you via the comments below.

Stay tuned.

— Don Williams

About lostartpress

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
This entry was posted in Books in the Works, Virtuoso: The Toolbox of Henry O. Studley. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to On the Hunt for Studley-esque Vises

  1. Lee Laird says:

    Chris,

    Have any of the group ever completely taken their vise apart? Just curious, I guess, if some hidden clue might lie within Good luck with both the investigation and future creation. They are tremendous!

    Cheers,

    Lee

  2. fitz says:

    So I see that your “retirement” is quite the vacation. (I’m very much looking forward to this book!)

  3. Jonas Jensen says:

    I agree that we are looking forward to the book.
    Have you tried to contact Steinway & sons, if they would have an old bench you could look at? They are afterall a quite reputable company with a fair number of years spent producing pianos. So they just might have some internal museum including a workbench.

    • Don Williams says:

      Already been on my list of things to do. Unfortunately for me it requires a trip to NYC, which as an urbaphobe gives me the willies.

      • Jonas Jensen says:

        Being a country guy, I know what you mean.

      • jasongc says:

        Send me to Hell or New York City…

        Considering the recent actions by both Mayor Bloombergski and the NY state Politburo, I’d say Bocephus was more insightful than he ever knew.

  4. Patrick says:

    Looking forward to the book and those vises would round out Benchcrafted’s selection quite nicely. Here’s to hoping the planets align properly.

  5. Brian Dormer says:

    Must….control….wallet…can’t…buy…another….tool…

    OK – I want one. My wife is gonna kill me, but I *WANT* one BAAD. And the book is already on my MUST HAVE list. That sizzling sound in the background is my debit (or, should I say DEBT) card burning a hole in my pocket.

  6. Dan H. Dolan says:

    Don,

    I have one of those that I purchased from a terrific furniture maker in Rindge, NH. He’s got two others in better condition than mine. A couple of years ago, an extremely nice piano makers workbench sold in Western Massachusetts, with two piano vises.

    I’d be happy to disassemble mine and send you measured drawings. The beauty of these, as you pointed out, is the sure grip afforded by a quick spin of the heavy wheel. I’ve often thought that the piano vise is a product worth bringing back. I’m actually surprised the tool renaissance has passed over such a useful tool so far.

    Thanks for the great work you’re doing.

    Dan

    • Don Williams says:

      Dan

      Any information you could provide would be much appreciated. Drawings or photos of your vise would be fantastic. I too think the piano vise is well worth bringing back, hence my efforts.

  7. woodgeek says:

    You’re on a very interesting search indeed. It seems like the only similarities between the vises are: a very large handwheel and an acme screw approximately 1″ in diameter.

    Is it possible that these vises are were all built out of necessity because there wasn’t a vise in production that suited the piano factory’s needs? As different as these vises are from each other (even the handwheels look like variations on a theme), is it possible that an iron-monger at the factory built these using whatever parts were at hand?

  8. NPC says:

    Hi Don,

    What do you hypothesize was the need for creating such a vise for piano makers? To the layman (me) it looks like a hybrid of a general purpose machinist style vise and a front vise one would see on a common woodworking bench. Why would a regular front or even leg vise not be suitable for their needs? Would the user of such a vise line the jaws to prevent damage to the workpiece? If so there doesn’t appear to be any holes to screw a secondary wooden jaw to the vise so ikt would have to be lined with leather or such correct? Very interesting stuff, please keep doing your great research!

    Cheers

  9. Graham Burbank says:

    you may want to contact Rochester Institute of Technology professor Rich Tannen for info on his. I distinctly remember those wagon wheel handles. I believe he had two mounted in a face vice/tail vice configuration.

  10. John R says:

    My brother gave me the cast wheel and bronze acme threaded shaft from an industrial water valve. I’ve been trying to figure out how to turn the parts into a vise. It’s a left hand thread but the wheel is quite heavy. The shaft moves through the wheel, though, instead of the wheel turning the shaft. A metal shaft sticking out of a bench would be pretty inconvenient but surely there’s something useful that could be made from these parts. Ideas?

    • woodgeek says:

      Left-hand thread is nice if you want a carrier to move along the threaded screw. You can fix the wheel to the shaft by drilling a hole through the wheel, into the shaft (screw) and using a roll pin or a steel dowel to pin the two together.

      Just Google “wagon vise hardware” to find some inspiration. Nice brother you have. The wheel and bronze screw sound nice. I have a wagon vise that uses a right-hand thread with a moving carrier so righty-loosey and lefty-tighty — counter-intuitive. lol

      • John R says:

        Yes, he’s a good brother and we work in very different industries. That’s great for thinking outside of what you know and fun to apply technologies from other kinds of uses.

        A wagon vise seems like a good fit. I think I have the part that anchored the shaft to the valve. I had thought to have the shaft pass through holes in two fixed parts (one being the end of the bench) with the wheel captured between them just to keep the wheel from falling off. It’s really heavy.

        The end of the shaft could be attached to the wagon vise’s moving head with the anchor from the valve. Doing it this way means I wouldn’t have to pin the wheel to the shaft nor would I have to thread the vise head. I don’t own an acme tap.

        Or the vise could be rigged so the moving head is at the far end. Turning the wheel clockwise (righty-tighty) would then draw a very long moving head (with multiple dog holes) from the middle of the bench towards a fixed dog at the end. I don’t know. Is that too complicated?

        Or maybe it’d make a good leg vise with the wheel just under the bench top and the captured end of the shaft attached to the moving chop? That’d make for a more “streamlined” leg vise. No rotating handle and threaded shaft head to hang out from the leg so less of an obstacle to move around. The weight of the wheel and shaft would be supported by the bench leg instead of the vise leg.

  11. JohnG says:

    Don,
    The Steinway facility is Astoria, Queens. While Queens is one of the five boroughs making up NYC, it isn’t Manhattan. It actually should not be a difficult cab ride from La Guardia airport. I have some in-laws living in the Astoria area and as NYC goes it’s not bad. Primarily an older residential area of 2 to 5 story apartments with an occasional bodega or lunch counter on the ground floor. You should try to make the contact.

    • Don Williams says:

      Yeah, I had some work in recent years in Flushing which is next door and you are right, it ain’t Manhattan. LaGuardia is a useful landmark, although I do not fly any more inasmuch as I do not find charming the orwellian romantic advances of TSA.

  12. Chris Studley says:

    I’m Sorry…. late 2014?? Ouch.

    At least the teasers help w/ the wait.

Comments are closed.