The following is excerpted from “Country Woodcraft: Then and Now,” by Drew Langsner. After more than 40 years, Drew has revisited this long-out-of-print and important book to revise and expand it to encompass what he has learned since “Country Woodcraft” was first released.
The result is “Country Woodcraft: Then & Now,” which has been expanded by 100 pages and has been updated throughout to reflect what Drew has learned since 1978. Among many other additions, it includes greatly expanded sections on building shavehorses, carving spoons and making green-wood bowls.
The original book’s text is intact, and the old photos are in black and white. Throughout the book, Drew has added text, which we set in a slightly different font, to explain what he does differently now after 40 years of daily work on the North Carolina farm he shares with his wife, Louise.
In many ways, the book is a delightful conversation between the younger Drew, who is happy to chop down trees with a felling axe, and the older Drew, who now uses an electric chainsaw and band saw to break down stock to conserve energy (and likely aspirin). New illustrations and color photos throughout show how Drew works now.
Before screw vises and clamps became common, woodworkers used a variety of holding devices to secure their material. Some country craftsmen never had manufactured vises. The woodland craftsmen had their brakes and shaving horses, many of local design and all made in the workshop. Craftsmen also had a variety of devices for securing work for planing, chiseling, boring and sawing.
Old workbenches often had a variety of dog holes in the benchtop, and sometimes on the face of the front legs. These holes can be round or square. One or two dogs, set very low, can be stops to hold a board for planing (a). Another pair of dogs can be located at right angles to keep the work from side-slipping. A dog might have a steel cap with teeth cut in it to hold the work better.
A bench hook is a simple device to hold wood for sawing (b). This consists of a wide board or a pair of narrow boards with cleats at each end, but on opposite faces. The cleats are set against the front edge of the workbench. The piece of lumber to be sawn is placed across the bench hook, against the rear cleats. The wood is then held firmly in place with your left hand – if you saw with the right.
A hold-down (c) is used to secure wood on a benchtop for chiseling or mortise work. Made by a blacksmith, it resembles an upside-down L-shaped piece of steel. The leg is dropped into a mortise in the benchtop with the foot pressing hard against the workpiece.
The hold-down leg fits loosely in the benchtop mortises. It tightens by jamming as the heel is hammered against the workpiece.
It’s possible that the first hold-downs were a forked tree branch. Dave Fisher has posted a short video on YouTube where he’s using a naturally grown wooden hold-down. It was very interesting to see this.
Furniture makers and cabinetmakers have different types of miter guides used for sawing boards at precise angles. A simple miter hook (d) for sawing square and 45° angles can be made by screwing a small block, cut at the precise angle needed, onto two stepped boards. A variation is a miter box (e). Three flat boards are glued and/or screwed together to make a channel. Carefully sawed cuts at 90° and 45° angles are made through the box walls straight down and slightly into the base board. An aid in making these cuts perpendicular to the sides is to tack a small piece of square stock on top of the channel to act as a saw guide. These are used by holding or clamping the work against the backboards, then sawing within the slotted guides.
The task of planing panel edges to a right angle can be simplified with a shooting board (f). This is a flat plank with a narrow, thinner board glued on top, and a (third) straight back-up board glued onto the thin middle board. The piece to be planed is held on top of the middle board. A plane with sides that are square to the sole is placed on its side, then automatically guided at a proper angle by the bottom board. Shooting boards are nice to use where flat edges are joined together – tabletops, bucket bottoms etc.
The common adoption of vises is quite recent. Development depended on the screw, which requires precise thread making. Skilled craftsmen could carve a screw and the corresponding nut from wood. Others used a die, similar to the kinds used for threading pipe, only much larger, and with a wooden body. Expert turners could also make a screw on a lathe. A round column was turned. The pitch was marked out at four points with a ruler or divider, and penciled in, spiraling around the column. Next, a shallow saw kerf was made following the penciled lines. The piece was set in the lathe and a skew chisel was used to cut the threads, following the saw cut.
I once heard a story about an Appalachian woodworker who turned large screws used for cider mills. This man set a small log between two spindles, wound a rope around the log, then commanded his mule to pull the rope as he worked on the rotating log. Maybe this is similar to the tale about being chased by a rolling snake.
Eventually, steel screws could be bought from industrial manufacturers. There’s also a needed nut to match the screw. The nut may be even more difficult to make by hand.
A leg vise – basically a variation of a blacksmith’s vise – has the outer vise jaw extended into a leg which rests on the floor where it’s pinned to a guide board acting as a hinge and keeper. As the vise is opened, the guide board is adjusted by relocating a second pin passing through a bench leg. The advantage of this vise is that the jaw can carry a great load, or take heavy pounding, without the screw being damaged or the vise being ripped off the workbench. With this design, the screw is fitted somewhat loosely, which is advantageous for clamping irregular work.
A leg vise is easy to make and handy to have around a farm shop. Vise screws may be purchased from several sources, or parts may be salvaged from an old vise or piece of machinery. It may be possible to adapt the screw from a trailer jack. The wooden parts are usually common lumber.
Modern bench vises use a central screw flanked by two spindles that serve as guides for the jaw and a support for the work load. Older vises of this pattern were all wood. The screw might be 3″ in diameter, with two 2″-square guides.
Some deluxe factory-made vises have a ratchet-thread half-nut that can be instantly released for quick repositioning. The solid steel spindles on large vises are a full inch in diameter. On newer vises, the jaws are machined iron castings with wooden liners. Some vises also have a sliding dog built into the outer jaw that can be used in conjunction with another dog inserted into one of the several mortises on the benchtop. These large vises are an investment, but they will provide long, reliable service. Quality vises are marked by massive screws and spindles and generous iron castings. Deep jaws are needed to support heavy or long materials. The wooden liners allow you to work close to the jaws without risk of damaging sharp edge tools.
An interesting built-in vise variation is found on some workbenches in Scandinavia. The design is quite old, and Estonian woodworkers were using similar vises toward the end of the 19th century.(1) Conceptually, it’s a conventional vise turned inside out. A fixed elbow extends from one end of the workbench. The screw and spindles pass through this piece. On the inside a pressure plate and on the outside an end plate maintain alignment. The advantage is that the screw and spindles don’t obstruct the jaw. This results in great holding power for large vertical pieces and for some carving and furniture work. It’s also evident that it’s impossible to hold large material horizontally. The design is excellent for a few woodworkers, limiting to others.
(1) Ants Viires. “Woodworking in Estonia.” Reprint: Covington, KY: Lost Art Press, 2016.
5 thoughts on “‘Before Vises’ & ‘Bench Vises’”
Forked branch as hold-down: fascinating insight! I’d like to see some discussion of what woods/branches work best for this…
Regarding the last paragraph where you mention the “built-in vise variation … found on some workbenches in Scandinavia”. That’s me ! I’ve never used any other kind of bench.
What puzzled me was the claim that “It’s also evident that it’s impossible to hold large material horizontally.” I beg to differ !
A common bench accessory is a ‘hjelpegutt’ i.e. a ‘helping boy’ (https://snl.no/hjelpegutt) to prop up the end of the long thingy that’s not clamped fast in the front vise. If neccessary I add an F-clamp on the ‘lose end’. In this way I’m able hold fast long materials horizontally — anything from a board on edge, large sheet goods or doors & windows ( and their frames). If anyone is interested I’m happy to take some pictures so you can see what I’m talking about 🙂
(As an aside; I mentioned the ‘helping boy’… now, among the old boys in the traditional workshops where I used to hang around as a young man, they never called them that. They had a much, much more vulgar name for it. In fact, many tools and thingamabobs had surprisingly coarse names.)
I went to the referenced site (https://snl.no/hjelpegutt) . Darn! I though I was going to got some translations of what my Grandpa muttered while he was shoeing horses. I was his “helpingboy” , at about 4 or 5 I held the lead to the horse while he shod them. He retired in 45 or 46 and a bit later I realized there was a tie-off in the lead between me and the horse. End result – I never got in his way.
It sounds like the the horse was cross tied and safe and so were you, but he gave you a job because he cared and wanted you to learn responsibility.
I was hoping this was going to be about vices.
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