24 September 2013

My Favorite Engraving Vise

Maybe someone can help me identify this vise. I acquired it several years ago on eBay. When I placed my bid, I thought this was some version of a Stehman vise, because the profile is similar. But it's not the same vise at all.

It wasn't until I had it in my hands that I realized just what a special vise this is. I have taken a series of photos so you can check it out. I would love to know who built it, but there are no maker's marks of any kind anywhere, in or out, that would identify it. I don't know how old it is, though there are clues that might help date it.

In these photos, I disassemble the base to give a sense of how beautifully overbuilt this vise is. The precision of the machining is instrument-like. Yet it has the character and subtle flaws of a one-off piece. As I said, it is a lovely tool.

My only complaint is a practical one: it doesn't have a drag adjustment. Since the top spins on ball bearings - and very smoothly at that - a light touch is all that is needed to rotate the work. To resolve the drag issue when the job calls for it, I wrap an elastic/fabric band around the waist to brake the pedestal.

The narrow light band around the waist is not a seam. It's just a reflection. The machining tolerances are so tight that the seams are nearly invisible.

Here the seam between the base and the spindle is somewhat visible, about 2/3 up the waist. It's so tight that it's work to get a piece of paper into the seam. Note the knurled pattern on the spindle edge. The exterior plating is still beautiful.
A view of the top. The jaws are hand scraped! Unfortunately, a bit of rust accumulated on the exterior edges of the jaws (under someone else's watch...). But it's fairly minor. Note the machine screws in the brass crown beneath the jaws.
Closeup of the jaws. The scraped texture is more evident in this shot (as is the tragic staining, alas...).
A truly beautiful jaw screw.
The wrench/key, which is mostly nickel-plated brass, with a steel business end. Beautifully made, heavy, a delight to use.
Now it's time to take this baby apart and see some of why it's such a special tool. It took me a long time to figure out how to disassemble this vise because the assembly is inscrutable. There is no hole or screw at the bottom of the ball end as with other vises, so for a long time I was perplexed about how it was built. It was clear to me that as smooth as this vise was, it had to be running on ball bearings. Turned out I was right, but I didn't have proof until after it had sat in my shop for months.

So one day, holding the base, I gave the waist a hard twist, and it gave way, but not where I thought it would. It was like leaning on a bookcase in an old haunted house - a total surprise! In the photo - this is what it looks like as the top is unscrewed from the base.

Top: the top part of the vise, resting upside down. Bottom: the bottom half of the vise, resting right side up. The four screw holes are threaded but serve no purpose. I assume their job was to secure the base when it was turned on a lathe.
Unscrewing the four screws to remove the base plate from the top portion of the vise. The imperfections are probably gaps created during casting. None of this shows on the exterior. Probably the biggest "flaw" in the vise.
I unscrew the four anchor screws. The only mark on the vise is in the lower left hand side of the photo: a red "K" marked with a grease pencil or crayon.
Another view of the underside of the top plate.

The top side of the top plate. The four screw heads visible here anchor the large center screw shown in the photo above this one.
With the top plate removed, here's what's left of the pedestal or spindle.
Removing the lock nut.

Taking off the cover yields more screws. They're brass, so I'll be gentle.
Brass screws removed, and I pull out the spindle/bearing assembly.

That's why it runs so smoothly! A ball bearing cassette.
Spindle top, showing knurled pattern, brass crown and vise jaws.
There it is. It's a remarkable vise, precision made (and I didn't even take apart the top, but I did it once, and don't want to mess with it again!), built so that it could be serviced and even repaired. It's no cliche to say that they don't make them like this anymore. Hope you enjoyed the tour. If you can tell me anything about my vise, I'd love to hear from you.


Anonymous said...

mine looks like yours but it does not have as many parts
the one that I have is The Special
it is made by

engravers cafe

John de Rosier said...

Hey Marvin, I had one of those a number of years ago. They show up on eBay from time to time.

Anonymous said...

Is that an alignment tool for gun barrels or ammunition cartridge loading? You should send that picture to American Pickers and see what they say.