Making a Portable Shoulder Vice
My unheated garage doubles as my workshop during the day. I rely on a fan heater and some radiant heaters in the shop to last me through the cold Canadian winter (you don’t see me bundled up in any photos that accompany my articles, because I take off my winter jacket and gloves before a photo shoot!). Old Man Winter can at times be unkind in my part of the world – temperatures can all well below -20°C for days at a time. On such harsh days, I would be a fool not to try to work in the comfort of my warm house.
Many years ago, I came across a removable L-shaped vice design by a fellow Canadian woodworker, Louis M. Rimouski. I adapted it to make a portable shoulder vice that can be cramped to a sturdy table, in my case, the pool table in the basement. It is now my go-to vice for light-duty jobs such as cutting dovetails when I work indoors. Prominent craftsmen of European origin such as Tage Frid, James Krenov and Frank Klausz consider the shoulder vice essential for their work. You can see in the sidebar on the following page how a shoulder vice is particularly useful in some tasks.
This portable shoulder vice, of course, can be used on a regular bench. You can cramp or secure the vice to a bench with a pair of holdfasts. If you have a large face vice, you can build and drop a smaller version of the shoulder vice between its jaws, turning a face vice into a shoulder vice. The fixture is inexpensive and easy to make, and you can modify the design or measurements (see construction diagram) to suit the type of work you do. If you have a weekend to spare, you’ll have a versatile vice added to your shop by the time the weekend is over.
• Top board: 1 @ 18 x 250 x 510mm in ply
• Fixed jaw: 1 @ 18 x 65 x 510mm in ply
• Rear block: 1 @ 35 x 65 x 250mm in hardwood
• Brace: 2 @ 35 x 65 x 165mm in hardwood
• Shoulder: 1 @ 35 x 65 x 510mm in hardwood
• Vice jaw: 1 @ 18 x 65 x 260mm in ply Hardware
• 1 x threaded rod • 2 x nuts and 2 x washers
• 1 x press screw
A shoulder vice offers several advantages
• Unobstructed by the usual guide rods or screws, a shoulder vice can cramp a small assembled drawer or box wholly, or a panel all the way to the floor.
• Also known as a dogleg face vice in a Scandinavian bench, it is useful for gripping delicate or angled pieces.
• The brace acts like a solid stop when a workpiece is cramped in the vice for edge-planing.
Selecting the wood
Use hard hardwood – hard maple (Acer saccharum), for instance – for the frame of the shoulder vice which consists of the rear block, braces (one of which is grooved) and shoulder. The shoulder will undergo a lot of stress in use, so you should try to pick only straightgrain and knot-free timber for that component. For the rest, my choice was plywood, which is stable and abundant in my scrap pile.
Getting the vice hardware
To keep the jig small and lightweight, I used a press screw instead of a regular shoulder vice. A threaded rod or a long carriage bolt is used to reinforce the shoulder to the braces. If you prefer everything made of wood, replace the rod with a large-diameter hardwood dowel with end caps to make a stronger dowel joint.
Counterboring and drilling
After cutting all the pieces to size, I counterbored and drilled the holes on the rear block and shoulder to accept the threaded rod and nuts. If you plan to use a dowel joint for this fixture, drill all the mating holes on the rear block, braces and shoulder, too. Take care to position the dowel holes on one of the braces so the dowels are not in the way of the channel that will be cut later. I opted for a loose-tenon joinery and cut all the mortises with a Domino joiner.
Cutting the channel
The vice jaw with a tongue rides along a channel cut on one of the braces. The channel runs the full length of the brace and through the mating end of the rear block. I first cut the channel on the brace, with a plough plane set for the desired depth. After scribing the same depth on the rear block with a marking gauge, I made a series of saw kerfs about 3mm apart each on the end and wacked away the waste with a chisel. I worked from both sides in towards the centre, angling the chisel slightly upward and resulting in a peak. I pared away the peak with a few passes of a wide chisel. Finally, I saw out a tongue on the vice jaw to fit the channel.
Shaping the shoulder
For aesthetic reasons and to knock off the corner, I put an ogee profile on the end of the shoulder. I saw off the bulk of the waste and then used rasps and a block plane to finish the final shape. Lastly, I broke the edges on the shoulder with a cornering tool.
Assembling the vice
After dry-fitting, I installed the threaded rod and assembled the frame at the same time, followed by the glue-up for the fixed jaw and top board. While waiting for the glue to cure, I filed the bottom of the swivel head flat and drilled four corner holes on the base.
The vice was done once I installed the press screw in the shoulder and attached the vice jaw and – voila!– a life-saver was born.