A good vise is a vital piece of equipment for any goldsmith because it can act as a third hand, securely holding onto a piece while the goldsmith uses both free hands to work on it. Given their usefulness, it’s no surprise that many jewelers keep multiple vises in their studios.
I myself keep small ones on the right and left sides of my bench, as well as a number of larger ones around my workshop. And I always have one next to my torch so it can hold metal while I heat it.
Vises are available in a variety of sizes and styles, and you can often pick up quality antique ones from places such as eBay. If your budget is limited, there are ways to modify a basic machinist’s vise, which is the most commonly available type, to get it to do more than originally intended.
If you do want to do any fold-forming work, a flat-topped vise is essential, as it permits working with larger pieces. It’s possible to find an antique one that was built with a flat top, but if you don’t have any luck on eBay, you can create your own. Take a machinist’s vise and grind the projecting vise jaws flat using an angle grinder. This will take about an hour or so, and watch out for flying sparks in your studio. If you don’t have the time or ability to alter the vise, you can clamp two pieces of angle iron into the vise to create a perfectly flat work surface.
In your search for vises for your workshop, you may come across one with damaged jaws but in otherwise perfect condition. It’s still a good buy, as the vise jaws themselves can be unscrewed and replaced with other materials, such as smooth steel, hardwood, Delrin, or nylon. You’ll just need to drill holes to match the screws holding the vise jaws on. Screw on the replacement jaws and your vise will be as good as new.
Vises are critical pieces of equipment because they can clamp down and hold onto materials tightly. But the strength that makes them so useful at the bench can also result in damage to the piece being held. One way to add protection is to wrap a sheet of 24 gauge copper onto the vise’s jaws. Fold the middle portion of the sheet over the jaws first, then use a mallet to tuck in the ends (as if you are making “hospital corners”). This copper shield will make the vise jaws soft enough to protect the object you’re working on, but still hard enough to clamp it securely.
One way to speed up a machinist’s vise is to bend the handle. Heat the handle about a quarter of the way down with a torch. Once the handle is red hot, hammer it over. The bent handle will make the vise easier and faster to use. You can also replace the handle with a wheel, such as the kind you would find on a lathe.
Vises are vital in the workshop, but you don’t have to use them the way they were supplied. Small changes such as the ones I’ve described here can make a daily difference in your efficiency, speed, and capabilities.