Moxon Vises - What's the Fuss All About?

Posted by Tobias Lochner on

Here's a woodworking question to start off this week's blog article.......

What is the difference between a Moxon Vise, a Lying Press, a  Double Screw Vise and a Twin Vise?

Okay, now he's gone off the deep end of his workbench, again......

To discover the virtues  of this amazing and very simple workshop tool, we need to go back a little and dig into woodworking history.

Here goes.......

Unfortunately for us, there is very little actual detailed written information from practising professional cabinetmakers of the 18th and 19th century. Various books of the time were written, but generally not the by expert craftsmen themselves.

  

In those days, only the very wealthy could afford to dabble in woodwork of any kind, simply for pleasure. Cabinetmaking, Joinery, Turnery and Sawing were apprenticed careers. Wood was expensive, time was expensive, tools were generally very expensive, and because of these realities, workers were forced, in many cases, to make their own jigs and tools.

It therefore stands to reason that woodworkers of the period would not have indulged in making frivolous or seldom used items for their workshops (or writing books for that matter). This is important to bear in mind.

  

 

In a previous blog, I talked about bench height and how critical it is for you to have yours at just the right height for you.

I also explained that everything that we work on is "on top" of the bench, thus making the actual working height generally higher than the bench top itself, especially when joint making.

When doing hand cut joinery such as dovetails, we need a way of holding the boards vertically, to enable us to saw the pins and tails. Of course you can simply grip the board in your vise, but due to the design of a standard front vise, you can only grip a small portion of the board itself, due to the vise traveller bars being in the way. The result is that your vise will tend to "rack", and the grip will change. 

Also, and very importantly, you need to get the height of the area of the board that you are cutting, quite a lot higher than your workbench, for good sight lines and resultant accurate cuts without uncomfortably hunching over. If you merely raise the board in your front vise to a workable height, the board will vibrate during sawing and will give you a bad cut (never mind the fact that it is more difficult and extremely irritating!). Another factor is that the vibration of the board during the cut will cause it to loosen in the already fractionally racked front vise, and an  altogether undesirable outcome is then guaranteed.

This is one of the principle reasons that many workbenches from the later 18th century had an "L" shaped front vise, where the bench screw did not have  traveller bars and was a very simple mechanism as shown in the images below. 

          

This type of vise makes it really easy to hold pieces of timber in the vertical plane, as well as to hold wide boards or long for edge jointing when used in conjunction with a "Deadman". 

deadman (n), sliding deadman (n), bench jack (n)

This is a bench accessory that assists with supporting long boards that are clamped in the workbench’s face vise. This accessory, usually called a Deadman, slides on a track, parallel to the front edge of the workbench and it is drilled with a series of holes that accept pegs and holdfasts. The pegs can be positioned in various holes to support boards of different widths. A Deadman can also be a freestanding jig, instead of being incorporated into the workbench itself.

                                                 

When sawing dovetails, you need absolute accuracy, if your joints are to turn out well. Any movement, however slight, of the board being sawed and you will lose your accuracy. 

When cutting any joint by hand, I subscribe to the outlook that accuracy, efficiency and ease are my prime goals. I hate to fight a joint. 

From my own research, I am quite convinced that the cabinetmakers of old, had surprisingly many of the same obstacles to overcome, that we do in the 21st century.

Now to Mr. Moxon..................

Joseph Moxon was an interesting and rather busy fellow.  Born in England in 1627, he was the official Hydrographer to King Charles II, a printer specialising in mathematical books & maps, a maker of globes and mathematical instruments and a mathematical lexicographer.

He also produced the first English language dictionary devoted to mathematics, as well as the first instruction manual for printers (The workers, not the ink jets!).

Enough of his history!

Moxon wrote an important book, published somewhere between 1677 & 1684 called "Mechanick Exercises" which was a two volume tome, giving instructions on metalworking, woodworking, brick laying and sundial construction amongst other things.

It is in "Mechanick Exercises" that we see the first drawing in an English publication of the tool that has affectionately become known to us as the "Moxon Vise". Mr. Moxon did not invent it, design it, patent it, or anything of the sort, he merely wrote a book in which there are references and drawings pertaining to it, so it is very possible that the origins of the vise predate him.

So for want of a cool name for this contraption, we shall henceforth call it the "Moxon Vise"! Yes we could call it many things, however guru of all things woodworking, Chris Schwarz has ruled that it shall be the "Moxon Vise", and the "Moxon Vise" it shall be!

This tool is basically a double screw clamp that holds boards vertically for the purpose of making joints by hand. It is either built into the workbench or is a separate tool that can be moved out of your way when not in use. In various historical publications by Felebien, Roubo, Holzapfell and others, it is variously shown built-in or separate.

The great thing about building your own Moxon Vise, is that you get to choose how you build it. You might want it as a separate unit, built into your workbench, or even in it's own Dedicated Dovetail Joinery Bench as illustrated below.

                                       

You also might want it to be quite wide, for doing solid panel carcass dovetails, or reasonably narrow, if all you envision jointing are drawers and smaller box work.

There are a few factors to take into account before you embark on your Moxon journey. The first thing to do is to buy the necessary hardware kit.

I recently built a benchtop Moxon Vise with a rear table for dovetail demonstration purposes for BPM Toolcraft, and it works really well. The height is ideal when placed on top of the bench. In this Moxon Vise, I used the above York Spindle Kit and it performs beautifully.

It is well made, the handwheels are heavy enough, well balanced and the trapeziodal threads on the bars are very well machined. This kit is the cheapest commercially available hardware kit for Moxon vises available in Southern Africa and is a truly substantial, value for money kit. 

  

Whichever style and format of Moxon Vise your decide upon, please remember that the final height of the device in relation to your most comfortable sawing and marking out position, is critical to your comfort and to the accuracy of your joints.

To elaborate on this a little further, if like some woodworkers, you would rather sit when laying out, marking and sawing your joints, then you might want the final height of the Moxon to be exactly the same as your workbench or even lower. If you stand...different story!

Please think carefully about the final height (most benches that I see are at completely the wrong height for hand work).

Should you wish to build your own Moxon, you can find the hardware HERE.

As far as your wood choice goes, as long as the timber is properly seasoned and is reasonably hard wood, then you will be fine. (The Moxon I made for Toolcraft has White Oak jaws and recycled European Beech floorboards for the small table top).

Fitting the hardware is very easy, but you will require the use of a good drill press. If you do decide to add a table top to the Moxon, then I definitely suggest that you consider a range of Bench Dog holes, which will then add wonderful versatility to the final result.

Should you have any questions at all regarding your Moxon Vise build, please chat with me via the comments section of the article and I shall endeavour to assist you as best I can.

Many thanks to Chris Schwarz, Peter Follansbee, David Barron, Jameel Abraham and other woodworking luminaries for bringing this wonderful tool back into it's rightful place in the workshop!

PS. We shall be doing dovetail joint demonstrations using a Moxon Vise, in June at BPM Toolcraft. This will happen on one or maybe even two Saturday mornings during the month. If you can, please join us, take the opportunity to play with our range of hand tools and see the fantastic new Swedish Sjobergs Workbenches, new products from Narex, Incra and our power tool manufacturers, new accessories and as always,  good company and great coffee!

Until next week, let's make shavings, not dust!


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4 comments

  • Hi Johann. Thanks so much for your input. The idea behind a twin screw type of vise, is that when you are repetitively moving pieces of a given thickness in and out of the vise, you would basically leave one screw set just enough, so that upon re-insertion you would only need to “nick up” the open screw. I hop that I am making sense.

    Tobias on
  • Hi guy, Good Tutorial as always! I must say that I like the old school “L” shaped front vise, where the bench screw did not have traveller bars to get in the way and limiting depth. As no expert, I have also found that it is easier to have a single handle to open and close the vice as one has to take the board in/out so many times while measuring and cutting the Pins and Tails. However I will do some dovetails using the Moxom vice , any advice will be welcome

    Johan Pieterse on
  • Hi Hentie. Thanks very much, I really appreciate your input. Hope you have a great weekend.

    Tobias Lochner on
  • Allways enjoy your articles.

    Hentie on

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