The workbench and vise form an organic unit, for the vise is a fixture that is either part of the carpenter’s bench or is attached to the machinist’s bench.
Neither a bench nor a mechanical fixture would have offered an advantage in the early chipping or flaking of stone. On the contrary, complete freedom in the positioning of the workpiece and hammer was essential to permit the many small, yet discretely placed and directed, blows that were the crux of fashioning stone tools. When large and unidirectional forces needed to be applied, as in woodworking, in many phases of metalworking, or even in the manipulation of bone and horn, the advantage of a bench or a fixed rest became apparent.
Wood assumed its important role in structures, furniture, and fittings with the development of polished stone tools (axe and chisel) in the Neolithic Period and was skilfully exploited for finer work with the advent of copper and bronze tools. Most of the furniture of ancient times no longer exists, but much visual evidence, provided largely by sculptures, representations on vases, mosaics, and wall frescoes, depicts all manner of furniture, such as thrones, stools, benches, footstools, couches, cupboards, tables, chests, and beds.
Oddly enough, a stout table or workbench is missing from the renderings of busy Egyptian shops. The workpieces are on the floor, and the craftspersons are kneeling or bending over their work or sitting on low stools, even in those scenes in which tables are being finished. Perhaps the craftspersons used their feet to position the work on the floor while using a chisel and mallet to effect joinery work, a practice still known in some areas.
Evidence in Europe suggests that woodworkers made use of a table or workbench as long ago as the Neolithic Period. The simplest form of table bench was a short length of heavy board split from a trunk and supported on four legs made of saplings set into bored holes. This style of bench, with its four legs somewhat splayed for greater stability, became common in Roman times. As the first users of the plane, the Romans found that a stout workbench was a necessity; trueing a surface without a bench on which to lay and secure the wood was nearly impossible.
Two early methods, still in use, were devised for holding the workpiece. The simplest procedure was to use wooden pegs set into holes in the bench top; the other was to use what are variously known as bench stops, holdfasts, or dogs. The stems of these T-shaped iron fittings were set into holes in the workbench, and a sharp end of the horizontal part of the T was turned to engage the wood.
Other arrangements came into use, including trestles for supporting wood to be sawed and specialized benches—horses—on which the leatherworker or coppersmith sat while facing a raised workpiece. A small workpiece was often held by a strap that was tightened when the craftsperson placed a foot in a loop that formed the free end and dangled beneath the table. Such horses proliferated from medieval times onward as new specialties developed.
A frequent accessory of the metalworker’s bench was the anvil, which is still informally present on many machinist’s vises in a rudimentary form suited to light work. Aside from making castings, metalworking was largely concerned with forging. The earliest anvils were convenient flat stones, usable for only the simplest kind of flat work. Anvils with the characteristic overhang, or horn, were first cast in bronze and, later, welded from short lengths of iron. Bench anvils were necessarily small, and the large free-standing specimens of the smith had to await the development of cast iron. Only then were larger masses of metal conveniently available.
The medieval carpenter’s bench was still very much like the Roman’s, with pegs serving as end fixtures. The metalworker, especially when using a file to shape and clean small forgings and castings (harness gear, buckles, and so on), used a simple rest, essentially a notched post driven into the ground in front of the bench, to support the workpiece.
Within a century, according to the pictorial record, the metalworker’s rest was replaced by a screw vise, at first quite small. This vise was like a hinge; one leaf or jaw was fastened to the bench, and the other was pulled up to clamp the workpiece and was tightened by the use of a nut and bolt passing through the middle of the hinge. Portable clamp-on vises that can be attached to a plank, tabletop, or bench top date from 1570.
Closing the vise by turning the tightening nut with a wrench was a slow and awkward process. At the end of the 16th century the screw was inverted so that it could be turned from the front by means of the T-handle that is part of every modern vise. This form of vise would remain an integral element of the workbench of every smithy.
The modern machinist’s vise has jaws that run parallel, and some vises pivot as a unit on a vertical axis (swivel-base vise). Both of these features were in use before the end of the 18th century.
The carpenter’s bench developed more slowly. For a woodworker, workpieces could be firmly fixed only with a screw arrangement of some sort. Although all of the necessary elements were known as early as 1505, for centuries nothing came of the idea of bench vises using the screw.
The woodworker needs two types of vices. One holds (clamps) the board into place so that its long edges may be trued and planed; custom places this vice at the left front of the bench, a convenient location for the right-handed worker. The second vice is at the right side of the table; its moving jaw has an adjustable bench stop that permits long pieces of wood to be held between it and a fixed stop in the bench top. Both types of vices were developed and made part of the same bench by the early 19th century.