How to restore a bench vice

How To Restore a Bench Vice

What is a bench vice?

A vice (or vise if you’re American) is an essential workshop tool for all kinds of tasks. Vices come in many shapes and sizes and are generally used to fix an item solidly in place or to a work surface such as a bench while it’s being worked on in one way or another. Read on to follow my process of how to restore a bench vice yourself.

As you can imagine this type of tool can be a god send for metalworkers and woodworkers alike, examples of when they are used include drilling, filing, sawing, sanding, and planning of various materials. If you’re crafty, a vice can also be used as a small press for replacing bushings.

Vices tend to be made from heavy cast iron due to its strength and low cost of manufacture. Generally speaking, a vice has two opposing jaws which are closed and opened by a threaded bar turned by the user. The size of the jaws tends to be the way a vice is measured and a rough guide on what level of duty it is designed for. A small bench vice may sport around a 3” jaw and a large more like a 6”, although the sky is the limit in industrial applications.

Where to buy an old vice for a bargain price

Vices are often large and heavy tools which are very expensive to buy new. As such, I would not recommend doing so unless you are in a professional workshop environment where you must rely on a vice and maybe even its warranty to help you generate an income.

For home workshop and DIY use, especially in a time where people are less and less inclined to get their hands dirty doing tough manual work, you can find some real second-hand tool bargains.

First port of call is of course ebay. You could certainly pick up a cheap vice on bidding, especially if the seller has poorly described and photographed it which is all too common.

The trouble is, packaging and posting a vice (at least one with any real heft to it) will be a very costly affair due to its size and weight. To really get a good deal you will need to be buying locally and collecting a vice yourself.

Car boot sales are historically a brilliant place to pick up a bargain and this is where I myself thought I was going to find the ideal vice for my new workshop. However, after visiting many over a few months I began to lose faith.

You often get the same trader’s month after month, and many of them are old hands trying to make a living rather than young guns just trying get rid of some old stuff that means nothing to them to make room for new stuff.

Eventually I got wise to this and turned my attention to Facebook marketplace which is where I had some great luck. This seems to be the modern-day car boot sale and people list anything and everything locally in search of a quick sale, for example if they are moving to a new house.

I picked up a substantial vice with an impressive 6” jaw and a rotating base which made my old man’s Record vice look like an absolute tiddler. All for the price of £20.

Original Facebook Marketplace advert for my new bench vice.

Looking around on ebay, vices of this size even in awful condition generally command £60-65 at least, which is still an incredible price compared to new.

Starting condition of my project vice

I’m not generally one for brands, which is lucky as my new vice is completely without markings.

The patriot in me would have loved to pick up a proper “made in England” Paramo or Record vice, but alas it was not to be. Besides, I would probably have had to pay more for one of those as they appear to have accumulated some kind of collector status in recent years.

Large 6" bench vice compared to smaller Record Vice of 3.5".

Taking a quick look at my new vice, I appear to have been very lucky with its condition. No part of it appears to be seized, heavily corroded or rusted solid, which is unusual for something so old made from cast iron.

The jaw of the vice seems to close fine however when the threaded bar is turned anticlockwise to open it again it’s a bit more reluctant, however with a push it does indeed work. Something I’ll need to figure out how to fix later.

Rusted jaws on my project vice before restoration.

The entire vice is in need of some attention but it’s mainly just cosmetic, no parts appear to be missing, worn out beyond recovery or at worst, cracked.

It appears to be in two tone red and blue, so I suspect it’s been painted at least twice in its life, although hard to say which colour it was first at this point.

The internal faces of this vice look like something you’d expect to see rolling out of a soviet tractor factory in 1941, however the external faces look far smoother. Although, their does appear to be some kind of solid filler type material coating the external faces underneath that flaking paint.

Underside of my project bench vice prior to the restoration process.

It has a few deep scrapes and gouges, but this all adds to its character and doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

Cosmetic filler is nothing I’ve seen before on something like this, quite unusual.

My bench vice restoration goals

You can type “how to restore a bench vice” into Youtube and watch videos of people taking totally worn out and seized vices and restoring them to a better than new finish. It’s very tempting to embark down a similar path, but I must remind myself of a few key factors here:

  1. I’m intending to use this vice properly, it’s going to see some real action
  2. I’m always short on time, getting a perfect finish on a vice may be a waste of it
  3. I do not need an extra thing to worry about or take extra care of

With that, my goal for this bench vice is less of a full restoration and more of a strip down service with a fresh coat of protection.

It’ll be better than my dad’s effort on his old Record vice. He simply gave that a quick wipe over, put some old newspaper around it and sprayed some left-over silver paint on. But I’m not aiming for anything like those Youtube videos.

Stripping down the vice

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve so far been very lucky with this vice, all moving parts do indeed move and its not in bad condition at all.

It didn’t take us long to strip it down completely, and without rounding a single nut (very unusual for me!).

The vice strip down process went as follows:

  1. Remove the bolt that prevents over-extension and remove the sliding jaw
  2. Unscrew the swivel stand locking bolts (now the stand and main body of the vice can be separated into three pieces)
  3. Remove the two bolts securing the teeth into the main body of the vice
  4. Take the teeth screwed onto the threaded bar on the sliding jaw part out by unscrewing
  5. Remove the R clip and large washer which secured the threaded bar into the sliding jaw
  6. Slide the threaded bar out of the front of the sliding jaw
  7. Remove the vice jaw plates held on with two Allen head bolts
Removing bolt that prevents over extension when stripping it down.
Sliding jaw removed from the vice during strip down.
Close-up of toothed runner inside the vice that the sliding jaw grips onto.
Parts of my vice laid out during strip down.
Unbolting toothed runner from the underside of the vice.
Toothed runner removed from within the main vice body.
Underneath the sliding jaw side of the vice before strip down.
Removing the R clip that holds the threaded bar into the vice with needle nosed pliers.
Threaded bar, spring and retaining washer removed from the sliding jaw side.

My new vice was now fully disassembled into its 21 individual components.

Cleaning and degreasing all parts of the vice

After stripping the vice down, the next stage was to thoroughly clean and degrease all the parts and inspect them to ensure nothing was worn out beyond repair.

You can purchase fancy spray on degreasers and then rinse, but I prefer to do it the good old-fashioned way with white spirit. This is an especially appropriate method for degreasing when it comes to small parts as it ends up being much cleaner and with a better result in fewer steps.

The way I went about the process in this case was by pouring some widely available white spirit into an old cracker box. The size of the box is worth taking note of, as ideally, you’ll want to be able to just about submerge the part you’re cleaning, and if you have an oversized container, you’ll find yourself using far more white spirit than necessary.

With each part placed in white spirit I then found a stiff old paint brush and proceeded to agitate the white spirit and work it into the nooks and crannies of each part until I was satisfied that it was clean.

Degreasing metal parts with white spirit in a plastic box.

I then removed the part and placed it on the workbench with some old newspaper beneath it to soak up the excess. White spirit evaporates into the air very quickly so no manual drying necessary.

Degreased and cleaned vice parts laid out on the bench.

Once I’d worked through each and every part and laid it out, I put the box of white spirit to one side to fully settle. Another handy trick with white spirit is that all the dirt and grime will settle to the bottom in such a way that enables you to carefully pour most of the white spirit back into its bottle for re-use on future projects.

Upon close inspection of my laid-out bench vice parts I was quite happy with how it was all looking, so far this is proving to be one of the easiest projects I’ve undertaken. Let’s hope I’ve not just spoken too soon.

All parts of the vice cleaned with white spirit drying on the workbench.

Sandblasting, Scotch-brite pads and wire brushing to remove rust and corrosion

After the parts were fully dry, I got down to the real dirty work of abrasive cleaning in preparation for the application of a shiny new coating.

I started off small and used a couple of 3M Scotch-brite pads in coarse and fine grits mounted onto a bench grinder to refinish the original bolts. Removing rust and corrosion this way is a quick and relatively painless experience if you use grips to hold each one still.

These are the Scotchbrite Polishing Mops we use to clean things up on the bench grinder: https://amzn.to/3iBwkGB

3M Scotch-brite polishing mops on a bench grinder to clean up old nuts and bolts.

To finish off each part to a nicer, more polished sheen, you can use a fine wire brush attached to a dremmel to give it a once over, really looks a treat after this.

Before and after polishing an old bolt during restoration.

Its strongly advised that you wear eye, hand and respiratory protection when doing this for more than a couple of small things. Having coughed up all the dust and had to rinse my eye out under a tap on more than one occasion, I should really take my own advice.

As mentioned earlier, this project is not a full restoration, so I didn’t go crazy in doing the jaw plates or locking bolts, but I am pleased with how they came out in the end. I took some before and after photos along the way to show you what a different this makes.

Vice jaw plates refinished with a polishing mop on a bench grinder.
vice locking bolts before and after removing all the rust and corrosion with 3M mops.

When it came to the larger parts of the vice, I had my heart set on a powder coating on my vice. Having acquired a kit to do this at home and done some small parts with it in the past, I’d been more than impressed with the durability of the finish as opposed to your usual paint finishes.

The only paint finish I’ve seen that’s as tough is Hammerite, but in my experience this is a paint finish that can feel tacky forever, and for a tool that I’m going to need to touch all the time, I didn’t think it was the right way forward.

To prepare the larger parts of my vice for powder coating I first attempted to use our small sand blasting cabinet to remove all the old flaking paint. I quickly ran into a problem with this, however.

That filler I mentioned earlier in this article was much thicker and more widespread than I’d realised. Removing it in its entirely would be a very long and arduous task, and I suspect it’s on there for a very good reason. Judging by the insides of the vice, this is a very crudely cast metal and I suspect this filler was to give it a reasonable looking finish as opposed to the horrors that lurk underneath.

I gave up on the idea of removing it all together despite realising that this would lead me onto a big issue when it came to powder coating that I’ll explain shortly.

For now I decided it was best to work down the bare metal faces of the bench vice such as the jaw plate seats and the smooth plate on top of the sliding jaw with the same 3M Scotch-brite pad technique mentioned earlier and leave the rest of the vice cleaned up a bit but not to bare metal.

using a 3M Scotch-brite pad to clean up the bare metal surfaces of the vice before powder coating.

As the cast iron vice is so heavy, I got a free workout holding it up to the bench grinder. I really felt that in my arms on the following day.

Holding the main body of the vice up to a bench grinder for refinishing with a free arm workout.

DIY powder coating a bench vice

I love powder coating. It’s so much more satisfying than painting as you feel like an alchemist throughout the process. The fact that you don’t have to mess around timing multiple coats of paint is a plus too, and the finish being far more durable is just the icing on the cake for me.

We picked up a home powder coating kit some time ago and hung onto the oven that came out of my old kitchen to complete the kit. I will probably do a more detailed post about DIY powder coating at a later date but for now I will give a basic explanation of it and run through of the process I used to powder coat this vice.

This is the powder coating system we use, it’s a cheap one but it gets the job done: https://amzn.to/3c8X8eN

In short, powder coating is where you apply a special powder to a metal object. To apply the powder, which you can do evenly you must give the metal object and the powder coming out of the gun a strong electrostatic charge which causes both the powder and the object to be attracted to each other giving a nice even coating.

Diagram showing electrostatic charge when powder coating metal parts.

The powdered object is then heated in an oven to around 180 degrees centigrade which causes the powder to melt into a liquid state giving the metal object a durable, smooth plastic-like coating which is very solid after the object has cooled down.

It goes without saying that this process can be very dangerous due to very high voltages used to create the charge, we’re talking about levels which could kill instantly, so the utmost care and attention needs to be taken while powder coating.

On this project in particular, I had the aforementioned issue of the metal parts I was trying to powder coat being partially covered in a non-metallic smoothing filler.

I knew this would interfere with the electrostatic charge I needed, so for some parts of the bench vice I would be relying more on gravity and friction to keep the power in place.

Anyone sensible would have probably accepted defeat on this and opted to go for a more suitable painted finish in this case, but I decided to press on and see what happened. At worst I could sandblast again and resort to painting.

I set about the process of powder coating firstly by heating up the baseplate of the vice to 180 degrees centigrade in the oven for 10 minutes or so to burn off any remaining oils on the surface of the object before applying the powder.

Heating the vice baseplate in the over at 180 degrees to burn off any remaining oils before powder coating.

I also took note of how the filler reacted to the heat knowing it could simply melt, flake off or even burst into flames engulfing my powder coated bench vice dreams along with it. Pleasantly the filler remained intact after this stint in the oven, so I was feeling confident enough to press on.

I allowed the part to cool for a while so it could be more easily worked with, and in the meantime set up the powder coating gear, filled the bottle with powder and charged the compressor that connects to the powder sprayer.

DIY powder coating kit for home use.

Once the part had cooled enough, I then connected the cable which passes on the electrostatic charge to the metal and started carefully applying the powder with the gun for a nice even coating. The powder went on well and seemed to stick to the filler without too much issue too.

Powder coat being applied to metal base.
Powder coat covering the base plate before heating int he oven.

Then the oven shelf was slid back in and the door closed on the part. The oven cranked back up to 180 degrees centigrade and left for 10 minutes or so. It felt like a very long 10 minutes as I paced back and forth waiting to see the result.

I used this time to apply masking tape to the surfaces on the other bench vice parts which wanted to remain as bare metal. Surprisingly masking tape survives in the oven and does a perfect job with powder coat just like with paint.

masking the sliding jaw of the vice before powder coat.
Masking tape applied to the bare metal surfaces on the main body of the vice before powder coating.

Once the 10 minutes had elapsed, we huddled around the oven door to see what was lurking behind. Low and behold, a successfully powder coated bench vice part emerged. It looks like the surface of the moon and there are a few bubbles in my specially selected bling chrome powder coat, but nevertheless it was coated and good to go.

Freshly powder coated vice base plate coming out of the oven.

The other parts started off smoother than the battered base plate and came out with a better finish. However, I was never aiming for perfection. I was happy with gnarly finish as long as it had a fresh coat of rust protection sturdy enough to last into the future.

Heating the sliding jaw in the oven before powder coating to prepare it.
Powder coat being applied to the vice sliding jaw.
Sliding jaw powder coated and coming out of the oven.
Sliding jaw placed down to cool after powder coating in the oven.
Heating the main body of the vice in the oven before powder coating.
Powder coat going onto the main body of the vice.
Powder coat covering the main body of the vice before going back into the oven to cure.
Freshly powder coated main body of the vice coming out of the oven.

It’s hard to get a sense of how shiny the chrome powder coat is on still photos but in the flesh, it really does look cool. Following this, I removed the masking tape while the bench vice parts were still warm and laid the parts out on the workbench once again ready for reassembly.

Chrome powder coated vice parts laid out on the work bench before reassembly.
Stripped down vice with fresh powder coat ready for reassembly.
Removing the masking tape from the freshly powder coated metal parts.

Re-greasing and reassembly of the bench vice

Now I have all the parts cleaned up the rebuild can begin.

I started off by reattaching the jaw plates. These plates seemed to only want to be reattached in a certain orientation, which may be another sign of crude manufacturing.

Reattaching the jaw plates of the vice.

I applied copper grease to the Allen head bolts which I like to do every time I put something back together. I find it really makes life a lot easier when you come to tinker with something again a few years down the line, and you end up thanking your past self.

The next step was to secure the toothed runner into the main body of the vice with the two larger bolts through the underside. This again was a bit of a fiddle, getting this runner seated correctly into its slot now the vice was thick with powder coat required some gentle persuasion with a hammer and punch.

After some faffing around the runner was in and tightened into its seat once and for all and I applied my selected Lucas Red ‘N’ Tacky Grease to the teeth.

Lucas Red "N" Tacky #2 Grease pot.

Lucas Red N Tacky Grease: https://amzn.to/2FRjDJ2

This is my grease of choice when it comes to this kind of thing. It’s a mix of Lithium and Polymers, originally designed for wheel bearings, however perfect for this type of application. It seems great at warding off corrosion and hangs in there for a very long time, giving great lubrication to contacting surfaces and reducing wear. To top it off, it’s very easy to apply to metal surfaces and lives up to its name, very tacky indeed.

Next, we took on what I anticipated to be the most awkward part of reassembly and rebuilt the sliding jaw side of the bench vice. Following a good greasing up, again with Lucas Red ‘N’ Tacky, I inserted the threaded bar into the body of the sliding jaw and slid the spring and washer onto it. At this point, we started to ponder how we could compress the spring enough to get the split pin in.

Greasing up the threaded bar with Lucas Red N Tacky grease.

After concluding that our fingers were not up the job and realising that using a punch for additional leverage was not helping either, we started to look around the workshop for anything that might work.

We got lucky and our recently acquired oversized grips were just the ticket. With the jaw of the grips on their widest setting, it could clear the handle of the vice and reach the washer on the spring, compressing them down just enough to get the split pin in one side. Then with a slight turn and another squeeze the washer cleared the other hole too and the pin went all the way through.

Using grips to compress the spring so the split pin could be inserted.
Threaded bar greased and split pin inserted.

Feeling very pleased with ourselves we split the pin and wound on the smaller toothed piece too.

At this point, we were ready for a “test fit” and slid the sliding jaw side of the bench vice into the main body to check everything was in order ready to continue with the rebuild.

Sliding jaws test fit after re-greasing.

The vice seemed happy to wind in and tighten up, but it still didn’t seem to want to open its jaws when the handle was turned anticlockwise, just as it was when I bought it.

After some playing around with this to work out what the source of the problem was, we found the sliding jaw kept coming all the way out and the smaller toothed part was unwinding all the way off the threaded bar causing the whole thing to come apart.

After a bit more investigation, we spotted that there was another hole on the end of the threaded bar which was almost certainly for another split pin to prevent the smaller toothed piece from unwinding all the way off the vice.

Hoping this was the only missing piece of the vice, we dug out a pack of stainless-steel split pins residual from another project and proceeded to hacksaw it down to size fixing it in place with the smaller Record vice. This is exactly the kind of task that a vice is essential for, without it we’d have made a complete hack job of the sawing and spent a lot more time doing it.

Replacement split pin for threaded bar.
Hack sawing down steel split pin with help from a Record vice.

The split pin went straight in and looked to be the solution to the problem.

Split pin going in to threaded bar to secure teeth.

Not really knowing how the toothed parts of the vice worked but knowing they were part of some kind of quick-release mechanism found on many vices, we started to play around with it to figure it out.

Now the smaller toothed piece was no longer falling out of the far side, we discovered through trial and error that the quick release mechanism of the vice was actuated by tilting the handle using the bar as leverage. The design of the vice suddenly all made a lot more sense and the point of the spring is to return the threaded bar to its central position locking the teeth together.

When the handle is pulled towards you from top dead centre, the mechanism allows the jaws to slide open freely. When pushed away from the bottom position the jaws slide closed. It really is a simple but effective mechanism which has to potential to save a considerable amount of winding.

Quick-release mechanism of bench vice.

Now we knew it all worked we screwed in the bolt that prevents over extension of the sliding jaw and turned our attention to the swivelling base.

I greased the inner faces of the base which contact when it swivels thoroughly and slotted them together flat on the workbench. I then lifted the vice and placed it down on the based lined up with the holes.

Re-greased swivelling base of bench vice.

I then copper greased the threads on the locking bolts and proceeded to screw them in. After a quick side to side swivel to check it was all in order, we stood back and admired our handy work.

Greasing the locking bolts with copper grease.
Screwing in locking bolts into swivel vice base.

Here’s a quick summary of the rebuild:

  1. Affix the jaw plates of the vice with he 4 Allen head bolts (restoring original orientation)
  2. Bolt in the toothed runner into the main body of the vice and apply a healthy amount of red grease
  3. Insert the threaded bar (after a greasing) into the sliding jaw side of the vice and slide the spring and washer onto the bar securing with a split pin.
  4. Wind on the small toothed block onto the threaded bar and replace the split pin that retains it.
  5. Insert the sliding jaw into the main body of the vice and screw in the bolt which prevents over-extension
  6. Re-grease and put together the swivel base and place the main body of the vice on top aligning the holes up.
  7. Screw-in the swivel base locking bolts
Quick release opening of the vice jaws.
Quick closing of the vice by pushing handle away.

It might not be the prettiest vice in town, but it may well be the shiniest with its chrome powder coat finish. It’s had a repair, a clean, and a fresh coat of protection, it’s now ready to take pride of place on a new bench and provide an indispensable service for many years to come.

Refinished bench vice in chrome powder coat.
Chrome powder coated bench vice rebuilt and ready for action.

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