Woodcarver's Vise

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This article is from Issue 14 of Woodcraft Magazine.

By George Slack

Time is money in the furniture-making business. This applies to the amateur woodworker as well as the professional. I have had numerous carved pieces slip out of homemade clamps and jigs, and have even broken items while trying to hold and carve them.

I struggled for years to stabilize legs for chairs, tables, and case pieces in I-bar clamps and various jigs, all of which worked marginally well at best. I often thought if I could have a better holding arrangement that would shorten carving time and avoid damage, I could well afford the cost and quickly pay for it with reductions in labor time.

I approached Charles E. Jones, an accomplished mechanical engineer (who happens to be my cousin), with my problem. After some consideration, he felt he could develop an inexpensive vise that would do a better job than anything I’d tried so far. 

The prospect of such an invention was exciting. I did a search at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for similar tools that would solve the problem and found only a wooden vise that was similar to what I had in mind. But from the drawings, it appeared not to work very well, and it didn’t look durable.

Charles designed and built the original prototype way back in 1998, which today goes by the name of Big Red. We made two units: one painted with red primer and one of them given a final coat of yellow paint from a near-empty can of old equipment paint. Both units were constructed from a steel fence post, and the other parts (hold-down plate, adjustment linkage and knobs) were constructed from shop scrap.

The first prototype, affectionately named "Big Red," was moderately successful but cumbersome.

Successful use of the second version provided testing and inspiration for further development.

The latest prototype has surpassed expectations and continues to impress woodcarvers with its usefulness.

To our amazement, Big Red functioned well. But it had several shortcomings; for one, it was very heavy.

So the next version was constructed from aluminum. It took three prototypes before we had a lighter vise that exceeded Big Red’s performance. It was very surprising how the functional problems changed by simply changing the construction materials. Aluminum doesn’t slide very well against aluminum, which initially made it very difficult to change carving positions with this newer model. Most such problems were overcome as Charles evolved through the prototype series. 

I used the aluminum vise for several years, and eventually it became obvious that if the vise was to be really functional it needed some additional features. I decided that both the head and tail should be movable, and the whole vise more user-friendly overall.  

The length of the vise was also a problem. A long vise that would cover most furniture makers’ needs would not function well in confined spaces and when carving short legs.

I discussed these problems, and a few others, with Charles, who promptly went back to the design board. I was ecstatic with the unique new design. After two more prototypes Charles and I evolved a design that works extremely well, is very user-friendly and has the following features:

• It’s modular in that the head, tail and rotational assemblies are removable to allow a different-length sliding bar to be installed.
• It has a minimum of knobs to turn to move the head and tail.
• It can be tilted continuously from a          horizontal position to a full vertical position.
• The vise can be permanently mounted to a workbench or held in place with a C-clamp.
• While in use, it can be tilted with a single release lever.
• The carving article can be rotated.
• A hand lock on the tail stock allows for quick release.

An innovative but simple clutch mechanism makes for easy vise positioning.

The adjustable headstock and tailstock increase the flexibility for positioning a workpiece.

As it turns out, Charles and I became a good design team. He is very patient and loaded with creative talent for design as well as the skills to bring that design into reality. I assumed the role of prototype tester and engineering advisor. Charles always quickly overcame the shortcomings I pointed out, many of which would have been insurmountable problems to many designers. 

After we finalized the design, we decided to celebrate. Charles, who had worked for nearly six months on the evolution of the latest vise, shared with me that he didn’t believe that I was ever going to be satisfied. But on this, he was wrong. The vise is now ready to market.

The next challenge is to protect the invention with a patent. The patent office offers a variety of methods to protect an invention. From the beginning, it is important to maintain a research notebook keeping written progress during the development phases of the invention. This becomes a legal document that would be extremely valuable should invention ownership come into question. 

Because the patent process is slow and costly the patent office offers a provisional patent. The filing fee can be as little as $100 and gives protection for a term of one year.  The total cost when an attorney handles the provisional patent process is approximately $750.  This is the approach we chose to take to give us time to determine if the product is viable in the marketplace.  

The cost of a utility patent, which gives protection for 20 years, requires an exhaustive patent search to be sure our invention is truly original and that we are not infringing on some other invention. This process will cost well over $10,000 and perhaps as much as $20,000. Once the utility patent is granted, there are maintenance fees: $900 due at 3½ years; $2,300 at 7¾ years and $3,800 due at 11½ years.  

To determine if the vise has a future in the marketplace, a detailed manufacturing cost analysis is needed, and a realistically estimated number of sales should be established. To help in this area, we approached Woodcraft Supply’s product development department. After examining the vise and using it to carve, they decided it has market possibilities if the cost to manufacture is not excessive.

We have applied for a provisional patent and have asked three manufacturing companies to give a cost quotation for quantities of 100 and 1,000 units. One of the next decisions will be whether we want to do our own manufacturing and marketing, or license the right to manufacture and market to some other organization.

George L. Slack is a retired CIA senior executive who in 1987 decided to start a second career building high-end furniture. He owns and operates Period Furniture Workshops and since 1998 has offered a variety of classes in carving and 18th-century reproduction furniture.

Charles E. Jones is a mechanical design engineer with many years of experience as field service engineer. His skills over the years have been finely honed by design changes required to successfully install and bring on line large-scale manufacturing equipment. 

For additional information, or to contact the developers, go to www.georgeslack.com.

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