Picked it up for a few bucks, but it needs a little TLC.
2016 September 3 Tech Metal & Shop
There is probably no shop tool on earth more useful than a bench vise. Fixing up an old vise and mounting it to a work table is a great weekend project... which then allows you to do many more weekend projects.
A little while ago, I picked up a cheap vintage one that needed some repairs. It cost a few dollars, but it had at least three things wrong with it.
This project involved three different repairs in one. Keep in mind this is more of a junkyard fix-it project than a "restoration". Actually it was sort of a hack repair. I would never do this to a good vise, but the point is... this wasn't a good vise. By the time it needs to be welded, it's not worth much anyway.
Oh yeah, one more thing. Welding, brazing, and vise repair can be dangerous. Disclaimer.
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In This ArticleThree Issues
Missing Vise Jaw
So I bought this old Chief model L4 vise for a few dollars. The vise had at least three issues.
The slide was bent.
It was missing a jaw.
And the vise was cracked!
These little L4 vises were made in USA, but they were not premium vises in their day. The Chief L4 is basically an "occasional home handyman" vise. It's kind of lightweight and doesn't have an enclosed lead-screw. It is, however, a useful little bench vise, even if it's probably not even as durable as one of these.
So, let's get to it.
If you over-tighten one of these vises, the slide can bend. These were light-duty vises in their day.
Long story short, I straightened it up in a shop press. The result was a straighter slide, although it wasn't square to the jaws. That means this was never going to be a perfect vise, but I didn't care. I just wanted something that would work.
By the way, you'll have to remove the lead screw before you try to press the slide in a press. Also, you won't want the lead screw to be attached when you pre-heat the vise, because you'll draw the temper out of the metal. (Then the threads will strip.) So, remove it as soon as you take the vise apart for repairs. It's easy; remove a cotter pin and a washer, and you can remove the lead screw from the vise jaw.
The slide seems to be permanently attached into the dynamic jaw. That brings us to the second problem....
Too much force on the dynamic (moveable) jaw puts too much leverage where the slide attaches to it. This causes the metal to crack.
Someone probably broke it with a cheater bar. And I probably made it worse by straightening the slide in a hydraulic press.
How to fix this? We'll get to that, but first let's deal with the missing vise jaw.
Missing Vise Jaw
The dynamic jaw of this vise was also missing the liner or surfacing. You know, that piece that actually grips whatever it is you're trying to clamp in the vise.
Shown here, the missing jaw with the other one removed also.
A lot of vise jaws get worn smooth, dinged up, or lost. I thought about trying to precision-backyard-machine a new one, but I don't have any precision machining equipment, and I didn't want to bother trying to be precise with cheap tools. (Even at ten bucks for this vise, I overpaid.) So I decided on something easier and more effective... that is, to make a new jaw liner out of steel bar stock, and weld it in place. No need to match up holes or countersink them!
You can make a jaw from a piece of bar stock using a tool like this one, with a cutoff wheel.
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Normally when you braze something made of cast iron, you preheat it in a furnace or an oven. Or at least you would use charcoal. I instead pre-heated it with a pile of sticks and twigs. This puts a very fine layer of soot and tars on the surface of the metal. That means brazing won't stick to it very well. Dumb, right?
To make it even dumber, I didn't spoon any borax flux onto the hot metal. That might have actually cleaned the metal enough to make the braze stick. Instead, I just used the brazing rods with their own flux coating, which isn't really enough for this kind of job.
Not surprisingly, most of the braze ran right off the cast iron... until I got it so hot that the iron partially melted in spots. I think some of the cast iron actually melted into the brazing. Huh, never seen that before.
This braze looks kind of awful, but it'll hold. I think. (Months later, after torquing the vise down on stuff many times... still holding.)
And by the way, the lead screw was removed during the pre-heating, brazing, and welding stages.
Brazing is actually very handy. I learned it many years ago, and usually I'm not this lazy about prepping the metal. If you're going to braze, get a decent torch kit, get some flux-coated rods, but also get a box of powdered borax so you can spoon it onto larger areas that you're brazing. I don't know if it's possible to over-flux the metal, but it is definitely possible to under-flux it (as I did here).
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The braze didn't go so great, but somehow by sheer luck, it sort of worked. The haphazard blobs bridged the cracks in the cast iron. (At least if it breaks again, I know what to do this time.)
With soot and oxidation on the iron, there was no way I was going to try to braze the new jaw liner on. So, while the vise jaw was still hot, I welded it on instead. I made sure to wire-brush it a lot first.
For this job I used a Lincoln 3/32" 7018 electrode, cranked to 90 amps on a nice little affordable 120 volt welder.
This application was kind of too much for a little welder on a cheap extension cord. In fact, the cord is what really limited the welds. I know this for sure, because I can do some darned nice welds with 3/32" 7018 otherwise. Even with that cheap cord, though, it actually set down some passable welds. Not "great" or even really "good" welds, but they'll hold. (Update: Two years of heavy use, and the welds are still solid.) Considering the circumstances, they're fine with me.
You can see I also made crosshatches in the steel, using a cutoff wheel. This makes a huge difference in gripping power. If you're going to do this, do it before you weld it on!
I didn't put down continuous welds, because if I ever want to change the jaw surfacing, I'll have to grind off these welds anyway.
Overall, this was actually a pretty satisfying result. The welds ought to hold for anything I'll do with the vise, which is definitely not going to include using a cheater bar.
Immediately after the welding, I did what this guy recommended, which was to put the whole thing in a bucket of sand overnight to cool. I think this helped, a lot. Welds of cast iron and that sort of thing have a tendency to crack when they air-cool. The sand slows down the cooling greatly. Another thing you can do, if you're really afraid of cracking, is make continous light taps on the welded areas with a hammer until you get the vise covered in sand.
By the way, I still don't know for sure if this vise is ductile iron or cast iron. I think it's regular cast. All I know is that the vise works, the braze is still holding, and the welds are still holding. I torque on this vise all the time, and it's still intact.
Yep, I need a better vise... but at least this one will work until then.
This project turned a semi-heap-o'-junk into a usable bench vise. It's not pretty, it's not really a "restoration", but it works.
Even on a good day, the Chief L4 wants to pull right off the base when you put much leverage on it. It has only one swivel lock, so you might have to C-clamp the opposite side to the bench. Really, the L4 is not even as practical as this cast iron vise. However, if you're thinking of only ever buying one vise, I'd seriously consider a modern USA-made vise like this one or this one.
Although not made in USA anymore, here's a vise worth getting. This one has some features that make it highly versatile, and very durable. Here's my review of the US-made version, just to give some idea.
If this Chief L4 vise holds together, it can go on my son's first real workbench. I use it for a ton of basic metalworking tasks on the welding table, and so far it's holding together well.
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