Moxon Vise

Joseph Moxon (1627–1691) was an English printer, globe maker, and royal hydrographer under Charles II.  In 1678 he began publishing pamphlets on common trades, and in 1683 combined them into a book entitled Mechanick Exercises: Or, The Doctrine of Handy-works.  The pamphlet series The Art of Joinery is considered the first English-language text on woodworking.  Unfortunately, 17th-century English can be a little cumbersome for modern readers, especially tripping over the medial s.

Sometimes a double Screw is fixed to the ſide of the Bench, as at g; or ſometimes its farther Cheek is laid an edge upon the flat of the Bench, and faſtned with an Hold-faſt, or, ſometimes, two on the Bench.

Moxon Workbench with Double Screw Vise

Bear in mind that Moxon was not a joiner himself, and in all likelihood neither was his illustrator.  While the text does mention sometimes placing the vise on top of the workbench, the illustration and the beginning of the text indicate the rear jaw (Cheek) would be attached to the front edge of the workbench.  This looks all kinds of wrong.

The 1688 Academy of Armory & Blazon, by Randle Holme III (1627–1700), is an unusual but contemporary source with a similar description of the double screw vise.  The vise is illustrated separately from the workbench.

Prior to these two English volumes, there was Principes de l’architecture, de la sculpture, de la peinture, &c. by André Félibien (1619–1695), first published in 1676.  This shows two vises at the back of a workshop, also separate from the workbench.

F. ESTREIGNOIRS Les Menuiſiers appellent ainſi deux morceaux de bois percez de pluſieurs trous & joints avec des chevilles, leſquelles ſervent à ſerrer & emboiſter des portes ou autres ouvrages, de meſme que l'on fait avec le Sergent.
G. PRESSES de bois qui se ferment avec des Vis.

Despite lacking a formal education in modern French, much less 300-year-old technical French, I managed to translate the descriptions.  After sorting out ſ from f, I determined that emboister has been elided to emboîter (‘fit together’).  I then translated the Estreignoirs as “two pieces of wood with several holes drilled and joined with pegs which are used to clamp and fit together doors or other workpieces, as is done with the Sergent.”  Item G is a “wood press that closes with screws.”

Two words remained a bit of a puzzle: estreignors and sergent.  An online French dictionary indicates estreignor is a synonym of ceinture, which translates to ‘belt’ or ‘girdle’.  Figuratively then, the estreignors surround and hold workpieces as a belt secures your trousers.  The word sergent would normally translate as the military rank ‘sergeant’.  It appears that French joiners in this period used both sergent and crochet (literally ‘small hook’) to describe either an iron holdfast or a hook-shaped piece of wood attached to the front edge of the workbench, typically on the left, used to hold workpieces for edge planing.  Sometimes the latter item was more specifically defined as a crochet de bois.

So much for the history and language lessons.  In 2010, Christopher Schwarz compared the works by Moxon and Félibien and decided that Moxon had made a mistake in showing the vise tacked onto the front edge of the workbench.  Ça ne tourne pas rond.  This was a separate item that could be moved on and off the workbench as needed.  He built one, and quickly realized that the vise would raise dovetails and other detail work above the bench, saving the back and eyes from strain.  As all things Schwarzian (well maybe not mathematical Schwarzian derivatives) it took the neanderthal woodworking world by storm as everyone rushed to build their very own “moxon vise”.  Soon even commercial versions were available from Benchcrafted and the Philadelphia Furniture Workshop (also via TFWW).

Long after the moxon vise fervor has subsided, I am finally building one.