Saturday, April 21, 2018

Cool tools #3: Wilton Tradesman Bench Vise.

     The vise is the heart of any workshop. A vise holds what's being cut, steady and unwavering. You'll notice I've added an extra layer of support before bolting the Wilton—which has four bolts instead of the standard three—to my work table, to encourage it not to pull through the particleboard.
     The really extraordinary thing about this Wilton Tradesman Bench Vise is not that it weighs 70 pounds or its sleek green finish or that it rotates 360 degrees: it's where the glorious object is made: not China, not Mexico, but Carpentersville, Illinois. The company began in Chicago in 1941 by Czech immigrant Hugh W. Vogl, and while some production has moved down to the union-unfriendly state of Tennessee, these "bullet vises"—so-called because the screw is encased by a rounded casing that keeps out grit—are still made locally.

     Don't overlook the little square anvil area. Very useful.
   The obvious question is what connection does "vise," the badass tool, have with "vice," the bad personal habit? The romantic in me would conjure up a t00-easy answer: some medieval moralist opining how we are squeezed by the shame of our moral failings.
     The actual, the world-sucks-but-we-have-to-live-in-it answer is "there's no connection." In fact, "vice" is used for both the tool and the sin in most of the English speaking world, the depravity-related meaning being older, and tracing to the Latin "vitium," meaning, simply enough, "fault, or defect." The thing with jaws pressing together is from "vitis," or vine, which grow in corkscrews ("Vite" is screw in Italian). Without the casing that Wilton so handily features, the large screw mechanism was most distinctive. 
     In his great 1755 dictionary, Samuel Johnson defines vice as "1. The course of action opposite to virtue; depravity of manners, inordinate life" then "2. A fault; an offence." The third definition is, obscurely, "The fool, or punchinello of old shows," citing Shakespeare, and only in his fourth definition gets to "A kind of small iron press with screws, used by workmen" citing a Dutch word, "vijs," which must, like all of Johnson's etymologies, be taken with a big blue Morton canister of salt. 
     Only in the United States is the "vise" spelling generally used, trying to get a little distance I suppose between our tools and the urgings of Satan.
     It was this column, almost a decade ago, that first put the Wilton company on my radar. And in my basement.

     "This isn't Chinese. I can tell from the box, they're American," says Gordon Stade, holding a microphone and sitting high in a booth mounted on the back of a red Ford F-250 pickup truck parked in the middle of the Northbrook Garage. "What are they, Jerry? They're tire wrenches, boys."
     The "boys" are 50 or 60 men, substantial, hardworking men, many in baseball caps, some in bib overalls or leather jackets atop plaid shirts atop hooded sweat shirts. Others wear sleeveless T-shirts, one showing off a red-white-and-blue Chevy logo tattoo. They crowd in a circle around the truck, fully bearded or scraggly faced, pony-tailed or balding, rail thin or hauling around cantilevered beer keg guts. They are truckers and towers and garage mechanics, the kind of guys who would show up early Saturday morning to bid on one and a half centuries of clutter from what, until last weekend, was one of the oldest businesses in the United States, the Lorenz auto garage on Shermer Road, which began as a horse carriage repair shop in the 1840s.
     Think of how cluttered your garage is—now imagine that on an immense scale after five generations. Hydraulic jacks and chain hoists, tow cables and breaker bars and tires stacked chest-high. Huge hooks attached to pulleys the size of dinner plates. Shocks and wrenches and little boxes of little bulbs.
     And air hoses—red air hoses.
     "I'm going to sell 'em to you, you can send air all over the farm," says Stade, a livestock auctioneer, himself in business 55 years out of Huntley. "Fifty? Who'll give me 10? Now 20. Now 30."
     Not being in the market for a 25-ton press or an acetylene outfit or the hood from a Firebird, I didn't plan on attending the auction. But the warm weather drew me outside, and I wandered over—the brick garage, built in the early 1920s, looks like something out of a train diorama and is only two blocks from my house.
     I take my place among the men gathered around Stade's pickup truck, which moves along the center of the garage, selling first one pile of stuff, then another. A pair of axes goes cheap —I could use a good axe—so I think to register at the trailer in the back, resolving not to buy anything I don't actually need.
     So no 5-Speed Heavy Duty Drill Press produced by Central Machinery of Hollywood, Calif. No hubcaps from a Nash Rambler. No "Your LaSalle—An Owner's Manual" from 1938.
     "We're selling the trailer, boys," says Stade, who wears a cowboy hat and speaks in an easy, burbling patter. If the family farm has to go, this is the guy you want selling it.
     "He's really good at what he does; he'll get more per item than anybody," observes a big bearded man standing next to me, Chris Horcher of Horcher's Towing of Wheeling. Horcher is here for trucks and chains—"I would have bought more, but he was getting more than the chains cost new."
     I don't want to fall into that trap. But when the longest industrial extension cord I have even seen in my life is held up for sale, I remember scrambling to piece together every cord I own. One hundred feet of heavy-duty orange extension cord goes to bidder No. 106—me—for $6, and lugging the coil makes me feel like less of a well-scrubbed scribbling toff amongst men who actually work for a living.
     I pause to admire a vise—two feet long, made by the Wilton Tool Corp. of Schiller Park. Dappled with 50 years of hammer blows and saw nicks, worn, with a dust brown patina, it looks more like a natural formation, something carved by the wind perhaps, than an object manufactured by human hands.
     "You need a vise?" asks a guy, who sees me examining it. "These are not made in China, you know."
     "Every man needs a vice," I answer. "And frankly, I've been lacking in the vice department lately."
     But this is not the crowd for wordplay. I hang around for more than an hour, hoping to snag the vise, or at least one of the tire irons—those big metal X's, not the little jack sticks that comes with cars nowadays. Lunchtime approaches, however, and I decide to leave the tools to those who really need them. I am also afraid that I'll shrug and make the easy observation: that, as if our big car companies failing were not bad enough, now even the corner car repair shop is going down, breaking apart and spilling its contents to the winds.
     Despite the fever dreams of the village fathers, I can't imagine a hip restaurant opening in this yawning cavern. I can't see the high-ceiling space, with its skylights and metal struts, becoming a mall—a candle shop and an olive oil boutique and a stand selling artisanal cheeses—not one that ever progresses beyond an artist's drawing published in the Northbrook Star. My bet: It'll sit empty for the next five years.
      That goes without saying. More worthwhile noting is that my wistfulness for the Wilton vise was misplaced—Wilton, now of Elgin, made its first vise in 1941 and is still going strong. The Wilton Web site touts 132 vises—though whether they are made in China or here, I could not immediately determine. Either way, I might have to pick one up because sometimes a man needs a vise.
    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 9, 2009



  1. Well, Alan P. Leonard hasn't written ...

  2. Authentic hammer paint too, the green one. That finish always sets a tone to us of a certain age. Classic look.

  3. Saturday Fun Activity –

    You say it's only two blocks from your house. How about a nice stroll over there and let us know, nine years later, if there's a candle boutique and artisan olive oils in the old building?

    1. No need to stroll. It became a Caribou coffee then, when that went out of business, in part because the owners were chowderheads, it became a Graeter's Ice Cream. And I have to say, while I miss the carriage shop, Graeter's is an asset. I literally never allow myself to go there unless I'm squiring guests. Because if I allowed myself to go there of my own volition, I'd be there every day.

  4. What a wonderful series on tools. My family has had carpenters in every generation since they came to America from Saxony in 1750. I took an academic path but still love to dabble with tools. I'm cautious by nature so imagine my surprise when, in a moment of inattention, I cut my left index finger off using a joiner on a board. You'd be surprised how handy that finger turned out to be. You don't realize it's utility until it's gone. And who would have guessed that there is a booming hand rehab industry going on because of knuckleheads like me lopping off digits. If you get a chance to invest in hand rehab, jump on it. It's a growth industry. I should have taken the hint years ago when my uncle, a real live carpenter, shortened a perfectly good finger with a saw. He's in his seventies and recently fell off his roof trying to adjust a satellite dish. It should have killed a normal person, but it just pissed him off. Now that I think about it, I've got some tree branches on the roof that I need to get down . . .

    1. A few years ago, when 75-year-old Max McGee died falling off his roof, I thought, “Hey, that’s pretty cool. way of exiting Planet Earth.” Now, I’m 75 and I go up on my roof regularly, especially when the snow flies and ruins my Directv, but the roof is pretty flat and unless I clumsily kick the ladder away from the house, I’m really not in that much danger, despite what my daughter might say.


    2. Dear God man! Shocking declaration. Professional carpenter here. Career goal: die with 10 fingers

  5. I have a Wilton, and two other vises, but none as fine as that one. That's a beaut! Top of the line!

  6. Someone should speak up for the incompetents like me. Whenever I need carpentry, electrical or the like, I pick up my most valuable tool, my phone, and call a guy.

  7. I consider myself more of a twit than a toff, but enjoyed this column a lot, regardless. I'd have been pretty disappointed in the EGD Commentariat if somebody hadn't asked about the fate of ye olde carriage shop by this point in the day, which Mr. Herrmann had covered as of the 3rd comment. I have neither the basement, nor the inclination for using a vise, but that certainly looks like a fine one. Nice that it was made in Illinois, too -- Chicago, Schiller Park, Elgin, Carpentersville -- those folks get around...

  8. Central Machinery of Hollywood CA, is actually a house brand of Harbor Freight & Tools.
    At least 95% of everything sold at Harbor Freight is made in China & I'm sure that is also.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.