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Wagon tongue vise, heading West?

Frank Turley

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Over the years, I've done a little homework involving leg vises. I keep seeing the "wagon tongue vise" which lacks a leg, but rather, has a threads and nuts, a clamp-like affair. All the photos I've seen show a vise that has the conformation of a Columbian. I believe that Columbian got its start around 1890. I'm not sure of the time period of vise manufacture, but it continued perhaps into the 1930's. I submit that the Santa Fe Trail opened in 1821, and the Oregon Trail in 1846. I don't buy that these relatively recently made vises were going West on the old trails.

I suppose it's possible that they could've been clamped to a portion of a wagon, but more than likely, they were used by itinerant craftsmen such as saw dentists, saw doctors, tinkers, etc.

http://www.turleyforge.com Granddaddy of Blacksmith Schools

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A tongue vise is shown in this photograph of the period mid-1800s U.S. Army blacksmith's "traveling forge" that I built following U.S. Government drawings and secifications. This vise was specified for use with each of these forges for both the northern and southern armies. There is little to differentiate between a leg vise and a tongue vise, with the differences being that the one has a threaded stub instead of a leg and the body of the vise is shorter so as to fit tighter and more securely to the stock of the wagon. My researches have convinced me that the small clamp-on vises were not used on wagons but are simply small bench vises and unsuitable for use for blacksmithing.


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No what I am saying is that there are two distinct types of vises.
- One has a clamp
- The other has a mounting bracket similar to a blacksmith vise.

The vise with a mounting bracket is a tongue vise.

The vise with a clamp as a mount is a bench vise and not a blacksmith vise, and not a tongue vise. It is also not an early machinist vise as it is too small and too flimsy. It was more likely used for doing little things such as jewelry. Not all bench vises were the same size or the same purpose. Small ones were used for little stuff, large ones were for large stuff. Not all vises mounted on a bench were intended for machinists or other workers of iron.


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Images of wagon tongue vises, a small clamp vise, a jewelers bench vise from the Funk tool museum, and finally a bigger vise meant for a table. Mostly web downloads, not mine. Except for the one huge picture. :o That's one inch pegboard, and a quarter on the anvil for scale.







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Nice feedback, especially the photos and diagrams. I'm now a believer in wagon tongue vises, at least for the military forge carts. I'm still wondering about Columbian Hardware Company of Cleveland making them, since the company probably dates from the 1890's. The telltale sign of a Columbian is the 'bell-like' finial of the screw box. I know of two shapes, one being closed and about 1/3 the length of one on a Peter Wright. The other is even shorter in length and open ended (not a solid box). I suspect that in the 20th century, the entire screw box was cast steel[?] which could be heat treated for strength. This would have been an American innovation to speed up production. I think that Iron City also cast the box. The tabs or "ears" that project from the base of the jaws is attenuated compared to British made vises. In fact, in later Columbians, it almost disappears. They were originally designed to keep filings out of the washer area. One was put on the fixed jaw for no reason, except for balance and aesthetics. I appreciate Einhorn's work; his vise looks like a Columbian.

There are three engravings of Columbian vises in Postman's "Anvil's in America," one from 1907, another from 1918, and another from 1919. They have the same conformation of the ones I've seen.

I think that the Columbian was the most popular vise sold in the 20th century, especially west of the Mississippi. Since they were making a few tongue vises, perhaps they were still used in the Spanish/American war and into WW I. For all we know, the military might have ordered a slew of them, and when they received them, they were essentially obsolete.

I could be wrong about calling the tongue vises "Columbian." However, I have had beau coups Columbian vises go through my hands in trade, and I use one in my shop. If I'm mistaken about the ID, my old home town was St. Louis...so ya gotta show me; I'm from Missouri.

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... I'm now a believer in wagon tongue vises, at least for the military forge carts. I'm still wondering about Columbian Hardware Company of Cleveland making them,... I appreciate Einhorn's work; his vise looks like a Columbian. .......

I greatly appreciate your appreciation. Numbering the enclosed photos from left to right, photo number 1 to the far left is a closeup of the Iron City logo found on a tongue vise that I don't own. The second image is of a page out of Captain Albert Mordecai official U.S. Army drawings circa 1850s as provided to manufacturers of equipment for the U.S. Army. I therefor conclude that the Government expected U.S. companies to manufacture these vises to their specifications, and that the Iron City logo on at least two tongue vises that I have seen indicate that at least some of the vises that were made in the U.S. were made by Iron City. So far I have resisted the urge to purchase an Iron City tongue vise. I might also note that the Iron City tongue vises that I have seen so far have had the non-Civil War wagon bracket on them and not the bracket that would fit onto the lunette of a Traveling Forge. I would further conclude from that that Iron City had sufficient demand to produce this model of vise/mounting bracket combination for civilian use. Also, so far the few tongue vises with the military type brackets that I have seen all lacked a visible logo.

The third photograph shows one of my tongue vises mounted on my Civil War era Traveling Forge's stock while test fitting the vise to the stock. The fourth photo is of the same tongue vise disassembled, note the mounting bolt that I fabricated and that this change needs to be made to a standard tongue vise as part of creating the bracket shown in the government diagram. I guess that the web sites mentioned above forgot to give me credit for the photos. Tongue vises while not a common as Japanese Beetles around here, are fairly common around Pennsylvania and Iron City tongue vises show up once in a while on EBay.

The fourth picture is three of my four tongue vises. The vise on the left in the photo has the non-military bracket commonly found on tongue vises around here and were likely used on wagons, note how the mounting bracket sits higher on whatever it was mounted on than the U.S. Army mounting method. The vise in the center has the remnant of a wagon's mounting bracket that was apparently converted to a mounting bracket for use as a bench vise, also a common conversion on vises that I have seen in Pennsylvania.

The fifth picture is from the library of congress web site showing a traveling forge in use. I have yet to see a photograph of a traveling forge from that period where the smith is not blocking the view of the vise.

Other than the reproduction traveling forge that I have built, all other reproductions that I have looked at have used a leg vise with the leg cut off. I have concluded that through both conversations with the smiths and the observation of the length of the body of their vises. Real period leg vises, as shown in the official government diagram, were short of body so as to fit closer to the stock that they were/are mounted on.

These vises and the Traveling Forge that they were mounted on were standardly used by U.S. Army blacksmiths during the U.S. War Between the States, purchased in the hundreds if not thousands from at least the 1840s through 1860s for "field use"(army on the move) and "park use"(army headquarters, etc) and therefor were not obsolete until some years after the conflict.

Frank --- when you come up to demonstrate at the yearly Blacksmithing Days event with the Blacksmith Guild of Central Maryland, I will give you a free copy of my book, signed of course, if you want one. Hopefully the book will help further your understanding of the equipment available to the U.S. Army smiths during the middle of the 19th century.







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David Einhorn,
Thanks for the historical ejumucation.

I've posted this previously, but here is some info from "Directory of American Toolmakers" edited by Robert E. Nelson; Early American Industries Association, 1999.
"IRON CITY TOOL WORKS Pittsburgh 1854 - 1958
TOOL TYPES: Blacksmith tools, hammers, Hoes, Picks, Railroad Tools and Vises
TEXT: The company was acquired by the Warren Tool Corp. in 1958 and the Iron City name is still used by them on tools now made in Warren, OH.

Not sure when the above info was gathered, but I think the vises are no longer made by Warren. In any event, the tongue vises could have been made by them during the Civil War era.

The Directory doesn't have much to offer about Cleveland Hardware Company. They list dates as 1890 - 1900. This is nebulous, since the company continued beyond 1900.

I'll look for you at Blacksmith Days. Thanks for your kind offer.

P.S. Do you have the mules to go with that outfit?

Frank T.

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David Einhorn, ......P.S. Do you have the mules to go with that outfit?... Frank T.

I have been hearing that question frequently lately. No critters to pull it at the moment, but I do have four large empty barn stalls in the horse barn. I also don't have:
- the limber that turns the forge into a four wheeled wagon to be pulled by
- a team of six horses, three outriders, several thousand dollars worth of tack,
- two additional trailers with two additional trucks with drivers to transport the horses and equipment

..... but donations are welcome.

I expect that since it took me over four years to afford the parts to build the traveling forge and to build it, that it would take 80 years past my life expectancy to acquire the rest of the list.

Even if I spent all the money and time accumulating that list, I expect people would then ask when I and the other smiths at my forge are going to go to farrier school. And if we went to farrier school then I will be asked when we are planning to work our way through the apprenticeship program with the farrier's association, and on and on.

Really I only built the thing to entertain myself and perhaps help the guild and local museum out when they needed something historically correct at away-events. At the moment I am trying to figure out how to afford to haul the traveling forge around, as rebuilding my trailer at this point in time appears financially and possibly physically out-of-reach. At the rate my book is selling it will possibly take over 10 years just to afford the tires. And I do not expect to financially break even on the costs of producing the book within my lifetime.

I will have to consider writing the book as a labor of love for blacksmithing, if I am looking for the reward from writing it.
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Knowing that for every smith on the cutting edge of technology there probably is at least one that's hanging on to the past---ifn it was good enough for my grandpappy it's good enough for me!---I can see wagon tongue vises being introduced to a bunch of smiths in the war and then propagated forward in time by them and the folk they trained---particularly in "backward areas" like my beloved Ozarks.

Looks to be a handy thing for a wagon based smith. I wish I could consult with Isaac Doss who started out smithing in wagon days in the Ozarks; but sadly is no longer with us.

I had a friend who snatched up a wagon tongue vise at a fleamarket---he was one booth in front of me and just for due diligence asked the price on it as it was mint, complete and they were going for way more than he (or I) could afford. The guy said $20 and I think my friend pulled several muscles getting his wallet out and had to wave it around a bit to cool it off so that the money didn't combust from the friction! Not for nothing do I call Ohio the "Happy Hunting Grounds" for blacksmiths! (this was in the 1990's BTW)

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Nice to know what this rascal is after 20yrs or so. Hardly ever use it........When I do I grab the bottom of it in my heavy chipping vice to create a horizontal vice.......I gots no wagen .....mb

The vise you have in your picture has a clamp built into it, therefore it classifies as a bench vise, not a wagon or tongue vise.
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David E.: I have the mules to pull it. 4 16 to 17 hand mules should have no problem.
I have had them hitched to a limber and cannon a few times didn't seem to
mind the gun fire if they could see where it came from. Mules had a much
higher rate of survival in battle than horses.

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David E.: I have the mules to pull it. .... Mules had a much higher rate of survival in battle than horses.

Gee, those are huge mules, is that the normal size of a mule? I'm sure they could pull it. It sounds like you are a bit far from the south-central, PA area. Do you have a limber and the harnesses as well? There is a house down the street with fenced fields and stalls in case you are interested in moving here. ;-)
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  • 8 months later...

I just picked up one of these wagon vises, it is marked Iron City about 16 inches tall 3 3/4 inch jaws. weighs around 30-40 lbs. The price was right- free, but I gave the guy some stuff in trade as there were 3 vises (one complete, one missing the screw box and screw and this wagon vise)


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