TOOL HISTORY - Wilton Vises
The Wilton legend begins, while Hitler was victimizing much of Europe including Czechoslovakia, a Czech citizen by the name of Hugh W. Vogl stood on a Chicago street corner in 1941 surveying the area when a man walked up and asked him what is the name of his new company. Grasping for a name, Mr. Vogl looked up at the nearby street sign that said Wilton Avenue, and the rest is history. In fact, the original location of the Wilton Vise Company was 941 W. Wrightwood Avenue and the corner of Wilton Avenue, just around the corner from Wrigley Field. You just can’t get much more American than that. Wilton Vise was founded in 1941. Hugh Vogl’s son, Alex, also played a major role in the Company from the beginning. With little or no help from the current owners of Wilton (Walter Meier Corporation), I will write here what I have found researching the original Wilton Vise Company. (You can see larger photos on the "Wilton Photos" page)
The Company (Wilton Tool Manufacturing Co.) stayed at the Chicago location until the 1955 to 1957 time frame when they transitioned to the suburban Schiller Park, Illinois location in the metropolitan Chicago area. Vises were cast with either the Chicago or Schiller Park location on them and this can be helpful in determining their age. But the best method to determine production date is to remove the dynamic jaw, turn it over, wipe any grease to see a stamped date on the keyway. It is also possible that there will be “GUAR EXP” stamp instead of the date code.
The Company started out by stamping, not casting, their vises with dates, but these were originally not manufacturing dates, but dates when the 5-year guarantee would expire. In other words, if your vise is stamped with 9-46, as is mine, then it was made approximately in September of 1941. However, I can see where Wilton would run into trouble using this method. If there was ever a backlog of vises due to a recession then many would be sold later with a shorter guarantee period. So Wilton changed their method at some later unknown date more or less in the 1960s. And that is when they started using actual production dates I believe.
The Company’s first patent was for the “bullet style vise.” It was applied for August 1st, 1941 and was granted on March 3rd, 1942. Vises made before the approval were cast with “patent pending.” This vise is what most people recognize as a Wilton vise when they see one. This design is still being produced today as the “Machinist Vise,” and is one of their top models. Today’s Machinist’s vises sell new typically in the range of $300 to $900 depending upon size, yet a good used one is a fraction of those prices. Today, the top-of-the-line vises are the Combination vises and Machinists’ Bullet models. Current model numbers are typically stated as the “450”, indicating a 4.5-inch jaw size, or “500” indicating a 5-inch jaw size. This is the width of the jaw and not the jaw opening size, which tends to confuse some people. My 1941 model is cast with “930” as being a 3-inch jaw and overall length of 12-inches. Another older vise has “840” with a 4-inch jaw size and is much larger physically overall than my little 930. There is a 1950s era 2-inch vise that is called a “Baby” vise. Wilton always maintained a wide range of sizes and types in this Bullet model alone.
The “Baby” Wiltons (left) have an interesting history. The majority of these were made while Wilton was in the Chicago plant so most were cast with “Chicago” on the housing. However, these vises didn’t sell well so Wilton dropped the line shortly after moving to Schiller Park but still had an inventory yet to sell. So today you will sometimes see a “Baby” Wilton with a date code that indicates its sale date of after 1957-58 period. These are not production dates like those found on other later model Wilton vises. These vises have become quite popular and it is not unusual to see a used one sell for $150, $200 or more. It is very rare to find a baby Wilton cast with Schiller Park, but they do exist.
The next major model design milestone was the “Torco” model vise, on the right. This one would definitely be classified as a (home shop) mechanic’s vise due to the specialized anvil designed into the vise casing. The Torco’s patent was applied for in November 1947 and granted May 31, 1949. Also helping to define the Torco as a mechanic’s vise is the fact that it uses a set of pipe jaws underneath the standard vise jaws. The Torco model was produced for approximately ten years.
Today’s Wilton Company just calls their mechanic’s vise, the Wilton Mechanic, . . . someone over at Walter Meier’s creative marketing department has been working overtime (sarcasm). The new models (since 2002) are typically “744” for the 4-inch, “745” for the 5-inch, etc, and their “High Visibility Safety Vise” Mechanic models are typically “1550” for the 5-inch and “1560” for the 6-inch vises.
The late 40s, early 50s, was an era where millions of WWII and Korean War veterans had returned home, went to school, started families, and bought their first home using the GI benefits programs. Wilton saw that a home shop vise could fill a need. The “Shop King” patent was applied for September 13, 1950 and granted July 31, 1951. It was painted with a red finish. They didn’t make these very long though and it isn’t clear why, but some say the Shop King just wasn’t as durable as previous models with the pipe jaws falling out easily among other things. But the Wilton Company didn’t give up. Of course, during these coming years various woodworkers’ vises and drill press vises were produced as well as C-clamps.
Next up on the designer’s table was Wilton’s Triple Duty vise, also known as the Rapid Titan 3-Way. They applied for this patent February 14th 1957 and was granted October 1st 1957. This unusual vise had three purposes. It could be used as a bench vise, a pipe vise, and a woodworkers’ vise. Again this was designed for the home shop, but was more successful than the Shop King. These were also painted in a red finish and had a masonite covering over the jaw for the woodworker. The Triple came with either a 3.5-inch or 5-inch jaw width weighing up to 35 pounds.
Although a model currently being made under the name of Wilton Multi-Purpose vise might be mistaken as similar to the Triple, it is only vaguely similar in design because it doesn’t have the masonite piece for woodworkers and it isn’t physically similar either. It claims to be designed for auto mechanics and appears to come in one jaw size, 5.5-inches. I wouldn’t consider this a direct descendant to the older Triple Duty. In fact, I would be hard pressed to find any of the new Wilton vises to be direct descendants of the older vises, with the exception of the original Machinist’s Vise. This is likely why the older ones are still in such demand today.
Skipping a few years forward to the 1970s, Wilton began using the name “Wilton Corporation” in their patent applications. This might indicate a sale of shares in the Company by Hugh Vogl to shareholders, where he is still probably running the Company, but the patent applicant names have also changed. It isn’t clear what was happening and might not be anything since Alex Vogl, Hugh’s son, is also very much involved in the Company at this point.
In the 1970s, Wilton also had an air-hydraulic bench vise that closed using a foot control pedal so the operator could use it hands-free. They offered these in 4-inch, 4.5-inch, and 6-inch jaw sizes. I wasn’t able to find a patent on this so it is possible that the peripherals were produced or designed by another company.
Of all Wilton’s vises the one model that has a large following other than the “Bullet” vise is the Columbian model vise. The Columbian Vise Company originally made vises until 1973 when Warren Tool Company purchased the Company. You will find some of these vises were sold at Sears under the Craftsman name with the Craftsman name casting but they are unmistakable as being Columbian vises. The best way to identify them is the Craftsman model number begins with “506”. Warren Tool Company then began production in January of 1973 and I believe Sears used the model number prefix code “391”. They were red in color and my own Craftsman-Columbian vise is shown in the photo on the right. It isn’t clear when Wilton began production of the Columbian vises but a good guess is around the mid-1990s thanks to info from Steve at Epstein’s Tool Company that sold these vises until Wilton’s new owner, Walter Meier Corporation, no longer would allow them to sell the Columbians. Epstein’s was then saddled with a large inventory they were no longer authorized to sell.
And so in 2002, the Walter Meier Corporation purchased Wilton Vise Corporation. The Schiller Park factory is no longer in existence, and the original Chicago factory is also long gone.
There isn’t a lot of information out there about the original Wilton Company and I thought this small bit of information was better than no information. The Wilton Company history is very sketchy and the current owners seem more interested in telling us about the Walter Meier Company than Wilton, so if you have any additional information feel free to contact me.
Friends at Garage Journal - History of Wilton
The U.S. Patent Office records