If you’re going to build yourself a chest of drawers, what wood would you build it out of?
You’d build it out of whatever you fancy building it out of.
What you like, what’s to hand, what’s cheapest.
Who, bloody cares?
It’s the same for a workbench.
Obviously, I can’t pass that off as an article though, so I’ll make a mountain out of it.
If you’re looking for the best wood for your workbench build, then you need to decide which factors are most important to you:
- Should it be cost effective?
- Are you looking for a quick build?
- Do you want your workbench to be purely functional? Or something More?
Now, any workbench that I refer to will be solid and sturdy.
I’ll never talk about rickety, screwed together stuff. The build has to be stout, and I’m a man who likes a nicely made bench.
So we won’t be considering MDF as a material choice, it has to be proper solid wood.
Let’s have a look at your options…
Workbench Wood – The Cost Effective Route:
When it comes to price of timber, this is hugely dependant on where you live.
Beech is good example of this. This side of the world, it’s cheap as chips. Hence why every commercial bench building company over here opts for beech.
In America, beech will blow your balls off.
But as a general rule, softwoods are usually far cheaper than hardwood. And this will apply in most locations.
A few quid between the board foot price, might not seem like that much. But some benches are timber hogs, and that few quid can quickly add up. Of course softwoods vary in quality and price amongst themselves. Stuff for the construction industry is grown quickly, and not as good as joinery grade boards for example.
The names for softwood and the grades used by merchants can be vague.
And they’re going to vary country to county.
So if you want to know if you’re buying a quality softwood or not, the best bet is to take a look at it.
Low grade, fast grown stuff has wide spacings between the growth rings, and it’ll be lighter in weight. Cheaper stuff also tends to be narrow and full of knots.
Wide, clear, dense softwoods boards, are a wonderful thing and highly under rated.
If you manage to find some nice stuff, you could even consider using it sparingly…
Spend Where You’ll Get Most Benefit
When I built my 12′ English Workbench, I used some fairly shoddy, spongy pine for the legs.
It was knotty, and pretty gruff to work. I believe they were fence posts, but I put a brave face on for the camera.
These are the shoddy fence posts that I used for the legs on my own English workbench. Not nice to work with, but when all’s said and done, perfectly strong enough.
For the top & aprons through, I splashed out on some wide, joinery grade redwood.
Compared with any hardwood, these boards were cheap as chips, but it’s still more expensive than that gruff stuff.
Good timber choice goes a long way to your bench top’s quality. Softwood is just as good as hardwood here, it has negatives, but it also has positives. Still, it is worth going for quality softwood boards, that are a little denser and preferably free of knots (or dead knots at least).
If you want a cost effective bench that’s built to last, then put your money in the top.
I’ve even recommend focusing your budget on just the front half of your top. This is where the action happens, so if you’re worried about durability, this is the area that counts.
Of course this could be a combination of softwood and hardwood, or just cheap softwood, alongside denser softwood, as I did.
And if you’re choosing with budget first, be sure you don’t end up spending more than necessary by buying a timber that’s rare where you live…
Choose For Your Region
I’m referring a lot to redwood, as that’s available over here. But elsewhere, think of things like Douglas fir, southern yellow pine.
And I know in parts of America, you may be able to get hold of poplar for a similar price.
The thing you need to avoid, is getting a timber in mind because someone across the globe told you it’s great.
Along with the upfront costs, don’t forget to consider how your timber choice will affect your build time…
Choosing For A Practical Build:
Building a workbench can be a big investment in time.
I’ve sold many vices, and followed up with many of these customers about their bench builds, to learn they’re still at it… almost a year on!
Everything about a workbench, is bigger and heavier than the furniture we’re used to building.
But there’s few things we can do to speed things along:
- Don’t aim for perfection. (A bigger build lets you get away with looser tolerances, so it’s good to realise that a bench wants to be strong and functional, rather than polished and posh.)
- Choose materials that suit your bench design.
- Choose materials that suit your tools.
Don’t underestimate the last two…
Thinking Of Your Design
Bench design can play a big role in guiding your material choice.
Any design that stems from history for example, is worth looking to history for your answer.
The English bench (or Nicholson, as it seems to be branded today), was nearly always made of softwood – so you’ll know that’ll suit.
The construction of this style of bench was primarily planked. It had wide boards used for the top and aprons, which were nailed on to the base.
That nailed construction is a great suggestion for softwood, as going through very hard woods with nails is much less satisfying. And to be quite frank can be a bit of a sod.
Also, the softwood’s elasticity is going to come in hugely here.
Plus, who fixes cherry down with a galvanised nail?
If you’re planning to build more of a French (Roubo…) type bench, then your biggest concern might be coming up with something thick enough for that top. Or stable enough to glue.
A huge slab would save you huge amounts of time in the build, but can you source it? And don’t fall for any of that ‘wet is ok’, stuff.
You’re committing a tremendous amount of time, finance, and effort when you take this route. Get it right.
And don’t waste time buying timber you’re not kitted up to work…
Choose What’s Right For Your Tools.
If you’re building by hand, with just hand tools, then this is a big factor in your timber choice.
Where a machine can take on most timbers fairly equally, might just make a slightly different pitched sound, hand tools will let you know when you’ve made a bad choice.
Softwood is easier on the hand tools for the type of work you’ll be doing here. Choosing a decent softwood will speed up your build no end, by hand.
If you want to go hardwood then certain timbers should be avoided if they’re kiln dried.
Ash for example, is a sod. When kiln dried it’s like working a Jacob’s cracker.
Oak on the other hand works beautifully with hand tools, particularly if it’s air dried.
If you have the use of some roughing machinery though, then ash is a fantastic way to go.
It’s unbelievably stiff, and has memory so it’s great for holding itself up on a long top span. And it’s not hard to find. It’s everywhere.
And to top it off, it’s one of the best priced hardwoods.(A little tip though, if you’re gluing this stuff up, and a piece feels heavier than the rest, discard of it).
Beyond the build, you’ll want to think about how well your bench will suit you…
Choosing What’s Practical In Use:
If you want the fastest and most cost effective build, then softwood’s definitely your answer.
But for many people, hardwood is the more desirable.
Hardwoods certainly win in two obvious areas. They have more weight, and they’re more durable. Both are great for a workbench, but both could be designed out.
I feel that softwood gets a bad wrap, and is underestimated these days for workbenches.
I love the grippy work surface it creates, and how easily you can stick things in to it. So for work holding, I actually find it the most practical.
Hardwoods on the other hand can burnish easily, so your top gets slippery and can be like having to work on plastic. If you’re a vice galore type person, this won’t be a problem though.
The thing I love about a hardwood bench, is the solidness in feeling that it gives. You do notice that.
Beyond Simple Function.
Everything I’ve suggested is based on the fact that a workbench is built for function.
But there can be a lot of pride that goes in to building your own bench, and to me it’s also an expression of yourself. If this is important to you, then don’t dismiss choosing a timber simply because you like it. Even if it’s just because it matches your hand plane handles.
Pine and ash are the two most dominate timbers in my mind for bench building. But if I was building my perfect bench it would be of oak.
I just have a true love for oak – the workabilities of it, and it’s simplicity. If I were a tree, I’d be an oak tree -it’s my favourite.
There are very simple fundamentals that make a workbench work, and you should never go beyond those. So don’t try to be special design wise, but you should build it to how you want it to be.
Just be reasonable – I had somebody once ask me, to build him a bench from his stash of ebony. I saw the pile and nearly fell off my chair – I didn’t take that job on!
The wood there must have been worth more than me, I wasn’t prepared to do that.
That’s how you make a mountain out of a mole hill…
The quicker answer would have been, ‘build it, to match your wardrobe…’