Choosing Timber – The Best Wood For Your Workbench Build

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choosing-workbench-wood

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.

Joinery grade redwood (pine). If you're picky when you buy this stuff, you can get some decent wide and clear boards.

Joinery grade redwood (pine). If you’re picky when you buy this stuff, you can get some decent wide and clear boards.

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.

english workbench timber


Strength in your base can come from good design and solid joinery, so if you can put up with working with it, this cheap wood is more than adequate here.
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?

English Workbench in pine

The completed English workbench (after a good year of abusive use). Mixing those cheap fence post legs, with the higher quality wide pine boards, is not only cost effective, but is incredibly efficient to build by hand. There’s no laminating, minimal prep, and the pine is perfect for this traditional nailed construction. Have a sniff at our video series, for more on this English design.

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.

Oak board for a workbench build

A chunkier, Roubo type bench design, will require the sourcing of some heftier timbers. These oak boards were all used in one bench build. I documented this bench build a few years ago – there’s a few posts starting here.

 

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.

Softwood tops are perfect for sticking things in to. Which comes in handy for swift work holding such as the joiner's bench knife.

Softwood tops are perfect for sticking things in to. Which comes in handy for swift work holding such as the joiner’s bench knife.

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.

A rather large workbench, which I had to laminate up from steamed beech.

A rather large workbench, which I had to laminate up from steamed beech.


 

Every bench I built for customers was finer and more well finished then I’d consider necessary for myself. But there were a few that stood out. This ‘Cherry Bomb’ bench was a special request – a hefty bench, with a refine and polished finish.


workbench built in cherry

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.

Stood next to a Custom Workbench

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…’

22 Responses

  1. Peter McKinlay

    I think there’s confusion around workbenches. They aren’t furniture. They’re a tool, and they are probably the tool that cops the most wear an abuse, certainly in my workshop.

    An ebony bench? Yikes.

    The poplar bench sounds nice- I’ve had the pleasure of working a little bit of poplar, and I don’t understand why it’s considered a secondary wood.

    Reply
    • Kerry B.

      I love poplar… use it all the time.

      Back two summers ago I finally got off my duff to make a “proper” bench, figuring on an english style split top, but for financial and space reasons, decided I’d start with just “half” at first, doing up a single 10-12″ deep x 6-7 foot slab, setting that on something else with a bit of heft, and then doing the rest later. I found a decent sized slab of 10/4 poplar that i could’ve used outright, but instead had milled into 4″ boards that I then (laboriously) planed smooth and out of wind with a newly ebayed Stanley 4½ and laminated up.

      18 months on I’ve been using that 4″ thick, 11″ deep and 7′ long slab of poplar as a bench and finding it just about fine. Haven’t made anything too large, but for what I’m doing, it’s fine. Reckon someday I’ll get around to the back slab and maybe make some trestles for it, but for now, it works. I did mount a face vise to it, and drill a couple of dog holes for hold-downs.

      Anyway, long way to say, I’m a big fan of poplar… I work on it every time I work.

      Reply
    • Paul Bartelt

      Im using 8qtr poplar for my top and aprons, its easy to work and nearly completely knot free. Planes like butter and is semi dense as well, and best of all, cheap

      Reply
  2. Adam

    I built my bench on a limited time and money budget out of 2×4’s it works but it ain’t pretty, I’m looking forward to building a second bench! Living in Suffolk we have just lost our last sawmill so its a real bugger going to choose what I’m buying, any suggestions for a decent timber supplier?

    Reply
    • marcus christensen

      There’s a mill near Manningtree if you are in South Suffolk, near Wix, attached to a company called Feullius fencing-or something similar. I’ve not used it yet, but hear good things. They also have an eBay store if you want to se what they have knocking about!

      Reply
    • Brendan Sullivan

      Hi Marcus
      There’s also Thorogoods Timber at Ardleigh. I’ve bought a fair bit from them over the years. Only imported timber, no home grown.
      Not cheap. They do have a website.

      Reply
  3. Blaz

    I built mine completely from half-steamed beech (whatever that means). It was on sale and It was great. It took 1/3 of cubic meter to build a bench.

    I made splayed legs roubo with a tool well based on your designs I’ve seen on your website. And It looks quite posh.

    If I was building again I would use spruce or pine for legs and rails, but for the top I would still use hardwood.

    I’m still not sure if I would be doing tool well again.

    For me making a workbench was also a test of my abilities so it has drawbored legs, dovetails at the corners etc. It took half a year from lumberyard to finish (Around 80-100 hours I think).

    I found your artcles most informative and inspirational of all and I’m satisfied. They were a great guide in my decision making. Thank you.

    Reply
  4. patrick anderson

    Sage advice as usual.

    I really like that cherry bomb bench. I reminds me a bit of David Barron’s bench after it had been to the gym for a year.

    I’ve got what was 3 14’+ 6×4 softwood beams (species unknown) that I chopped to 6′ lengths and have been drying in the garage ever since. I have a lovely Hitachi thicknesser/jointer combination machine to get it all prepped but time just hasn’t allowed for it. I plan on a Barron type bench.

    I’m probably going to have to cheat and see if I can get someone to square it all up so all I have to do is the joinery and put it together.

    Thanks for all the information and entertainment you’ve given us over the year Richard!

    Merry Xmas to you and Helen.

    Patrick

    Reply
    • Douglas

      I am a chimney sweep living in New England in the US and I am a novice looking to build my first bench. A local sawmill has cherry 4x4s for about as much as it would cost for kiln dried pine 2-by stock from a big-box store. The cherry is pretty fresh but it is so inexpensive I am toying with the idea of a cherry top, and they are going to have white oak soon, perhaps for the base. Am I insane? The sawyer, who is a friend and supplies me with my cordwood as well, says that cherry won’t move much as it dries, and if he hadn’t already made a bench he’d probably go for it. I likely won’t get to the work before the end of the summer and the stock will be stickered and covered with sawdust while it waits. I am dancing in the dark here so help is appreciated. Thanks!

      Reply
  5. Ken

    Great article again Richard, I used redwood pine for my workbench, all rough sawn so I got plenty planing practice.

    It was the vert first thing I made using hand tools only, It turned out Ok, all the leg mortice and tenons were drawbored, the top finished at 6 foot long, and 3 inches thick.

    Its strong and dose the job, it gets beat up and that’s ok, I don’t know if I would feel that way if I had spent a fortune on beautiful hardwood.

    Thanks again mate, I do appreciate the time you put into all these great articles I have learned so much. Cheers 😉

    Reply
  6. Luke Baldwin

    You are the arbiter of truth in woodworking. THANK YOU for tackling such a basic, yet unaddressed topic.

    Have a merry Christmas.

    Reply
  7. Simon Hillier

    I was lucky enough to prise David Barron’s Roubo from him a year ago. It is an extremely solid and immoveable thing and likely to remain in my possession until the die my toes curl up and one of my kids gets it.

    If I was ever to build a second bench it would be the English bench from Richard and Helen’s series, that looks fun to build.

    Gotta love the cherry bomb.

    Reply
  8. Chris Decker

    Richard… What a fantastic blog post. I’ve been mulling over some ideas for building a proper bench but I’ve been stumped about a few things (mainly because I need to make room for a lawn mower and a mini van in the “workshop”/garage!) Great insight, straightforward information. Thank you!

    Reply
  9. Tom Lokken

    I believe a laminated top is the best and most economical way to go, particularly if the make uses laminated veneer lumber as the core. The face lamination could be mdf – hey, festal likes it – doug fir, or half-inch beech, ash or maple. You could laminate the legs and the rest of the understructure our of well- selected 2×4 or 2×6, dressing it up with your joiner-planer

    Reply
  10. Dennis

    I did not build my bench, I found it for sale in a barn / workshop. Birch top and pine legs, scandinavian design with shoulder vise and face vise. Must be many decades old but it has just as many left to give.

    Reply
  11. Braden

    I’m in America and recently made my bench from 4″x4″ softwood for the frame (through-tenons with gravity-held wedges for easy disassembly someday) and 2″x4″ softwood for the top, face-glued to produce a roughly 3 1/4″ thick top about 42″ wide and 6 feet long. Tenons on the vertical members of the frame extend to the surface of the bench and make the entire bench totally rigid.
    It is wonderfully huge and even though sitting on a slick vinyl floor, does not move one millimeter when I’m hand-planing.
    This whole thing cost me about $150 in wood. The two quick release vises cost me over $200 though, making the entire project about $350. Not too bad, and wow what a nice bench.

    Reply
  12. Mike Z.

    Redwood, Redwood pine ……. ah ha – that still makes me laugh and scratch my head over the terms!? I am starting to wonder how much kiln drying is killing some of our wood, yeah it is quicker but sure seems to work a hell of a lot different. I could go for some of grandpa’s air dried oak and there is a huge difference between home center poplar and stuff sourced from an actual timber miller. How sad we can get wood from all over the world yet have a harder time finding wood that grows in our own back yard?

    Reply
  13. Tone

    Legs: 3×3″ green sweet chestnut legs from a local 1-man saw mill (bundled in a job lot of green wood), dried/seasoned in my workshop, where the bench now sits. Cut to 36″ lengths. The natural tannins should help preserve it.

    Frame, shelves, skirts & backboard: Construction grade timber & finer wood salvaged from an old, discarded bed.

    Bench-top: 32mm of plywood (i.e. 2x16mm, cut from one sheet of 16mm ply). Thick enough for using a holdfast. Heavy enough that the bench doesn’t move in use.

    Total cost: ~£30-£35 – more than expect! About a day & half to remove & break down the wobbly, old, dry, worm-eaten bench & construct the new one.

    Reply
  14. David Austin

    I was thinking about building a work bench. At Home Depot, on another errand, there was a pallet of 6×6 untreated cedar timbers, 8 foot long. Some were fine, some bad. A “mistake” in their orders. Getting rid of it for $40 per timber!

    So, I have around bench made from seven fine cedar timbers. Too soft you say for a bench? Right you are! That is why I glued an inch of beech on top. The cedar is super stable. Massive. Working with big timbers saved loads of time.

    Moral of story … use what is in front of you. Richard’s point is spot on.

    And if I had stumbled on huge planks of good cherry for cheap (ha!) …?

    I would have re-sawn them for chairs and tables.

    Reply
  15. Lucas Manganaro

    Can you please post a link to (or just the name of) the leg vice hardware you’ve used on the ‘cherry bomb’ bench and others shown? It’s wonderful

    Reply

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