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Since first showing photos of our English workbench, I’ve had almost as many questions about this top as I have about bench heights.
That’s probably because it’s quite different to what we’re used to seeing with a workbench. What we’re used to seeing are table tops. Heavily built table tops dropped on to heavily built frames. Two separate and independent elements.
There are good reasons why we’ve become accepting of these as the standard (reasons we’ll go in to another time).But for the hand tool build, and in particular this English style bench, the planked top makes a lot of sense.
With physics there’s a general rule – you don’t get owt for nowt; there’s always a compromise.
Perfectly acclimatised wood glued up in to a multi-laminated top is ‘possibly’ one of the most stable ways of making a top. But in return you have to give it grueling amounts of labour and you’re going to have to crack methods unused in most furniture making, and get it wrong and you’ll be plagued with peeling glue lines.
The planked top sits in a rather unusual position. It’s one of the most stable types of top that I know (at least in my testing), and yet it’s also the easiest to build on both skill and labour. Though it’s not the most conventional to the modern eye.
What is a planked top?
In a planked top the boards which make the top are all independent of each other. They’re not glued together, but instead laid on to the frame of the bench and fixed down with a gap between each of the boards.
As a rule they’re going to be thin boards 2″ and under and faily wide, 6″ to 12″ or so and this construction is best suited to softwood (which is more elastic) although I’ve also had success with oak.
How do we do it?
Nail it down. Straight through the top.
Reason one – timber movement.
Nails will flex and bend allowing the boards to expand and contract in to those gaps we’ve left. Screws are hard and brittle so require elongated holes to achieve the same, but we want our boards fixed down here.
Reason two – consider you’re plane irons.
Nailing through the top might sound strange, but I’d rather see the enemy and be able to punch it down than screw from underneath and encounter a stealth demon later on. Remember the top’s quite thin.
Why a planked top?
We’ve already explained that it’s simple, but thin softwood tops can be one of the big turn offs for the English style bench. In 10 – 15 years of hard use and regular flattening you might not actually have much top left.
With a planked top the solution is easy as you can simply rip off an individual board and replace it quickly and cheaply.
I still don’t belive that the majority of benches built will ever require the top replacing, but it’s good peace of mind for the over thinkers. Also having this in mind will allow you to use your bench top in ways that you would never dream to do with a fully fledged hardwood top.
On the downside it would take a clever design to make a knock down bench with a planked top, but I’ve got my own gripe about them anyway.
The planked top and the English style bench go hand in hand. The bench gets a lot of strength from the top this way unlike the table top situation which you have to allow slip and slide as it moves.
There’s lots to talk about when it comes to different tops for different styles of benches, but this is the top I’d recommend you consider for an English style workbench.
Next Monday I’ll be fixing our top down in the Workbench video series, click for more details.