Choosing Timber – The Best Wood For Building A Workbench

by | Dec 9, 2016 | 34 comments

best wood for building a workbench

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 when you’re building 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.
Be sure to understand the importance of this if you want to know how to build a proper workbench.
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…

Building A Workbench – Cost Effective Timber :

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.

how to choose the best wood when building a woodworking bench

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.

softwood ready for a workbench build

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 workbench 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 the time it takes to build your bench…

Choosing Timber For A Practical Bench 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 workbench wants to be strong and functional, rather than polished and posh.)
  • Choose materials that suit your particular workbench design.
  • Choose materials that suit your tool kit.

Don’t underestimate the last two…

Thinking Of Your Workbench Design

Workbench 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 workbench (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?

build a English style workbench in softwood

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. Learn how to build your own English workbench with our video series (complete with PDF plans.)

If you’re planning to build more of a French (Roubo…) type workbench, 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 The Timber That Suits Your Tool Kit.

If you’re building a workbench 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, it 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 building a workbench

A chunkier, Roubo type bench design, will require the sourcing of some heftier timbers. These oak boards were all used in one bench build, and I documented building this Roubo style workbench 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 workbench will suit you…

Choosing Timber That Makes A Practical Workbench To 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.

If you’re considering your options for work holding, then you could also read my advice on choosing the best face vice for your workbench. 

a softwood workbench is ideal for traditional workholding methods like a 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, used frequently in traditional woodworking.

Beyond Simple Function.

Everything I’ve suggested is based on the fact that your workbench is built for function.

But there can be a lot of pride that goes in to building your own workbench, 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.

Roubo style wooden workbench with dovetails

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.


Roubo workbench build 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.

oak Roubo or French style woodworking benches

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…’

If you’re planning on building a workbench then don’t forget to take a look at our video series – How To Build An English Workbench.
It’s a step by step video build including PDF plans. The workbench is traditional, sturdy, and simple to build even with minimal hand tools.

Or have a browse of some more articles on workbench design and use:

Related Posts

About Richard Maguire

About Richard Maguire

As a professional hand tool woodworker, Richard found hand tools to be the far more efficient solution for a one man workshop. Richard runs 'The English Woodworker' as an online resource and video education for those looking for a fuss free approach to building fine furniture by hand. Learn More About Richard & The English Woodworker.


  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.

    • 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.

    • 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

      • Greg Stephens

        Yes, it has those qualities but it dents like crazy, splintery too. Southern yellow pine is a better choice. Red Oak is dirt cheap now.
        As to the authors comments on Beech in America, I remember my wood technology Professor at EKU telling us the future in furniture was going to be beech, since we had so many tall straight trees left. He said the color and the grain were it’s only drawbacks. I never see anything made out of it but rulers.

    • Bodgers

      Nice looking, well made stuff sells though. Lie Nielson, Veritas etc. For some the hobby is more about the process than the end result, and the tools are seen as part of an experience rather than a means to an end.

      I like the way way poplar planes and cuts, the issue is that it just doesn’t look that nice. The green streaks are an acquired taste…you can stain it, but then you may as well start with something even cheaper. Good for quality paint finished projects.

    • Michael Trangaris

      Poplar is a secondary wood only because it is soft and not as pretty as others. It is easy to work but also dings relatively easy. It makes a nice work bench because it won’t damage your work as easily as harder woods.

  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?

    • 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!

    • 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.

  3. Mark Dennehy

    An ebony bench? And I thought that purpleheart one was mad!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.


    • 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!

      • Jesse

        I also live in new England and will be building a bench soon too. If you don’t mind me asking what was the name of that mill? I would love to get my hands on some hardwood I could actually afford for the bench top and several other projects!

      • Michael Trangaris

        Chrrry moves with Seanad changes and I suspect it will check in the drying. Otherwise I think it is a nice wood to work with.

  6. 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 😉

  7. michael

    great article – I used laminated air dried ash for the 7′ 4″ thick top and white oak for the legs – maple for the rails.
    every year is gets a new cote from the ‘wardrobe’ and I slap on a mixture of BLO, turps and Bees wax.

  8. Luke Baldwin

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

    Have a merry Christmas.

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

  11. 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

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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?

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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

  18. Steav Smith

    Respect to website author, some good selective information.

  19. Tom

    I built my 1st bench with a douglas fir plank 2×10 top and doubled up 2×4 for legs with notches for cross members. I’m happy with its rigidity, but the top needs to be thicker. The douglas fir is wearing a bit faster than I’d like.

    I recently gotten 2 8′ oak logs,. I’ve riven one into slabs (longer than elbow to fingertip) and I’m considering remodeling my current bench to have a thick oak top. I’ll certainly have to lower the frame underneath, but maybe I’ll just replace the whole thing with oak. I’ve been enjoying working with it.

  20. Sam Li

    I appreciate what you said about cost-effective timber. I think that building supplies are essential when it comes to constructing any type of edifice. If I were to need supplies, I would look for a reputable business in town.

  21. Brandon

    How about Douglas Fir / Larch? I know it is a bit ‘sticky’ but in my region it is inexpensive and would allow me to increase the weight of the bench whilst keeping a sensible price.

  22. Neville Sevicke-Jones

    Great reading and intro videos. Here in NZ these days radiata pine,,that grows better here than anywhere else… is the standard for house framing and basic building. Native timbers are now either hard/Expensive to get or are best acquired through building demolition, where beautifully straight grained timber like matai was very common for floor boards.., totara, with its red colouring was for door and window framing. 25mm quality plywood is super strong so I’d be looking to that as a bench top….In the local “mothership” Henley Menzshed we get hold of old building timber, dumped furniture from pre-war makers— different oak varieties, kauri, exotic woods and even tree trunk slabs from local mills which is no use to them but treasure for us.

  23. Tony

    Oak is dirt cheap where I live. I like it but items that might take some abuse can have problems with splinters being raised.

  24. Ken

    Near the top of this page, under the article title, there are two pictures. The one on the right is of a light grey or whitish looking wood. Anyone know what kind of wood that is? I really like that color, and I think I might like to make a workbench out of it if I can identify it and get some.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Updates:

Related Posts:

Simple Work Holding For Ploughing Grooves [Without a Tail Vice]

Sometimes the biggest challenge of a project can just be getting the wood to stay put while we try to work on it. I suppose it's why it's so easy for us to get lost in the hunt for a perfect workbench design. And drawn in towards all kinds of vice bling and fancy work...

Slightly Over The Top… Top

I was having a good old rummage through the timber store the other day and found an old off cut from a workbench top. It's from one that I made when I was building them for a living. I used to keep these off cuts and put them to the test. Sun exposure, damp, all that...

New Project On The Way

It's felt a bit back to roots of late as we've been talking a lot about workbenches, but for those already set and ready to build you might be relieved to hear that we're now well on with a new furniture build. After giving thought to everyone's requests and looking...

Learn in depth in the video series: