Build A Workbench Top That’s Simple Yet Strong.

by | Jan 15, 2016 | 37 comments

Simple workbench top

Audio File (Trial). Can’t Be Bothered To Read? Click Play.

The Planked Top. What, How Why?


Since first showing photos of our English workbench, I’ve had almost as many questions about this workbench 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 for a workbench top (reasons we’ll go in to another time).But for the hand tool build, and in particular this English style workbench, 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 gruelling 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.

Building a planked workbench top

The Materials:

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 fairly wide, 6″ to 12″ or so, and this construction is best suited to softwood (which is a more elastic material) although I’ve also had success with oak.

The Method:

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.

Hand flattening the workbench top

The Best Workbench Top Construction

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 workbench. 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 believe that the majority of workbenches 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 workbench 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.

Flattening the planked workbench top

The planked top and the English style workbench 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 to slip and slide as the wood moves.

There’s lots to talk about when it comes to different tops for different styles of workbenches, but this is the top I’d recommend you consider for an English style workbench.

Watch The Workbench Build – Our English Workbench Video Series takes you step by step through the build process of this bench, discussing the construction and detailing the hand tool methods. We also go through choosing the right dimensions for your workbench height, width & length and include PDF plans click for full details.

how to build a workbench video

It’s been an amazing project to do and I’ve learned a lot. I can honestly say if it wasn’t for you and Helen making these amazing videos I would probably of ended up with some YouTube screwed together thing! – Steven

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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. Stefan

    Hi Richard,
    How cool is that? An audiobook about woodworking topics.
    That’s again great work. If that is a trail I would like it in the future.
    BTW thanks for the explanation. I was one of those guys who bothered you with this question.

    • Richard Maguire

      Thanks Stefan, we’re pleased you liked the idea of the audio, it’s definitely something we’ll keep trialling on the longer posts.

  2. Jasper

    The audio works fine here. Although you might slow down just a bit.
    Overthinking, yes, I know that problem 🙁 But it’s better than finding out something doesn’t work after you’ve made it.
    Knock down design: I’m imagining some pin-and-wedge contraption. Probably overthinking already.

    • Richard Maguire

      Overthinking, we’re all guilty of it.
      Thanks for your feedback – it’s been taken on board and I’ll slow down 🙂

  3. Len A

    Excellent – either read or listen or do both at the same time. Some sound advice yet again.

    Looking forward to Monday’s top fixing.



    • Richard Maguire

      Thanks Len,
      I wouldn’t read and listen at the same time.. they might not match up!

      • Len Aspell


        I did in fact listen and read at the same time and I was surprised at how few instances there was any difference at all. The only changes I noticed also made matters even clearer and often only the odd word change.

        As an aside for those struggling with your speed of delivery it would be very useful to follow the text as they listen as it aids understanding. Overall a great effort all round.


  4. Frederik

    I am really starting to like this workbench. Also looks like a affordable workbench solution for a small school with limited resources…

    • Richard Maguire

      It certainly is a very affordable bench, and also quick to build, which again I would imagine to be useful for a small school.
      Cheers, Richard

  5. Martin

    Helen & Richard:
    The whole process of explaining, building and filming are top notch.
    I don’t have a lot of faith in my hand tool ability so when I build my
    smaller version of yours. I’m apologizing now for using my power tools.
    I plan on working with my hand tools a lot more, just not with this bench.
    I want this to be a perfect as I can get it. Please keep the great content coming.
    Oh, and my wife love the spoon rack. It’s hanging by the door as a key chain catchall.
    And yes, it was done with power tools. Sorry. I was just thinking, if you had room for a
    60+ year old apprentice then maybe my hand tool progress might improve somewhat.
    It was just a thought. I am waiting for the next installment and what projects you have lined for the future. My best wishes to both of you. Thank You for sharing your wisdom and knowledge. Marty

    • Len A

      Marty – the important thing is being in the workshop and if you are enjoying it then that is what matters most. But I suspect your hand tool work is probably better than you give yourself credit for. More practise will certainly help so it would be a good idea to try out your skills with one of the techniques demonstrated by Richard on just a scrap piece of wood and see how you get on. Keep doing it on offcuts until you have mastered it. You’ll be surprised at how much it improves your confidence.

      Good luck but don’t lose the enjoyment.


    • Martin

      Martin, it’s truly shocking how quickly you can learn to saw. Due to a remodel, I was left without power in my shop for several months. It forced me to get good at hand sawing and planing. You might just give it a try on the real thing. My first project by hand was Chris Schwarz’s anarchist toolchest (ok, i used a power drill….).
      (a different) Martin

      • John

        The best trick I was ever shown in sawing was to maintain the polish on the blade. If you use an old second hand handsaw, then fine steel wool and 600 grit paper are a boon. Polish the blade until you can get a good clear reflection of the edge of the board you are cutting. Position the saw where you want the cut and lean the saw plate left or right until the reflected line of the edge appears to run straight through the blade. Guaranteed perpendicular, then start a little slow and careful to establish the vertical line of the cut.

    • Richard Maguire

      Thank you very much Marty, you’ve inspired an interesting idea for a blog post.
      Of course, don’t ever apologise for using power tools, use whatever makes the process easier and more enjoyable for yourself.
      It’s better to implement new skills steadily anyway. When you get round to knocking your bench up, power or no power, it will be a great platform for you to get in to your hand tools more if that’s what you’re wanting.

  6. BC O'Brien

    Brilliant, to-the-point, informative articles. I enjoyed the nicely-done audio, too.

  7. john skears

    Like the audio, though as previously said could be slower. Thanks for this .

    • Richard Maguire

      yep, taken on board… will slow down.

  8. Martin

    “With physics there’s a general rule – you don’t get owt for nowt; there’s always a compromise.”

    It ain’t just with physics, Richard!

    • Richard Maguire

      Ha, you’re right, I should have just said life.

  9. John Gibson

    Sounds loud & clear in this part of the Great White North (aka Canada). It’s great to get the vitality of the voiceover, not just the printed message.

    On the trade-off topic, any comments about the benchtop bouncing or being extra-loud whilst doing heavy impact work? e.g. roughing a blank for the lathe with a side axe, chopping big mortises or dovetails, or using the XXL joiner’s mallet to persuade a couple of parts to fit?

    • Richard Maguire

      Hi John,
      Very good question. In terms of flex, absolutely none, due to the bearers that are under that top. In terms of noise, I would say nothing that I’ve ever noticed. But when you think, under your heavy work zone you’ve got this hugely deep apron and again of course some bearers, which basically turn the working areas in to the thickest workbench top ever.

  10. douglas coates

    Another refreshing blast of change – this time on the whole bench topic.
    Just subscribed, sorry I’m late 🙂 I am wondering about the individual boards tendency to bow, which is countered when the top is glued up, esp if the boards are orientated alternately (annular rings). Also a slab top would give a bench greater stiffness so on this the base structure will need to be stiffer I imagine?
    Having just made a beech knock-down as a small simple bench, what are your issues with knock-downs? On mine I have a 3″ beech top, legs loose tenoned in plus sliding bolts to pin (not tight) – leg assemblies with wedged stretchers. I reckon it is stiff – would have liked more pure weight but that’s down to size and overall mass.

    • Richard Maguire

      Hi Douglas,
      Many thanks for joining (I really doubt that you needed to. I don’t know why you’re not selling them yet, you build that many 🙂 ).
      Since each of the boards are left individual any bowing / cupping is restricted to the width of that board ( so you could make it 50″ wide and after a couple of years the high spots will still only become as high or thereabouts, as they would if the top was one plank wide). Of course if we glued the boards together and didn’t alternate the rings then they would magnify each others movement and end up with a top like a banana.

      Something like a thick slab topped French bench can stand it’s own. But on a bench like this we are relying heavily on those deep aprons to add stiffness, and of course support bearers underneath the top to get rid of any bounce.

      My problem with knock down benches is not to do with strength, it’s more to do with the extra work needed for a purpose which most of the time will never be used. If we’re building our own bench then the vast amount of time they won’t ever get knocked down.
      Although sometimes, like yours, the knock down challenge can add something very interesting to the build. I do have a Frenchy coming up very soon with an interesting knockdown construction. I think you’ll enjoy it.

  11. Sean Landsman

    Hi Richard

    I liked the audio clip – was great!

    Regarding the benchtop I’ve been investigating holdfasts and most that I can find seem to recommend around 1 3/4″+ depth. The wood I can get hold of is around 2″, but with planing etc it’ll probably take it to around 1 3/4″, which is minimum recommended.

    Based on your experience with holdfasts do you think 1 3/4″ is sufficient?

    Thanks – really enjoying this series.

    • Richard Maguire

      Hi Sean,

      Good question. I’ve used most of the mainstream holdfasts on the market and most of these on my ash English bench. The interesting this about this bench is the front apron is under 1″ thick and so far all of the holdfasts have worked fine in it.

      I don’t believe you’ll have any trouble in your bench top. Many manufacturers will say that the maximum thickness should be 4″ and it’s these thicker tops that are more problematic, most will need work to get them to hold well.

      • Kermit

        Thanks for this question and response. I was wondering as well. I have a local supplier (west coast USA) who stocks rough 3″ Douglas Fir in up to 14″ widths, so I’m planning around that availability. I can also get redwood in similar dimensions, but am wondering about the longevity of such a soft wood. Comments?

        • Curtis Franklin

          I live in the Seattle area. Any chance you could send me company name or link for the suppliers who stock rough 3″ Douglas Fir and redwood? Much appreciated.


          • Kermit

            I’m no longer living in the PNW, but can give you some starting points. You might give Edensaw Woods a call to see what they can do or suggest. On Whidbey Island (Clinton) there’s Kim at Live Edge Woodworks. He specializes in large dimension softwoods such as slabs and timber framing materials. If you talk with him he might have other suggestions. You live where it should be easy to find such material, but it can take some effort to dig it out. Good luck!

          • Curtis Franklin

            Thanks for getting back to me so quickly with this information. Have a great weekend!


  12. Dan Murphy

    Hi Richard. *HUGE* fan of the website, the Spoon Rack project, and the English Workbench. What you’re doing is a tremendous service to the woodworking community; please keep it up.

    You make an excellent point about attaching the top: nails from above are actually safer than screws from below. What would you think of attaching the top with wooden pegs? Compared to nails, they wouldn’t offer the same resistance to pull-out if the top boards wanted to twist, but “dovetailing” them (i.e. driving them in at opposing angles) would help, as would sticking to quartersawn stock for the top boards.

    • Richard Maguire

      Hi Dan,
      Thanks for your very kind words.
      Also an excellent suggestion with the pegs, there’s a chap who’s building along and thinking of going down this route. Angling the pegs is also a great idea. Overall I think it would work very well, I would just limit it to relatively thin gauge pegs so they’re got a bit of flex in them. Of course making proper tapered pegs as well would be a must.

  13. Patrick

    Not that anyone reading this would do this but I offer a word of caution about the nails. Yes, you can see them just don’t get lazy. If you are going to plane the top see the nail and you take a good loooooooong look at it (Clue # 1 ) while saying to yourself, “I should be ok, it’s deep enough.” (Clue # 2) Do yourself a favor and go get your nailset. I think you can all guess what happened next.

    • Richard Maguire

      I think we can all guess what language came next!
      Sound advice.

  14. Jason

    Being new to woodworking and introduced through Paul Sellers videos, I wanted my first project to be one of his benches. The problem lies in that I live in the Canadian arctic where trees do not grow and the only way into the community is by air. Therefore, the majority of the wood I use is framing material that I salvage from shipping crates. To find decent quality lumber at the right length has been daily missions with a claw hammer and prybar in the middle of the night at the dump. I’ve not come close to gathering all that I need to build the top. This article has given me hope. I’m going with the plank top and it’s going to save my project. Thanks, I’ll be visiting your site from here on in, alongside Sellers.

  15. Matthew Collicott

    Love what your doing! Your bench build has come in just the right time as I’m preparing to build one for myself. Planking always seemed the easier choice but I always wondered if there would be enough strength in the top for morticeing and such. Have you had any problems with the boards flexing while working ? I really like the design. Cheers and all the best!

  16. Stuart M

    My wood (Douglas Fir) finally arrived today from South Australia so I’m now fully committed to the bench!

  17. Bert

    I would like to try this design of bench without an end or tail vice, but just wondering, if I changed my mind in the future would it be possible to add a Veritas Twin Screw End Vice afterwards?


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