Softwood benchtops work great

DSC_0126I have read on a couple of forums that people are concerned about modern-day 2×4’s as laminated tops. The concern is that they may warp or deteriorate in some way. One person thought that MDF might work better. Well, just to set things straight. Softwood 2×4’s will not twist or warp any more than hardwood 2×4’s will. In fact, the chances of them distorting more than hardwoods is less. A lot of this depends on the wood and whether it is dried properly and THEN stored in the dry or left long enough to acclimate roughly to the conditions it will live its life in when completed. After more than a hundred benches from both softwood and hardwood, 90% softwoods though, I can say that all benches will take on a surface ripple after about nine months to a year. DSC_0017This can be reduced if you leave the top for a couple of months open to the controlled atmosphere too. Whatever you choose to do,  surface skimming with a smoothing plane or jack plane should only be necessary the once, for the first and last time with a #5 or 5 1/2 then and it’s likely further surfacing will be only for cleanup for cosmetics. I think the significance of the wood’s moisture content is important but should not slow down the construction process as long as the wood is kiln dried (99% of store-bought wood is) and not left for days outdoors in the rain. By the time you have built the bench, everything will be ready for installing the bench tops. There will likely be some shrinkage no matter the hard or softwood consideration, but we allow for that in the methods of construction at different stages, so you will not have any problems.

It is worth noting that many European pines are harder than North American pines grown and sold in the USA. I have generally found the annual rings to be significantly tighter, perhaps three times more per inch and more and generally more consistent in hardness throughout. The same is true of other woods. In the US, companies like Home Depot use a generic term ‘whitewood’ that simply means they either don’t know or they have such variance day to day that they would be unable to change the labels fast enough to keep up. That said, I have made benches in the US from every species of softwood with not issues of serviceability.

DSC_0001 2The methods we are using and the wood is very standard. Since building the bench on YouTube I have had emails from others stating they have old benches of similar size or style and they were all made from European softwoods such as pine, fir or spruce and so on. I personally saw 10 old woodworking benches here in the UK in a shop dating the late 1800’s that were all made from softwoods. They were not made from prime wood but were indeed all full of knots. They were still in full functioning condition. So, my suggestion is not to use MDF or any other engineered material. They look like what they are and they will not give you the support, flex, absorption and so on that real wood will. I suggest we leave the MDF for IKEA, Walmart and other companies that engineer built in obsolescence and waste.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NOTE

Just so you know, Paul has a newer Workbench series. If you are interested in the updated version of Paul’s workbench please click the button down below. This page links to a cutting list, tools list, FAQS and much more.

Click here to go to the workbench page

10 comments on “Softwood benchtops work great

  1. Paul here in Canada we have the chamfered or slightly rounded edges to deal with on the 2x stock.

    I think I have read in another post somewhere that you advised another to plane down to just past the round-over and carry on. I am thinking of leaving the top side (short edge) with a bit of the radius and just dressing the glued (long side) surfaces to laminate. (in my sketches I kinda like the look of it) however It would seem I’m setting myself up for difficulty to get the top surfaces in alignment.
    I think I will try a few pieces and see what comes of it – do you have any other advice if you have had experince advising others?

    • I had a question on this recently. Basically the question was is there anything wrong with using the tablesaw to cut the 4″ width down and remove the roundover edge. My advice? Go for it. You still gain planing skills training. Not all 2x4s have the same corner radii; some are large and some are small and some are easier than others. Benchtops do need to be flat and not twisted, hollow or bowed. The don’t have to be dead smooth and some people roughen them with a toothing blade in a scraper and I think that feels nice to work on too. As long as your top is flat as said, I wouldn’t have a problem with rounded corners even.

    • 4x4s are a bit questionable but the risk isn’t that high. It depends on the cut really and without seeing them it would be hard to judge. As long as they fit well to each other they should work, but they can be harder to work with and they also have greater resistance.

  2. Thanks, interesting post. In Schwarz’s bench book he raises this point too.

    I am Australian and lots here would turn their noses up at using our Radiata Pine for a workbench. I used what we call Tasmanian Oak (Eucalyptus Regnans) which is not really akin to English Oak (so I am told) yet is quite hard. If I built my bench again or if I build another I would definitely look at pine. Easier to plane that bloody long large surface flat! (And I was very fresh to woodworking and still am, I think Pine would have been more forgiving, easier, cheaper – probably a better option.)

    If you had time, would you consider coming to Australia Paul?

    • Yes, I have family there too, but my only reason would be get with the massive woodworking following I have there. I am amazed how many Australians follow our work. Very gratifying.

      • Then you could probably add another “big box” name to the list of UK and US stores you berate so frequently. At least one of our major hardware chains seems to have joined the race to the bottom with cheap (not necessarily inexpensive), disposable tools rather than quality keepers.

        I’d be interested to see how you find the timber range here. The major chain only seems to to have pine in any appreciable range of sizes. Next to this there’s some meranti (a SE Asian hardwood) and maybe some jarrah (a very hard eucalypt).

  3. Paul, I share your feelings about MDF but was wondering what your thoughts are about LVL beams. They sell the beams at my local home-store and it looks like I could rip and cut a lot of boards out of one beam. It is a manufactured wood product, but I am told the grain runs the same direction in all the layers of the lamination.

    Robin from Richmond, Virginia

    • I am sure LVL (laminated veneer lumber) will make a working benchtop as would 4 or 5 layers of 3/4″ or 1″ Baltic birch plywood laminated together too, which I am surprised we don’t see more of. Edges can be capped with solid wood.
      Also, Gluelam beams used for double garage door lintles work well too. You get 2 out of a double door beam at 16′ long and much of the work is already done if time, facilities etc are an issue.

  4. I love your youtube posts on building a workbench. I have become addicted to woodworking as a result. Do you make an attempt to align the grain on the laminated work top to make planing easier?

You must enter certain information to comment on this page. We take the handling of personal information seriously and appreciate your trust in us. Our Privacy Policy sets out important information about us and how we use and protect your personal data and it also explains your legal rights in respect of it. Please click here to read it before you comment.

Leave a Reply

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