My Plywood Workbench
There are some things to explain:Is Paul just trying to be different? Is he bending to pressures? Bending the rules? Well, no, I’ve never really bent to pressure unless I found myself flat wrong and I don’t do things just to please others either. My mind never stops looking, searching what surrounds me, looking at and finding shapes, forms that excite me as the basis for a new design. I have many projects that roll around in my head for weeks and months and sometimes years. The plywood workbench is just one of them. Some designs I made that failed proved my wrong but stretched my imagined efforts to become something by one minor alteration, others I never made but needn’t because I just knew intuitively it would work.
Proven plywood has passed the test. Plywood is a truly remarkable material that takes up the slack where an expanse of solid wood would simply render a project impossible or impractical to make. Unfortunately it’s the cheap grades that have given good plywood a bad name so I do understand people having misgivings about trusting it. It’s important to note here that most big box stores are unlikely to stock the quality you might be looking for beyond say more a carpentry grade. It’s two components that affect the quality mostly, density and thickness of the plies. The harder the wood the more dense and the thinner the plies the greater the number per inch or centimetre. I do like to counter some of the fixed ideas certain cultures have about the way people think things should be. Fashion has become a strange thing. Most fashion has its own built in disposability and that’s not really what we want in this day and age. On the part of large conglomerates there is the built-in or factored in obsolescence by way of failing parts. Then there is the equally insidious element where things become unwanted simply because of whimsical change–a change of clothing or shoes and such. Fashion in workbenches is not a goal but I feel I wanted a statement of confidence. A statement of intent if you will. A plywood workbench speaks volumes.
Bandsaw and plywood make a perfect union. I have always worked to encourage machine-only makers to get involved in hand work with hand tools. It will likely take the rest of my life, but I’m fine with that. I doubt you’ll ever see me use a power router but fifty years ago I might have said you will never see me make a plywood workbench. But there’s a difference you see. The router has never really freed me from anything, mostly because I tend not to use what it does best in making and that’s profiling wood with moulded edges. Even when I did use a power router regularly it was never ever to cut joints nor to groove or dado. Plywood, birch plywood with 13 layers and no voids throughout, is a well proven resource. It stays together and doesn’t delaminate if of course it’s made by a quality maker. My bandsaw is also a well proven method for cutting wood and it takes the smallest footprint of woodworking machines, a major factor for most woodworkers working from home in limited space. It’s versatile in that both straight and curved cuts come from the same machine and often using the same blade. It also removes less than 1/16″ of material per kerf cut. Combing these two elements in my plywood workbench build was a union match.
I’m sure some things seem strange to you. My using the bandsaw, the plywood bridge bench, some my other designs like the Eco Waste Bin with its unique plywood through-tenons extending from the ply panels into the posts and frames (the one we made a few weeks ago on Woodworking Masterclasses) and of course several others.
My Eco Bin was a statement. I made my Eco-bin using solid wood and plywood because the lightweight sub-wood beneath the book-matched veneer created a wonderfully strong yet almost weightless container that was no heavier than its typical stainless steel or even plastic counterpart and, more importantly, it gave me a more lovely wooden waste bin that hadn’t existed before.
Concepts of good design defy time. It has been true throughout time and it’s still good today. Design has always been important to me and now at nearly 70 I find myself more apt and able to look with modern eyes in my designing. My ambitions are to create fashionable pieces for future use with proven longevity in mind. To do such a thing accepts the reality that tradition was born out of the innovative of its day and continues on into the progressive of the day. Finding union between the two brings us the designs that meet the more pressing needs of today and with age of course comes my experience and a perspective to show something might be designed fashionably with style that still has a longevity built into every fibre.
To make my workbench I decided that the size of workbench I have used over the decades is about as perfect as it gets. I have made just two of them now because I have two in my home workshop garage end on end. I switch from one to the other as I want to and I can also use the two vises at once inline if I need to. I can also put two benches back to back for a wider depth at 54″, but that’s rarely needed. I will be giving out more details on the bench build as I go here on my blog and soon you will be able to enjoy the whole series on YouTube.
I’ll be with you until you pull out the lime green Festool. Then I’ll know you’ve gone over to the dark side. (Just a fashion statement by an admittedly unfashionable old guy) Cheers.
I believe that plywood has its place in woodworking and I have used it all of my life but I don’t consider its use “Real Woodworking”. I’m hoping that you won’t push it for many of your projects as the stuff just doesn’t speak to me artistically.
Because I can’t easily find high quality plywood, I have substituted buying 1/2 inch thick AC plywood the best grade sold from the lumber yard or big box store (And being careful when selecting the sheet to buy). I then glue two half sheets back to back so that the warping bends in opposition and thus the now 1 inch thick piece becomes flat after the glue dries and will no longer warp out of flat. This trick provides me cheaply with 1 inch thick plywood that I find acceptable for my purposes. Give it a try, you will be surprised. It does not take care of the possible problem of voids in the interior, but for many applications this does not matter.
Hi Paul, many months ago I posted something here expressing a bit of disappointment with the outcome of my first plywood project (a holder for my diamond sharpening plates). You said then that not all plywood is equal . Fair enough, but I still keep searching hoping to find a bit more guidance of what to look for and where to find it. Personally I’d need a bit of reassurance that I had the right stuff before considering a project like this. Curious anyway to find and try “good” plywood as I like the concept and can imagine that a quality version could be useful.
Try and seek out “Baltic Birch” Plywood, which for 3/4 inch usually has 13 plies, all of which rarely have any voids (at least that’s been consistent between the 2 dealers I have locally.)
Like you I was very unhappy with the quality I was getting from the best plywood my orange or blue big box stores had to offer. Their cabinet grade birch plywood only had 9 plies and a lot of voids. Good enough for most shop projects but not worth what they ask for it.
I found 2 sources by searching Google for “Baltic Birch Plywood near me” and then shopping around inside those search results. The big box stores still came up, so be careful, but hopefully this finds you a reputable dealer nearby.
Hope this helps
You can find very high quality plywood made from many different hardwoods if you search for marine grade plywood. I am fortunate to live on the coast of Maine where many high end boats are built and repaired. Some of the scraps coming out of the boat shops up here are absolutely amazing. None of the material they use is made in Maine. It`s all shipped in, mostly from overseas sources.
Whereas that is true to some degree, many hardwood plywoods are actually soft woods of medium to low density, especially say made from Asian hardwoods like Miranti, Lauan which may well not be equal to the task. Remember that hardwood does not mean that the wood is hard.
It will be interesting to see how he cut everything. Wouldn’t be to hard with a nice table saw & the room to use it. In my case wrestling a 4×8 sheet of plywood in my small shop would be sort of like watching two pigs in a gunny sack fighting. Cutting with a hand saw to get things perfect is tough for even someone with good skills. That being said, not a thing wrong with being creative. Be fun to see how he went about it.
A skikda was with a fine blad a straight edge masking tape and some care can replace that table saw when cutting down a sheet to more manageable sizes.
I had the same problem dealing with sheet goods. I only have space under roof for my tools and a table saw. My work bench is outside with a tarp over it and behind it is a table I made that I use to cut sheet goods with. This table is made of a grid of 2x4s with banquet table legs and is about 7 feet x 3 feet. I then made my own track for my circular saw. Lay the sheet goods on the table set the depth of cut about 1/4 inch through the plywood, cutting into the table, make the cut. The off cut stays on the table it all works really nicely. And now I have a table I can use to glue large pieces together on. Cutting sheet goods on a small table saw is awkward at best.
I have been using a bench built from 1 1/8″ thick underlay for 35 years now. It has been a really good bench. Though I have to admit, I have no desire to make another, my next one will be solid wood. But it has stayed straight and rock solid all these years. I laminated the 1 1/8 pieces together to make slabs 2 1/4″ thick and used that throughout to build the bench.
Hi Tom. I came across a product called Sturdi-Flor, a 1-1/8″ thick underlayment plywood when I bought a whole stack of sheet goods at a clearance event (local lumber yard). It was a joyous event where the seller wanted someone to buy an entire stack with various small defects on some pieces. I sold off some of the materials on the spot and made about 4 other people very happy by charging little; I was also enabled to buy the stack at a small profit and discovered when I got home the wonders of that Sturdi-Flor. I used it to make mobile bases for all my shop tools with steel frames from H.F. tools. I still have a few small pieces remaining. There were times I wished I had not sold a few sheets to a fellow to build a shooting blind, but like I said, I made a few others very happy who did not want to buy the whole stack.
I have nothing against power equipment, I have power routers, a table saw, a thickness planer,a band saw, and of course most of the common carpentry machines. These all have a place and I use them, mostly to avoid long rip cuts or in carpentry applications. Having said that, power equipment and extensive use of plywood is not what has drawn me to Mr. Sellers’ teaching. I am fearing that these are becoming the new wave here.
“I am fearing that these are becoming the new wave here.”
Jeff, is the melodrama necessary? It’s a plywood bench. It’s the same kind of thing built by countless beginners in the corner of their garage onto which they can bolt a vice and begin making the things they want to make.
A bandsaw and some plywood in the workshop. You’d swear Paul was telling you to keep a hefty pile of MDF on hand and invest in a pocket hole jig.
Practical, affordable and accessible. That’s all this is.
Agreed. It’s not replacing the dining room table or going in the parlor. Sign me “wide open minded”.
Its really not the same, unless you mean Paul’s other bench. This a rather novel approach.
Plywood has existed for thousand’s of years and the Egyptians used it to a great extent. I would be very surprised if the Europeans and Asian’s did not use plywood hundreds if not thousands of years ago as well.
Plywood is a traditional material (wood) whether other’s want to acknowledge it as so or not.
There’s nothing wrong with using a band saw when making long and straight tedious cut’s. It replaces the apprentice in the modern workshop and there’s nothing special, ingenious, nor fun about making long straight cut’s with a hand saw.
Are you going to do a cutting list for this bench Paul
Very much like the look of the benchtop and the legs. The second picture of it… sheer beauty. I’ve always liked the look of the laminations of plywood. It’s a bench I’d like to have in the shed. Was planning on building your original workbench in the future, but I think I like this one better. I’ll be following this project with much interest. Having flown and repaired gliders made partly and entirely out of Finnish birch plywood (with Lloyd’s approval stamp), I have no qualms about the strength and durability of the material – if, as you mentioned, it’s of proper quality.
Only thing I would do with mine is slightly round or chamfer (say, 2″ radius/chamfer) the bottom corners of the skirts. I’ve bumped my head too many times on sharp corners like that when picking something up from the floor and getting back up. Don’t know about others but I’m certain I would hurt my head on more than one occasion.
It’ll be a good while till my next bench since I lack space for another and the old bench from your original 2x series inspired me. I’ll hang on to the old one probably until someone has to pay a funeral home to dispose of my remains..
I’m looking forward to seeing this build. The best part of making my bench was the learning involved in sharpening, sawing, chiseling, planing, and routing. I’m curious to see how much of these skills are involved in the construction of a plywood bench. I know I could build such a bench with a circular saw, a straight edge guide, a square, a tape measure, some glue, and screws.
In some way, you are right, but on the other side, when Paul started his apprenticeship, he didn’t had to build a workbench to start his career.
You could have all the workbench parts sawn in a DIY shop by a CNC machine and just need to glue it (and plane the top); or you could even buy a workbench.
I finally made my real wood Paul Sellers worbench by hand. It was, as you say, a learning process which I enjoyed.
For most of us, having a proper workbench (whatever the way you get it) is the key to go from armchair/web woodworker to a real one.
Here in Sweden?? plywood is rather expensive!…
Ditto for Australia when you want the really nice stuff. You definitely get what you pay for.
Hi Paul ….I love all u say and teach. I really do hope you read this!
You may possibly remember me going on about wooden moulders!!!????
I don’t know how I missed your teaching on a picture frame some 4 years ago, it does give a fair amount of instruction ( in fact Phil did tell about “Paul’s frame” but I thought of another one?) using moulders.
I’m quite happy using dedicated moulders it’s just hollow and rounds I would love to see you use.
Best wishes john2V
I have the moulding planes on my bench even though I am in Berlin for the moment. I pulled some out before I left. No guarantees but it’s in the pipeline.
thanks for this blog entry paul. plywood…it certainly has its place in woodworking, though i know many frown on it. i very much like the look of ply in the workbench. however, voidless ply (e.g. baltic birch) is very expensive for 4’x8′ sheets, when i can find it in the states. i recently purchased and dimensioned wood for your (my) workbench; cost me ~$85 for 4 2x12x12′ (aprons, lam top, wellboard, rails) and 1 2x10x12′ (lam legs) in doug fir. (i cheated and used my dad’s table saw for all the rips. i don’t own a bandsaw as yet.) in any case, i look forward to your youtube series on this version of your workbench. cheers.
Popular Woodworking has an article on building a bench top using LVL – like plywood but all the plys run in the same direction. Their (former?) editor Megan, who works with lost art press still uses it.
Yes, being local and a friend of Megan, Chris, David, et.al., I’ve seen it. And yes, Megan (and Brendan) left last year and are now free-lancing and hooking up with Lost Art Press.
I would add that I call the Chinese plywood available most places the 7-15 ply plywood, with all the voids and overlapping inner layers. Pure junk that warps as soon as you cut it.
Floyd’s comment: I know I could build such a bench with a circular saw, a straight edge guide, a square, a tape measure, some glue, and screws.
Great post because this is all the typical DIYer in sprawling suburbia has in the garage next to the yard equipment and the kids bikes and toys. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how Paul builds this bench. It looks beautiful and I know it will be sturdy and last fifty years. This is the kind of project that will build confidence and inspire folks to become amateur woodworkers.
Paul, my workbench is one of the things I plan on building on my three-month sabbatical from work coming up in a few months, and I have considered plywood as an alternative, so thank you for showing that it can make for a very good and solid workbench. Where we live in Hawaii, we have a dry season and a wet season, and one of my worries was having my workbench shift and warp during those swings, and plywood is certainly less susceptible to that than solid wood. I too have a problem handling 4 x 8 sheets of plywood in my shop area, but I can have the sheets rough cut to length at the lumber yard and would then be able to work with them in my shop.
Thank you much for thinking outside the box on this.
Watch we did and you will see how i took care of such things.
Plywood, solid wood, green tools, hand tools. I’ve used both types of material and own some green. I prefer to flatten wood by hand as opposed to using my jointer. I finish using my planer. Green has allowed my to keep my shop small and work in places in my small house that I couldn’t otherwise. Cutting long boards over carpet as there’s carpet in the only room I can can cut long board in, yes carpet, and having virtually no dust to clean up is amazing. I only get to really wood work on weekends. I don’t have time to re-cut material and rebuild after a mistake. Green allows me that precision and I get jobs finished I might otherwise have given up on.
Plywood has gone into some of the most amazing modern art made. I’m lucky to have a vendor of the high quality plywood Paul speaks about nearby (however, my big boxes have been getting serious about their wood supply lately and higher quality plywood has become available), so I see what high quality plywood can look like. If we think of plywood as only underlayment (or performing some other low-level utility function), then maybe our world is way too small and we don’t deserve some of that talent that turns it into the wide and varied forms it appears as today.
I should add that I cannot wait to see the plywood bench build.
I wish I thought of making my first bench out of plywood. it would have taken much less time to have something to work on. The route I went was to buy 2×12 framing lumber and break it down into pieces I could make my bench from. All the squaring and flattening was done with an inexpensive #4 and a very inexpensive #4 turned into a scrub plane. All of this took quite a while on my wobbly potting bench in the evening. With plywood the surfacing choir is all taken care of. I would break the plywood down with a circular saw and a guide which is the only way I can effectively cut sheet goods anyway. I think this would be the quickest least frustrating first bench build. You wouldn’t learn all those planing skills but you would have a really solid bench to work from.
I like working with hand tools and not making a racket all day long.
Thanks Mr. Sellers!!
Looking forward to this.
Bravo Paul. As part of a project to build a trestle table I built a number of minatures out of solid stock using high quality birch plywood as table tops. The models-which gave me a number of good ideas about dimensions necessary for stability-were the perfect size for children’s work tables. They ended up with my grandchildren and have been used for a number of years to the point where the kids are now outgrowing them.
What the models taught me was the use of the high quality birch and how it could fit in to a coherent design and structure. At some point in the future I plan to use it as a full size table top with other more traditional wood for the trestles. The benefit of course is directional stability. The negative-that remains to be seen. I look forward to seeing your project.
Hi Paul, I like the look of this help get my garage workshop organised and to give me an excuse to sharpen my hand tools more often. I had one question – do you think you replace the bandsaw with a track saw to make the finishing cuts?
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