Plywood Workbench Anniversary
Some of the best classes I have ever taught have been how to build a workbench. It began in the USA and has followed me around ever since. One of the best workbenches I have made to date is the one I built a year ago and have been testing since then. I use it every day now and my, my what a workbench, it’s just worth saying how remarkable it is. I have made benches from pallet wood, upcycled wood, new pine, spruce, maple, oak and beech too. They all work and work well. The plywood one is an amazingly solid version has now well proven itself as a work partner ‘par excellence!’
I thought my Finnish birch, plywood workbench deserved this mention after having served me so well. If I ever had any doubts, and I never did for a second, my workbench is second to none. It’s greatest benefit is its total resistance to any kind of movement via shrinkage, expansion and distortion. My original notes showing finished sizes are exactly as they were a year ago. Open the apron drawer, the slide-in well or test the benchtop for distortion through warpage with a straightedge and you’ll find it dead true.
The bench top is but 2 3/8″ thick yet there is zero vibration when chopping or hammering on the surface as in assembly or mortise cutting. It is immovable when it comes to exerting any lateral pressure in any direction no matter how much and it holds 99% of all I need with regards to my daily use tools and then those special ones I use periodically. Stowage in the well stow does not mean removing the tools to access, simply making sure nothing overhangs the meeting line is enough. In here I can keep all of my extra planes, awkward planes and everything else. I can now say anyone building this bench will not be disappointed.
You can watch the Plywood Workbench series here on Woodworking Masterclasses, or here on YouTube. For the free drawing and cutting list download, click here.
I made my one and only work bench, this is down to you and your videos.
It is solid not one hundred percent but its mine. I would not have one without your step by step videio guides. I have joined your Woodworking master class Happy Anniversary. Thank you.
Thank you, and well done.
I plan to build my own birch plywood bench in the next month or so, I’m pleased to hear it’s quite stable and solid. I just have one question, sometimes the Baltic Birch can splinter because the top ply while thicker than most can separate and splinter along the edge, sometimes it will buckle and separate right in the middle of a section. I have had deep splinters of birch go into my hands to prove the problem. I was thinking of adding a hardwood face, maybe some 3/4” cherry added to the face of the bench to avoid that issue. Would I have to worry about wood movement and allow the cherry face to float to allow for that? I know the birch is very stable but the difference between how cherry would move and how birch plywood base might not move might cause a wood movement problem.
My basement gets quite dry during the winter I’d say below 30% humidity and during the summer the humidity gets to 70% or more so it’s quite a change over the seasons.
The expansion of wood along it’s length is negligible. Cross grain, grain running 90 degrees to each other is the problem.
I built mine last year and I love it. I’d only done small projects before and it has really given me confidence to do more complex projects, as well as to advance my hand-tool skills.
I originally planed on making the workbench during the Easter break. It ended up taking almost 3 months 🙂 But I enjoyed every minute 🙂
I made mine out of pine (same design) and it also took me about 3 months. But it’s done now, I made it, it’s mine and I work on it whenever I get the chance 🙂
I can’t believe it was 1 year ago since we got this bench.
I made my bench back in January 2018 . I followed your plans and working methods until it was all finished . It was a great project and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute . Mine is in pine and there has not been many days I haven’t put it to good use with yet more of your plans and working methods .
I’ve just finish a pair of legs of the old pine one for a friend. My first project was the pine workbench and it still serve me well. I just know that there is many mistakes in it that i would be able to avoid today. But it was made with my hand only, no machine. It has sentimental value and proudness in it! Thanks for sharing the build with us!
Paul – I have been contemplating using your plywood workbench videos and plans to make one of my own. However, I have one concern that I was hoping you’d be able to address — I use holdfasts quite often to quickly clamp pieces down and so I have holes drilled in the top of my current low Roman-style workbench.
Do you think the plywood will be able to withstand the stresses from the holdfasts? Especially on the edges of the holes. I assume that plywood will be as able as solid wood to take the stresses of having a holdfast inserted in place, but I’m not sure. Or would you suggest using solid wood for the top work surface if I plan to use holdfasts? Thanks.
Paul normally recommends the clamp in a vise method. And once you try it you find you don’t really need anything else. I just bought a cheap sash clamp from Harbor Freight and reinforced it by inserting a piece of pine all the way through as Paul suggested and put some 1/4 ply on the jaws. Its quite simple really.
Personally, the beauty in the plywood bench is the plywood benchtop. I love it. I do think that holes in ply will be just fine provided you use 13-ply Finnish plywood. I have never liked holdfasts but others do. Also, you can find holdfast collars in cast iron on eBay occasionally. but these are especially ugly. As Yohann says, the clamp in the vise takes care of everything I ever come up against. Also, you can simply clamp work to the apron and the benchtop too.
Thank you Paul (and every else who responded). I will give the clamp in a vise a go and see if that works out for me. I can always drill holes for holdfasts if I continue wanting to use them.
George Wall – By complete chance, I picked up a Veritas hold down for 50cents at a garage sale a while ago. It is an amazing clamp, and I use it more than any other clamp. 🙂
The holdfasts will probably work fine. Another option is the Veritas hold down, which is works much like a holdfast but is engaged with a screw. The advantage is that you don’t have to worry about whacking it to engage the holding action, which probably leads to less stress on the holes.
The disadvantage (which also applies to the clamp-in-the-vise method) is that you lose the opportunity to whack something with a hammer :).
I love my Grammercy hold fasts and wouldn’t be without them.
One quick rap with a mallet and your work is fixed to the bench top.
I think they came a long time before gramercy (by 200 years and more) but I know what you mean.
Thanks again Paul for all your knowledge sharing over the years (or rather decades).
The irony is, in my country the plywood you can buy in stores is to sum it up nicely – ‘crap’! Looks nothing like the nice even ones in your videos/pictures.
We can get the ‘higher grade’ plywood, but then it is more expensive than just buying pine lumber from stores.
It is not necessarily cheap to buy and I never anticipated it would be less than pine but maybe double or triple. That really wasn’t a selling point.The method of construction is quicker and simpler and easy to do without the actual traditional joinery. You don’t say where you are but in Europe it is easy to find and then too the USA unless it has changed greatly since I lived there. Lowes does carry birch plywood in 1/2″ and 3/4″ but I am not sure what the core plies are.You need to visit there.
Home centers in US carry 3/4” Baltic Birch veneer face with 5 or 7 ply poplar core. 13 ply Baltic Birch can be ordered via a lumber house. However, most often the sheet size sold is limited to 5’ x 5’.
In order to construct a longer bench top, would it be worth while staggering the strips to extend the length (much like a hardwood floor is laid out or like finger joints) or would this approach have structural fault?
You could do that and especially with plywood.
Thanks for the reply Paul.
No, I don’t reside in Europe or Americas. Don’t know why, but for some reason when I read through your plywood series on the workbench, I sort off assumed high grade plywood would be cheaper for some reason than pine wood there in the UK.
Apologies for the misconception on my part. Agree with the points raised in your reply.
Adds a much more personal touch to a workshop when you work off your own bench. I bought my first inexpensive workbench from a store but should have been using a personally made workbench sooner.
Great series, but I already built my own. After one year in the Arizona climate I did have to do some planing to straighten it out. But I agree no matter how you make it working on something you built is better.
I like how the plywood bench looks on the videos. I thought it would be distracting to us the viewers but this hasn’t been the case.
The bench top one year in seems to be less dirty and grime free than your prior bench. Are you finding this to be the case? Is this due to the plywood or the finish you used?
I think your use of ply, and this type of English bench construction is great, but I do have one major reservation, which I’m sure you’ve covered already:
I know all wood, especially some softwoods, are susceptible to rot and borers, but engineered wood seems to ‘give up’ entirely when exposed to damp for an extended period. We’d all love dry workshops, but to be realistic our benches often live in garages or basement/cellars with high humidity. Or we move and the temporary store is not so dry.
I recently had some ‘exterior grade’ ply in store for about 5 years – now not useable (delamination), whereas soft and hardwood planks alongside had some minor damage on some ends.
I have now ‘lucked upon’ a Ward and Payne branded bench with vice stored in a damp farm outhouse – very discoloured but after removing less than 20mm from the end of each leg it’s a great ‘user’ – as it happens looks just the same dimensions as yours. [W&P closed their business many decades ago]
I think WBP Baltic birch 13 ply plywood when well graded and made and then waterproof finished will exceed the lifetime of anyone taking the trouble to build them. Unfortunately many plywoods now imported purely to satisfy the demand for cheap stuff have an outer skin of birch but inside lie the layers of softer woods like poplar and in lesser quantities than 13 ply.
I’ve made a few simple projects so far including a chisel tray and now progressing onto the hanging wall shelf all struggling along with my little 4inch metalwork vice for now mounted on a good solid metal bench with a formica worktop for a bench top.
It’s been a battle at times. I’ve had to invent methods to grip wider boards and the modern irwin record vice I have is poorly made/designed. I’m now planning on moving onto building a proper bench.
The issue I have at the moment is my workshop has a metal roof, I get a lot of condensation especially here in Lincolnshire with cold damp weather. I’ve taken to bringing my joinery tools inside the house after use.
The bench will need to live in the workshop.
Please could you advise some best practices for waterproofing the bench I build?
I’m going to attempt the earlier bench with a top made from CLS and reclaimed timber legs and aprons.
Many thanks in advance.
Three coats of waterbased clear floor finish has worked well for me. It’s very resilient, and not too slippy at all. I do the underside of my benchtops too, even the bottom underside of the legs. Just to be sure.
Thanks for the advice Paul,
Now I’ve cleared some space in my workshop i’ll start collecting wood for the build.
Waterbased floor varnish it is for waterproofing.
My bench will probably have to go outside. They wife has allergies. That means the bench has to endure the 4 seasons we can experience within the same day in South Florida. The weather here can vary throughtout the day.
Do you recommend the same coating for outdoor protection?
My shed is all metal including the pitched roof and I live in Connemara West Coast of Ireland that seems to be damp winter or summer. My solution was to line the inside of the roof with 35mm thick sheets of polyurethane foam insulation (Kingspan or Extrathem). I used a combination of mastic type adhesive (e.g. No Nails) and silicon sealant to stick the sheets to the roof. I used long lengths of scrap wood to wedge and hold the sheets in place whilst the adhesives cured. I did a similar thing on the walls but also put a layer of three quarter inch WPB plywood on top of the wall insulation by using self drilling and tapping screws (heads counter sunk in the ply through to the shed steel frames. The idea being that I can screw shelves and cabinets to the wall and get good fixings. A lot of “faff” and not cheap but my shed has no condensation drips or dribbles now. It also retains the heat better when I fire up the 3Kw fan heater during the winter. I keep a lot of my wood in this shed to get the water content down to acceptable levels and it seems to work. Perhaps this might be an idea to follow?
My project for this year is to properly dry out the shed. Its a self built design I came up with myself, 20ft long by 10ft wide with a corrugated sheet (box profile) roof. I’ve been considering spraying the underneath with polyurathane insulation from a kit but again thats expensive. There is the odd leak too caused by rain being forced under the ridge piece by the wind.
I am following your videos and blog for a while and appreciate a lot how you bring heart and wisdom to woodworking. Thank you for all of your work!
Currently I am about to build my own workbench. As design and beauty matters a lot to me – especially when it comes to wood working – I am still looking for a nice vice. The black one you picture on your plywood-workbench above looks quite classic. I love the black!? much better than the blue.
Could you please tell what brand this is? where can I buy this one?
All of my best vises are vintage Woden or Record versions. Harder to get in the USA if that’s where you might be.
thank you very much for your reply!
I am from Switzerland and unfortunately a vintage / second hand market for these two brands seem to be non-existent here.
That leaves me with two options: either a new Irvin Record 9″ non-quick-release or a new Spear and Jackson 9″ quick release vise. Both cost about £70 at amazon.
May I ask, which one you would recommend / prefer?
The quick release version of the Record costs the double amount at Amazon, which is too much in my opinion.
I get Record no. 52 on ebay.co.uk for around 50€ with shipping to EU. Try there.
Thank you! that’s a good idea 🙂
I’m glad I didnt build my massive roubo with leg and tail vises and space for a moxon…I completely bought into what I would call the new norm here in the colonies: appliances at multiple levels and work holding for large panels across the top and face. Yet I watch you Paul, and the world changes…every stick moves from top to vise as the process dictates. There’s not hunching over the work “bulldoging” the tools, no contorting to pare or saw…I’m relearning the approach: right tool, sharp tool, let the wood give you feedback…thank you Paul… looking forward to everything to come.
How come your drawer has in it no shaving or sawdust? Mine seems a magnet to it.
The total amount of glue in a plywood bench must far exceed that in a plain wooden bench. Apart from the sheer structural strength of your design, I would think the alternating laminated layers might contribute to vibration damping. Could this be one reason why the bench feels dead solid when chopping and hammering?
I built your original stud lumber workbench nearly two years ago. As you often say “it was part of my skills building” work, and the through tenons etc are as solid as ever. I flattened the top yesterday and it’s is ready for more project work.
Kurt asked: “In order to construct a longer bench top, would it be worth while staggering the strips to extend the length (much like a hardwood floor is laid out or like finger joints) ”
I have done this (but not to extend the length) of my solid wood workbench.
I had received rough sawn 3 m long 47 X 75 mm wood. So I planned a 1.50 m workbench. I started acquiring skill while planning it. I used the most straight ones for gluing the first rows of the bench-top. The other ones were too warped to be planed straight; they would become too thin when done. The shorter the length, the less warping there is to remove. So I cut the following rows in two or three parts, making one face and one edge straight and square.
I Clamped the two or three pieces to the existing bench-top, passing the saw again between the parts to have a better end to end meeting and then gluing those pieces to the existing section. Then planning the all length of the other edge straight and square to the bench-top. Repeat with the next row, alternating 2 and 3 pieces rows.
It was a lot of work but the wood was free and had been drying about 20 years in an attic.
My bench-top is rock solid.
Paul I watched of the video series you on make a workbench. The 1 thing I may have missed is who do you determine the correct height. I know it maybe somewhat personal preference but there much be a general formula.
It is tricky. Listen to other gurus and you’ll end up with a bad back, neck and much more. These advocates believe you must have a low bench and bare down with great upper body mass on the work to achieve decent planing. Whereas it sounds good, the only reason you might need to do such a thing is if you fail to keep on top of sharpness. I have written extensively about this and tested out bench heights on 6,500 students to get to my conclusion. There is no point copying say this nation’s bench heights over that one as the average height in one country will be different to another or even this region to another. The average height of a Frenchman is 1.73m whereas the average for an Englishman 1.77m, similar but about the same to the USA but with different categories because of the density of different cultures within the USA. Start here as a beginning. Start out higher than lower and keep reducing the height for the optimum height for you. It is definitely important to match it to your physical height and then your physical condition too as most people found that their lower height bench was indeed causing them back and neck pain.
Here in Indiana, USA, Baltic birch is available. The big box stores don’t have it. Menards carries a ply they call Baltic Birch but it is crap with uneven ply thickness, numerous voids and an extremely thin face ply. Once you have used actual Baltic Birch ply, it’s hard to imagine building with anything else. The dead giveaway is true Baltic Birch is available in the USA only as 60×60” sheets and ply thickness is the same as the face layer. It is expensive here but well worth it to me.
I haven’t made the plywood bench, but I enjoyed the video series immensely. Apart from your educational achievements, Paul, you also make some wonderful entertainment. Long may it continue!
I have always loved working with wood and creating something out of a piece of lumber. Unfortunately my career path took me in a different path. As I approach retirement I am looking to do more woodworking. I like the idea of the plywood bench, but I have one question . How is the top holding up? I mean, is the “end-grain” of the plywood strong enough to handle the work being done?
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