Chris Schwarz's Blog

LVL Workbench: What Was I Thinking?

I’ve been talking a lot about laminated veneer lumber (LVL), the raw material we used to build our latest workbench. But what I haven’t talked much about is why we chose this material and the characteristics of the workbench design itself.

The as-yet-unnamed bench is just about finished, and I am organizing my thoughts to write the article about the bench for the November 2009 issue of Popular Woodworking.

In some ways, the story here is about two benches.

We chose to build a workbench out of LVL, which sometimes is called Microlam, for several reasons:

1. It is inexpensive, heavy, stiff, stable and widely available in almost every corner of North America. And if you are willing to put in a special order, you can get it in 4″ thicknesses. This would reduce or even eliminate a lot of gluing.

2. I had a lot of questions about it. How hard would it be on the tooling? Would we have to use carbide exclusively? How would hand tools react to the stuff? How easy is the stuff to saw, bore, chisel and rout? Does it warp like solid wood?

3. I get asked all the time about using manufactured materials for making workbenches. I’ve made a few using Baltic birch that came out nicely. I’m not a big fan of MDF and OSB and the way they sag. Commercial cabinet ply is, to be delicate, kinda crappy these days (see my entries on the joys of Chinese-made plywood for more). After eliminating these products, my gut said that LVL might be my best bet for a workbench made from engineered lumber.

About the Bones
So once I got the material selected, the other task was to design the base, the workbench top and the workholding. The base design is something I’ve wanted to build for a long time: A workbench that can be built using only one tooling setup on the table saw and a bunch of hex-head bolts.

In all truth, I cut all the joints and assembled the base in less than a day , it was probably six hours , and we stopped to take photos and get coffee. The base is incredibly sturdy and can be assembled in about 10 minutes with a 3/4″ ratchet and box wrench. We painted the base with milk paint to cover up some of the wacky lamination lines we ended up with.

The inspiration for the top came from our local noodle bar, which has tables made using LVL. The stuff looks amazing, even to my eyes, which usually prefer a more traditional look. And the stuff is stiff. We ended up with a top that was 2-1/2″ thick. Once it was assembled and bolted down I had Managing Editor Megan Fitzpatrick stand on top of it and jump on the middle. There was almost no flex. It’s gonna be great for handwork.

Plus, we’re really curious about how much the stuff will move in service. My research suggests it’s going to end up being pretty stable thanks to the vast quantities of glue between each little lamination.

When designing the workholding I wanted it to be a little flashy. I’ve been building a lot of stuff with a lot of straight lines this year and I wanted to break out the curves. So the sliding deadwoman, leg vise, parallel guide and end vise chop all have classic ogee shapes.

And the workholding had to pass my “kitchen test.” It does.

This certainly won’t be the last bench I’ll ever build. I have a list of four or five more types than need to be built to accommodate other kinds of woodworkers (e.g. apartment woodworkers). But this bench is a design that I think a lot of woodworkers will find useful.

- Christopher Schwarz

21 thoughts on “LVL Workbench: What Was I Thinking?

  1. Adam

    ditto the apartment woodworker comments…

    I have a 6′ roubo on sketchup that I’m going to build as soon as I can locate some SYP in Brooklyn(I’m considering taking a weekend roadtrip to some southern state where flowers bloom, birds sing, and there are beautiful blonde girls with orange vests stacking 16′ long clear SYP 2×12′s….)

    I’m starting to consider lvl, but how hard is that to work with only hand tools?

  2. Rich

    I too am most interested in the bench for apartment dwellers, albeit from a different perspective. As a Las Vegas woodworker, it’s currently too dang hot to work in the garage so I’ve decided to build a small bench that can live in my den, possibly disguised inside a base cabinet when not in use. I’m interested in something heavy, non-racking as Roubo-like as possible, yet something that can slide relatively easily into and out of it’s base-cabinet home when not in use. Sounds like a tall order to me but I’m convinced it can be done.

  3. nik palmer

    The bench looks great and sturdy, and it was pretty cheap. I just wanted to pass on a couple of comments. I have built a bench bottom similar to this and i saw someone ask if lag bolts were used. I did use lags bolts and although the bench is steady and strong, it is difficult to stop a slight swat when planing with my longest jointer. You have to tighten up the lag bolts periodically.
    The microlam/LVL; i have used for a set of speaker stands (heavy, solid, no tonal quality) and they work great. As i like the "quartersawn surface" rather than the "flatsawn" i even used microlam q/s in a veneer form over the flatsawn. BUT in general microlam/lvl splinters like hell, and doesn’t like to be handplaned…so how are you going to reflatten the benchtop in the future Chris?

    kindest

    nik

  4. Jim Anderson

    A friend an I were discussing some of the merits of this bench and he brought up an interesting observation. Over time as the wood layers in the top are worn away leaving higher ‘glue ridges’ will they be more apt to scratch the surface of project pieces, the glue being harder than the wood. No doubt this would take some time but might be something to watch for. I do like the idea of the bench though. – Jim

  5. Lee Laird

    Chris -

    Great looking bench. Where are you buying your LVL and what cost is associated with the different thicknesses? After hearing about the rigidity, I’m thinking this is a good candidate for my bench.

    Regards,

  6. Brahma

    I, too want to hear and read more about the workbench for apartment dwellers. I was looking seriously at the Carlyle Lynch woodcarver’s bench plans for this purpose, but Christopher will probably have an article out about his before I get around to actually building it.

  7. Sean Sabo

    Yes, Apartment Woodworkers… I hope we can expect that soon… I’m starting to design my own traditional bench for my apartment and would like to see your take on the subject.

    Sean Sabo

  8. Phil McCurdy

    I’ll echo the comments re apartment woodworking!! Guess the bench just slid back down the todo list a few notches.

    Can’t wait to see Megan’s LVLy bench test.

  9. Joel Jacobson

    "… Once it was assembled and bolted down I had Managing Editor Megan Fitzpatrick stand on top of it and jump on the middle. …"

    Good grief! Was she wearing her hard hat and safety glasses? Couldn’t you, at least, hired a stunt double?

    I hope you have photos of this perilous operation.

  10. J Nelson

    It looks nice! Did you use lag bolts to attach the top to the base? Did you sand or plane the top?

    It sounds like you’re going to end up calling it the LVL workbench. It’s easy to remember.

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