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

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