Chris Schwarz's Blog

Video: Build a 3"-thick Benchtop in One Hour

We need more workbenches for Woodworking in America. The event, Oct. 1-3 here in the Cincinnati area, is by far bigger than the last three events we’ve held.

And me, I’m going a little stir crazy. I’ve spent the last three weeks writing the remaining chapters to a follow-up book to “Workbenches: From Design & Theory to Construction & Use.” (While my first workbench book is like the Old Testament, this new book , tentatively titled “The Workbench Design Book” , will be the New Testament. But more on that topic later.)

In any case, I am not getting enough time in the shop. So yesterday evening I was excited when a neighbor summoned me to his shop and pulled open a cardboard box.

Inside was a 1-5/8″ x 36″ x 6′ long mahogany top. He had come into about 40 of these tops through his job with the railroad. He had sold most of them through Craigslist (and donated the money to his church, by the way). But he had a few left and thought I might like one.

The top was made from finger-jointed mahogany and covered in purple stain. But boy was it heavy. And flat. And hey , don’t we need more workbenches for Woodworking in America?

For many years I’ve wanted to make a workbench top using a piece of butcher block. We have a weird warehouse store here in Cincinnati named Home Emporium that sells giant 8′ Buddha heads and maple butcher-block countertop. You can get an 8′-long run of the stuff for about $80. Laminate two of those suckers face-to-face and you’d have a thick and heavy and somewhat ugly benchtop. Ikea also sells tops like this.

So this morning I ripped this mahogany behemoth down the middle, planed off the finish and decided to glue this sucker up into an 18″-wide benchtop that is more than 3″ thick. The whole process took about an hour, a half bottle of glue, some screws and some clamps.

When I do laminations like this, I like to drive screws through the underside of the benchtop to clamp the pieces together. I used three rows of screws with the screws placed 12″ apart. You can remove the screws when the glue is dry.

So I clamped the two pieces face to face and drilled clearance and pilot holes through the two pieces for #8 x 2-1/2″ screws. It’s best to drill all these holes before you put the glue on because things will start sliding around once glue gets involved. Then I unclamped the pieces and opened them like a book on some sawhorses.

Then I used a small paint roller to spread a film of glue on both open faces, folded them together and drove in the screws. And then, because I’m a bit retentive, I clamped all around the edge of the lamination, just because I could.

Total shop time: less than one hour.

The other big advantage to building this quickie bench is that I’m going to get to install some bench hardware on it that hasn’t been released to the public.

Like I really need an excuse.

– Christopher Schwarz

Other Bench-building Links and Products

– See this bench (and more) at Woodworking in America. The conference is almost sold out. We have already expanded our floor space to accommodate more attendees and vendors. But we are just about out of space.

– “Build an 18th-century Workbench.” To those of you who pre-ordered this DVD, thank you. I think there’s a good chance I’ll win some beer money as a result. The DVD is still on sale in our store.

– Free plan: “The 24-hour Workbench.” This is a bench I’ve built several times that uses Baltic Birch plywood for the top. Very easy and fast to build.

Workbenchdesign.net. For all things workbench-related.

26 thoughts on “Video: Build a 3"-thick Benchtop in One Hour

  1. Danny

    One thing I don’t understand is why you cut the board in half then glued them together. You have a wonderfully large top that is now 1/2 size but twice as thick (as needed). True you may only want one that is 18" but if you used 2×10’s and cut the edges square and put them on the back you’d be able to have 2 tables with really good tops instead of one.

    Or am I missing something?

  2. Steve

    I’ve been using a benchtop just like this one for about 4 years now. I bought two beech countertop pieces from Ikea and glued them together. It’s been pretty stable considering our wide range of humidity levels here in Virginia. I have noticed the same tearout problems as Tom. The grain switches direction about every other board.

  3. Tom Bier

    I made my bench with a butcher block/laminated strip top. Seeing as: A) I am a world-class procrastinator, B) I had no access to a saw & planer, and C) several trips to the big boxes showed that a "good" 12′ SPF 2×12 is one that only has splits 4-6′ long there was no way I was going to build a top. I had to flatten it once when I put it together and it’s time to check it again, but I don’t think its significantly worse than other tops. Oh, except for tearout when planing the top – I don’t think they worried too much about grain direction when they built it – but that’s just more planing practice.

    All in all it is a decent bench – not great – but several quantum levels above my Workmate. And I know what to change and how to do it when it is time for the next bench.

  4. me.yahoo.com/a/XjaPZ7QH1eCSA06Fi2Tz9AdVgSENfBrm

    Both of my workbenches I made the same way. I laminated together 5x5x20′ pine posts that I had found in the company scrap pilethat was free for the taking. I glued & used 3/8" threaded hog rods to pull it all together. Once dried I made a jig for my router to ride on & rough surfaced both sides to true them up. Once done with that I planed the better side of each one then finished sanding it. My one workbench is now 4’x10′ long. But the other one I left the whole length of 20’x 3′ wide. The 20′ foot one I have in my outside shop. I have a small 12’x21′ outside shop attached to my hooch.

  5. thewayiwood.blogspot.com

    "an end grain top. I would not want to flatten that."

    Valid point. Time for the Timesaver.

    "I’m going to get to install some bench hardware on it that hasn’t been released to the public."

    Bench Tease!

    Darnell Hagen

  6. Alan in little Washington (NC)

    Chris,

    Since a few others have mentioned sources, I’ll add Bally Block as one. Bally, located in where else, Bally, PA (and possibly their sister company Michigan Block- somewhere in Michigan) sells seconds and returns (the Mrs didn’t like the color of the 100′ butcher block counter in her Mega-mansion) at great prices from their factory. Proceeds go to the company activity fund. I got 72" X 30" x 3" maple top from them for $75. It came from an old Army base. I used it on my adjustable height bench (prior email).

  7. Hank Lay

    Clicking on "Video:" above only reloads this blog page. How do we launch a real video?

  8. Christopher Schwarz

    I wouldn’t even call this stuff a "cutting board." It’s just laminated strips. They call it "butcher block" in the store.

    I’ve never seen a bench with an end grain top. I would not want to flatten that.

    Chris

  9. Christopher Schwarz

    John,

    I have seen no disadvantage to using a diffuse-porous or open-grained hardwood. Or a softwood such as yellow pine, which does not have pores like a hardwood.

    Nor have I found any advantage to using maple. In fact, I dislike flattening maple tops. A lot.

    And the historical record is full of benches made from a variety of woods. Oak. Ash. Pine. Beech. Maple. Walnut.

    I guess I’m saying that some books say beech or maple, but the benches I’ve seen aren’t always beech or maple.

    I’m not saying I’m always right about material choice (I would not use LVL for a workbench’s base again), but I do like to test dogma.

    Sorry to disappoint.

  10. John Walkowiak

    Chris,
    I have been re-using, re-cycling, and re-purposing stuff since I was a kid and I am all over cheap and free. But, I really don’t understand your use of these odd materials for a workbench – just because it is cheap or free. It has been a known fact for at least a couple of centuries that a closed pore hardwood is the best material for a bench. I don’t think I have to list all the reasons. You/we have a lot of expensive tools, that are all used on our largest tool – the workbench. I believe you are promoting buying a small number of tools that are of the best quality. Shouldn’t the bench be part of this thinking? If you think about it, the cost of materials for a maple or beech bench are no more than 1 or 2 tools of the highest quality. And like the best tools, a bench built correctly from the best materials will perform at the highest level as long as we want to use it. I am sure you have heard the old saying “The quality is remembered long after the price has been forgotten”. It still is true.
    John

  11. Christopher Schwarz

    Matthew,

    The tops were part of a shipment. Dunnage I think.

    After the glue has cured, this tops is just as much at risk for warping as any other laminated top. Solid wood tops need to be trued on occasion.

  12. Matthew Holbrook

    Chris:

    Your neighbor was clearly wood-working on the railroad. What RR is he employed by and were those benchtops used in the RR’s carpentry shop or another shop?

    One question, after your glueup of the two mahogany slabs has cured, will there be any risk of warp or twist that will need to be planed off?

    Regards,

    Matthew Holbrook
    Reformedtruth@yahoo.com

  13. Christopher Schwarz

    I’m not sure what sort of mahogany this is. The box came from Brazil.

    I wouldn’t make furniture out of this stuff because it’s all short lengths that have been fingerjointed. Ugly, ugly, ugly.

    However it works nicely and is heavy and stiff. And it was free. Sounds like a workbench top to me.

  14. Tim

    I have worked with that west african so-called mahogany. That is one of the nastiest woods I have ever used. The rowed grain is a nuisance, alright, but when sawn, the dust makes a toxic siliceous cloud that practically screams mesothelioma. I would double-up on the respirators before cutting into that stuff.

  15. dave rodgers

    I have a west African mahogany workbench given to me when I lived in Swaziland. It was made in Mozambique. A Portuguese refuge gave it to me in the mid 70’s before returning to Portugal. The top is a slab of mahogany 2 inches by 16 inches by over 7 feet. It has remained stable since I obtained it. However, the wood seems unsuitable for a bench since the grain switches back and forth and the wood damages easily. Why did you choose mahogany for this project? I have often thought the wood was too valuable to be a bench and have considered slicing it up for a nice piece of furniture.

  16. Raymond White

    Alright, someone has to step up and ask the obvious question and acknowledge the elephant in the room.
    Why on earth would you laminate two 8′ Buddha heads together for a bench top? And come to that, how would you go about flattening them to get a decent glueline?
    Dunno why you wouldn’t just use the butcherblock top.
    And you have written books on this subject?
    Shheeesh, seemed obvious to me but maybe its a Southern hemisphere type of thing…….

  17. Dean

    I’ve heard that some people have made workbenches out of old bowling alley lanes. I guess old bowling alleys are occasionally torn down or lanes replaced, and things like the lanes can be free or a nominal fee. I hear it can be a bear to pull nails and surface the wood for a bench. However I did read the following as well:

    "The first 12 ft of all wooden lanes is made of maple, the next 46 feet is made of pine and the pin deck is made of maple." Somewhere it said the total length is 62′ 10".

    Workbench building for the stout of heart.

  18. Narayan

    For those on the West Coast or who are not shipping-averse, perfectplank.com has some pretty good product. You can get a pretty great maple butcher block for less than the rough lumber would cost in many cases.

    They used to have the wildwood available in greater thickness (my benchtop is their 3" wildwood variety).

    I imagine most locales have some similar outfit. I found perfectplank by asking a restauranteur where they got all the butcherblock tops for their counters and tabletops. Voila.

  19. Niels

    Ditto on the looks-
    Although you could add end caps to cover the mess on the edges. A front cap for a planing stop and a rear cap for a wagon vise.

    fast and pretty: great for benches, dangerous for girlfriends.

    cheers,

  20. Christopher Schwarz

    I’ve built many plywood tops like this with no problems. And there is no reason that a solid top should have any trouble whatsoever. All the wood-movement forces are aligned.

    The major con: It’s kinda ugly.

    But for people who want a heavy, solid-wood top in about an hour, I think this is a good way to go.

  21. Niels

    Hi Chris,

    I’ve always wondered about doubling up some laminated hard maple workbench table tops (ala mcmaster) for a workbench. I happen to have potentially cheap (free) source.

    Is this your first experience using this technique for a bench top? I wonder if this top would be more or less stable.

    Other than saving time with multiple glue ups are there other pros? cons?

    "my first workbench book is like the Old Testament, this new book – tentatively titled "The Workbench Design Book" – will be the New Testament"

    …Testify!!!

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