In Chris Schwarz Blog, Schwarz on Workbenches

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When I sat down in a restaurant’s booth in early April and waited for my pan-fried noodles, I knew that I had found a new workbench material.

For the last couple years I’ve been researching alternative materials for building workbenches , materials that are strong, inexpensive and widely available. And for the last six months I’ve been pestering Managing Editor Megan Fitzpatrick to build a workbench using LVL , laminated veneer lumber.

You’re unlikely to find LVL in a home center, but it is widely available in commercial lumberyards. Contractors use the stuff to cross long spans because it’s incredibly stiff, straight and reasonably priced. And it comes in 60′ lengths (if you need it that long).  

In the wild, LVL looks like a piece of dimensional stock , the stuff Megan bought today looks like yellow pine 2 x 12s. But as you get closer you can see the edges and ends are laminated. Our 1-3/4″-thick pieces had 16 plies of yellow pine, each with a dark glue layer.

The stuff is pretty cheap, too. A 1-3/4″ x 11-7/8″ x 24′-long piece of LVL was just $110. (You can also find the stuff in different thicknesses and widths, though it’s harder to find.) But how will the stuff fare in a workshop? And will it look decent?

That last concern was Megan’s objection to LVL.

Back at the noodle bar, Megan and the other magazine’s staff members approached the booth. I pointed to the table.

“This is LVL,” I said.

The woodworker who made the restaurant’s table ripped the LVL, turned it 90Ã?° and laminated it up. They put a nice finish on it and it looked great. Megan’s objection to LVL disappeared as soon as she saw the table.

Today we brought the stuff in to build an 8′-long bench for Megan. The bench’s design is going to be a blend of the Roubo and the Holtzapffel benches (the Holtz-bo). It will have a leg vise in the face vise position (with a wooden bench screw from BigWoodVise.com). And it’s going to have a quick-release vise in the end vise position.

I’m certain the design will work. And after today I think the material will work as well. It came into the shop fairly dry , a couple of the sections were a few points above the norm. It jointed nicely on our powered jointer with a carbide cutterhead. And it ripped beautifully and easily on the table saw.

Next up: The big question. What will the glue do to the high-speed steel knives in our planer? And how will the scarf joints in the lamination fare when they are machined?

By the way, our full investigation into this material will appear in a future article this year in Popular Woodworking.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 30 comments
  • Tom Mulcahy

    I splined 2 pieces length-wise,glued a sheet of 1/2" ply to both sides, screwed tongue and groove oak flooring on the top,banded the edges and now have a 7’x30" bench top that weighs app. 250 lbs. I’ve had my bench 15 years and it’s still flat, straight and solid. If I had to do it again…I’d do it again!!! Tom

  • Tom Mulcahy

    I splined 2 pieces length-wise,glued a sheet of 1/2" ply to both sides, screwed tongue and groove oak flooring on the top,banded the edges and now have a 7’x30" bench top that weighs app. 250 lbs. I’ve had my bench 15 years and it’s still flat, straight and solid. If I had to do it again…I’d do it again!!! Tom

  • Bill Rusnak

    Any construction updates yet? I’m really interested to hear how this works before I go buy a truckload of Douglas Fir.

    Bill

  • Angie K.

    Chris,

    I shared a shop once with a guy who used that stuff for tabletops. It’s definitely hard on machines because of the glue content (though part of it may have been because HE was absolutely brutal on tools). Keep an eye on your planer blades…

    Angie

  • J Nelson

    Will this stuff work with a traditional oil finish or require a sealer? Would it be better to leave it raw?

    It might be better to cut mortises before glue-up to save tool edges.

  • Megan

    Dave,

    I’m fine with being the Guinea pig – it means I get a lot of help with the building, ’cause everyone wants to try out the new material. Besides, the stuff is so darn heavy, I can’t lift a 1-3/4" x 8′ piece without help. And as far as the spike heels, well, I’ll just be delighted to be able to plane at the right level…in my Birks 😉

  • Swanz

    I don’t know. That stuff sounds expensive (just doing the math of the top of my head). SYP dimensional lumber hard to beat but I’m interested in seeing final result.

    Swanz

  • Alex Grigoriev

    How about laminating the bench out of lyptus boards? Lyptus is damn rigid and heavy. At the same time it planes pretty easily.

  • Adrian

    Is there an affordable bamboo product out there? I did a project with some Plyboo, but the cost was something over $200 for a 3/4" thick 4×8 sheet. Doesn’t exactly seem like a cheap workbench product. The left over piece looked like it had warped a bit in storage, so I don’t know about stability.

  • Dave Anderson NH

    And how does Megan like being the Popular Woodworking guinea pig? This scenario kind of reminds me of the od TV commercials, you know the ones, "Let Mikey try it, he’ll eat anything."

    Semi-seriously though, what are you all going to do when Megan ends up with a bench that’s nicer, more stable, and needs less maintenence than anyone elses? Megan, you better be ready to defend your new turf once it’s completed. might I suggest that you sharpen the spikes on those heels you posted a few months ago.

    Best regards,

    Dave Anderson
    Chester, NH

  • John Cashman

    Lumberyards and home centers alike have a slightly different product here in the northeast. The Lowe’s brand is called Power Beam, I’m not sure of the names for the others. Rather than thin plywood-like plies, they are laminated of 2-by dimensional lumber. One lumberyard’s brand uses Doug-Fir, the Lowes brand uses SYP. You can get them in 2 3/4 thick by 11 7/8 wide, so you’d have to glue two together for an almost 24 inch 2ide bench. You can also get the same thing in 5 3/4 thick, for a true Roubo bench. You can also get columns, something like 5 3/4 by 7 1/2, for really nice legs. I think it looks better than thin-ply LVLs, but the unattractive part of these Power Beams is the boards are random length, so there are scarf joints in the middle of a span. Not as nice looking as a bench you make from scratch. But alot easier, and cheaper too. The other drawback is planing the top by hand — the grain changes between laminations, whereas if you do your own, you can align the grain better for handplaning.

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Eric,

    I’ve definitely considered bamboo as a bench material. I just haven’t run the numbers yet. And it would have to go one the cover of Popular Grassworking.

    Chris

  • Neil

    YEAH……..Megan and Chris…….we need more of this experimenting. Looking forward to what you find.

    Neil

  • Paul Chapman

    Hi Chris, what’s the difference between LVL and plywood, other than the grain seems to be going in the same direction on all the plys?

  • oldtruckrus

    Will Megan have to learn to handplane again when she puts on normal "working shoes" for the new bench?

  • Rob

    LVL is stout stuff. We use it to make door stiles and door frames. It should make a great benchtop.

  • Eric

    When you started talking about "researching alternative materials for building workbenches," I was expecting to read about the bamboo workbench!

    (Why not, they make good cutting boards!)

  • Narayan

    It’ll also be interesting to see if it takes to surfacing easily with a handplane, or what solution you guys come up with to flatten it when it comes time.

    FWIW, I love manufactured products. I’ve seen them used more often as-is in modern interior design, and the results can be quite striking.

    But I must protest the Holtz-bo moniker. I much prefer the Roubapffel. Because Holtzbo sounds like a fitness product by Ronco. And Roubapffel sounds like a type of strudel. And you know I always err on the side of pastry.

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Glenwood,

    The LVL is available everywhere (unlike SYP). It is more stable than SYP. It has (allegedly) a higher modulus of elasticity, which I’m still investigating.

    I’m not thinking this is the ultimate solution, but it has enough advantages to be *a* solution.

    I think.

    We’ll see.

    Chris

  • Glenwood Morris

    I’m not seeing the advantage over SYP, which is cheaper, and is not full of formaldehyde glues.

    The Holz-Bo works great btw, Leg vise + Quick release tail vise FTW.

  • Terry Ettinger

    Absolutely love your magazines and blogs! (My wife just hopes that one day I’ll make something other than jigs – my feeling is that you can never be too prepared)

    Anyway, I hope to put the finishing touches on my first workbench within the month – the legs and stretchers of which are made out of glued-up 3/4 inch plywood. As you might imagine, the end result looks just like the LVL in your pictures!

    It’s been ALOT of gluing and clamping, but it’s allowed me to build a really heavy workbench base with mortise and tenon joinery using nothing more than a circular saw, a table saw, and a trim router!

    I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of bench you create with LVL!

    Keep up the great work!

  • Alex Grigoriev

    My cheap ($50) chinese-made workbench bought at HD has a 2" top made of horizontal LVL (no fancy ripping and regluing), and paulownia feet. I had to spend quite a lot of time flattening its twist, and it’s no fun planing the veneers.

  • Rob Cameron

    Please keep us up to date as you learn more, I can’t wait several months for a full writeup in the magazine! Got your Wookbenches book recently and I’m itching to bulid one. 🙂 No Southern Pine nearby, but if this stuff works even better I’m all for it.

  • Bjenk

    I second David’s caution. LVLs are engineered material and the dust from milling it is going to be particularly hazardous.

  • David

    Chris – One thing to watch is the air quality in your shop when you machine the stuff. Glue-Lam (the generic name for LVL, ParaLam, etc…) uses glues that can release formaldehyde when heated (like in a planer). Probably not enough to be immediately dangerous to your health, but it pays to be cautious.

  • Christopher Schwarz

    I suspect the material will be harsh on hand tool edges. There is a lot of glue in there. We’ll let you know.

    Chris

  • dubya

    From all of the glamor shots of workbenches on the site, I don’t think you’re the only one who cares about looks. Is this a powertool only material?

  • Toby

    I used an LVL under the plywood top of my latest workbench. I figured it would be stable and thick enough to hold bench dogs. It worked out well but I noticed that the LVL was covered in a waxy film of some sort. I will watch with interest to see how your lamination process goes.

    If you have good success, I may go this route since other types of "workbench" lumber is harder to find here.

    Thanks for two excellent magazines and blogs.

  • Steve

    Megan,

    Are you that shallow? Well, if the shoe fits…

  • Megan

    Geez – am I really that shallow? Does it seem as if looks are all that matter to me?! I would like the legs to end in a nice pair of Louboutins though.

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