On Thick, Wet Slab Tops for Workbenches
During the last seven years, I’ve slowly become a fan of using a monolithic slab for the top of a workbench. And I’ve also slowly begun to ignore all the criticisms of slab tops.
I built my first slab-top workbench in 2009-2010, which was published in the August 2010 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. The top was some wet cherry that had been rotting in the log yard of Ron Herman for several years.
Despite the fact that the top was punky and extremely wet, it has become a workbench that doesn’t move much seasonally and is remarkably solid. (Yes, Roy Underhill broke off a section of the top during a Woodworking in America, but it bolted right back on.)
I’ve also helped build a couple dozen slab workbenches with the French Oak Roubo Project, which uses oak that has been drying for more than a decade but is still very wet (up to 60 percent moisture content).
My experience with these benchtops goes like this: Because they are wet, they are fairly easy to plane and mortise, though they weigh a lot because of the extra moisture. After assembling the bench and working on it, they tend to dry out slowly. The first year with the bench requires some maintenance – you might flatten the top two or more times.
During the second year the benchtop moves less. You might flatten the top once or twice. The third year might need only one flattening. Then the top gradually settles to the point where it doesn’t move much, if at all.
I am to the point where I am ready to use slabs that have been cut during the last 12 months. To test my theory I have a red oak top that was cut during the winter that I will use to make a full-on French workbench. The top is extremely wet. The legs and stretchers will be dry.
Why do this? You can save a lot of money and time by purchasing fresh-cut slabs. I bought all the wood for my next Roubo bench for $500 from Lesley Caudle, a sawyer in Booneville, N.C. You can read more about Lesley’s operation here and order bench kits via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Now if you don’t believe this is possible, that’s OK. You’ll just have to be patient and read about the process when I start building this bench in January or February.
But for those of you who are more daring, drop Lesley a line and build along with us. Instead of waiting a decade for a bench (or spending a fortune) you can have a bench this winter.
— Christopher Schwarz
Editor’s note: Want more from Chris on building a workbench, workholding techniques and more? Read “Workbenches: From Design & Theory to Construction & Use“