Roubo Workbench #2: Choosing the Material

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Blog entry by Brandon posted 01-13-2012 05:17 PM 17550 reads 2 times favorited 22 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 1: Getting Started Part 2 of Roubo Workbench series Part 3: Some Design Considerations »

I considered a lot of different materials for my bench. At the top of the list were southern yellow pine, white oak, red oak, ash, cherry, maple, and beech. Really, I think you can get away with a number of species, but it generally comes down to a few issues: availability, aesthetic (at least for me), price, and of course suitability for the purpose.

Chris Schwarz really advocates using SYP in his workbenches book and even uses it for his 2005 Roubo bench. The advantages of SYP is that you can purchase it from your local home center (in many parts of the States) and it’s relatively inexpensive compared to other woods. Another advantage of SYP is that it is pretty darn stiff—more stiff than most hardwoods. I think it would make for a good wood for the bench, however, its softness, weight, and even its appearance really turned me off. I wanted a bench that was super heavy and hard. I didn’t want to have to worry about excessive dings and scratches since I plan on having this bench for many years to come. Plus, unless the lumber is quarter-sawn, SYP isn’t something to look at, and since I’ll be using this bench for who knows how long, I want it to be attractive.

White oak was at the top of the list because it is both fairly hard and pretty heavy. That said, it’s sort of expensive where I shop and I’m not sure if the tannins would be an issue. Yet, can you imagine how wonderful an Arts & Crafts workbench would be? Maybe for the next bench build.

Red oak is cheaper and much more plentiful. I came very close to scraping together half of the materials from my garage for a red oak bench, but I really wanted something nicer. I did use some red oak for the stretchers and the shelf, but that’s for another blog post.

Cherry was an option simply because that would be one beautiful bench and common cherry can be fairly inexpensive. Ash is another good option, which I probably should have considered more. Maple is also great and most benches built in the states use maple as far as I know.

I ended up going with something a little more traditional—-European beech. The argument against European steamed beech is that it’s expensive. Chris Schwarz writes:

  • Most European benches were built using beech, and sometimes fine-grained steamed European beech. And so a significant number of woodworkers go to lengths to purchase precious beech for their workbenches. After all, who wants to argue with several hundred years of tradition? I do, European apprentices, cabinetmakers and joiners didn’t choose beech because of some magic quality of Fagus sylvatica. They chose it because it was dense, stiff, plentiful and inexpsensive. In the United States, beech is dense, stiff, hard to find and (sometimes) a bit spendy. You can, of course, use it to build a bench (it’s your bench, not mine), but you will pay for the privelege. And it will have no demonstrable advantage over a bench built from a cheaper species. (Christopher Schwarz, Workbenches from Design and Theory to Construction and Use, 2007, p. 14).

Schwarz doesn’t condemn the use of European steamed beech for a workbench, but he does argue that there is no specific advantage of it over other sources (maple etc.) and that it is going to cost an arm and a leg in the States. This bit of information made me discount beech as a viable option. Yet when I went to the lumber yard (Peach State Lumber in Kennesaw, Georgia) I found that European steamed beech imported from Germany was actually cheaper than red oak! After learning this, I knew what I was going to use. I’ve always liked the appeal of beech (even before woodworking), and it is such a traditional material that it would be quite suitable for my traditional-style bench. Did I mention that I have German heritage? Beech it is! They had a virgin pallet full of this stuff and I was able to pick out the exact sizes that I needed. After a nice discount I got 61 bdft of planed 8/4 stock for only $4 bdft. Still, my budget stopped me from obtaining everything I wanted. I purchased enough for the top, legs, and tail vise chop. For the stretchers and the shelf I would use oak I already had on hand.

Here are a couple of photos of the raw materials. 8/4 of various widths and all a little over 8’ long.

-- "hold fast to that which is good"

22 comments so far

View PurpLev's profile


8536 posts in 3677 days

#1 posted 01-13-2012 05:27 PM

sweet. I think you went with a good choice. the white oak with the tanin acids and your sweat (not that you would ever sweat of course) while working would make for a bad combination – I was walking with black palms for a week after a similar experience.

I think wood selection really boils down to what’s available and cheap where one leaves, for Chris it is SYP, for people in the north east it’s Maple, for people in the west coast it’s FIR, and so on and so forth. people put too much focus on this and try to use what the ‘other guy’ was using when they are in a completely different geographic location and notice how the prices are so much higher. so whatever works – works.

As for the asthetics – I like a nice looking bench, but if you think you’d hate seeing a SYP bench get dented, I can assure you you would have a much harder time seeing that same dent happen on a maple topped bench. just accept the fact that your bench WILL get ddents and dings, no way around it… but that’s what it’s there for

looking forward to seeing this build.

-- ㊍ When in doubt - There is no doubt - Go the safer route.

View Brandon's profile


4152 posts in 2980 days

#2 posted 01-13-2012 05:33 PM

Great comments, Sharon. I agree that in a large sense it really does boil down to what’s available—in my case I didn’t even know that beech was affordable, but it was. With respect to the dents and dings—-it’s a workbench and it will suffer its fair share of those, but I do think a nice hard wood would be able to do it more gracefully than a softwood and that’s partly what kept me away from SYP, which is plentiful here in Georgia.

-- "hold fast to that which is good"

View waho6o9's profile


8209 posts in 2605 days

#3 posted 01-13-2012 05:34 PM

Beech is a great choice for a workbench, good call. This is going to be a fantastic workbench, post pics if you have the time.

View Tyler's profile


174 posts in 2721 days

#4 posted 01-13-2012 05:44 PM

Good luck with the bench. I’ll be watching you progress as I want to build a Roubo bench as well.

View ShaneA's profile


6956 posts in 2627 days

#5 posted 01-13-2012 06:02 PM

Sounds like a good score on the Beech wood. Look forward to watching this bench progress. I was working w/white oak the other day, and I agree, the “blackened hand” is not cool.

View jmos's profile


839 posts in 2398 days

#6 posted 01-13-2012 06:57 PM

Nice choice! How thick a top are you shooting for?

-- John

View Brandon's profile


4152 posts in 2980 days

#7 posted 01-13-2012 07:04 PM

Jmos, it’s about 3.5” thick, but I’ll get into the details on the next blog post.

-- "hold fast to that which is good"

View btle310's profile


14 posts in 3588 days

#8 posted 01-13-2012 08:21 PM

Looking good

Now I have to head over to Peachstate to check out to buy some more wood. :)

View lysdexic's profile


5255 posts in 2651 days

#9 posted 01-13-2012 08:26 PM

I have a very strong suspicion that my bench will be very similar to yours. My thought process parallels yours. In fact, with such a comprehesive and detailed blog about your bench build, once I post my bench as a project I’ll just reference your blog.

“For details of the design, materials and construction of my bench please just read Brandon’s blog entry here

It will save me alot of time ;^)

Remember, imitation is the sincerest (sp?) form of flattery.

-- "It's only wood. Use it." - Smitty || Instagram - out_of_focus1.618

View Brandon's profile


4152 posts in 2980 days

#10 posted 01-13-2012 08:51 PM

btle310, yeah Peach State is a great place—there’s another place I go to in Suwanee, but they don’t have nearly the selection that Peach State does.


That would be hilarious! I’m sure, however, that once you see my completed bench you’ll find that you think about some things differently. Have you started the bench build? Have you decided on a material?

-- "hold fast to that which is good"

View Brit's profile


7387 posts in 2871 days

#11 posted 01-13-2012 08:56 PM

Nice planks Brandon. You won’t be disappointed with beech. It will look even better after a few years.

-- - Andy - Old Chinese proverb says: "If you think something can't be done, don't interrupt man who is doing it."

View btle310's profile


14 posts in 3588 days

#12 posted 01-13-2012 09:05 PM

Brandon I got to Suwanee most of the time too. Peachstate is a drive from Cumming but you are dead on they have a better selection most of the time. I also started getting some stuff from CAG lumber in gainesville the guy there always has interesting domestic stuff.

View lysdexic's profile


5255 posts in 2651 days

#13 posted 01-13-2012 10:29 PM

My lumber guy quoted hard maple at $4 bf. I’ve talked to him about SYP and he just shakes his head and says “don’t – if you are going to go through the trouble…..”

Have any of you really looked at the 2×12” SYP at Lowes like Schwarz suggests. I have glanced at the stacks several times when I have gone to Lowes for other reasons. Thinking the day will come when would have to sort through them. What I saw was not encouraging.

So, my plan is to go with a hard maple top at 24” wide, 3 1/2” thick and 7’ long. Aesthetically, I would like to contrast the legs with the top with the legs being slightly darker. I haven’t decided what wood for the legs yet but have considered SYP with a stain. Staining seems unnatural though.

-- "It's only wood. Use it." - Smitty || Instagram - out_of_focus1.618

View Brandon's profile


4152 posts in 2980 days

#14 posted 01-13-2012 10:42 PM

I actually like the reverse aesthetic—-darker top and lighter support. Sort of like seen here:

I would definitely not want to stain the workbench. If you want darker, try cherry perhaps—I think it would be a good contrast that isn’t too strong—-I think Walnut would be too stark of a difference.

-- "hold fast to that which is good"

View lysdexic's profile


5255 posts in 2651 days

#15 posted 01-13-2012 10:48 PM

Right exactly opposite of that bench. I dont want the top darker. I want the light on the top for stuff like sighting down the sole of the plane while advancing the iron etc.

agreed on the stain.

agreed on the subtle contrast and the walnut.

-- "It's only wood. Use it." - Smitty || Instagram - out_of_focus1.618

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