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"