New bench top: how thick?

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Forum topic by Brett posted 07-29-2011 09:36 PM 14631 views 1 time favorited 12 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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661 posts in 2881 days

07-29-2011 09:36 PM

I built FWW’s GSiW workbench last winter:

The top is made from a double sheet of 3/4” MDF. The base is fine, but as I’ve become more interested in hand-tool woodworking, I’ve become more away of the need for a workbench top that I can flatten with a jointer plane as needed, and one that I can customize with dog holes more easily than trying to drill through MDF.

I’m planning to make a new top out of 2-by Southern Yellow Pine, but I’m wondering how thick it should be to avoid sagging. Is 3” thick enough, or should it be even thicker to avoid sagging? Anybody have experience with an SYP bench top and whether it stays flat over time?

-- More tools, fewer machines.

12 replies so far

View TheDane's profile


5545 posts in 3861 days

#1 posted 07-29-2011 09:39 PM

Mine is 3 1/2” thick … made of kiln-dried douglas fir
Click for details


-- Gerry -- "I don't plan to ever really grow up ... I'm just going to learn how to act in public!"

View Bertha's profile


13551 posts in 2891 days

#2 posted 07-29-2011 09:56 PM

12 inches endgrain. Anything else is for sissies.

I’m kidding of course. I think 4 inch or thereabouts has become the standard. I plan to build my bench 6 inches thick just because I’m a jerk. I can’t imagine 3” of yellow pine sagging appreciably but I’m no expert. If you’re embracing the handplane disease, thicker=heavier=better. I’m anxious to see your build!

-- My dad and I built a 65 chev pick up.I killed trannys in that thing for some reason-Hog

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5545 posts in 3861 days

#3 posted 07-29-2011 10:33 PM

I chose Douglas Fir, in large part, due to its superior strength-to-weight ratio and stability. The other key factor was availability … the 2×10’s and 2×12’s at the big box a mile down the road are kiln-dried Douglas Fir.

As I read it, Southern Yellow Pine has a slight edge on Douglas Fir, nut not enough to make any real difference.


-- Gerry -- "I don't plan to ever really grow up ... I'm just going to learn how to act in public!"

View crank49's profile


4032 posts in 3169 days

#4 posted 07-29-2011 11:30 PM

Mine’s not solid wood, it’s pine plywood, but 3-1/2” thick was the thickness that I settled on. And, I have been completely happy with that choice. I did have to route out a mortise for the vise hardware to sit in, but the guide rods just clear the edge of the mortise and the tops of the jaws are just flush with the top of the bench; exactly what I was trying to acheive.

There is absolutely no problem with sagging or strength issues in general with my 3-1/2” plywood top. I jacked up my house with a jack on top of this bench, so I could move a column that was in the way of my table saw.

I guess the main advice I could offer would be to check out what you have to do to install your vise(es) and go from there.

View Don W's profile

Don W

19007 posts in 2766 days

#5 posted 07-29-2011 11:35 PM

3” should be thick enough. You could also add a wider skirt for the “look”.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View Grandpa's profile


3261 posts in 2874 days

#6 posted 07-29-2011 11:37 PM

The table tops that are bought are less than 3 inches…at least some of them are. I just can see a board that is 3 inches or even 3.25×24 inches sagging in 8 feet under normal wood shop use. I have a 3 inch table I assembles a 305 cu in Chevy engine on. those weigh 500#, my table is about 4 feet between the legs. How big is your plane? LOL actually my table probably sagged but very little. How accurate can we really measure. I hear woodworkers daily say they make set ups that are .002” but how do they measure it. With a dial indictor is how then if you remove the indicator base and reattach it can they repeat that measurement. That is the real test and it is difficult to do. If you could use 2×4 they might be cheaper and you could clean them up at 3” or maybe 3.25 before assembling the table. Now Bertha needs a big table.he has BIG planes to use.

View Viktor's profile


466 posts in 3617 days

#7 posted 07-30-2011 12:13 AM

It appears to me that the thickness of your bench top is some kind of macho/ego thing among woodworkers. 3” , no wait 4”, no don’t even think about less than 5”!!! Can you imagine a top that is 1.5” with aprons(!) and 4-5 ft span to sag under hand pressure… I mean really!
Good thing woodworkers don’t design bridges. If they did bridges would be made of solid 10’ x 20’ x 200’ cast iron blocks. It’s the design, not the amount of cast iron.

View Tedstor's profile


1678 posts in 2831 days

#8 posted 07-30-2011 12:59 AM

My first bench was 1.5” mdf, with a top layer of .75” birch plywood. It was really heavy. Unfortunately, I didn’t build the frame anywhere near stout enough to support the top. As a result, it racked and swayed all over (I know…I’m dumb). At the end of the day, the thick, heavy top didn’t even offer any appreciable performance advantage over a thinner, lighter top (within reason of course).
That said, be sure to put as much thought into the legs/frame as you do the top. In my opinion, an incredibly thick benchtop reaches a point of diminishing returns.

Yours truly,
Captain Obvious

View Don W's profile

Don W

19007 posts in 2766 days

#9 posted 07-30-2011 05:20 AM

I love the look of a thick bench. That said, I worked for about 10 years on 4 benches with a 2×4 frame and a single sheet of 3/4 birch ply. They did everything i asked and I would have taken them with me had I had a place for them when I left that shop. The only thing you can’t do well is bench dogs.

The bench should be heavy, but a bag of sand or lumber stored underneath can take care of that. And to Al’s point, a thick top is just cool.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View langski93's profile


111 posts in 3631 days

#10 posted 07-31-2011 12:55 AM

Here is the description of my bench top. Its made from 1.25” x 2.75” laminated strips of soft maple set on edge glued face to face. Each end of the bench top is 1.75”x 3.5” hard maple, breadboarded with pins. The front three courses are 1.75”x 3.5” hard maple as is the last course in the back. The front 3 courses accomodate the wagon vice and I figured this area will get the most wear. All perimeter edges are beveled save a 17” area to the left front left square in anticipation of a face vice.

It has the look that everyone seems to like because of the first 3 courses, but when the lamintated soft maple is set on edge it has all the dimensional stability you would ever need. Its like an aircraft carrier.

-- Langski, New Hampshire

View jonnytranscend's profile


96 posts in 2738 days

#11 posted 07-31-2011 01:20 AM

3 1/2 thick is my prefrance

View Grandpa's profile


3261 posts in 2874 days

#12 posted 07-31-2011 02:32 AM

Okay lets go back and redefine some things. A work table is a table to work on and a workbench is a thick top table that can be used for a clamping device. I still think a 3 inch workbench should be adequate. The bought one I have worked on have about 2 inches of solid maple strips on edge. I personall yhave a table not a bench. Might have a bench someday but I don’t do much with hand tools. Hand tools were used by cavemen and modern men and women use power tools. That should rasie some hackles. My work table has a 2×4 frame that has cross members like the joists in a house. These are 12 inches on center. They attach to a rim joist. I have legs attached to this in 6 places. My table is 6 feet x 8 feet. On the joists I have a layer of 3/4 inch plywood with a layer of white melamine (MDF) on top of that. This table is just pretty flat and works well for me. I am the person that does not believe you can level a bench or table to .002” and keep it there so don’t frustrate yourself. This table is too heavy for 2 people to pickup. Oh, I didn’t mention the bracing under it. I have bracing that stiffens it and levels it. I built beams and braced them. LIke I said earlier I assembled a 500 lb. Chevy engine on my smaller table that has 2 layers of 2×6 boards laying flat with the seams staggered. The benches have vises on them and when you use bench dogs and vises your table becomes part of a clamping device. Clamps have to be stronger. Then we go to building things. When people don’t know how to engineer something properly they tend to over build. So why are our bridges falling in all over this country. Well, when you read those books you build to minimum standards because some govt intity said you could.

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