Hardwood choice for Roubo style workbench

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Forum topic by Truck11 posted 02-27-2012 03:36 PM 6996 views 1 time favorited 11 replies Add to Favorites Watch
View Truck11's profile


7 posts in 2574 days

02-27-2012 03:36 PM

My next project is an heirloom-quality cabinetmakers’ workbench and I have a question about wood choices.
This bench will live in a garage shop, so it’ll be protected from wind and rain and not exposed to central heat or air.
I live in north texas, however, where the heat and humidity can be oppressive.
Also, this bench will be build using traditional joinery (mortise and tenon, dovetails, rabbets, etc.)
I can get soft maple, poplar and ash at reasonable prices per bf.
My question is: has anyone a good hardwood recommendation of those species?
I’m especially interested in poplar. Has anyone used it exclusively in a project? Does it work well? Hold up to humidity?

11 replies so far

View Brandon's profile


4152 posts in 3155 days

#1 posted 02-27-2012 04:42 PM

I would advise against poplar for a workbench. The wood is too soft and light. It might work okay for the base, but I would definitely choose ash or maple over hardwood. Ash has some good qualities in terms of strength and weight that make it suitable for a workbench.

-- "hold fast to that which is good"

View Bill White's profile

Bill White

5128 posts in 4164 days

#2 posted 02-27-2012 04:51 PM

Nix the poplar. Ash is certainly heavy, but ya might have some grain probs. I’d use the maple.


View crank49's profile


4032 posts in 3175 days

#3 posted 02-27-2012 04:58 PM

Poplar would be a nice bench IMO. Not very pretty from a grain point of view, but stable and functional.
Be sure it’s dry. Poplar is a sappy wood and will shrink very badly if not good and dry. It is probably the softest of the three choices you listed. Soft is not necessasarily a bad thing.

Soft maple will be a harder and heavier bench than poplar and also not a bad choice.

I’m not a big fan of ash just because it is brittle and tends to make splinters. Seems like every time I pick up a piece of rough ash I get a splinter in my hand. Otherwise, it reminds me of oak, has open pore structure like oak. I guess it would make a good strong bench, but I’d feel like I need to wear gloves to work on it. Just me, probably.

View RS Woodworks's profile

RS Woodworks

533 posts in 3455 days

#4 posted 02-27-2012 05:09 PM

I don’t think poplar would be a very good choice for a bench. I used maple and walnut, with some oak, fir, and birch thrown in.
Check it out.


-- I restore the finest vintage tools! If you need a nice plane, saw, marking tool or brace, please let me know!

View RogerM's profile


799 posts in 2603 days

#5 posted 02-27-2012 05:17 PM

Definately not poplar. Ash would probably be OK for the base but would select Maple over anything else for the top.

-- Roger M, Aiken, SC

View Willeh's profile


228 posts in 2543 days

#6 posted 02-27-2012 05:18 PM

I would HIGHLY suggest that you pick up a copy of Christopher Schwartz The Workbench Design Book or Workbenches from Design & Theory to Construction & Use before you get into it. He puts a lot of discussion into wood selection that would be helpful for you.

Last part I just read indicated that a white pine top is actually very good (I.e. use construction grade 2×6s resawn). After a few years the resins set up and the wood becomes quite hard. Its also easy to re-plane and flatten which a well used bench should require regular maintenance and will be quite durable as long as it is thick enough (4”) which will also give it the weight required for stability.

-- Will, Ontario Canada. "I can do fast, cheap and good, but you can only pick two... "

View tenontim's profile


2131 posts in 3948 days

#7 posted 02-27-2012 05:19 PM

Maple would make the best bench. Poplar too soft and the ash will splinter off along the edges. You should be able to get hard maple from Brazos Forest Products in Grand Prairie.

View Truck11's profile


7 posts in 2574 days

#8 posted 02-27-2012 06:19 PM

Thank you all for the helpful advice.
So, poplar and ash are out. I’m now leaning toward the soft maple and maybe doing the top in hard maple or walnut if I can swing the cost. I appreciate the advice.
I have already gotten a quote from Brazos – they seem like good guys.
Also, I have Scwarz’s book. It is fantastic and I’ve recommended it to others as well.
I’ll be referencing it throughout the build. This bench is going to be my biggest and most thought-through project yet (aside from the suspension bridge treehouse coming this spring – more on that later.)
I’m actually building it for my son who’s three now, planning on giving it to him when he’s around 21 or gets married – something like that. (Probably won’t take me that long to build, though.)
If I do it right, I’m betting part of me will secretly hope he doesn’t want/need it.
Thanks again, and please don’t hesitate to keep the advice coming.

View Kenny 's profile


260 posts in 2652 days

#9 posted 02-27-2012 07:40 PM

If you look at what many guys use for the massive Roubo style benches, it’s not hardwood, as it’s simply not needed.

Southern Yellow Pine, fir and many others make for a great bench when using components as massive as the Roubo does. I’d suggest looking for Red Pine (Norway Pine) IF it can be found in your area. I’m in Maine, and when I can find it here, it’s priced right along with the other “pines” at $0.65 per/bf. If not, fir or SYP will work and be plenty durable, and save you a TON of money.

I understand the draw of hardwood, but the others I have mentioned can usually be found in much larger dimensions, making it much easier to build a massive bench.

If you do go with maple, just use soft maple for the whole shebang. Soft maple isn’t “soft” by any means, it’s still plenty hard for a bench.

One thing to remember with a roubo as compared to other designs that need hardwoods to be durable enough to last, is the Roubo uses components that are 2 to 3 times thicker. A 2×4 or 2×3 tenon on a 4X4 stretcher going into a 4×4 or 6×6 leg doesn’t need to be hardwood to be strong. Even with pine, it will still exceed the strength of a trestle style bench by a lot!
And where the traditional benches are 1.5” to 2” thick with wide stretchers for strength, the roubo is a solid 4”. Even with a softer wood, this is still stronger and more durable than a more traditional bench. And that 4” thickness means you have plenty of meat there to flatten it over time.

Also, the pitch in pine will harden in the wood over time, making it much harder. And red pine is more dense than soft maple to start! Look at a Janka scale the includes red-pine or norway pine, you’ll be surprised where it ranks!

If you can afford maple and you do use it, awesome! You’ll really have a great bench. Just know it’s not necessary in building an heirloom quality bench.

As for giving it to your son, it’s a great idea! But an even better one is to work with him to build him his own bench like Dad’s. I know, I was a kd not too long ago myself. And working with my Dad was the best gift ever.

Good luck and have fun.

-- Kenny

View stevenmadden's profile


174 posts in 3293 days

#10 posted 02-27-2012 09:37 PM

Truck11: One thing I would add is that you don’t want to build the top out of a dark wood like walnut. The top needs to be light in color so that you can use it for things like sighting down the sole of a plane to set the blade projection, a light color allows you to see the blade whereas a dark color obscures it. Just a thought.


View Truck11's profile


7 posts in 2574 days

#11 posted 02-28-2012 06:17 PM

Thanks for the tip on softwoods. I like the resin hardening concept. I will consider that.
Also, thanks for the note on me boy. I sure hope he will want to build with me. He’s only three now, but he already know he’s welcome in the shop (as long as I’m not running the big saw.)

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