Crap Wood for Good Workbenches


A common bench-builder’s lament: “My home center stocks terrible dimensional wood. I went to every store in a 20-mile radius and didn’t find a single board.”

This blog entry is my retort to that complaint. I’ve bought dimensional stock in every region in the United States for workbenches, sawbenches or other workshop equipment. I have never walked away empty-handed. Here are my strategies.

1. 2x4s are for suckers. I buy the widest, longest stock my vehicle can carry. Not only is it clearer, as a rule, but it is cheaper per board foot. The last time I bought a 2×4, Ron Reagan was in the White House. Go for the 2x12s or 2x10s – rip out the pieces you need.

2. Know how the store stacks the wood. The front of the pile is always – always – junk. I’ve watched home center employees carefully stock the dirtiest, knottiest, splittiest, warped junk at the front of the pile. Their strategy: To snare a sucker who is in a hurry, doesn’t care or doesn’t know the difference.

I will unpack the entire pile if need be. (And I will stack it back neater than it was when I walked in.) Near the bottom of that pile is gold that has been pressed flat by the bad sticks above it as it dried and waited for a woodworker.


See how the pith is tangent to the face of the board? I like this.

See how the pith is tangent to the face of the board? I like this.

Here is the face of that same board. Nice.

Here is the face of that same board. Nice.

3. Look for the pith. Many people will avoid boards that contain the woody sapling in the middle of the board. The pith can cause the board to split, after all. I love these boards that are near or contain the pith. If a small amount of the pith is in the board, the board is going to be quartered or rift-sawn. If you find a clear board with the pith fully enclosed in it (sometimes called a “boxed heart”), grab it and rip the pith out.

Look for tight growth rings. These boards will be denser and more durable.

Look for tight growth rings. These boards will be denser and more durable.

4. Watch the end grain. I look for slow-growing trees where the bands of earlywood and latewood are close together. These boards will be dense and incredibly strong – even if the boards have a few knots.

The wide bands of dark latewood are a sure sign that this board will weigh a lot more than its neighbors.

The wide bands of dark latewood are a sure sign that this board will weigh a lot more than its neighbors.

My favorite boards have wide bands of the hard latewood and narrow bands of the soft earlywood. These boards are like iron.

5. Grab what’s good. I always have a shopping list for how many linear feet of wood I need to buy, but I always over-buy, especially when I hit a nice vein of clear wood. Earlier this year I was at an Indiana Menard’s with a group of students and we found a bunk of the clearest, straightest, driest yellow pine I’d ever seen at a home center. I said only three words: “Buy it all.”

They did.

Today I bought four 2x12x12’ boards, five 2x8x8’ boards and one 1×10 to make a knockdown Nicholson bench this weekend. I also bought all the bolts, washers and screws I necessary for the project. I have enough material for an 8’ bench and spent $130.

Saturday morning is almost here. Very excite!

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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23 Responses to Crap Wood for Good Workbenches

  1. nateharold says:

    Great post – very helpful for someone who chooses lumber just a few times a year. I’m printing this for when I need to make a set of cornhole boards for a neighbor or a giant-size Jenga set for the kids.

  2. error4 says:

    Ignoring the 2 x 4 may also be for suckers! I just went to the nearby home center and the story was different. The price per bf at the Borg was surprisingly only pennies cheaper for boards I would have to do alot of work on. Factoring in the waste I would get from cutting around the enormous knots and checks, and that stack of fairly straight sound 2x4s didn’t look like much of a sucker bet at all. Your observational tips are what really counts though. knowing what to look for means I can look everywhere for what I need.

  3. Nice, I’m gearing up to upgrade my current bench which has three layers of plywood for a top. Was going back and forth between going the home store lumber route or buying some expensive hardwood. Good tips here. Thanks.

  4. Paul McGee says:

    Taking the pith out of things is a national pasttime in Australia. :p

  5. toolnut says:

    Hi Chris,
    I meant to ask this in the previous post, but had to search your PW blog for the info, did you ever entertain the idea of a knock down bench like Erik Mortensen’s, i.e., wedges vs. bolts?

    • Every workbench I’ve seen that has been built with wedges requires a seasonal beating. Same goes for wedged/tusked furniture.

      So I prefer bolts. But that’s my personal bias. lots of people like the wedged approach.

  6. Sergeant82d says:

    I have noticed all the things you said to look out for, over the years, but had never “codified” them into rules that I could apply across the board (no pun intended).

    This is a great checklist. Much appreciated.

  7. I would add, if you’re not planning on building the bench in the next few weeks or months, you should consider buying the wood now, anyway. Sticker it in a corner in the garage and let it sit there through the rest of the summer. That will give it some time to drop a bit of water weight.

    I have no real data or source to back this up, but I think the heat from a garage in the summer acts a bit like a kiln, helping to draw that moisture out at a fairly consistent rate.

    I borrowed a guy’s truck to grab a bunch of 2x12s for a bench (I never made). He laughed when I returned and he saw what I’d bought. He said all the boards were going to warp and twist when they dried and be completely useless.

    Shows how much that contractor knows. They aren’t. They’re dry as any kiln dried lumber I’ve ever bought and they’re all straight as an arrow. I spent the time to dig through the stack just like Chris suggested, buying boards with pith in the middle and lots of quartersawn wood on either side.

  8. Chris, do you use dowels in the long edge joints for the top? I am making the second top for my Nicholson bench because the first top was wavy gravy along the length of the eight foot long boards.

  9. adamwelker says:

    I live in Yorktown, Virginia and am a full time carpenter (and part time woodworker). I built my Roubo out of SYP 2×12’s right after your first book came out. I bought my lumber from a local lumber yard. In my 17 years experience, I have found that lumber yards have a better quality wood that is often cheaper than the home center. The other advantage is that outdoor yards have men on forklifts and men to help cull through the wood. Also, in recent years, lumber yards (in my area) have switched from knotty white pine 2x4s to SYP. They are often very clear and straight and would work for a bench. 2x6s would be better.

    • tsstahl says:

      Oh, the difference a region makes! In Illinois, SYP is a premium wood (read somewhat rare). Douglas Fir and other white pines are the weed woods. Folks ’round these parts place a premium on red oak, and poo poo white oak. I love the white and tolerate the red.

      In Missouri around my Brother’s house, Walnut is routinely cut and burned as heating fuel. Narrow clear boards of Walnut are almost free. I paid a $1.30 per board foot of walnut the last time I was there and short boards showing sapwood were 70 cents each. Oh, all the walnut was air-dried for two or so seasons before firing in the kiln–something to do with all the hardwood floor firms in the area.

      Finally, near me in northern Illinois sassafras is a rare premium wood akin to elephant tusk. About 50 miles East in Indiana, it is $2.50-$3.00 a board foot all day long.

      I’m sure we all have similar stories about regional oddities. 🙂

      Standard disclaimer, I suck at woodworking and am no kind of expert on wood. But I keep trying.

  10. I wish the lumber dealers and home centers near me in upstate New York had more southern yellow pine. Most of the dimension lumber they carry is “Hem-Fir”, May be hemlock, may be fir. . . may be something else, but not SYP. One lumber dealer carries SYP stair tread boards with a bullnose on one edge. This is pretty good 5/4 southern yellow pine, but they don’t carry SYP “2-by” lumber. I have used “Hem-Fir” 2 by 12’s to cut out some nice strips to make a couple of hollow masts for a sailboat. I agree that 2 by 12’s and 2 by 10’s are the best source of “crap lumber” for good projects. I do wish we could get more of that good, hard southern yellow pine up here in the north country.

    • P.S. We do have a lot of SYP lumber that is full of the poison they pump into it and call “pressure treated”, but we don’t have that nice, un-treated SYP like the boards in the photos.

    • steveschafer says:

      What do home builders in your area use for floor joists? That would likely be the best alternative.

      • They use “Hem-Fir” 2 by 10’s and 2 by 12’s. But some are starting to use new laminated boards (that look a little like plywood, but much stronger longitudinally. I don’t think I ‘d want to build a workbench firm the laminated stuff, though.)

      • steveschafer says:

        Popular Woodworking already made a bench using LVLs (laminated veneer lumber). It seems to work pretty well:

        If you can get hem-fir (a product of western forests) in New York, you should also be able to find Douglas-fir (also a western product), which is more or less equivalent to SYP for workbenches (it’s noticeably lighter in weight, but strength and resistance to surface dents and dings is similar).

  11. Jennie here
    Petere Folansbee suggested using pine for bench tops. I am convinced. My hardwood bench tops get slippier as time goes on. Your comments are very helpful. I am confused by your paragraph 4. My approach is to select wood with as much latewood as possible. Early wood is full of pores (air), late wood thlong fibers.I guess that is what you are saying. I bust open the pile and use Home Centerf 2x4s. I face glue them. In the best of worlds I would love ray planes vertical but ……You end up with a heavy thick top which can receive vises, holdfasts and all manner of other accessories. I ofter edge with yellow
    sor peg holes and whatever. Yes big boards look exciting. They also overrespond to moisture change. The melange of 2x4s reduce this.
    Jennie Akexander

  12. visualjay says:

    I do the same thing when I am using 1 by pine. You can usually find a 1×10 or 1×12 that is clean enough to get the same size of 1×4 or 1×6 of clear. For less cost. And like Chris says, it is almost always quartersawn vs. the flatsawn clear

  13. Mike Siemsen says:

    I feel I must take you task for calling this material “Crap Wood”. Just like the smooth plane that gets all the press while the fore plane does all the work, construction lumber gets no respect. This is the the behind the scenes material that holds up America, the stuff that dreams are built with. From the planks the masons stand on when laying brick, or rolling wheelbarrows on to get safe passage over soft ground, to the joists and studs that we nail our pretty flooring and panelling to, this stuff is the bedrock of woodworking. The framework for a kids first wooden go cart or a house in the trees. This is the stuff to make mock ups from so we don’t waste it’s more expensive cousins. The material that forms for bent work are made from, or the cauls we use in clamping.
    This is wood too and were we without it the world would be a much much lesser place.
    Your suggestions for selecting and sorting are good, one I might add is when in the home center walk by the lumber piles, I have found some nice stuff right on top! I use similar practices when selecting hardwoods as well.
    With a little selecting we can all get some really good deal, not crap wood!

  14. dunmow2013 says:

    Chris, surely the five boards are 2x8s, not 2x10s? The 1×10 appears considerably wider, and the bottom four 2×12 s do not have 2×10 s on top? or is the camera playing games with me?

    Visually confusedly yours, Martin

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