Work With Wet Workbench Tops

chriss-bench-12

After reading hundreds (thousands?) of historical woodworking texts I have noticed a mantra for making furniture: Use wood that is well-seasoned.

It’s fantastic advice. Perhaps it’s even the starting point for all fine furniture making. But does it apply to building your workbench? If we follow the historical texts, then yes. I have yet to find any old book that says: The stock for your bench can be a little (or a lot) wet.

And yet, here’s the problem that I have discovered after years of building benches. Thick stock (6”, for example) can take way more than a decade to dry. I’ve cut into 6”-thick slabs that had been air-dried for 13 years that were more than 60 percent moisture content (MC). That’s way above the 6 percent recommended by many books.

Should one wait 50 more years with these slabs? Use MDF instead?

After working with massive wet slabs for the last seven years or so, I offer this recommendation based on personal experience – not on historical research or anything I’ve gleaned from my library:

Use wet wood for your benchtop. Even if it has been seasoned less than a year, you’ll be OK. Just be prepared to flatten the thing. And don’t be an idiot about your undercarriage (that sounds like advice to my teenage self).

Here’s my strategy with wet slabs: Use a species for the benchtop that dries readily, such as red oak. For the undercarriage, use wood that is at equilibrium moisture content. Because these components are rarely more than 3” thick they can be kiln-dried.

This combination works well in my experience. The undercarriage is dry. It won’t shrink. But it acts like a frame for drying the top, which shrinks around the joints on the tops of the legs.

Yes, the top will distort a bit as it dries. But you’re a woodworker – flatten the sucker.

But when the benchtop finishes drying after a few years, you will find it to be glorious. Slab tops don’t move much (if at all) after a few years in the shop. They just sit there like a machinist’s reference surface.

I think it’s worth the effort to find a slab. And I think it’s worth the effort to work with a wet one.

The last few wet slabs I’ve worked with came from North Carolina sawyer Lesley Caudle. He sells kits for workbenches that are inexpensive and ready to go – you just have to pick them up or work with Lesley to get them trucked to you. (You can email Lesley at lesley27011@yahoo.com.) Don’t be alarmed if the benchtop was cut less than 12 months ago. Embrace it.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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32 Responses to Work With Wet Workbench Tops

  1. tpobrienjr says:

    If I were in the woods and needed to build a bench, it would be expeditious to make it from wet wood so I could get on with building everything else. It also would help if I designed it so it could be tightened up easily. Thanks for the thoughts.

  2. waltamb says:

    Thanks for posting this Chris,
    Your cautionary note about using the right wood was great because I tried it with a 4-1/2″ x 16″ x 10′ piece of Beech and 6 months later… it has cracks almost from one side to the other and continues to bow and twist even after flattening 6 times and loosing 1/2″.
    Next time I will search out a low moisture wood like Ash since I despise Red Oak.
    Hopefully a winter cut tree, sawn soon after, from 2-3″ away from the pith.
    Also as little sapwood as possible then leave it in a cool shady location for a few months before bringing it into the shop.
    I agree too that the undercarriage does need to be 100% stable, everything square flat and true.
    So making that while allowing the slab to settle a bit seems like a plan.
    We have talked about this whole concept in the past and I can now only imagine what those antique workbenches which are 3-4″ thick now started their working life at… 5″, 6″ ???
    This also brings up the concept of flattening and how flat was flat and how smooth they made them?
    My experience planing the 16″ Wide Green Beech was wonderful. It planed like butter across the grain and even through the few small knots everything was smooth and flat. But go against the grain even a little… oh boy.
    The drier it gets the tougher it is to plane and so finer and finer shavings but it still behaves best right across the grain.
    So I wonder if in a large shop there were newer benches and older ones. The newer ones were more green and use for rough work and the workers passed the parts on to higher skill level workers with their older dry benches which they keep as close to dead flat as possible.
    Well that’s my story and if it concurs with any of your readings and research, that would be great. If not at least it is a tale to tell around the campfire of the trimmings off my Beech bench top fail one day.
    Keep the great reading coming.
    W

  3. sawmillman says:

    I may be one of the few lucky ones, but my dad asked me to split yet another Black Locust into to fence post one day.. I would say about——- 25 to 30 years ago. I delayed, Last year I decided to cut that log on my woodmizer! It is beigid wood and completely dry through and through, No wet spot anywhere. Now I did saw it into 6/4×10″ but it hasn’t even thought about warping!! I am currently building my wife what I hope is her final dining room table, these boards are becoming apron boards… “it will dry if you don’t split it”

  4. abtuser says:

    If I had the space, I’d definitely go for a slab bench. I thought they were really nice (and coveted one) the first time you did the Roubo build. Maybe someday…(then I can have two benches).

  5. Niels Cosman says:

    From the title, I was expecting some sort of wet t-shirt on bench action.
    Interesting article and perhaps inspiration for the Lost Art Press calendar.

  6. Sir, that’s a fine looking bench.

    Ten pieces of wood, I don’t think you can get much more minimal that that.

  7. jayedcoins says:

    Question for the friendly neighbors in the comments.

    I’d like to build a petit Roubo (my space is small)… something the same general height and depth of the grande Roubo (my HS French is coming back to me). Just shorter, something 54″ or 60″.

    First question… 54″ will fit my current space better, but I can make 60″ work. Should I just go 60″ in the hope that I have a bigger space in the future? Or do I go the most comfortable length for now and build a new bench when/if I get a bigger space? 🙂

    Second question… my current space is a basement. I don’t want to kill myself if I ever get the chance to move this out into a bigger space. Is a 3 – 4″ slab going to save much in terms of weight? I have no concept of this. Of course, I want the bench heavy enough so that it doesn’t move or rack under planing (especially traversing a board, which is a huge problem with my current bench unless it’s bumped up against a floor joist support).

    Third question… I love the idea of a slab instead of all that lamination work. Anyone know someone/some place within a few hours’ drive of Southeast Michigan that might sell slabs along these lines?

    • fitz says:

      Mine is 60″ long (and 18″ wide, 28″ high) and it’s been in my old second floor shop and is now in my basement…so it’s portable-ish (with friends) – but it’s white pine, and a bit on light side; I just pile heavy stuff on the shelf if need to be keep it from walking. But having moved (helped to move) a number of benches, well, they’re all portable with enough muscle.

      I have lamented from time to time its not being longer, but that’s because of my terrible habit of piling tools on one end while working on the other. Were I to put them away when not using them, I would guess that 54″ would work, but I’d miss those 6″ (rude joke here).

      • jayedcoins says:

        I’ll skip the rude joke — thanks for the reply!

        For better and worse, I’m pretty anal retentive (rude joke here) about keeping my work area clean (better = it’s always easy to find things; worse = I’m very slow on projects).

        I have an old table behind my workbench so I can stage tools and things in use there and just turn around and grab them as needed. So that helps a lot in that regard. Ultimately, I’d like to build a small, spartan bench for sharpening and quick tool access.

    • toolnut says:

      It depends on what you are planing to make. Do you see yourself making something that requires planing a board longer than 54″? If you are planning on building chairs and smaller items 54″ would be fine. Greg Pennington made what he called a chairmakers bench : http://greg-aroundtheshop.blogspot.com/2014/05/short-and-sweet-chairmakers-bench.html and it is 48″ long.
      That said, you can’t add any extra length when you need it. If you are worried about the extra weight the 4″ more of slab creates, don’t worry because as Megan pointed out, you probably won’t be moving it by yourself so the extra weight is negliable as it will be cancelled out by extra muscle.
      In the future you will probably find yourself building another bench, wheter it is for joinery, assembly or just bigger because you can. So build what works best for you now.
      Hope this helps. Good luck.

  8. edweirdhopkins says:

    Thanks for returning to this topic. I’m about to mill two 10″ w by 7′ green ash slabs (with my chainsaw). A lot of folks think I’m mad for not laminating home center pine, but the ash was free, and this seems more … how you say … fun?

    I have some Anchorseal. Should I seal the end grain to slow the drying?

  9. richardmertens says:

    I suggest that you make it to fit your space, even if you might wish it were longer. You know what can happen with hopes and intentions. I also suspect that 3-4″ is plenty thick for a bench top, especially if you build some serious mass into the base. You might consider making a modified Roubo with a top that’s not attached permanently to the base. Build the base separately and make it so you can take it apart–you can use wedges or bench bolts to assemble it. If you get a bigger space for the bench you can always put a longer slab on top. Maybe Chris or Megan can address this question–whether a bench that comes apart makes sense for people who have to move their Roubo, or their runt Roubo, into a basement. I have a 3 inch laminated maple slab on top of a pretty heavy oak base, and it works very nicely. (I don’t think I’d go less than 3 inches.) But I’m glad it comes apart. I could never move it otherwise. The top alone is heavy enough as it is. Finally, if you’re in SE Michigan I’m sure you can find a small local mill that will cut what you want. There are a lot of them around in southern Michigan and northern Indiana. You might check craigslist. There are also websites that give the location of small mills. A couple years ago I bought a thick white oak slab, 20″ x 6′, from a small mill outside Chicago. I think I paid about $90 for it.

  10. tsstahl says:

    “Work With Wet Workbench Tops”

    I came to that conclusion some years back when you posted a guest blog entry about wood drying: https://blog.lostartpress.com/2013/12/21/water-vs-wood/

    Ok, more correct to say you and Steve led me to this conclusion. This and the twin screw ‘Moxon’ vise made a huge difference in the way I work with wood. Thank you.

  11. Chris Decker says:

    Are there benefits to using a single slab for the top, rather than laminating several boards together? Aside from the obvious sexiness of a hulking slab top of course.

    • Chris,

      My preference would be to use either a single slab or 8/4 stock laminated face-to-face.

      When you make a big slab from two smaller slabs, getting the joint correct is tricky. And getting the clamp pressure wher eyou need it can be difficult.

      Neither of these is a problem with a single slab or 8/4.

      • edweirdhopkins says:

        Hmm, I was fixing to slab my two halves this afternoon, but I might be able to get one slab if I cut close to the heartwood. How close is too close in ash?

  12. Any feel for how much shipment would be to the west coast? I do have an email in but would love just an order of magnitude estimate. How heavy is heavy for say an 8’x2’x6″ slab? I have a nice workbench but would like to build a second one for assembly and finishing and doing other things without worrying about it.

  13. Jeff Hanna says:

    I made my split top roubo out of a single 12 x 12 x 13′ reclaimed heart pine factory beam that was cut down over 100 years ago. That is another great option if you are concerned about working with green wood. I was surprised that the moisture content was at 6%. I have a kiln, but didn’t need to kiln dry it (heart pine generally makes a sappy mess).

  14. skilledno says:

    Or build an English bench and save the faff.

  15. You say drying for less than a year is fine. How about only drying for a month? I’m planning to build a bench next month and would be buying a fresh cut slab soon. Also, any issues with the top shrinking over time, but the stretchers not? Do you end up with splayed legs, or does the frame help the top move less?

  16. guadfly says:

    I’d like to ask a beginners question. I am just starting in the hand woodworking. I’ve been cutting wood with powertools for a while, but I’m ready to forgo that lifestyle and start anew. My main question is this: can I use live oak for a benchtop, and if I can, is it adviced? I have a few live oak trees that my brother wants to remove and I’ve been given full permission to use them however I see fit. I’d like to start by building a workbench. I figure by the time the wood has dried for a year I’ll have enough tools built up to start working on the bench. I’m slowly gathering my tools from the Anarchist toolbox.

    In a side note, I love everything this blog and your company stands for. Keep up the good work.

    • A live oak bench would be monumental. Live oak was used for warships.

      I haven’t dried much of it, so I don’t know how it will behave. (Maybe someone with direct experience can speak up?)

      • guadfly says:

        Great! I’ve been trying to learn everything I can prior to the project, reading and absorbing as much Roy Underhill as I can stand (haven’t hit my limit yet). and starting my tool collection. I plan on documenting everything so I can learn from any mistakes. I’m also going to practice techniques on some Ashe Juniper trees that died at my parent’s house in the 2011 drought. Pretty exciting stuff.

  17. Square&True says:

    Had been planning on doing a red oak slab bench with matching under carriage; but I have the chance at a maple slab top with mixed red oak and maple base…. anyone see issues with this?

  18. Chris…Thanks again for another great post!!

    This topic from both and academic and practical “day to day” reality of my woodworking has fascinated me for decades now. I have many suspicions about the advise in older books and the use of…”only season wood”…too often just repeated from one source to another. Yet that is just one presentiment of many for this topic of “seasoned vs green,” on the topic of wood working.

    Since I have never made (nor probably wouldn’t ever even if I could?) make a bench of seasoned wood, it just seems a strange approach to even think of employing…”dry wood” for such a large and robust functional piece or woodworking. It is a strange to me to think that most (virtually all) woodworkers are bent on and stuck with working wood dry, while my entire career with wood over 4 decades has almost exclusively been with it in a very…”wet”…condition. Funny how this craft and art can vary?

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