The $175 Workbench Comes Home

175_workbench_IMG_0891

I wasn’t the first person to use Southern yellow pine to build a workbench in 2000. But it sure felt like it when I built the above workbench for Popular Woodworking Magazine.

At that time, almost all of the workbenches I’d read about and saw in workshops were made from European beech or white maple. And most were what we call a European bench, German bench or Ulmia-style bench.

I was making $23,000 a year at the time, and we had a 3-year-old girl, so I couldn’t afford a commercial bench or even the wood and vises (about $800 to $1,000) to build one in beech or maple.

I was desperate to make a bench. I was working on a pair of sawhorses topped with a door I had scavenged from the Coca-Cola plant where our shop was located.

One day I went to the home center to price out some plywood and spotted a gleaming pile of clear 12’ 2x8s – the same stuff we used for joists and rafters to build our houses in Hackett, Ark. My normal Pavlovian response to yellow pine was my arms turning rubber – yellow pine can be incredibly heavy, especially when it’s packed with resin.

But instead of that rubber feeling, something clicked in my head. I could make workbench out of yellow pine. Then I did some quick math: Eight 2×8 x 12’ boards would cost only $76.56. Add the hardware, a face vise (later replaced) and the Veritas Wonder Dog, and I could make the bench for $175.

Cover February_2001

The bench ended up on the cover of the February 2001 issue, and we showed it off to readers during an open house one evening. Their reaction was split down the middle. Someone called it a redneck bench. Someone else said that at least it was better than my sawhorses. But a few people asked a lot about the mechanical properties of yellow pine.

It’s amazing stuff. It’s stiff, hard (after the resin sets up) and stable. In fact it’s way more stable than beech or oak.

As a result, I’ve continued to build benches from yellow pine since 2000 with no complaint. My first Roubo (2005) and Nicholson (2006) workbenches were made from yellow pine. And I’ve built at least 25 or 30 benches from the stuff during classes or at woodworking shows. (That actually was our gimmick for a few years – we built a bench during the show and gave it away at the end of the show.)

construction-drawing

Today, the $175 Workbench came back home to me. John has had it for the last 10 years in Indianapolis. He’s moving house and won’t have room for it. So Megan Fitzpatrick and I rented a truck and brought it to the storefront.

It’s now a bench for students when they take classes here. We scooted my father’s workbench under a window, and it fits perfectly – like it was made for the spot. We now have eight workbenches in the front room of the shop, but we’re not going to expand the number of students we serve above our normal six.

Instead, the extra bench is going to be used by Brendan, Megan or me while classes are going on. We all have commissions that have to get out the door, and delaying projects by two, three or five days while a class goes on can be stressful.

So once again, the $175 Workbench saves the day.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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51 Responses to The $175 Workbench Comes Home

  1. charleseflynn says:

    It is really interesting to see that this bench has the double row of slots for bench dogs characteristic of Lervad designs.

  2. Cordell Roy says:

    That’s a really nice bench. I made my first from “calico hickory” that I got at a discount from a local supplier ($1.40/bf). It was actually really pretty stuff. Straight and has worked well in its bench configuration ever since. Much better than a couple of Workmates and whatever stretched across.

  3. johncashman73 says:

    You were a lot holier in those days.

  4. Paul Cleary says:

    Is there any downward sag on the end of the bench where the vice is mounted? This is what happened on my similar bench when I mounted a Record vise on the end, as there was no vertical support (It is a cheap bench!)

  5. SSteve says:

    Interesting. Woodsmith had a similar bench on the cover of their February 2001 issue (https://www.woodsmithlibrary.com/view/issue/133/#page=1). I made it out of Douglas Fir (which I guess is the California equivalent of yellow pine out there because that’s what we use for framing). I didn’t add all the storage, though. It just has a shelf on the bottom. I’m not much of a woodworker but the bench is still sturdy 17+ years later even after spending its first 12 years in a wall-less carport.

    Which cost more, the $175 workbench or the truck rental and gas for moving it?

  6. ejcampbell says:

    My bench was the Roubo in the 1st ed of your Workbenches book. I used SYP because the book recommended it, I had no reason to use anything else, and it was cheap. The one drawback is it tends to chip and splinter. After about 20 years i had to inset a piece of maple in the top opposite the front leg vise in order to grip small pieces because of the splintered edge. Other than that it’s a great bench.

  7. tsstahl says:

    Huzzah! Long live the 38″ bench top!! 🙂

  8. Keith says:

    I’m liking SYP for utilitarian projects these days. Just finished making 7 storage shelving units and found getting 2×10 or 2×8 #1 SYP and ripping down was cheaper and much better quality than stud-grade 2×4 full of knots, wane, and warp. A few years ago, I also made a bunk bed for the guest room (visiting grandkids) out of SYP. I guess I really started to like it when I tried to drill some holes in my basement shop’s ceiling joists and found out just how hard 20 year old SYP is.

    • toolnut says:

      I tried putting a nail in a stud in the garage of my 70 year old home and realized it wasn’t going to work. It was like trying to drive it into rock.

  9. Steve C says:

    Sweet bench. Did you have to clean it up for the photo shot, or was it that clean already?

  10. toolnut says:

    Is John cutting back on his woodworking? He had the Nicholson bench for a while too, didn’t he?

  11. What amazes me the most is how the gentleman on the cover is almost as clean cut as those shavings…I’ve built suitable benches in a pinch out of the most questionable pieces of timber that have lasted rigorous jobs, so to build one of clear pine is almost a no brainer. If time and willpower permits, I will build one of these. At the very least I be able to rationalize my minor face vice hoarding. On a somewhat related note, when you published the Milkman’s Workbench I built one out of a 4″x8″x30″ severely twisted piece of Oak (plus some Maple) that my Father had squirreled away; it has served me for near 5 years now. Most would have looked at this gnarly piece of wood to be only fit for a fire. This has been my portable bench when I need small tasks done and at times larger ticket items when I am too lazy to move from the dining room table or the picnic bench while I am bbq’in. Thank you for turning me on to this. I don’t want to gush too much, but this is one of the many things I appreciate you for being you and all of your efforts and contributions to the world of woodworking.

  12. Michael Edelman says:

    Anyone know who carries SYP in Southeast Michigan?

    • Farmer Greg says:

      As far as the home centers go, on the west side of the state it seems like the SYP line runs somewhere between Plainwell and Grand Rapids. I don’t know what things are like on the east side. And you might have better luck at your local lumberyards.

  13. durbien says:

    I can’t believe after all these years, wood purchased, workbenches made, and shows attended…you still don’t have a truck.

  14. Quercus Robur says:

    I love SYP. It is though but not finicky. It is also one of the few pine species that can be reliably used for crisp dovetails without crushing the end grain between the tails. Great looking bench with the classic golden color of aging pine.

  15. WILLIAM G WALKER says:

    I made my first bench from a reclaimed maple desktop. The University my wife worked at would replace all of the desks in an office with every new hire. Needless to say I made friends with the maintenance staff in charge and took full advantage of the perfect wooden slabs they were going to put in the dumpster. I used one for the bench top and part of one for the rails and styles. The only things I bought for the bench were a screw for the leg vice and a 12′ 6×6. All in all I’ve invested about $100 and some kindness. 15 years later the same bench has followed me to Namibia and will someday follow me home. My children have each written on it and I wouldn’t want to get rid of it ever.

  16. I built my Nicholson from SYP from the Naked Woodworker plans. Still works great.

    I’m curious about the base on the tool chest in the background. It looks like some kind of lower drawer riser a tool chest has been set on but I don’t think that is correct. Inquiring minds want to know.

  17. Paul Austin says:

    You are so luckly to have direct access to SYP, Here in New England the SYP is only available as stair treads or 1x12x16′ boards. I made my bench out of the boards ripping them into 3 3/4″ wide and gluing them together face to face for the top, which is longer and wider than the one in the magazine. It would take at least four people to move the bench; it weighs as much as a cast iron bath tub and probably more.

    • Buying the cleaner, straighter, 16′ 1×12 boards is precisely what Chris recommends purchasing, so… you, too, are lucky to have direct access to the right sort of SYP!

      Cheers,

      • 1x SYP (i.e., 3/4″ appearance-grade) is inevitably more expensive than 2x material (1-1/2″ construction lumber). Chris recommends the latter. Too much is made of SYP, though. Just buy whatever stiff material you have that is cheaply available. Douglas-fir in the West, SYP in (or near) the South, and presumably some sort of hardwood in the North. How much is ash up there? I would expect that good deals can be had in areas that are currently seeing the effects of the Emerald Ash Borer.

        • Oh crap! Sorry! Never CBC (Comment Before Coffee)!!! I was thinking 2x material the whole time, even when writing “1x”…

          Yeah, a 1x isn’t exactly the best option, though I’m surprised they have 1×12 SYP material and not 2x SYP material. Maybe the yard cuts the stair stringers in the yard and you can get some uncut stringers?

          In Missouri, it is hit or miss and often depends on the store/lumber yard. Quite often, I can dig through lumber and fine both white pine and SYP in the same racks of 1x material. Finding quality 2x SYP isn’t terribly difficult, as long as you are willing to try a few different places. Definitely buy longer and wider than you need and cut down for a better chance of clear material.

        • mike says:

          I recently paid $4.50 BF for FAS, KD ash in 10”+ widths and $5.30 BF for the same but in 12/4. I am in Chicago.

    • Erik Brandenberg says:

      I made this same bench 2 years ago out of Douglas fir. I had so much fun building it I want to give it away and build another one. Thanks for posting about it. I used the plans from your book.

    • johncashman73 says:

      Yeah, all of the dimensional lumber here in New England is crappy SPF ( spruce-pine-fir). It’s too soft for benchtops, and it’s hard to find any that isn’t full of knots.

      The best home center benchtops material is Doug fir 4x4s. They are reasonably priced, and mostly clear. I used them for my spare bedroom work bench.

      The lack of SYP is made up fir by an abundance of cheap and beautiful white pine, though obviously not for workbenches.

  18. Joe says:

    Cool. My local Lowes had a 16 foot 4″x12″ glue lam that a really good customer had returned. They just wanted to get rid of it and we’re selling it for $25. I figured that had to be the best deal unless one can get the wood for free.

  19. antinonymous says:

    Your frugal bench is actually a wonderful historical archetype that freed many of us to build our own esoteric versions. I never saw the original article, but with the advantage of your workbench books, and after three years, I finally ended up with a bench I love. So thank you, sir.

  20. CANDIDO SALGADO says:

    Last year I built one like this, using your plans. The timber is Radiata pine that’s what we have in Australia. Couldn’t be happier. My Bench is 39 inches high and has a tool tray. Sorry for that Chris. :-). This Bench is amazing

  21. edward scull says:

    There’s only one type of pine better than yellow pine- longleaf yellow pine! My first bench was a Nicholson style -Aldren Watson inspired bench that gave way to a Tage Frid bench. The wood was over a century old ,hard as flint and heavy with resin. Thank goodness some southern boy has figured out how resurrect this pine.

  22. Harlan Janes says:

    Acquired some reclaimed 2X10 SYP floor joists from historic NC coastal building sometime back; very close grained old growth stuff likely milled more than 100 yrs ago. Absolutely the hardest wood I’ve sent through my planer as a test. Resin has firmed up! Awaiting the right project, maybe another bench.

  23. James Uber says:

    I built my first (and only) workbench using yellow pine after reading the article in 2001. (still have the magazine!) Couldn’t find YP in PA, had to go to my daughters in VA to find it.
    It’s not an exact copy, it sits on two trestles made from recycled locust fence posts (the verticals) and red oak fence boards (top and bottoms). Stretchers between the trestles are recycled 2×6 oak from my barn. The oak is ganged 4-wide with gaps to allow 2×4″ thru tendons for the locust verticals. Also added a tool tray in the middle and the Veritas big 30″ wide tail vise.
    I use it daily and with the recycled stuff, cost less than $100. 🙂

  24. Jesus Her6 says:

    Great bench, it inspired me to build one. What finish did you use to give SYP that color?

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