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.
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.)
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