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As most of the regulars know I work with a lot of whitewoods. Pines mostly that come from pallets and what not.

I recently made a workbench from an old door but it was hollow inside so I plan on moving it to a lower level and replacing the top with something more solid. Given my availability of 2x4's it would be really easy for me to laminate those and plane the top to make a nice bench top.

There are enough people on the "pine /softwoods are terrible for this" bandwagon but I found a blog post from Paul Sellers that comes to their defence for me.

I have made benches in the US from every species of softwood with not issues of serviceability.

So a good question for here would be are softwoods suitable or practicable for use as bench tops?

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So a good question for here would be are softwoods suitable or practicable for use as bench tops?

Yes. Obviously softwoods are generally fairly soft and a bench made from softwood is going to be more prone to denting than one made of e.g. hard maple (a very popular choice in the US) but this could actually be considered a desirable trait rather than a failing. When woodworking on any very hard table care must be exercised not to accidentally mar the workpiece, especially when doing any work in softwoods or MDF. While with a softwood bench it is the bench that is likely to take the brunt of the damage if the workpiece is dropped on it or bumped against an edge, you could argue this is actually what you want.

That issue aside, the view is expressed that a softwood benchtop lacks the necessary toughness or resilience to take heavy use, particularly over a long service life. While it's not an exact parallel some indication that this view is too limited is given by farmhouse tables from Britain, Ireland and the Continent. These were very commonly built from pine and the fact that they often endured immensely long service lives (a century or greater) shows that softwoods can withstand sustained use over many years.

And just to show that this isn't merely an intellectual exercise, some vintage and antique softwood benches to prove the point conclusively:

Pine workbench 1 Pine workbench 2 Pine workbench 3 Pine workbench 4

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    I built a split-top Roubo-style workbench from southern yellow pine. The wood cost around $160, and it's holding up fine. It certainly takes its knocks since I mostly work with hardwoods, but as @Graphus stated, I'd rather have the bench get a dent than the piece of furniture I've been slaving over. – grfrazee Sep 8 '15 at 16:00
  • Love the one in the first pic! – OKAN Sep 8 '15 at 22:06
  • @OmarK, fairly typical Continental bench + the patina from a century or more of use :-) – Graphus Sep 9 '15 at 8:29
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I don't see why not. Some of it depends on what kind of abuse you expect it to take and if you expect it to stay 'pretty'. One of my bench tops I made out of 2x6's left over from building the garage. I ran them through the joiner and planner to square them up and it is a very solid bench that can take a lot of abuse. It also happens to be significantly cheaper than using hardwoods to do a similar thing.

I know I poke fun at the 'cheap' woods often, but I know they really can be useful for more than just building walls. I know most of us woodworkers would love a solid hardwood topped bench but the hardwood is much more of a 'want' than a 'need'.

  • I think I needed to break the "need" into a "want" as well. Does not mean I cannot have a nice beech wood top or something later in life. – Matt Sep 6 '15 at 15:54
  • I'm still pondering how that Ikea beech tabletop would work as a bench top... – keshlam Sep 6 '15 at 16:53
  • @keshlam, very well. If you decide to go ahead you wouldn't be the first to make a bench using that kind of commercial glue-up as the top. I have a small offcut of it here — scrap from a sawing station at a big-box — and I wouldn't hesitate to use it as benchtop material if I wanted the top made from beech (very economically too compared to sourcing beech boards and making the top myself) – Graphus Sep 7 '15 at 7:40
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    @keshlam, my dad is making a bench out of those IKEA beech laminated tops. They work great and save a ton of work. – grfrazee Sep 8 '15 at 18:43
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    @keshlam: An IKEA table top has the huge advantage of being cheaper (even if you throw away the rest) than if you bought the wood. I always wondered how they can still make a profit. Also, it's comfortable since all your 2x4s are already planed and sanded, and the same length... really just need to add hot water. A workbench needs not be a masterpiece of art (well, mine does, but... that's pretty silly actually, you'll ruin it on the first or second use anyway). – Damon Sep 9 '15 at 15:59
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Interesting question.

There are certainly a lot of designs for benches which use medium density fiberboard as their tops (with solid wood wrapped around the edge for durability).. The idea seems to be that it works well enough, and is cheap to replace if necessary. I would think a pine top would be no worse, but possibly not better. MDF has the advantage of being flat as it comes from the factory and staying flat in use, while with any assembled top you have have to flatten it yourself after gluing it up.

I do seem to remember someone at one of the respected woodworking schools saying that softwood benches had held up perfectly adequately in the classroom for years .. but I'd have trouble digging that citation out of the pile o' backissues, so don't take my word for it.

There's certainly something to be said for just producing a new benchtop if you decide you need one. And unless you're building a leg vise, it isn't clear the support structure needs to be anything fancy.

There's also the question of just how critical a perfectly flat bench is. It does help to have a flat reference surface, but that doesn't necessarily have to be the workbench...

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The Janka hardness test is useful for considering surface material for a bench top that gets pounded and prodded.

Larch is a softwood with a Janka hardness of ~1200. This is higher (higher = harder) than English oak, for example. Whitewood - the lumber industry designation:

Whitewood is spruce, douglas fir, hemlock, pine and several other species of timber. Used in domestic woodwork that will not be seen when the project is complete. It doesn't usually grade very high -- #2 common with a small amount of #1. It typically has staining problems, too. ( due to compression wood)

Janka numbers --
spruce spp.  480 - 520
doug fir  660 - 710
hemlock   500 - 680 
pine varies all over the place -
Southern yellow ("whitewood" quality in the Southern US) 860
sugar pine - 380

Another point - implied in your question - lumber cost

I buy green wood from folks who run small mills. Log run (one log) for 10/4 pine bucked to 8'-10' goes for 30% of the cost of big box whitewood. 30% grades #1. Downside - you need a truck, you need to sticker and dry the wood properly.

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I think there is no problem doing so. Once it gets to beat up (if it does) it will be easy to plane down. One thing on my table that I wish was different is the hard wood on the tail vice piece. Not the piece on the jaw but the piece on the table. My table at the end has a piece that runs perpendicular to the top for the jaw of the vice. I know why they did this but the piece is wearing much faster than the other pieces on the top and the height has greatly diminished. So something to consider when you make yours I have to change this. Good luck and a lot of great answers.

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