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I'm getting into woodworking using hand tools. I'd like to make a 2'x4' or 2'x5' workbench for my apartment. I'd rather not use power tools as the noise would be an issue, and using old hand tools is enjoyable to me.

I was considering laminating 2x4s for the bench top, but construction/framing 2x4s have rounded edges that I would rather not take the time and energy to plane by hand (no matter how much I enjoy using hand tools). I also don't want to deal with finding someone to run them through a planer.

So, could I just buy 1x4 stock that already has square edges and laminate those? Would there be any disadvantages compared to using 2x4s?

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Yes you can absolutely do this. It's just more glue joints to do but it's not really that much more work than if you were using 2x4s.

Because of the number of glue joints you might want to subdivide the glue-up into more subassemblies than normal. It's not uncommon to make three when doing a workbench top of this type, but with 1x4s you might want to make six instead. Once the glue has set on those they can then be glued together in one operation or into two or three subsections that you then glue into one piece as a final step.

Make sure to use cauls or some other clamping setup to hold the top as flat as possible at each stage.


But if you were to go with 2x4s...

On planing away a lot of material by hand

It's maybe too early now to think this way but a dedicated handtool user should be able to deal with taking down the thickness of the 2x4s enough to remove those pesky rounded edges (especially as you really only need to do the top, not both sides). One mistake some make is in doing it to each board individually prior to the glue-up, when it's far easier to just glue them together and then plane the resulting panel in one go.

Removing this amount of material from a wide panel seems like it would be excessively effortful, and it is quite a substantial amount of wood that is being removed, but it can be done in a reasonable amount of time and without breaking your back if you use the right type of plane — one with a heavily cambered iron (curved cutting edge) — in the right way — across the grain.

A common choice for this job these days is a plane converted to a scrub plane (usually something of similar size to a no. 4) but a jack plane or no. 5 set up in the traditional way can also be used for this purpose and many pros prefer a plane of that size for this due to its greater weight.

Other than the curved cutting edge the secret to heavy planing of this type (sometimes called "scrubbing") is the planing across the grain — either directly across the width or diagonally. In this direction wood puts up much less resistance than it does when planing parallel to the grain.

After the bulk of the material has been removed cross-grain you can adjust the same plane to a lighter cut and work along the grain to flatten off the tops of the 'scooped' surface a little, then switch to whatever planes you'd normally use for flattening and smoothing, e.g. a no. 6 or 7 followed by a no. 4.

  • Thanks so much for this advice! I think I might go with the 2x4s after all. Would there be any issues using the bench with recesses every inch and a half prior to scrubbing it flat? Would you also recommend planing the board faces flat prior to gluing and clamping, regardless of board thickness? – neongreensticker Apr 28 '17 at 22:31
  • @neongreensticker I don't think there'd be too much of a problem using the bench with the grooves in place in the short term. Obviously they'll trap wood dust and small chippings which might get old fast but if it's still fundamentally flat it'll work as a working surface — lots of really old benches have tops chewed up by tools so they have lots of divots, saw cuts and score marks, which didn't stop them being used. – Graphus Apr 29 '17 at 7:13
  • @neongreensticker Re. the board faces, the wood needs to be freshly worked to glue well so you at least have to sand them (see this for why). Other than that I don't think you need to plane them, although by all means skim off the surface with a plane instead of sanding if it's possible. In case you don't know it's quite common to do a glue-up like this with some, most or even all of the boards less than perfectly flat. As long as they're not like bananas they'll glue fine! – Graphus Apr 29 '17 at 7:16
  • I just finished a douglas fir bench and flattened the top like this. Honestly the scrub plane blade became ridiculously dull towards the halfway point but because it was still cutting very easily across the grain I didn't see any reason to sharpen it. Maybe a bit more tearout on the edges but not enough for me to be concerned. – jbord39 Apr 29 '17 at 19:11
  • The little recesses have not been a problem for me. One thing that was a problem for me, and maybe you want to watch out for, is that the front left corner was easier for me to plane and I ended up with a 1/8" dip on that corner of the top, which is more than enough to be annoying. I'm going to have to re-flatten the whole top at some point, but you kind of have to do that once in a while anyway, until the wood stops moving. – Mr. Kevin May 5 '17 at 17:37
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I you have limited space to work and you wish to use 1x4s, then you might be interested in my project for a workbench / clamping table. You can find the design free on grabcad here: https://grabcad.com/library/folding-clamp-and-glue-bench-1

I don't remember if I included drawings, but you can get the general idea if you don't have a cad program.

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