Should I Build or Buy a Workbench?

Over the last week, I have received this question three or four times. Clearly, people are torn up about building vs buying their workbench. I am certainly no authority on workbenches, but I like to think I bring a little common sense to an area polluted by romantic notions of tradition. So let’s dig in.

Old WorkbenchIn my woodworking career, I’ve constructed exactly two workebenches. My first one was what I called my “Home Depot Special”. The top was a sandwich of birch ply (3 layers) with a solid birch skirt. The base was made from douglas fir construction lumber and was intended to serve as storage. I installed two cheap metal vises, slapped a coat of poly on the top and called it done. It was surprisingly sturdy and got the job done for a while. But it was too small, too light, and definitely not flat enough. It wasn’t long before I couldn’t stop focusing on its shortcomings. Believe it or not, I still have this bench and when I eventually get a larger shop, I will bring it in as a utility bench for metal work and sharpening.

A couple years later, with significantly more woodworking skill and knowledge under my belt, I built my current workbench. I found a screaming deal on some odd cuts of maple that were just perfect for a bench. The price was right, the time was right…..so I built it! The top features some nifty and useless purpleheart accents and I installed a Vertias Twin Screw Vise on the end. This bench was certainly a step up from my last one in terms of functionality and looks. I received lots of nice comments in the forums and I was a happy little oblivious woodworker. The truth is, this bench has a few major flaws, namely the trestle-style base. Despite being made from some pretty beefy chunks of maple, it was far too light and the stance just wasn’t wide enough. This wasn’t much of an issue at the time because I was using mostly power tools. But as I started incorporating more and more hand tools into my work and my work-holding needs multiplied, using this bench became (and still is) an exercise in frustration. Live and learn.

Now the reason I went through those stories was to show that even after several years of serious woodworking (at least my version of “serious”), I still managed to build an inadequate workbench. Lame! So when someone new to the craft decides their first project is going to be a traditional workbench, I can’t help but think to myself that they are making a mistake. At the beginning of your woodworking career, are you really prepared to make a decision about a device that will be with you for decades? Its kind of like marrying a girl you just met. What if she has terrible morning breath or squeezes the toothpaste from the top?? You might get lucky, but in most cases it won’t be long before you realize she’s not the right girl for you!

So I thought it would be helpful to discuss a few major points that you should consider when deciding to build or buy a workbench, and I’ll give you my thoughts on each.

Cost

This just might be the toughest one to nail down because of the high regional variability in material costs. A quick unofficial survey of Tweeting woodworkers from Southern California to Quebec Canada shows hard maple ranging in price from $4-$10 a board foot! There are cheaper options for some, such as the Schwarz-approved Southern Yellow Pine. This may be available at every corner drug store back East, but for the rest of the country, our standard building materials are going to be either pine or douglas fir. And frankly, I’m not putting either of those near anything I expect to take a beating and stay flat. So its simply not fair to make a blanket statement that building a bench is cheaper. For some folks, its just not.

But keep in mind that good quality pre-made workbenches will be expensive. The little guy on the left is from Grizzly and costs only $275. Not a bad price right? But I guarantee you that if you actually USE this bench for a while, you will quickly come to hate it for its cheap vises and wimpy little chicken legs. Check out the Laguna model in the middle. Now we’re talkin’! Solid construction, good quality vises, and even some storage. At $1300, we are starting to get into the realm of a quality workbench. And take a look at the Lie-Nielsen Roubo on the right. At $3500, this workbench will satisfy you in the way only the French variety can! For many (if not most) of you, woodworking is a hobby. That means its the place where you direct your disposable income. So if you have the budget for one of these high quality pre-made benches, I say all the power to you!

Convenience

No doubt, buying a workbench is going to be more convenient than building one. But consider the fact that if you buy a cheap workbench, you could very well spend a whole heap of time repairing, replacing, and reinforcing things just to make the bench usable. And that’s not very convenient is it? Remember that the style of the workbench can dramatically affect its functionality. So when you purchase one, you are pretty much stuck with the style you purchased. Modifying and customizing may prove to be difficult.

Skill-Building

Yes, its true. Making a workbench does take certain skills. I bult mine about 6 years ago and I’ve done quite a bit of woodworking since then. But do you know when the last time was that I assembled and flattened a 65″ x 24″ solid wood table top? When I built my workbench. And the last time I created a huge 5″ long wedged through tenon? When I built my workbench! How about the last time I wrapped a solid top with a giant 8/4 slab of hardwood? When I built my workbench!! And what about installing large hardware like a Veritas Twin Screw Vise? Yeah you guessed it, when I built my workbench!!!! So while these are nice skills to have under your belt, unless you plan on building lots of large benches, I am not sure these skills are in tremendously high demand. Let me put it in simple terms: In my opinion, building workbenches gives you all the skills you need to build more workbenches. And while there are some valuable techniques and lessons contained within the process, these are things that can be learned and practiced within the context of regular woodworking projects. In the time it takes to build a bench, I could have built a couple projects. Projects that actually DO contain practical techniques and skills that I will use frequently in my work.

Customization

One of the great things about building your own bench is that you can customize it to your needs and tastes. Think of all the choices in work-holding! Frankly, its mind boggling and you can go nuts just trying to decide what to include on your bench. But if you keep it relatively simple, you can always add features down the line. When you buy a commercial bench, this is going to be much more difficult. So if you are spending the big bucks, do yourself a favor and make sure you are absolutely positive its the style of bench you want.

When it comes down to it, this is a very personal decision. No one can tell you what is right for you. But if you are still on the fence, here are a few suggestions based on a woodworker at a particular stage of his/her woodworking career.

For the Noobs

You are just starting out. There is no way you can anticipate everything you will require from a workbench. If built properly, your workbench could literally last your lifetime. So committing to one design this early in your growth curve just doesn’t make sense. And not to mention, you probably don’t even have a make-shift workbench to build your new workbench on. Its a chicken and egg thing. My advice? GO CHEAP! Pick up a couple sheets of plywood and some 2x4s and build a utility bench. Heck, I know many folks who use a solid core door for their benchtop with great results! Add some vises and dog holes and get to work. You really need to work on a bench for a while before you know exactly what you need from one. Within no time, you’ll start to identify things that you wish your makeshift bench had. And keep in mind that your tooling preferences will also change over time, so honestly, the longer you can delay building/buying the end all be all bench, the better.

For the Experienced

So perhaps you already built a few benches in your time and its no longer a question of skill and experience. You know exactly what you need and you are wondering if its even possible to get that from a pre-made bench. Well, if money is no object, you can certainly find the right bench. But be prepared to pay through the nose! If you have a more modest income, I just don’t know if you will find what you are looking for in a pre-made bench, given the level of customization most experienced woodworkers are going to want.

A Compromise

So here’s my suggestion, inspired by a comment from Mike Pecsok on Facebook the other day. Go the hybrid route! I know for me, building the top is probably the least enjoyable part of the bench-building process. So why not buy a pre-made solid maple top, and build the rest? A base would be relatively easy to construct and the base is where much of the customization will take place. You still have the option to add storage, a thick 8/4 skirt, any type of vise you want, a sliding deadman, dog holes, and the list goes on. I can’t say this is really saving you a whole lot of dough, but for me, its not about money. I simply have no desire to deal with the heavy timbers involved in constructing a full solid wood workbench top. Call me lazy…..but I know I’m not alone here. If you are looking for a source for solid maple workbench tops, take a look at these.

Get it out of your head that building a workbench is some kind of “right of passage”. A workbench is nothing more than a tool (well, I guess the more accurate term would be a fixture). And like other tools, jigs and fixtures in our shops, some folks prefer to buy them and some prefer to build them. If you are the type of person who likes to build your own hand planes, cutting sleds, and the many jigs we woodworkers use, than you are probability the type that wouldn’t even think about buying a bench. Me, I fall somewhere in the middle. Some things I like to make, some I prefer to buy. Buying a bench won’t get me what I want, and building one gives me a back ache. So that’s why this hybrid concept is very appealing to me.

I doubt I solved anyone’s dilemma here, but perhaps I gave you some food for thought. And before you build or buy anything, do yourself a favor and read Chris Schwarz’ Workbenches book. He does a fantastic job of explaining what features a good bench should have and most importantly, WHY. This is valuable information if a new workbench is in your future! And just an FYI, use coupon code WoodWhisperer20ww and you’ll get 20% off when you buy the book.

Category: The Shop

Comments

  1. Bill AKins July 15, 2010

    My first bench was made of 2×4′s and plywood just to have something to work on in the basement. As my love of wood working grew, as my level of projects, I decided I needed a decent workbench. I studied all the designs and the pre-made ones. I knew I couldn’t afford one of the “nice” ones from wood working stores. I knew I couldn’t afford to build a solid maple one either. So I came up with this one that you can see here in 3 parts: http://lumberjocks.com/Billboard/projects/page/2

    Not counting the vises, it only cost about $100 of HD materials. (4×4 post, 2×6 SYP, mdf, hardboard) After several years of use and abuse, the top is still flat as ever. Every 3 or 4 months I scrape the dried drips off, hit it lightly with a sander and give it a freash coat of poly. Just like new. I thought I would replace the hardboard by now but it is still holding up great. Flat, sturdy and no rocking. I have really enjoyed this bench.

    • ellingham July 15, 2010

      Bill

      Your bench is both fugly and also awesome. I can only look on with terror and envy at your work bench, as I have not started mine. Were it a competition to describe your workbench in a single one word, that word my friend would be “Medieval”. With the emphasis on the “Evil” part. It is truly a thing of functional beauty and esthetic terror. I salute your skils, and bravery good sir. Adue.

    •  
      thewoodwhisperer July 15, 2010

      Ahh yes, I do remember your bench Bill. Now making a bench with alternative materials….that’s a whole other article…. :)

  2. My “bench” is made of 2-by construction lumber, topped with a 1/4″ sheet of hardboard, and its attached to the wall, so no walking around it for me!

  3. Come on Marc,I Think the Purpleheart accents are awesome. I personally would have used Jatoba, but either way the accents make your bench stand out from the rest.

  4. Jeff Kochosky July 15, 2010

    I actually built my current workbench as part of a woodworking class. They supplied the laminated maple/MDF top, and we put the edging on, built the base, and added the end vise and dog-holes. If there are similar classes in your area, I would consider it to be a viable option that falls somewhere in the middle of the “build it/buy it” range.

  5. Kyle Barton July 15, 2010

    ?Building the top is probably the least enjoyable part?? give me a break; LOL. I am the one that built the LVL Workbench; and it was big fun pushing 75 pound slab that was 12? x 78? X 3? through the jointer and planer with all sorts of infeed and outfeed support. About a month later I had a V8 moment when I was in Rockler and saw one the pre-made maple tops.

    •  
      thewoodwhisperer July 15, 2010

      But look at the plus side….you had a good workout and your bench is “in style”. :)

  6. ellingham July 15, 2010

    The butcher blocks from Grizzly linked in your story are very intriguing . Suddenly I see huge labor savings, mated with sprinkles of cash returns on dimensioned lumber. I am going to do the “2×4 random pine/fir species from gets married to MDF and meets plywood while getting engaged to masonite” on its way. Its an age ole story of man meets credit card meets dry wall screws and gets married to a half gallon of white glue.

    I make no bones about it, this is a “it will do for now” kind of situation. Having said that one of the first projects from my newly moved and re-assembled work shop will be a hall/console table built to look like a work bench. It will be dimensioned to be a hall table, thin and tall. It will have a fake wooden vise, and hidden drawers. Think Frank Klaus style bench and your on the money.

    I can’t think of another way to show my appreciation for wood working in my every day life. Apart from the Lee Valley miniature plane and scraps of maple/birch/cheery I carry in to work every day right next to my laptop every day. I?ve told HR many times the minuture plane is only a weapon if you make me punch you in the head with it !

  7. A few weeks ago The Schwarz posted a video about making a 3″ thick bench top by face laminating 2 butcher block counter top cutoffs together. http://blog.woodworking-magazi.....+Hour.aspx

    He also noted that Ikea sells counter tops that could be used for the same purpose. I checked their website and it says they’re made of solid Beach. An intriguing option. Especially awesome if one appreciates the comedic irony of furniture builder potentially using an Ikea product to build their furniture.

    • I almost used the IKEA countertops, but decided against it, because I would have had to settle for a shorter workbench top then I wanted. I could have bought more of the coutertop material, but then I would have had a lot left over. Another resource is Lumber Liquidators. They sell maple and cherry coutertop slabs. (http://www.lumberliquidators.c.....ortOrder=1)

      After looking around, I think the cost break down went IKEA was the cheapest (SHOCKER!), then Lumber Liquidators, then Grizzly.

  8. Ethan July 15, 2010

    At least you guys have work benches.

  9. My first “bench” was/is an workbench/outfeed table for my tablesaw it was made entirely out of plywood, very similar to the one Norm Abram built (http://www.newyankee.com/getproduct.php?0207). I have finally gotten so fed up with the way it works – or more importantly the way it doesn’t – that I have drank the kool-aid and I am building a Roubo style bench. I have read the Landis and Schwarz books, plus everything else I could find online. To me the Roubo style seems the most flexible and straight forward to build. I actually like building the giant top. Working on the large beams doesn’t seem so fussy. Of course I haven’t flattened the whole thing yet, but I have my planes sharpened and ready.

  10. medfloat July 15, 2010

    I removed my workbench from the door jamb on my house. The legs were taken off the hook on the wall and the vise…well there is no vise. Portability and space dictate the make-up of my bench but the top is solid and flat and it stores easily. I suppose if I click my heels together long and hard enough I may get that solid behemoth we all dream of…

    • Jim Jones July 15, 2010

      Love it!!

      I don’t really understand what you mean by “hooks on the wall.”

      • medfloat July 15, 2010

        folding saw horses….

  11. Dave July 15, 2010

    I’m just wrapping up building my Roubo bench. I got a load of 8/4 Ash for $1.75/bf from a supplier in NE Iowa last July. I worked on it off and on since around Thanksgiving. I have no idea exactly how much time I spent on it, but I will say it was a ton of work, especially since I have a small shop where I constantly have to play Tetris with my machines. I think I lost about 10 pounds in the process due to all the lifting.

    I don’t know that I want to build another workbench anytime soon, but I am proud to be able to say I built my own. I splurged on the Benchcrafted Glide and Tail vises so the total cost for the wood and vises came in around $1100. Definitely not cheap, but less than the Laguna and Lie-Nielsen benches you mentioned and I’m willing to bet every bit as heavy and solid if not more so.

    On the down side, it is the only project I’ve worked on in about a year time so I’m itching to get back to building items for my family to use.

    So that’s my story. Still, I have to agree with Marc’s statement: “When it comes down to it, this is a very personal decision. No one can tell you what is right for you.”

    On a related note, I did end up buying (prior to the Benchcrafted decision) the large quick release vise from Lee Valley (http://www.leevalley.com/US/wo.....38;p=49980) that I am not going to use so if somebody out there needs a vise maybe we can deal.

    • Rick Cooledge July 16, 2010

      Dave

      Did you build the Roubo bench using Benchcrafted’s plans?
      I’m toying with the idea of doing that.

      Rick

  12. Anthony M July 15, 2010

    Geez Marc I believe it was in one of your videos where you made a similiar reference about building a workbench being a “right of passage” and now it seems like you might have changed your mind. What happened? When I saw you show your bench quickly in one of your early videos, I never forgot it, and knew I would be building a bench as soon as I could. Chris S. has helped me tremendously with design and vise advice, but you were my original inspiration, and I would hate to think you have lost your love for the workbench.

    •  
      thewoodwhisperer July 15, 2010

      Lost my love for the workbench!?! Far from it. I wouldn’t have written a huge article on the topic if I didn’t love them. I just want people to be realistic about it and make smart decisions. The key is to get a fully functional piece of shop furniture that will grow with you. Whether its purchased, built, or some combination of the two, really doesn’t matter. The goal of the article was to let people know its OK to buy a bench and they shouldn’t feel bad about it. Buying or building, you can still make bad decisions, and I attempted to point people in the right direction for both scenarios.

      And yes I do remember saying that. It was probably a few years ago and my perspective has definitely changed since then. I still think that building your own bench can be a wonderful experience for folks who want to go that route. But is someone any less of a woodworker for buying instead of building? Absolutely not.

  13. I built my first bench from issue 181 of Fine Woodworking (the article is now free on their site): http://www.finewoodworking.com.....x?id=29507 It’s made with materials you can get at Home Depot and can be made with only a table saw and some glue. The thing weighs a ton — I can barely scoot it across the garage by myself. It hasn’t stayed absolutely flat, but not so bad that I can’t live with it for now. The top is easily replaceable if it gets to that point. It feels like a more general-purpose workbench than a woodworking-specific bench.

    I’m starting to get the itch to build another now that I have an idea of what I like and don’t like about this one. I can’t joint edges as there’s no support other than the vise itself. I want a bigger vice, and probably on the far tail. When I first built it I was convinced that I needed it to be as big as possible but now I’m not so sure. If anything, the larger surface just encourages me to leave more random crap laying around it; it’s not actually conducive to getting more work done. Having the top overhang the apron is awesome because you can clamp anywhere.

    Schwarz’s new Roubo bench is beautiful, but those deep twin tenons scare me a little. And I’m not sure about the convenience of that leg vice…having to constantly stoop over to set that pin seems like it would get old really fast, although he swears you don’t even notice it after a while. Another thing to keep in mind is that Schwarz is a heavy hand-tool user. It looks like he does most of his jointing and shooting by hand and that bench looks perfect for that. If you joint one edge on the jointer and the other on the table saw then half the utility of that bench is out the window.

  14. I currently have a piece of plywood on 2 shop made sawhorses. It dips in the middle, and it walks around the shop when hand planing. The piddly little vise is driving me around the bend. While I can’t afford to build a new bench out of maple, there is an alternative from PW where (in 2007) it was reputed to cost $175 (including hardware and vises) using 2×8 building grade lumber. http://www.popularwoodworking......Workbench/
    I’ll let you know how it goes, but being written by the Schwarz himself, I figure I can’t go wrong and it looks just like what I need :)

  15. Jason Chvat July 15, 2010

    Nice article. I just finished my first bench. It was my first “real” project. Did a small coat rack before but nothing special. I used the getting started in woodworking CD from finewoodworking. Used KD 4×4 Douglas Fir and 2 sheets of MDF that I laminated together. It was a bit of challenge for me, and overall things did not “line” up the way I wanted. But for the moment I have a very sturdy, flat surface that is reasonably level. I need to buy a vice to attach. I am satisfied with my first attempt. I definitely learned a lot so in the future I know what I would / would not do (specifically I think I would have made sure I had a drill press because trying to drill a perpendicular hole through a 4×4 is near friggin’ impossible).

    But my son likes the bench (he’s 4) so that’s all that counts. :)~

    • Fefo August 4, 2010

      Jason, I just finished building that same GSIW workbench and just like you said, my biggest regret when it was all said and done was not having a drill press (or at least a drill guide). After getting all my cuts and dadoes just right, I messed up some (i.e. most) of my threaded rod and dowel hole alignments. It wasn’t anything a bit of modifying some of the dadoes and re-drilling couldn’t fix, but well…

      Overall, I’m very pleased with the result and the bench feels super sturdy. I added some drop-down casters on a hinge so that I can wheel it around my garage when/if I need to and then set it on it’s feet when in place. I also added some drawers to one half of the base.

      I hope you enjoy you bench as much as I hope to enjoy mine!

      - Fefo

  16. The Nicholson design from Schwarz’s blog seems like a very good option. It seems to be a relatively simple to build design, and would be far less expensive then a Roubo or similar. You can download the sketchup design for free for the Nicholson (aka: English Workbench) and two other benches Schwarz’s blog.

    http://blog.woodworking-magazi.....nches.aspx

    Go to the above link, and start scrolling down to find sketchup plans for the benches. You may have to search a little, but I promise that they are there.

    Also, Bob R of the Logan Cabinet Shoppe did four video podcasts of building his version of the Nicholson.

    http://logancabinetshoppe.weeb.....bench.html

    • Strange. I can’t find the sketchup drawing for the Nicholson any longer. I wonder if he took it down. Oh well, just Google “Nicholson Workbench” and you should be able to find some info on it. Or better yet, buy Schwarz’s book.

  17. Gary July 15, 2010

    I’ve been using the homeowner made “workbench” that was in the garage when I bought the current house. I have also built a multi-function outfeed / assembly table / workbench and in doing so have started to think about the cusomizations I would like in my long-term woodworkers bench. I think I will go with the premade top and add my little customizations- ideally leaving options for the future.
    As usual you bring up some great points. One I’m a little fioggy on – are you saying you’re not supposed to squeeze the toothpaste from the top?

  18. For the overall idea build vs. buy, I say do whatever you want. Building can be fun, but also frustrating (I need to get this built so I can make something I need.). Buying is simple, but you loose the ability to get exactly what you want. I don’t think it tarnishes a woodworker to buy his workbench any more then it would for them to buy a tablesaw. They are both tools to be used to make stuff. Get to the makin’ any way you want.

  19. Bryan July 15, 2010

    Thanks for this article! Timely for me as I recently started hating my 2×4 and plywood bench. It worked fine for working on cars, not so great for woodworking (specifically planing the surface of a solidbody guitar).

    One critique! Your “Woodwhisper20ww” discount code does not work. I tried it. I noticed in your other post that it should be “Woodwhisperer20ww”

    •  
      thewoodwhisperer July 15, 2010

      Fixed now. Thanks brother!

  20. mark williams July 15, 2010

    1. Wow, long post, I love it!
    2. MY “bench” was the very first thing I built. I had been reading all different types of books magazines etc. and designed it as I was building…so ZERO plan! It is well pretty crappy to use, but Marc you are right…For now it is ok and I need to improve my skills and figure out what I like and dislike. Heck I have only built a few projects with ALOT of help from Marc. I have been thinking about trying to build a new one but after reading this I am not sure. So I am going to wait…thanks Marc for giving me permission…..

  21. I still can’t get my head around why people use beautiful hardwood to make workbenches. They WORKbenches, they are meant to take a beating, spills, splashes, dings, dents, scuffs. Save the hardwood for your living room, use man-made materials or SYP for your bench. It’s not for looking at, it’s for using!

    Build or Buy? I built mine (out of ply, mdf and pine) for the simple reason that it was cheaper to do that. IF money was not as much of a concern, I’d probably have bought one.

  22. James Maichel July 15, 2010

    This is a great topic and Marc gave some good insight to the buying versus building quandary that I been agonizing over for the last month or so. I am new woodworker so the thought of building a bench was at first exciting but if I want to be totally honest with myself, I know that I can not build the type of bench that will aide me in my initial woodworking venture. I don’t want to have to build a new bench anytime real soon, so I want something adequate. I also don’t know exactly what I need my bench to do so I don’t want to overspend. There are couple of decent looking benches in the 500-1000 range. Although they are little light I have thought about putting some of my heavier tools or some bricks on the shelf to add weight. Here are the few I am looking at:
    http://www.woodcraft.com/Produ.....Combo.aspx

    http://www.rockler.com/product.cfm?page=22098

    http://www.highlandwoodworking.....edium.aspx

    http://www.woodcraft.com/Produ.....bench.aspx

    I have watched video series of people building their own benches and it looks like it dominates there shop time for the better part of a year. I would rather spend that time learning how to build furniture. I know that the arguments are going to be. I can build the $175 workbench or variation of it or I can put a couple sheets of MDF on top a base made out of 2X4′s or what ever else everyone has done. They all sound like great ideas but not the approach I want to take. Just my take on it with a little bit of guidance from Marc.

  23. Dan Drabek July 15, 2010

    When I first moved to our current house, I needed a cheap, but sturdy and stable workbench. I made the top out of a 6′ piece of glue-lam–which is bought by the foot and manufactured of 2×4 solid fir stock glued side-to-side. The top is about 3 1/2″ thick. I made the legs out of 4×4 kiln-dried fir and morticed them by hand into the top. (whew) And ran 1×4 fir around the bottom in a dado slot. I built it as a solid, temporary bench until I needed something better. After 25 years, I’m still using it.
    I do a lot of hand planing, and the bench is heavy and solid as a rock. And cost me about $50 in 1985 dollars. About once every year or two I plane down the top to get a fresh surface. I don’t build large furniture, or I’m sure it would prove inadequate. But for building guitars and banjos, and other smaller items it is all I need. As opposed to some friends I have who own aircraft-carrier sized benches and use them to build magazine racks.
    If I were wealthy, or really gave a damn about class, I would probably build a fine, traditional maple or birch bench. But I bet it wouldn’t do the job a whole lot better. And the top would be a heck of a lot harder to plane.

    DD

  24. Marty July 15, 2010

    Anybody else notice that a lot of the maple tops on the Grizzly website are exact dimensions for the work surfaces of most tablesaws? :)

  25. Karl July 15, 2010

    I think the best part of the article was the advise to just build something for now and use it so you can figure out what you really want in your “real” workbench. My current “bench” is 4 pieces of 2X12 edge glued together and sitting on a couple of workmate sawhorses. It isn’t pretty but I also don’t care if it gets trashed a bit.

  26. James Phillips July 15, 2010

    I just finished a combined workbench/outfeed/assembly table. Total cost was around $600 including a maple butcher block top from lumber liquidators. It was 2 ft by 8 ft, but I converted it to 4 ft by 4 ft. Here are some pics if the links will work. The Pictures were taken before I installed the vise, but you can see the dog holes where it goes

    http://i23.photobucket.com/alb.....G_1262.jpg

    http://i23.photobucket.com/alb.....G_1259.jpg

    http://i23.photobucket.com/alb.....G_1263.jpg

    http://i23.photobucket.com/alb.....efront.jpg

    • Rick Cooledge July 17, 2010

      Nicely done!

  27. Bob S in CA (http://) July 15, 2010

    You aren’t supposed to squeeze the toothpaste from the top?????????

  28. Russ July 15, 2010

    I didn’t build the two benches I use now but bought them cheap on Craigs list to get me by. Both are made of solid wood doors with normal pine infrastructure. Solid as a rock and good enough until I can afford and I am skilled enough build my own.

  29. Bob Rankin July 15, 2010

    I’m currently building my workbench based on the shaker style in the Popular Woodworking Dec. 2007 issue. I’m made some changes like adding ebony inlay and a tail vise but I think I’ll be happy. Won’t I? Oh crap! This has taking me almost 3 years!

  30. James Maichel July 15, 2010

    I just stumbled on Chris Schwarz PWW blog where he posted an article on how to make a “3 workbench top in one hour.
    http://blog.woodworking-magazi.....pInOneHour

    Here is a link to another source for tops
    http://perfectplank.com/maple_....._tops.html

  31. Warren Ferguson July 15, 2010

    Great article Marc. I currently use my Festool MFT as a bench. Then I somehow got sucked into the whole hand tool thing. I bought 5 or 6 hand planes from LN and some dovetail saws from LV. Then I realized I needed a real bench. I contemplated making one, then I thought about buying one. I contacted LN and just the shipping alone to Hawaii was over $1000.00. So I was back to making one. I ended up building the maple base and purchased the top from woodcraft recently while they were on sale. Got the twin vise and front vise. just waiting for the top to come in. I wish you had a video on building your bench or installing the twin vise but I’m sure I’ll eventually figure it out.

  32. Graham Hughes July 16, 2010

    I’ve built two benches, and honestly I am deeply unsatisfied with any of the commercial benches I’ve seen (which does not include the Laguna, the Lie-Nielsen, etc). My advise for newbies to it is actually to buy the Schwarz book and make one of the benches in it (or the Holtzapffel). Those three are very well designed save for some minor niggles (I don’t like QR end vises because getting the dog holes in line with the screw means they’re too far from the front of the bench, and that’s a pain in the butt surprisingly frequently) and if you decide you need something different (as I did) you will know better at the time.

  33. Brian July 16, 2010

    Holy smokes. What a popular topic. I think that everyone should build a bench for their first time. Then after use they can find what they use it for the most. Different woodworkers will use them very differently. I would suggest a “weekend” bench (one you can build in a weekend) for a first bench then after you have put a few good hours on it maybe build one or go down to your local woodworking store and try out one of their premade. IF you become addicted to bench making you will not have been the first or the last. On the other hand I have seen some that do not use their expensive bench for anything other than a dust collector.

  34. I’ve had a stack of maple waiting for 3 years on me to get started. I think this fall will be that time.

  35. Rob Lopez July 16, 2010

    Dont forget about Woodsmith Shop’s own version of a weekend workbench. This one uses 2×6 material and MDF. Looks pretty sweet.

    http://www.woodsmithshop.com/episodes/season2/206/

  36. joe July 16, 2010

    these are really good benches but has any of you done the new fangled work bench or isnt it a good bench for high quality work
    i am in the process of building a new shop and am going to need a new bench
    i saw the becn in fine wood working

    http://www.finewoodworking.com.....px?id=2625

    any help at all would be good marc

  37. sandlapper July 16, 2010

    Marc,

    Great article! I’m glad someone stepped up to the plate for a full discussion on workbenches. I believe that all of the hype in the magazines is leading people down the wrong path. Function, cost, and utility should be considered.

    I buit my workbench 40 years ago with a design from Popular Mechanics. It is made of 2X4′s with about 200 3″ wood screws and carriage bolts with a hardboard top. It has been moved 5 times. The bench is still as good as the day I built it. I used a circular saw, square, power drill, and manual screwdriver. I added a used Columbia wood vise a year ago. Drawers are in the process now. The bench is stable with hand tools.

    If I were going to built another, it would be based on the recent one from Logan’s Cabinry Shop. The wood would be Southern Pine.

    Thanks for your insight.

  38. jHop July 16, 2010

    While I am in the same boat as Bob R (three years and I still haven’t finished it?), I have to admit I have waffled back and forth over this issue for most of those years. (The problem now is a two-folded catch-22: I need the bench clear to make the storage, but I have nowhere to store the stuff on the bench…)

    In the meantime, I have to admit I have gone the “spend the coin” route and purchased my current “intermediate workbench.” While the dimensions are not completely adequate, and the finish already supplied is extremely easy to damage and difficult to repair, I would not dream of replacing it right now. (I have nowhere else to dry my laundry.) And if it sounds unusual to purchase your workbench from Maytag, well, so be it.

    In all seriousness, the dryer is stable, and fine for assembly. But does not offer clamping places (unless you take off the door, which leads to a whole other nightmare) and you *MUST* be careful when cutting or sanding. (I have a gas dryer.)

    Marc: you mentioned the trestles as a weak point on the current bench. What would you have rather done with them to work better with your current hand tool use? Going by the photo you posted in this article, and some of the past videos, I cannot really tell how the stance would not be wide enough.

    As with most woodworkers, I have a couple workbenches “cooking” in the design portion of what passes for my mind. It’s always nice to hear from others what they have done that worked, and what they have done that did not. (now I just need to get Schwarz’s book…)

    • Mattias in Durham, NC July 16, 2010

      Whatever you do, definitely get Schwarz book before you build a bench. For what it’s worth, I highly recommend it. Most important to me, it’s not just a collection of workbench designs with instructions on how to build it–he talks at length about how to actually use the bench.

  39. Tom McGinn July 16, 2010

    Thanks Mark!

    Absolutely timely post, as I was just this morning bemoaning my 3-sheet laminated Birch plywood top, sans dog holes. What I love about it is the weight – with the 2×4 construction for the legs, the thing weighs a ton and never moves no matter how much I push it. So, I’m going to find some good vises, flatten the top as best I can and drill some dog holes. In the future, maybe the hybrid top, but for now, you’re right – it is a workbench and the money can be better spent on wood for projects.

    Thanks again!

    Tom

  40. Mattias in Durham, NC July 16, 2010

    This touches on an interesting subject, that I often think about. I am in a busy time in my life with small kids and demanding work. There is precious little time for woodworking. So in the time that I get, how do I find a good balance between shop projects and “real” projects? Spending a year (or years) in building a work bench may seem like a waste of time, but I’ve come to realize that woodworking is primarily a hobby. Who cares if I make nothing more than shavings and saw dust. If I bring no single project into the house for a year, no problem.

    That said, my prefab 7′ Sj

  41. Great insight, and couldn’t agree more. I’m new to woodworking so went the cheap functional route. 2x4s, 4x4s construction lumber with threaded rods to hold it all together. Made the top from a free solid core door and beefed it up with some plywood on the bottom making it 2.5″ thick and trimmed it out with some maple. I spent the money on a quality vise. When I outgrow this bench I can keep take the vise off. Cost me in the neighborhood of $250.00ish

    Pic – http://img59.imageshack.us/img59/2157/photonw.jpg

  42. Michael Vesich July 16, 2010

    Small comment to help the newbies. (Of course I need to watch how I say that as I’ve only been in the hobby for a few years.)

    My first “workbench” wasn’t a workbench at all but an assembly table built from plans on the Norm’s New Yankee site. I knew I wouldn’t need something with a vise yet and I needed a large flat surface I could layout my tools, parts, etc. and assemble, plan, draft, what ever. The table is built from affordable parts from the local ‘Depot and is based on a torsion box design. The legs offer a very handy collapsible base that wheels are mounted too, allowing me to lift one end of the table so the wheels drop into position and lock. Similar method to pull them up using an attached rope.

    Really, this table is beyond handy for me! In fact, having it has saved me countless hours on projects. This makes us question what the definition of workbench is? I use it as a workbench that doesn’t require the heavy handed aspects of projects. I personaly think it’s a great way to get started depending on your needs.

    Summary: Strong, light, large surfaced, and affordable. Not good for everyone, but an excellent alternative depending on your project. (Side note: A friend built one and changed dimensions so the table top matched his table saw and used it for in/out support. Nice!)

  43. Tom Collins July 16, 2010

    Great article on whether to buy or build a workbench. I think it boils down to some woodworkers are happy with a couple of saw horses and a solid core door to get their work done and others see the romance in finely crafting their own bench with giant dovetails and mortise and tenon joints. As for the guys and gals that buy the $3500 Lie-Nielsen Roubo; I?ve never met one. Do people really spend that kind of money, and how much does it cost to ship?

    •  
      thewoodwhisperer July 16, 2010

      I look at those benches and wonder the same thing. But I can’t imagine they make them if no one is buying. Lawyers and doctors maybe? :)

      • Dean from Aurora, IL July 16, 2010

        Like the people who buy hugh commercial appliances for their kitchens to show their friends, and then go out to eat… : )

        Thanks everyone for all the great advise. Its been on my to do list to build my own bench for some time now. I like the pre-made top idea, better then the tail gate on my truck any day!

  44. Ken B July 16, 2010

    Great article keep up the good work. I think you have to keep it in perspective that a bench is only a tool or fixture and that you should strive for the best and most useful bench to make your work as safe and easy to produce as possible. I think it is impossible to know from the start of your adventures in woodworking where you will go and what bench will take you there. So go with the flow and improve your skills, tools and bench along the way and pass on your bench to a new woodworker to learn from when it is no longer teaching you.

  45. I am actively scanning Craig’s list for a workbench. A lot of what comes up are rejects or Sears work tables, but hey I am in no rush and when a decent one appears, I’ll jump on it.

  46. Dave July 17, 2010

    Space in my 2-car garage is tight, since both cars are parked inside. Attaching a solid core door (horizontally, on long side) to the wall with hinges (waist level) has served me well for years. It is dead flat, takes a beating, and was relatively cheap. If I drill or cut into it, no big deal. (Not sure I would be so casual about damage if I had spent many hours gluing up a hardwood top for a bench.) Hinged legs under the leading edge fold up to allow the top to swing down against the wall when not is use. This leaves enough room to park the cars inside. In the folded position it takes up the space normally used to open a car door to allow folks to enter on the passenger-side. 99% of the time I drive alone. When I need to have a passenger along, I pull out of the garage so they can enter. (The number of times I need to do this per year I can count on one hand.)
    I have a Jorgensen quick-release vise that I plan to mount to one end. The vise has been sitting in a box on the floor for about 2 years. (One of those items “on sale” that I just had to get…) Eventually I’ll mount it on the bench/door. The drawback is the vise weighs a ton, and swinging the door up (from the storage position) is tough enough as it is. Adding the weight of the vise might require somekind of mechanical assistance to raise/lower the bench to save my back. LOL

  47. Chester July 17, 2010

    Many years ago, I built an almost exact copy of a bench that I saw in one of the wood mags.

    http://community.thewoodwhispe.....ntext=user

    It is a small, maple-topped, bench with two Record English vises. I have read the “evolution” of need from a bench that Marc discusses but I have to say that this bench is more useful to me every time I use it. You will note that it is really small (probably 24 x 48″). But the size makes it so easy to walk around (which I seem to be always doing). What do we need such big benches for? I contend that it is to support long pieces. Well, I have made everything in my shop at 36″ in height. That way, almost any of my surfaces can be used to give support to the end of some long piece. Although small, my bench is very heavy. It is movable but not without some deliberate effort. If I wanted something larger in my shop, it would not be a work bench. It would be an assembly table.

    If anyone is interested in this bench, I could probably scan the plans that I still have somewhere.

    Chester

    • I am interested, space is an issue for me too. See if you can find the plans, I would appreciate it!

      • Chester July 18, 2010

        Tom
        I know that I still have the magazine with the plans. I will take it to the office in the morning and scan the pages. Just send me your email address.

        • william browndei.grat July 30, 2010

          Chester,

          I would be interested also in any info or links for the plans for this bench. I like the smaller size for making reproduction furniture and carving. Your shop is really great!
          Thanks very much,

          –Bill
          Forest, VA

        • Chester July 31, 2010

          Please find a way to send your email address to me and I will send you scanned copies of the plan. I have already done this for someone else and I believe that it worked well.

        • Yes you sent them to me. If I didn’t thank you, thank you. I am backed up on projects right now, but will look into building it soon.

  48. Sarit July 17, 2010

    Every woodworker should make their own $200-400 workbench. Obviously, you can make a one w/ hardwoods and exotic wood accents or spend a couple grand for a quality manufactured one, but lets get real here. This is a tool. It doesn’t matter what it looks like or whether its made mostly of sawdust and glue.

    You guys have to separate the workbench as a functional tool from the workbench as a romanticized icon of a woodworker.

    When the discussion is about build or buy of a tool, we weight the costs (money and time) vs the value (i.e. functionality) of either option. Currently, its very hard to beat the value/cost ratio of any custom workbench using lower cost materials (MDF, hardboard, 2 by lumber). Its really only beaten when time is a bigger cost to you than money or when you lack the tools/knowledge to build one.

    This leads me to reject the notion that you should compare building a traditional workbench w/ buying a traditional workbench. We need to compare the best value/cost workbench you can build vs the best value/cost workbench you can buy. So when you can build a $200-400 workbench that rivals a $1500 one, I think the choice is clear.

  49. Shannon Huber July 17, 2010

    Marc, I built my woodworking work bench last year. It is posted under workbenches in your viewer projects. It is 3″ laminated 8/4 maple, with black walnut highlights. It has a 7-1/2″ apron, and very sturdy tressel base. I have a quick release side vise and the twin screw Veritas vise on the end. I love this bench, and would not trade it for anything (especially since I don’t know if I could move it – weighs about 500 lbs). I spent the better part of a year making the bench, and it is better than anything on the market. If I had to do it over, I might consider buying one, only because the cost and time. I spent several thousand dollars and put in many hours. Glad I did it, probably would not do it again, as I continually try new projects.

  50. mike haines July 17, 2010

    I understand the time requirement of building my own bench, but the cost of buying a good one is a little hard to swallow. Maybe I am just a little cheap. I understand that a bench is a tool, but not sure if it needs to be the most expensive one. I plan on building a bigger bench but for now I will live with the one I have already built. 4×4 legs and 2×4 stretchers, with a laminated top of two pieces of 3/4 mdf. So far I am happy with.

  51. Daryn July 17, 2010

    A timely article and discussion. I am at this crossroads but the decision is mostly made for me as I know of no where to buy one here and to order one and have it shipped would probably double the cost. So I’ll do some homework, find what I think I will need and bite the bullet and start building. Only time will tell. Thanks

    • Chester July 20, 2010

      Daryn -

      I think that there are all kinds of ways to make “a bench” that would do the job for 90% of our needs … and at very low cost. But if you are at the point where you are thinking about a real woodworkers bench, you need to get your thinking adjusted to the idea of spending some cash. Do you need to be ready to spend 4-figures and up? Absolutely not. But you are going to want a good top and some good vise equipment. The base can still be made with lesser expensive materials and be very strong (depending on good design). A good top, whether you build it or buy it is going to cost something and that will vary a great deal by size. My main WW bench is only about 2′x4′… it has a 2″ thick maple top and is very heavy. My English Record vises (if you could find them today) would probably cost $150-$250 each. But other vises could be used. Still, a good “bench” is probably going to cost $500-$800, even if you build it. I do not necessarily agree with the idea that, as your woodworking grows, you will want to continually upgrade to a better workbench. My bench is just as useful today (if not more so)than it was 15-years ago when I built it. http://community.thewoodwhispe.....ntext=user

  52. Ross July 18, 2010

    Hey Mark –

    I have to disagree with you comment about Douglas Fir (we call it Oregon Pine here in Australia) My two bench tops are made of this & have been going strong for years.

    An advantage for Doug Fir is that this is very quick & easy to flatten with a hand plane. And being reasonbly soft it is easy on you project wood, so you are less likely to marr it. If you re “beating up on it” enough that it requires flattening regularly, I suspect there is someting amiss in your life – don’t take it out on your bench!! Seriously, your bench shold not really take a massive pounding, and when required I use a scrap to protect the top. Seasonal movement is more likely to require you to flatten, and as mentioned an easy to work species helps with this task. Any cheap wood that is reasonably dense is fine for a bench top. Quarter sawn will be best, so pick over the pile in the timber yard.

    You can build a top pretty simply with minimal glue up. In the first bench I built, there is in fact NO glue up required. A simple hardwood (but could be Doug Fir also) base with 4″ x 4″ legs with two rails running front to back to support the top & bottom stretchers. A 3/4″ x 12″ apron sits flush under the top at the front of the bench & coach screwed to the legs stops wracking, and with 3/4″ peg holes, it also supports long work pieces ( in the so called “English style”). No need for an apron at the back. The top comprises a 3″ x 12″ board coach bolted on to the support rails at the front, followed by 3/4″ x 8″ board to form a tool well behind that, then a 3″ x 6″ board fixed at the rear. The base all coach bolted together. The heavy planks for the top were skimmed to common thickness in an industrial planer at the timber yard, and the edges squared up also in the same machine for nominal cost.

    The other bench is made from 3 lengths of 3″ x 8″ Doug Fir on a similar base. A bit more work with a jack plane to joint the edges, but the timber yard machine tid a damn fine job. These were epoxied together. Being gap filling, I did not need to get too precice with the jointing.

    Both took only a weekend each to assemble and the cost was quite small – the most expensive was less than $250 (not including QR vice hardware, which I had as second hand items). They aren’t “pretty” pieces of furniture, but are damn fine work-holding tools – very heavy & stable for hand tool work. I have 3/4″ dog holes on the top with Veritas wonder dogs & use holdfasts also.

  53. Charlie July 19, 2010

    I am in the Nooby category and I have gotten a great deal of good service out of my solid core door top. I trimmed it to a 24 inch width and added a side vice- no tail vice as yet. After two years I am planning the base for a new bench- I will keep the door till I can afford a pre-built solid maple top.

    Always enjoy your web articles.
    Charlie

  54. Sharon July 20, 2010

    There are alternatives to ‘hard maple’ in every region. as I recall, woodworking used to rely on local lumber, and you’d see woodworking products using different species based on the region/country it was built in. my suggestion – look for qualifying lumber in your area that will both be cheapest (compared to what’s available in your area) and hard enough to make it work for a bench.

    my first bench was the FWW getting started in WW design – total cost ~$100 including vise, and I still have it (although now works as a sharpening bench – why do they all end up that way?) It is very sturdy and works great – however, I did want something bigger, and when the opportunity came, I snatched some hard maple from a bowling alley that was redoing it’s floors to make my workbench.

    Mu current workbench is based on the roubo and is using a bowling alley for the top, and (hemlock) FIR for the base. it’s sturdier than the cement floor in the garage, and is a delight to work on. total cost ~$150 – including the LeeValley vises and hardware.

    http://community.thewoodwhispe.....-workbench

    I think the experience that building a workbench comes from getting the opportunity to work on large joints which makes it a bit easier to see, and understand the dynamics involved in those joints be it M&T, Dovetails, or other. Also working in such a large scale, makes you appreciate working on smaller scale later on.

    for the budget conscious – I have yet to see a budget workbench that can rival the FWW ‘getting started in WW” in terms of cost and stability. I say – built it. don’t expect your 1st bench to be the last – but definitely build a starter bench to make you realize what WOULD be your next/last bench.

  55. John Verreault (aka Johnny_Vee) July 20, 2010

    Well Marc, I fall into the hybrid category as well. The bench I am using/working with/working on came with the house I bought 2 years ago. It was built into the basement wall probably around 1917 when the house was built. Like most of the rest of the place it is old growth Douglas fir and stable as granite (also about as hard after almost a century of drying). It is 10′ x 24″ with a section that is 36″ wide and has a 2″ thick top that I just resurfaced with a new sacrificial Baltic birch plywood top. The legs are true 4x4s. It is great and stable just immovable.
    The plan is to add a couple of front vises with one acting as a pseudo-tail vise followed by some rows dog holes. Modification is the mother of invention (or just a real “mother” if it goes awry). Maybe I’ll post a pic or two..

    Cheers

    John

  56. Scott July 20, 2010

    Marc, many of us have gone throught a similiar thought process to build or buy a good woodworking workbench. A few additional additional thing that you may wish to consider are;
    1) Room in you shop to handle the bench top. If your bench with be seven or eight feet long you will need a good deal of space for the milling and glue-up.
    2) If you use a premanufactured top that is 1 3/4 inch thick, will you try and mortise the legs to the top. That depth doesn’t give you a lot of room to work with.
    3) Building a complete bench will take some time, time that isn’t available for other projects until your bench is completed.
    4) Are you left or right handed? All the ready-made benches will work for right handers but only a very few can be “flipped” for a lefty. The only two that I know of are Sjoberg and the Lie Nielsen which is custom built for each customer.

    One other consideration that you will need to make before you make or buy or buy a bench is the type of vise or vises that you intend to install. Many vises have specific requirements such as a a specific depth for the bench top. The selection of vises is another entire topic and well covered in Chris Schwarz’ book, a must read before you build or buy a bench.

    You may also wish to check out the two vises made by BenchCrafted. They make a really cool bench vise and an equally cool leg vise.

  57. Rob Cottle July 21, 2010

    This article so hit home!!! I picked up my 1st work bench along side the road with a free sign on it. Have been using it eversince trying to acquire the skills and the knowledge of what I want on a work bench, worring about having the perfect bench. Now realizing that may be impossible. This article was a big help, since I am a novice i will just make a quick one that is a littl better than my free one and wait till it seems right.

  58. Kevin d'Entremont July 21, 2010

    All depends on the level of skill and the size of the shop, in my opinion. While I am an active woodworker, I am still learning. I do some projects pretty well, but I don’t have the shop size to accommodate a nice wood working bench with tail vices, etc. I have a pretty small space to work with, so my bench is more like a big work station with a decent front vice, storage and 2 work surfaces. It has a large opening that houses my mitre saw, planer and router table.

    I also have found that for clamping and project assembly, it’s better (for me) to put my table saw in the centre of my larger workspace and work around it. Working on a surface that is too big to move or up against a wall is sometimes a pain.

    The best decision I have made was to build my bench around a workstation to save on space and make my work area more efficient overall. Now that I have done that, I can actually use the tools in a way that helps me make better cuts, joints, fits, etc.

    So, as much as I would love to build a bench like Marc’s, (just as a project alone!), having the shop set up in a way that ensures my power tools are set for accuracy and ease of use has made all the difference. I know a proper bench would be very useful, but I can make due in my limited space with what I have built, and likely for quite a while!

    Definitely build, in my opinion, but build to suit you needs and not the photo in a woodworking magazine.

    Great topic!
    Kevin

  59. nateswoodworks July 31, 2010

    I built the bench I have now and glad I did, but I don’t think it isn’t urgent that it is the first thing a new woodworker does. I think the main thing is see what type of woodworking you want to and go from there.
    Nate

  60. jHop August 3, 2010

    i started with this project for a workbench.

    http://www.woodstore.net/basinsttost.html

    I fully intended for it to be a temporary workbench while I figured out what I was going to use for a full time workbench. It will eventually be the home for the lathe I still have to unpack. I unfortunately ran into some issues with the MDF top not being accurately sized, which led to router bit purchases, which led to tool purchases (bit didn’t fit my router), which led to more tool purchases, which led finishing purchases.

    and when the rains came, it led to home repair, and the project has stalled. Meanwhile, my MDF and cardboard on the floor has become ruined from water damage, and the hardwood needs to be dried and straightened (or planed down…). The good news is the table saw is finally put back together… I just haven’t had the nerve to test it yet.

    meanwhile, I still have not decided exactly what area of woodworking I’m going to stay in. I have, however, decided I’m tired of making firewood. At least 2×4′s are cheap. (maybe they’ll turn themselves into the next workbench…)

  61. ramon September 15, 2011

    build your own bench it build skills and it a good time and fun. and you can save your self some money.

  62. Letitia December 9, 2011

    Thanks for this post! I’m trying to buy a bench for my husband and it’s so frustrating. The kits made of metal are so flimsy when put together. And we have that chicken and egg problem, no place to work on putting the bench together, arg!!

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