Should I Build or Buy a Workbench?

Added on July 15, 2010

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.

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