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Thread: Workbench Lumber Question

  1. #1
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    Workbench Lumber Question

    Hey All, I was going to build that "Knock Down Nicholson" bench in Chris Schwarz' workbench book this weekend. Question. He recommends getting your big box lumber, whatever it is, and letting it acclimatize and reach equilibrium in your shop before building. Totally makes sense, but I kinda want to do this this weekend, I don't want to spend a fortune, and I do not yet have the lumber. So my question is if I go to a higher quality lumber yard (eg not a big box store) and get KD lumber, am I likely good to go, or still in the same predicament?

    Is there any work around without spending a fortune on hardwood?

  2. #2
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    James -- If you get kiln dried lumber, you should be good to go. It would still be better to let it acclimatize to your shop, but -- in most cases -- you can get away with building the same day. Of course, this assumes the lumber you'll be buying is stored somewhere that doesn't have a hugely different climate than your shop!
    David Walser
    Mesa, Arizona

  3. #3
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    Quote Originally Posted by David Walser View Post
    James -- If you get kiln dried lumber, you should be good to go. It would still be better to let it acclimatize to your shop, but -- in most cases -- you can get away with building the same day. Of course, this assumes the lumber you'll be buying is stored somewhere that doesn't have a hugely different climate than your shop!
    This is pretty much what I would say too.

    Besides, getting lumber from the local HD or Lowes and letting it acclimate just means letting it warp into an unrecognizable piece of lumber. I'd never build a bench with anything but kiln dried lumber or extruded aluminum.

  4. #4
    Typically, even kiln dried softwood is not dried to as low of a moisture content as hardwood is. It certainly can be. But I usually find kiln dried softwood to be about double the moisture content of hardwood (12% vs 6%). So I would want to let even kiln dried softwood have plenty of time to acclimate before use. Probably several months under ideal conditions.

    Having said that, a workbench isn't something you finish and forget. Typically, you'll build it, then plane the top smooth a few weeks to months later, depending on how long it takes to make. Then, a year later, you'll plane it again after it's had time to acclimate. Then maybe plane it flat again every several years. This goes doubly so for a softwood top that will see more wear. Especially on a workbench that will see a lot of abuse. So, you're not really penalized for using wood that hasn't acclimated to your shop, like you might be with a dining room table.

    What I would do is buy the boards as soon as you can, and let them acclimate for as long as you can. Probably cut them to rough dimension as soon as possible, just to help speed up the acclimation process. And then get to work. Don't worry too much about it. If you're doing the traditional laminated top where you flip the boards on end and glue them together, it's not as big of a deal. Flatsawn boards will act more like quartersawn boards since they'll be glued face to face, instead of end to end. So they won't warp as much as a normal table top. Plus, all of those thick boards will kind of keep the others in check.

    When I made my workbench, I had a lot of boards warp on me pretty badly during the acclimation and initial cut phase. Just laying them down, I had some gaps wider than an inch between some boards. But I just glued it up so the worst warped boards were bowing against each other, to kind of cancel each other out. I used lots of glue and lots of clamping pressure to close all of those gaps, and now my workbench top is both really flat and really stable.

    Just make sure to align all of your table top boards so the grain is facing the same direction to make flattening the top easier. Because you'll likely have to undertake that job many times over the life of your bench, and you'll curse yourself every time you do if you don't do that.

  5. #5
    Hardwood would have the same issues, probably more so. Sometimes projects take longer than you thought, so by the time you get the wood, layout, cut things up, and work on the legs,
    there may be time for the wider planks to settle anyway.

  6. #6
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    Technically, the box stores sell kiln dried construction lumber. That means 19%. What you want is kiln dried furniture grade lumber, that means 6-8%. The last time I used construction lumber, I bought wide douglas fir, ripped off the rift and quarter sawn sections from the sides, and left the center of the boards for other projects. Rift and quarter sawn is much more stable.
    Last edited by Richard Coers; 05-22-2024 at 1:31 PM.

  7. #7
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    Good suggestion Richard. If I did the big box store, I'd certainly buy larger stock and cut out the pith for hopes of something more stable.

  8. #8
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    So you want good, cheap and fast...

  9. #9
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Bender View Post
    So you want good, cheap and fast...
    Feels goldilocks, I know...also, doesn't need to be "cheap," I'll gladly pay up (from rock bottom big box prices) for higher quality stuff. That said, quality dimensional lumber should still be meaningfully cheaper than, like, $6.50/bf for ash or something...
    Last edited by James Jayko; 05-23-2024 at 8:23 AM.

  10. #10
    Big box won't be rock bottom. Look for a lumber yard or sawmill near you. They're almost always cheaper. And many, though not all, will carry pine or fir. And their quality will almost assuredly be better. You might not find 2x4's, but they'll likely have 2x8's or 2x12's you can rip down.

  11. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by Richard Coers View Post
    TThe last time I used construction lumber, I bought wide douglas fir, ripped off the rift and quarter sawn sections from the sides, and left the center of the boards for other projects. Rift and quarter sawn is much more stable.
    D-Fir or SYP...the "buy the wide boards and rip off the edges method is not uncommon for a benchtop project. The remnants from the middle can get used for other utility purposes so they don't need to go to waste.


    ----
    That said, it's a good idea to at least price out material like soft maple (which isn't really "soft", although isn't as "hard" as hard maple) and other hardwoods for the project. Prices fluctuate and it would at least provide a data point for making the final purchase decision.
    --

    The most expensive tool is the one you buy "cheaply" and often...

  12. #12
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    That said, it's a good idea to at least price out material like soft maple (which isn't really "soft", although isn't as "hard" as hard maple) and other hardwoods for the project. Prices fluctuate and it would at least provide a data point for making the final purchase decision.
    I agree with Jim. Prices fluctuate. In my local area, I've often found 8/4 rough sawn poplar for less than good quality construction lumber. YMMV!
    David Walser
    Mesa, Arizona

  13. #13
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    I've been getting pricing for soft maple (this last year or two) that's higher than cherry and on par with walnut. Wth is happening?

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Becker View Post
    D-Fir or SYP...the "buy the wide boards and rip off the edges method is not uncommon for a benchtop project. The remnants from the middle can get used for other utility purposes so they don't need to go to waste.


    ----
    That said, it's a good idea to at least price out material like soft maple (which isn't really "soft", although isn't as "hard" as hard maple) and other hardwoods for the project. Prices fluctuate and it would at least provide a data point for making the final purchase decision.

  14. #14
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    I recommend to go with hardwood from a reputable dealer. Schwarz recommends looking through stacks and stacks of KD lumbar and picking out quality boards. That may take a whole weekend or more. I occasionally get lucky but usually the quality is sad. I know a member here that did that but in the end, he wished he just spent more to get some quality hardwood. I used soft maple and poplar. But John is right...it will cost you.

  15. #15
    Quote Originally Posted by John Kananis View Post
    I've been getting pricing for soft maple (this last year or two) that's higher than cherry and on par with walnut. Wth is happening?
    Prices fluctuate based on market conditions and location. Soft maple around here is about the same as hard maple and white oak. And poplar is also about the same as ash, cherry, hickory (technically pecan around here), and red oak. I don't know why anyone would buy poplar in my area.

    Lumber isn't just priced according to supply and demand. It's also priced according to distance shipped from the source, as wood is heavy. So any wood that grows locally, is usually a good bit cheaper. That's assuming that your lumber supplier is also buying locally, of course. Which a big box store is not.

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