Workbench Build — 2019, Part 1

NOTE: This post is the start of new content on the blog.

I needed a good workbench for my shop for a long time. My existing bench is what we call a Frankenbench. It’s been pieced together over time with leftover wood from other projects. It is the wrong size for me and limits what I can do. Making a workbench is a big project and takes a long time. Some take a year or more. I need a bench so the time has come.

The first step is to find some wood. I searched all the usual places for months without any luck. Then one day in late April an ad popped up in Facebook. Someone was selling old barn beams from a very old Wisconsin barn. The ad said they were good for fireplace mantles. I thought they might be a good choice for the top. I contacted the seller and went to see them.

My reaction was probably very obvious to the seller the moment I saw them. There was a lot of wood and it looked to be in good shape. There was more than I expected and maybe enough for the whole bench. I told him I would take it all. He was surprised and taken aback a bit. Cash changed hands and he helped get them into the car. He even threw in a few extras at no charge. I was excited.

My car full of old barn beams.

A few days later I had a chance to start working on them. I set up my heavy duty saw horses outside on a nice day. I put a promising beam on them and pushed it up to the firewood rack.

A barn beam on saw horses outside.

I got my 110-year-old Stanley No. 5 out and switched to the scrub iron. That’s the iron on the right. It’s for quickly removing lots of wood.

A Stanly No. 5 handplane with its irons.

At this point I was still assuming the wood was pine. It was not a great choice for a bench but the beams were a good size. They were a full 6" by 6" and about 6 feet long. It’s hard to find wood that big that is not very wet. These beams are very old and are as dry as they will ever be.

I got to work scrubbing the beams. That’s what we call removing the rough surface.

Close up of a barn beam and a handplane.

As the old surface of the wood started disappearing the real nature of the wood was revealed. This wasn’t pine. It was old-growth Douglas-Fir. The trees this wood came from were probably standing when the European settlers arrived. The grain was straight and clear. It had very tight growth rings. Now I was beyond excited.

A barn beam getting surfaced.

Once I had one beam scrubbed I used a plane to flatten the beam. This showed the true quality of this wood. This photo shows just how tight the grain is. Some sections have over 60 rings-per-inch. That kind of wood does not exist at this point in history. Modern Douglas-Fir is grown for construction and is pushed to grow as fast as possible. That results in wood that has more like 4 or 5 rings-per-inch. That’s quite different from this old-growth incredible wood.

A section of a barn beam with a ruler on it.

The wood for my new bench has turned out to be a fantastic find. It has a history and quality that can’t be found in modern woods. This is epic and I am excited and humbled. I have enough wood for the bench but there isn’t any extra. I have to get things right the first time, there are no second chances.

A close up of a section of a Douglas-Fir barn beam.

I’m determined to treat this wood with great respect and make something special.

-Eric

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