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I laminated my Anarchists Workbench (Chris Swartz) from #2 prime SYP. IMO, it will make a great material for a Nicholson style bench too. If you can find actual #1 prime (appearance grade), even better. If you get good boards, it gives you good results and is very easy to plane by machine or hand. The secret is careful selection of the boards. Here is my checklist when shopping for lumber:

  1. When culling through stacks, take a friend with you or ask someone at the store to help you. At HD or Lowes, get 2 carts. One for keepers and one for rejects. You will save time and frustration if you move the bad ones off the stack to the 2nd cart as you work your way through a stack, even with moving them back when you are done.
  2. Start with 12" wide boards with minimal knots and no checks or other cracks. It takes higher quality wood to yield 12" boards. It also takes higher quality wood to for longer lengths so buy the longest lengths you can deal with or afford.
  3. It is best to avoid boards with knots that come all the way to the edge but you can deal with a few tight knots under about 1.5" across.
  4. Look for boards that have relatively small growth rings with the pith right in the center of the board. You want boards where most of the growth rings, except right in the middle, are nearly vertical in the 2-by dimension. You will cut out the pith later.
  5. Site down the edges of the board and select ones that have no twist, crook or cup and have little or no bowing.
  6. Look for boards where the growth rings look about the same at both ends-basically, minimize grain running diagonally end to end.
  7. Though you will not need as many boards with a Nicholson style top, do not expect to get all of your boards at once or at the same source. It can take a few weeks to get all of your lumber. Ask them (pro-desk at HD and Lowes) when they expect a new shipment so you can get the first shot at a new stack.

Rip the 2×12s so that you cut out 2-3 inches out of the middle to remove the pith or the rings near the pith that are round and cut the edges off to remove the roundovers. This basically yields quarter sawn boards with nice looking vertical grain that will be more stable. A side benefit to this grain orientation is that the grain will not change direction along the length and will be super easy to hand plane in either lengthwise direction. Let the wood acclimate for a week or two at least to see if any of them go crazy after initial milling and then mill to final thickness and dimensions. Anything that goes wonky can be used for components other than the top.
 

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Rip the 2×12s so that you cut out 2-3 inches out of the middle to remove the pith or the rings near the pith that are round and cut the edges off to remove the roundovers.
- Lazyman
All that ripping would be quite job if to be done by hand.
Wasting the center is un-economic.
There is no need to remove the roundovers before flattening and some may subsist on the slab's underside.

I'm new to hand tools. I d just like to keep the cost down if I can.
- Lumpy63
Just make your Nicholson with a layer of 2 X 12 and start to master your hand tools.
Save your money to buy wood for your projects.
Afterwards, if you want a laminated top you can always rip and re-use those 2 X 12. (Although you will need to buy more wood).

Stop overthinking it. Look at what Bandit571 can achieve on his rustic one-afternoon workbench.

Even if you don't make a Paul Sellers workbench, there are useful no-nonsense advices here:
https://paulsellers.com/paul-sellers-workbench-faqs/#Wood-Selection

About bench-top re flattening:
https://paulsellers.com/2014/08/flattening-one-of-my-benches/
 

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"All that ripping by hand". I can remember two tool guy being asked "what's the most important tool in the shop?" Both answered the band saw, I was sure it was going to be the TS. Maybe get a band saw first.

I ripped out the pith, it worked for me.
 

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Except the vacuum cleaner, the bandsaw is the only machinery one would need for some one off (or limited number) projects in real wood.

But then we don't speak about remodeling a kitchen with sheet goods where the partner has asked it to be done for the day before yesterday.

One will have noticed that the bench Paul Sellers re-flatten has plenty of knots in its top.
I also have several knots in mine (hand planed). It doesn't affect the functionality.
 

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My bench is made of 2×4 construction spruce stuck together before it had dried - tends to warp out of shape with the seasons.
Coffee table I made after letting the wood settle for a couple of months has been flat with no issues.

So, for my 2 cents, go for it but give it a fair bit of time to dry first. Worse thing that can happen is that you will have to reflatten it every so often.
 

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My bench is hybrid nicholson of sorts. The base is made out of very old white pine construction lumber and the top is laminated plywood. Its heavy as all get out and stable as well. I have a sacrificial white pine top over the plywood. Its been a few years and it stays nice and flat. The pine is nice and grippy and will dent before any hardwood I use in my projects (admittedly, I dont really use much hardwood, im a wood scavenger). It's sort of a knockdown, the top is held in place by large dowels and comes off easily enough that i could get it out of the basement if i really want too. Construction lumber will be fine as long as its dry.
 

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Rip the 2×12s so that you cut out 2-3 inches out of the middle to remove the pith or the rings near the pith that are round and cut the edges off to remove the roundovers.
- Lazyman

All that ripping would be quite job if to be done by hand.
Wasting the center is un-economic.
There is no need to remove the roundovers before flattening and some may subsist on the slab s underside.

- Sylvain
I would not want to rip the 2×12s by hand either. Table saw or band saw will make quick work of it.

I disagree about it being wasteful. Cutting out the center (pith) is less wasteful than having to scrap the entire board later because it cupped or twisted on you. Also, it is usually cheaper than buying two 2×6s after you cut off the edge roundovers. It was next to impossible for me to find 2×6s or even 2×8 that did not have the pith running through them, not to mention that the quality of the wood from a 2×12 is usually better (tighter growth rings) than for smaller widths. If warping of dimensional lumber is the issue, this is the way to go in my experience. Getting 2 quarter or rifts sawn, tight ringed boards is worth a couple of inches of loss.

If you have to plane off enough to flatten the board that the roundovers are gone, you got badly warped boards that required you to remove at least 1/8" of thickness on each side ( would not want to do that by hand either). My checklist helps prevent that. When milling the lumber for my workbench, I doubt that I had to plane off more than a 16th off of any face. Even on a work bench top, I would not want to leave the roundover on the bottom edges. Every time I looked at the end, it would bug me.
 

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I d just like to keep the cost down if I can.
- Lumpy63
Nathan, what you propose will certainly give excellent results but cost and machinery availability are decision factors.
(Now what that means "if I can"?)
As for "Every time I looked at the end, it would bug me.", that is a personal choice.
Although, on a functional point of vue, it is important that the bottom is out of twist where it sits on the base.

Boards, if not too thick, will have some flexibility and don't need to be perfectly straight.
I have made the tops of two workbenches by first gluing the 3 straightest board I had, making a rigid starting foundation. I then glued additional boards one a a time.
I even used seriously twisted boards by
- cutting them in 3 or 4 pieces;
- clamping them on the already existing slab;
- refining what would be a butt joint between two sections by sawing between the to ends;
- gluing all the sections;
- planing the new edge square to the slab;
repeat with the next twisted board in such a way that the section are staggered.
I keep a "good" board for the last glue-up.

It is a bit of work (all by hand) and gluing one board at a time needs extra time but I was using free recycled wood (and I am retired).

Top before flattening (recycled pick-nic bench) one can see the staggered boards.
Board were solely flattened across the width before gluing; not all of the exact same width (aligned on the other face).

Table Furniture Property Picture frame Wood

Table Wood Building Interior design Floor

Wood Gas Tool Hardwood Wood stain
 

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I guess you could say that any of this is a personal choice. This is just how I would approach it for the most stable top. Your laminated top (and mine) is a different animal than the one on the classic Nicholson bench. I just glanced at the free plans that Chris Schwartz provides and it looks like the plans assume no prep to the 2×12's at all. The plans show the bench width is exactly the width of 2 raw 2×12s which means that the roundover will leave sort of a groove down the middle of the bench (which would bug me even more than on the bottom), unless you sacrifice about 3/16ths of thickness to plane it down enough to remove the top roundover. Leaving the roundovers will certain give you a nice bench but personally, I would at least cut off the roundovers where they meet in the the middle of the top to get a completely flat surface but you will lose a little over 1/4" of width to do so. My personal choice would be to make a thicker laminated top or to mill the 2×12s into rift or quarter sawn boards for a smooth, flat and stable panel.

To the OP, You might want to look at Paul Sellers videos for his spin on a Nicholson inspired bench. Slightly different but worth a look. He has other videos on YouTube other than the one linked to above. He does a good job demonstrating and explaining hand tools for making his bench designs that are good for hand tool novices and beginners.
 

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(If I may quote myself) If the OP has a really tight budget:

Just make your Nicholson with a layer of 2 X 12 and start to master your hand tools.
Save your money to buy wood for your projects.
Afterwards, if you want a laminated top you can always rip and re-use those 2 X 12. (Although you will need to buy more wood).

Stop overthinking it.
My only regret is having procrastinated too long to make my (P.S.) workbench.

Thanks to the usage of wedges, the Paul Sellers workbench will not rake if the leg wood shrinks, although, if need be, the wedges look like they could be retrofitted in some way on the Nicholson.
 

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Discussion Starter · #32 ·
A lot of wisdom has been shared and I appreciate it very much. After reading, and re-reading, the advice that's been given, I'm going to build the knockdown Nicholson with two layer top and hope for the best (realizing I can replace the top in the future if needed). I've bought a few 2×12x16s and have some other 2×8 material that I will use in the leg assemblies. It has been a real challenge finding 'good' wood where I am (Rockies). I rifled through the wood at four 'big box' stores (two seem to like the color blue and two like orange). In this case the blue-ish stores had better wood, but there wasn't a single 2×12 that was knot free and straight and without pith. I did the best I could, we'll see how it goes. Thanks again, all of your advice has been really valuable!
 

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When you say "two layer top", are you planning to put 2-by boards on top of 2-by boards? If that is what you mean, that may not be necessary. If you want a thicker top, it may be better to rip your 2-bys into strips the thickness you want and turn them sideways to glue them into a thicker top. One of the advantages of the Nicholson design that makes it easy to build is that you can just use 2-by stock for the top and sides.
 

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When you say "two layer top", are you planning to put 2-by boards on top of 2-by boards? If that is what you mean, that may not be necessary. If you want a thicker top, it may be better to rip your 2-bys into strips the thickness you want and turn them sideways to glue them into a thicker top. One of the advantages of the Nicholson design that makes it easy to build is that you can just use 2-by stock for the top and sides.

- Lazyman
+1
 

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I looked at that one and a ton of other designs before building mine. I ended up going the route of Richard Maguire's English Workbench.
I've been looking at Richard's videos on his bench for a while now. I'm curious... what lumber did you end up going with. It looks like the "2x" material he had was at least as thick as what I see as 8/4 at the hardwood dealer around here. Given that I can actually get wide and clear boards of 8/4 poplar, that's the path I'm considering.


When you say "two layer top", are you planning to put 2-by boards on top of 2-by boards? If that is what you mean, that may not be necessary.
If you look closely at the plans in the blog post you linked to, Schwarz's knock-down Nicholson bench has additional 1x10 boards sandwiched under the interior areas of the top and the apron to give a little more thickness for working with hold fasts. That's traditionally been the kind of Achilles's heel of building a Nicholson with straight-up 2x planks. By the time you get them decently flattened, you're looking at something closer to 1-1/4" thick, which is getting kind of marginal to get holdfasts to bite properly.
 

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Another tidbit on using construction lumber on a bench. When I built mine, I asked around. The usual suppliers close to me didn't have consistent species on lumber, kiln-dried or not. I found a yard that was not very far, but beyond what I normally consider for construction lumber that had SYP, and that was always what they stocked. So I took a trip out there, and discovered that they had pretty nice stuff, and indeed stamped SYP. I picked through the pile and got some decent boards. Sure, plenty of knots, but nothing bad. My bench is now, oh, maybe 7 or 8 years old, and I have not needed to re-flatten it.
 

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The key to picking SYP is to look for #1 or #2 prime graded lumber. Even then you have to pick through the stack but in theory, those should have fewer and smaller knots. Someone mentioned to me to also ask for ones graded as appearance or something like that because they will have even fewer knots.
 
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