What is the Ideal Benchtop Finish?

What is the Ideal Benchtop Finish?

I am a recent retiree and have decided to get into the serious side of woodworking after dabbling in it for many years. I just received my first copy of the [print] Woodworker’s Journal, read it cover-to-cover, and it filled my head with all sorts of ideas for projects and tools I want to buy…call me hooked! One of my first projects is a sturdy, long-lasting workbench. I have a good idea on how I want to construct it, and it will use a pre-made maple butcher-block top I purchased from Grizzly. My question is, what is your best recommendation for a finish (if any) to apply to the butcher-block work surface? My thinking is that the ideal finish would a) be obviously very durable for wear & tear, b) easily cleaned of glue, paint spills, stains, oils and other finishes, which means not attacked by solvents like alcohol, lacquer thinner, etc., c) have no oily residue or contaminants that can bleed out and transfer to the workpiece, and finally d) relatively easy to repair when dinged with the wayward chisel or sanding block. Am I dreaming, or is there a finish that would meet all these requirements? Thanks in advance for your advice and also for putting out a great publication. I’m eagerly waiting for the next issue to arrive. – Jim McIntire

Chris Marshall: As tough as it might be to resist, try not to treat your new workbench like a china vase. Workbenches often take a beating, and they should get used like workhorses…but, of course, not abused. I just use paste wax on my bench top and leave it at that. Wax sure won’t meet all of the criteria you are after, but it’s fast and easy to repair, and things don’t stick well to it. It also doesn’t leave the bench slippery smooth on top, like a film-forming finish can. You want traction on a benchtop, not an ice rink. With wax, I can grab a cabinet scraper whenever I happen to drip a glob of this or that on it or bang it with something that leaves a mark. I give it a quick “shave,” follow that with a new coat of paste wax, and I’m set to continue working. You can finish the other surfaces of your bench however you like with whatever finish you prefer. Varnish will probably offer the longest, most durable life. 

Tim Inman: If you are really going to do actual work on that workbench top, then it won’t look pretty very long. In my own case, I built my current benchtop more than 35 years ago. I finished it with a very dilute mix of mineral spirits and polyurethane varnish. One soaking coat. This is just a base that not much wants to stick to. Glue pops off, spills wipe up, and it gets a little uglier every day, because I work it hard every day. I do apply a good heavy paste wax coat about once a year. That’s usually my New Year’s Day resolution. It helps keep stuff from sticking to it when I spill. As time goes on, I find I spill more frequently…… I learned this from the woodworking labs at Iowa State University, back when I was a good-looking, bright-eyed, skinny kid with hair. We finished our clamping cauls this way so the cauls wouldn’t stick to projects during glue-ups. My workbench top is ready to serve me another 35 or 40 years – and I intend to be around to see it happen!

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