Wood workbench surfaces are some of the strongest available and are built to withstand marring, heat exposure, and impacts, all of which makes them ideal for the heavy-duty needs and requirements of garage workbenches. Wood-surface workbenches are typically built of thick, solid maple or oak and are ideal for all-purpose work, including assembly, repair, and maintenance. While these wood surfaces are beautiful, maple and oak tops are also built to take beating. Because maple holds its shape without warping or splitting, it makes an optimal workbench surface. The dense grain of this durable surface is also resistant to the dents and scratches that often accompany vises and clamps, a must-have on nearly all workbenches.
Wood surfaces are also built to hold a tremendous amount of weight, which means they are able to support heavy power tools and other equipment. If properly stained and maintained, wood workbench tops can also be easily cleaned and will hold up well over a long period of time. Make sure to choose a finish to protect your wood surface and make cleanup easier, but also keep in mind that if you plan to work frequently with liquids, wood surfaces are not the best choice.
Just the fact that they called Superman “Man of Steel” should give you an indication of how tough this surface material truly is. Steel workbench tops are the most enduring on the market and built to hold up to years of heavy use. If your work is of the heavy-duty variety, steel is likely the best option thanks to strong welds and underside reinforcements that provide increased weight capacities. Unlike wood, steel won't splinter or crack, so if you anticipate needing your workbench to need to withstand a pounding, steel is a good alternative.
Steel is also the best choice if you're planning to work with solvents or oil at all, as it's resistant to both types of spillage. Likewise, a steel top can make a fine surface for projects that involve cutting since unlike wood surfaces, it's nearly impossible to cut through. You can also find pressed wood over steel tops, which can sometimes give you the benefits of each.
If you're looking for something a bit less intense and aren't anticipating a lot of wear and tear, a laminate or plastic workbench top will likely suffice. Plastic and laminate workbench tops are affordable, lightweight, and non-conductive, so they are perfect for working on electrical appliances, however those same qualities makes them less effective for heavy-duty projects. Plastic and laminate tops are also ideal surfaces if you're working with chemicals or in a lab setting as the plastic material cleans clean easily.
Plastic and laminate workbenches are fairly sturdy, although they aren't built to withhold quite as much weight as wood or steel workbenches and aren't nearly as durable. Often, the plastic surface is encasing a particleboard core, which is designed to withstand light to medium use. While this type of surface isn't designed to withstand intense wear and tear, the laminate coating does offer protection against scratches and stains. If you plan to be working on projects including light assembly, packaging, or office use, you will be more than happy with a plastic laminate work surface. For the most part, plastic and laminate workbenches are designed for everyday, casual use.
It's important to be especially careful when you're working with electricity of any kind, so if that is likely to be your main focus, it makes sense to invest in a workbench surface designed to fit that specific need. ESD (electrostatic discharge) surfaces are designed to help dissipate electric static, rather than letting it build up. This helps reduce, if not altogether eliminate, shocks to people, charged devices, and machines.
ESD workbenches are also built to withstand tough environments and are designed to perform best in assembly-based, industrial settings. These workbenches can easily bear weight of up to 1,000 pounds thanks to front and rear heavy gauge support beams. ESD workbenches can be used for assembly, packaging, and repair stations as well for working with sensitive electronic equipment. Many ESD benches also include add-ons such as drawers, instrument shelves, electrical outlets, lights, and more. While ESD surfaces definitely have specific benefits, they also have specific uses. ESD workbenches are more of a specialty surface; if you're looking for something for general use, wood is also a good nonconductive material and will suffice for most home-based projects.