Depression, Anxiety?

Switching off and switching on to issues like these is not always a matter of choice, in fact it rarely is. As societal demands increase and the digital world invades our privacy on levels we seem less and less able to keep control of, there can be no doubt that we live in higher levels of isolation and withdrawal then ever in history. Having food delivered to the door and all shopping available online our contact levels can become less and less without our realising it. In my world of woodworking and teaching, using the very same media for reaching my audience, I sometimes feel suspended between two worlds. On the one hand I could as in times past reach a handful of people one on one every week, on the other a hundred thousand in an hour. There can be no doubt that we reach out to a massive audience of people who want woodworking as an integrated part of their lives. With that comes responsibility. Higher staffing levels. Overhead and more. In this mix I am discovering that we often travel alongside people struggling without help and the different ways that they are seen more as misfits. Mostly we know nothing of the issues this ‘other world‘ is negotiating. Often it is easier to ignore it and to pretend we haven’t seen. But then I am discovering uniquely different people that simply put, richly contribution to our world but face difficulties because their world doesn’t fit with ours and they are struggling to reconcile the differences to be accepted. This alone can be depressing for someone. It can cause stress and anxiety. I’ve worked with some who came on courses to escape their struggles, be that depression, anxiety, stress of one kind or another, you know, PTSD and such. In the beginning I didn’t know—knew nothing of their worlds. Here I can give you just one less complex account of someone new to woodworking from many years back. It was my first encounter with such a difficulty, but I have changed his name here.

Heinrich came on a six day course. This was two decades ago now. There are many a dozen like Heinrich, but different. Heinrich introduced himself as a business man as we broke the ice at the beginning of class. He seemed shy to me, a little reserved perhaps. He was in his mid 40s. In the class we made a dovetailed Shaker candle box, a small three-tier wall shelf and a small end table. 16 people were on the course, all men. Mostly quite dynamic people, really outgoing, confident, capable. For Heinrich it was a struggle for him to be there, for the rest there was no struggle. With them all leaning toward that end, Heinrich stood out as an exact opposite. His work was good, that wasn’t the point at all, but Heinrich hated to make mistakes. By that I mean mis-take. Any deviation from the straight line visibly mortified him; he physically shrank, lifted both hands as his neck dropped between his shoulders and rolled his eyes. It was sad to see this perfectionist strive for standards ahead of his ‘earning curve‘. When ever I walked by he would hide is mistakes as sometimes a schoolboy might in class with an arm around the page.

Over the week i spent time with Heinrich. He fell behind but his work improved. In the latter part of Saturday all had finished except Heinrich. They swept off the benches and Heinrich began doing the same even though he was far from from finished. As the men left Heinrich was packing his bag. I asked him why he was packing as his table was not yet finished. He said well the class is finished. I said not until your table’s done it’s not.

Heinrich was surprised when I asked if he liked pizza. I ordered two and had them delivered. We worked together for three hours and he opened up to me bit by bit. His wife had left him for another. He’d sold his business to a company and they kept him on to manage his prized business but then said they didn’t need him any more. Depression had overtaken him on his own so despite his wealth he saw no way out. But something happened in that three hours. We found camaraderie as we worked together. His work was very nice, after all, he was an engineer.

As the weeks went by we stayed in touch. He started woodworking in his garage and found a world he could work with. His letters were fun, funny, light. He was enjoying life and had bright hope for his future. I often wonder how many who follow our work have similar battles to work through. I hear often of people who discovered that woodworking changed their circumstances. That’s important to me.

48 thoughts on “Depression, Anxiety?”

  1. Thanks for sharing this Paul I see a lot of Heinrichs in my new roll as a community workshop manager, men and women who find a way through depression with the help of woodworking, It’s your teaching that gave me the confidence to start our project we can reach people on such a simple level as showing them how to plane a simple round over with a 50 year old #4 , working in a home workshop didn’t work for me I wanted like minded people around me , some of our shed members have told me our “shed” has been a “god send” and a “life saver” and that is in no small part down to your way of inspiring people like me to have the confidence to pick up tools and share what we Do, if Paul sellers wrote the national curriculum the country would have much better furniture and much much nicer people in control .Thanks

    1. Eddy, The shed movement is starting to take-off in several towns and large villages in my area. Seems like a great idea. I tbelieve they are primarily intended to help seniors adjust to retirement by socializing in a learning/making context. I like the idea of getting together with other people interested in woodworking and metalwork. I am some ways off retirement (God willing!) but still keen to join, or help start a shed – unfortunately they seem to meet Tuesday mornings, so not really practical for those of us still working (perhaps by design).

  2. Nice post Paul.
    If everyone was that observant and caring for the people around them, a lot of our world’s current problems would not exist. In today’s “connected” world it is getting easier and easier for people to withdraw versus engage.

  3. You are quite remarkable. Thank you for your uplifting spirit. I wish I could have discovered you sooner in my life.

  4. like the ripples in a pond upon tossing a stone – hard to know how our lives will affect other lives – we muddle on and hope that love and good intentions will suffice.

  5. it is “then” that you realize that the point isn’t really the wood or the project at all. It is connecting with other humans. I think we often miss the opportunities in front of us because of the distractions of busy lives. Very touching story.

  6. Hi Paul I enjoyed you latest reminded me of the time I ran a workshop for people with a learning disability.
    The therapeutic side of wood working is under estimated.
    People would come in the morning may be a bit down in themselves however by the end of the day they would would be lifted.
    The great thing with woodwork you can match it with different levels of ability.
    Regards Larry.

  7. You just described that very connection you talk about in your projects and tasks. Listening to the sound of a tool as it cuts through the wood. The feel of the tool as it cuts, the wooshing sound with the stroke of a plane.
    What great insight you have as you listen to the person. Listening to what they say, and what they don’t say.
    Therapy comes in many forms.
    Thanks for sharing Paul.

  8. “As the men left Heinrich was packing his bag. I asked him why he was packing as his table was not yet finished. He said well the class is finished. I said not until your table’s done it’s not.”

    Right there, that’s the difference. Most would’ve shrugged and thought no more of it. There aren’t many who would have taken that extra three hours.

  9. Like most, I’ve had some tough times over the course of my 60+ yrs. That’s why I started working with wood about 30 yrs ago. When I walk in my shop the bad stuff just disappears for a while. I’m in my space, completely in control of my life and my outcomes. It really is magical. When I walk out, whether it’s a few minute or a few hours later, I feel refreshed, recharged, balanced, and with a new perspective about self-determination.

    After all, it’s not what we do, It’s how we do it…

  10. We need more people like you Paul such a touching story and I know there are a lot of woodworkers who come to the craft for this very reason. Thank You for helping me through some difficult times and through woodworking came peace and happiness.

  11. Thanks for taking the time to share this storey. You are right, it’s a lot more than digital content. I see you writing in Waitrose coffee shop from time to time and appreciate your labours.

  12. Two places in life provide me serenity like no other place: at the front of my workbench and in the seat of my kayak. It is here that I find it most difficult to permit anxiety to linger. These places aggressively overwhelm me with peace.

    Of course, all this relaxation makes it more difficult to actually get anywhere, but who cares? My greatest regret will be that I spent far too little time in either place.

    Hey Paul

    I can tell you as a retired builder/carpenter ( I think we’re the same age 68 )with a lot of free time on my hands that hand tool woodworking has been a marvelous revelation to me. I delight in my alone shop time listening to music and delving into the task at hand.
    In my case the carpenter/hand tool comparison is an apple/oranges thing since I worked almost exclusively with power tools in my youth. After a year or two into it I feel I am finally at a stage that I have some proficiency with working the tools and keeping them sharp, in large measure because of your technique videos (I think they are your most valuable videos since they are the bedrock of woodworking)
    Although I don’t suffer from anxiety or depression I can tell you that this work of 3-4 hours a day gives me great joy and adds structure and purpose to my day.
    While their are many online instructors, you stand out in your ability to convey a sense of continuity and historical perspective in a long and grand tradition that traces it roots to antiquity. The rhythmic swoosh swoosh of a sharp hand plane taking fine shavings from a board puts me in touch in a very visceral way with all who have come before me, so I want to thank you for the good and necessary work you do in giving ordinary people the tools to do work that is an oasis of calm and fruitful work in an often chaotic and turbulent world.

    Cheers and keep up the good work!

    Sent from my iPad

  14. This post makes me think about the power of being engaged in meaningful tasks and that doing work is about more than just the task or finished project itself. Whether you work with wood or some other media, being engaged with others, learning, and feeling productive contribute to positive feelings of engagement, belonging, and purpose. Our spirit is limited when we are deprived of these things.

  15. I can tell you that woodworking in this way applies to me as well. A veteran that struggles with my own demons, this has become my escape. To say thank you would be such an understatement. You don’t need the VA when you have a hand plane 🙂


  16. What a great story. As one whose woodworking was for years a form of therapy, I get it.

  17. “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

  18. If only our world leaders and politicians had a fraction of your insights to life and sensibilities.

  19. What a great story you have shared in a refreshing perspective when often so many woodworkers on social media are just interested in sharing their latest and shiniest new buys or expressing their admiration for such buys, as if woodworking is all about consumerism.

  20. Harvey H Kimsey

    That’s a lovely column, Paul. I think many of us feel the same fear of failing that Heinrich felt, just to different degrees. Being in a classroom setting can greatly exacerbate the feelings, as well.

  21. Thank you very much for that blog article, Mr. Sellers.

    In the rehabilitation clinic (nearly all people there suffered from depression and burnout), where I stayed six weeks last autumn, they offered a “Free Tinkering” workshop three times a week: Stone shaping, painting pictures, wood burning and a bit of real woodworking. Every single session was overrun. They worked on their own projects, supervised by a young artist and artisan.
    Despite the illness those people had to struggle with, everyone made her/his own progress on the specific project. I’m not good in understanding and “managing” social interaction, but even for me the atmosphere in that room was very good. Seemed that the people there started to get a bit more self-consciousness as they progressed.
    Having that opportunity was the start for me to get back the joy of woodworking.
    The workshop there was very limited: no chisels, no squares, a couple of fretsaws and a wooden plane with a very dull single iron. Thankfully my wife brought me my very essential tools from home: a back saw, a hand saw, a combination square, my Kunz plus No. 4, four small chisels, a mallet, the diamond plate and a strop.
    When I left that clinic, the workshop had a wooden plane with a sharp iron, a Paul Sellers dovetail template, a Paul Sellers poor mans marking gauge, a small Paul Sellers style shooting board and very poor mans router (angled cross-head screw with a sharpened edge in a board).
    Now the world is a bit better there – and that is partly your merit, Mr. Sellers. 🙂


  22. david paschket

    i use woodworking to deal with anxiety and depression and mr. sellers was my light to this path.

  23. “earning curve” – I like this phrase. I coach weight-lifting – have a little gym at the back of my garage (which I’m slowly turning into a woodworking shop), and have one person in particular who is always berating herself for not being able to execute a perfect squat, despite it being a difficult lift to get correct, and her being very novice. I get a little frustrated with her expectation of being able to do everything perfect every time, but never show it – I’ll add this phrase to my repertoire!

  24. Thanks for all you do Paul. You are making a Hugh difference for many people. It’s good to see your son joining in your efforts. I think your legacy will be in good hands in the distant future.

  25. Paul,
    I have sent a couple of replies to previous blogs, though with your tremendous following I understand it is impossible for you to read them all and I’m content with the replies I received from your able staff.
    I do hope you see this one, however.
    You see Paul, I, as you, was born in 1950. As an American that birth date slated me to come of age just in time to serve in the Vietnam War. Having done such I am a 90% disabled Vietnam Veteran and physically limited but adapt well to hand tools and working with wood. It is therapy for me, you see, as I have PTSD. When life’s living overwhelms me time at the bench with a plank of red oak or even a cut-off from the mulberry tree out back sets things right again. I believe working wood is more than making a piece so I can show others, “What I have done”, no, it is much more. Indeed, it is an intimate communion with a piece of material that was once part of a stately tree that had seen passage of time far beyond my years. I often think, “If only this piece of wood could talk what wonders might it reveal?” I live in Central Illinois where Abraham Lincoln once traveled his law circuit. Perhaps he had paused under the very tree from which this board was produced to take a rest or shelter from rain. Probably not, but I like to think, “Perhaps”!
    Thank you for sharing about Heinrich and also the young man with bi-polar in another blog. I try to never judge another person by such circumstances or outbursts as I never know just what burden that person might be carrying. I sense you are like-minded.
    Dale Griggs

  26. Julian Hatcliffe

    Paul, thank you for giving so much to so many.

    40 years ago I spent some of my student vacations working in a northern UK mental hospital. A campaign called, “People need people” was running and it reflected the needs of so many isolated people admitted to the hospital. That still holds true today. An isolated life is not such a splendid idea. The UK Mens’ Sheds concept has been brilliant, and woodworkers groups such as the Southern Fellowship of Woodworkers in the south of England are positively supportive. (

    Technology is usefully, but possibly encroaching too much, on our daily lives. We are only a few generations from a minimally industrialised, and more agrarian and crafts based society. I feel that many crafts, woodworking included, give vent to the skills of previous generations, (perhaps with genetic links, but not really wishing to open up that area for debate, other than as a brief example, musicians tend to begat musicians…) Crafts tend to give one an independence, a skill progression and an important sense of achievement, and a raising of one’s self esteem which at times is so difficult to create or re-established in the difficulties faced by many people of all ages.

  27. Some years ago, I did a Dale Carnegie training course at work. People are sometimes sceptical about Dale (he wrote “how to win friends and influence people” so people wrongly assume it is about manipulation). but I found the course enlightening and useful. One thing I learnt from it is “you are not alone”. At the time, I had a lot going on in my life, good, bad and indifferent,. But it soon became clear that nearly everybody in the room was dealing with all kinds of issues, some very serious. I suppose that is the nature of life. I found that insight helpful, in understanding myself and others.

    Woodworking, like several other activities that I have taken part in, are a temporary escape/relief when the world has become “a bit too much”. It demands your full attention and that simplifies life.

  28. Thank you so much Paul for talking about depression and the opportunity that woodworking provides (like others “meditative”, if you will, activities such as arts) for people to deal with it! I can definitly relate to how you forget about everything around you, all worries, and frankly the hours passing by, as you immerse yourself into creating something lasting. Everyone here can immediately tell what a caring and loving person you must be to address this.
    Love from Germany!

  29. As a farmer I have spent long hours with animals and crops on my own. I have also spent hours at farmers markets where I got to observe people. We are now losing some of herd mentality. It amazes me how people study the behavior of animals but somehow can’t see this in people. The cell phone is the most destructive invention I’ve seen. Yet here I set using it. The most destructive thing about the cell phone is people’s ability to publish their opinions instantly to the world. They don’t give themselves time to think things thru or see if the statement has any basis in fact. We as people need face to face contact. We have also lost the art of communicating in a civil manner face to face. There are lots of other things but I will end this. Look forward to reading more of your insightful comments.

  30. The first time I used a knifewall to guide my saw, I was hooked on your teaching. Then came the Creative Workspace series of blogs and put a stamp of kindred spirit on your philosophy of woodworking. All the while, your generosity has been amazing.

    Now these two latest blogs that show genuine insight and kindness. You are truly a gift to the woodworking world and the world in general by ripple effect. You have all my very best wishes in all your new ventures.

    John P.

  31. Handcrafts can be tough for engineers.
    Years ago, I worked with my brother to retile his bathroom. He had “help” from a friend who was an engineer (a rather accomplished one). She had about as much tiling experience as I did (just a little). But the job took many times longer with her on it than without her, because it drove her mad with worry if the spacing between tiles was not perfectly even. I’m talking about differences you would have to use calipers to measure— they were invisible to the naked eye. She was also very disquieted by the fact that my sister-in-law wanted to include, as decorative accents, some handmade tiles that were a slightly different size than the other tiles we used, and the handmade ones were not perfectly square.

    As you may have guessed, I found this collaboration frustrating, bit when I thought about it, I realized her life’s work deals in tolerances of thousandths or ten-thousandths of a centimeter.

  32. Thank you so much for this post, Mr. Sellers.

    I have what I think is a fairly accurate diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Bipolar Disorder Type II—the latter being much like how everyone thinks of bipolar, except my depressive episodes are far more frequent and intense. In a depressive state, woodworking is one of the few things that manages to rouse me, and when I’m in hypomania, I’m very eager to channel my energy and creativity towards the craft.

    The anxiety means I’m always on edge. The combination of both, along with other things, means I’m unable to work or study in a structured setting (though I am always in self studies); this gives me a lot of grief, as I feel like nothing more than a burden.

    That intellectually, I know my situation is beyond my control does nothing to help that, emotionally, my feeling of self worth is rock bottom and digging.

    … But when I’m focused on sawing a line well, there’s no room for such nonsense. When I have no grade or deadline, I don’t feel like I’m letting anyone down when I must take a break for my health. And thanks to the attitude you teach with, I’m not (too) hard on myself for mis-takes. I know I can usually adapt say, a tenon to a mortise I didn’t quite get to the dimension I planned. I find too many people focus on machinist-level accuracy, but the draw of wood for me has always been that it’s organic.

    We woodworkers and our work are organic as well: full of the unexpected, difficult to predict, ever changing, and with room to adapt.

    It’s the little shows of kindness and compassion such as you showed Heinrich which keeps people like myself getting out of bed in the morning. And it’s thoughtful posts like this that remind me this kindness is more prevalent I’m able to even hope most of the time.

    And it’s acts and words like this that remind us to be kinder to ourselves.

  33. Yes, Paul.

    Glad to see your concern. Many of us are in trouble. Speaking for myself, I’ve been unemployed for 10 years. During that time I live from temporary jobs (gig, casual work, moonlighting or as it is called in UK).

    I’m Brazilian, and Brazil is in crisis. I have an academic degree (I have a master’s degree in Literature), I’m a writer, I have published books, articles in literature, philosophy and sociology, I’ve been a teacher in schools and master’s degrees, but nothing works well here today.

    Today I try to make my own furniture. Working with wood is a pleasure, a therapy and maybe a new profession – although I am 45 years old since February – in the future with my original furniture. But buying hand tools is not easy. Everything is imported with expensive freight and taxes that quadruple the value of everything, in addition to waiting three to five months to receive the product. And to buy it takes a year or more to collect money from some temporary work to buy a planer, for example. Anyway, it is not easy, but we must continue trying every day to avoid falling into sadness.

    I would like to be your student face to face (in-class) one day. I can not today, but maybe one day.

    A big hug and thank you for your sensitivity and time dedicated to teaching us!

    PS: Sorry for some errors in English (my mother language is Portuguese); but I’m trying to improve.

  34. Paul – an inspiring story. I’d say you have restored some people as well as some fine furniture.

  35. Tan York Kiat

    Thank you for the time, chance, effort, opportunity, pizza and humane touch, Sir Paul. Blessing to reach this excellent site.

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