As the Days Draw In

It’s not too early to prepare for the coming of cold days and evenings of low light, low energy levels. The days are shortening now so prepare yourselves. In a few weeks our days will be around 8-9 hours long here and much of that daylight time for most will be spent indoors tapping keys on keyboards. If you are a woodworker, cold garages and sheds are not the most inviting places to spend an hour or two of recreation yet recreate we should and must do. Why do I say that? Well, I don’t really know about you, whether you are a glass half full or half empty, but think about the impact of low sunlight on your being. Your whole body gets covered up with long sleeves, hats, scarves and hoods. Some use brollies and some drive to work and schools in cars only. Areas that matter in my ultra limited view are the body’s dependency on sunlight, the air we breath, the food choices we make for our nutritional living all of which we can use supplements for at times like this, but then there’s one for which there are no supplements but that is in my view of very, very great importance, multidimensional creativity.

In the winter time people tend to walk, work and exercise less outdoors. I see the runners drop in numbers as the roads and pathways become wet and slick and often too their visits to the gym behind my garage workshop lessen too. This in turn can mean hyper under-activity and a reversal of hard work accomplished in spring and summertime activity yet exercise physiologists suggest that the greatest benefit we derive from exercising can come in the late autumn and winter. This alone made me think about our need too to be creative and physically active using methods of working that are indeed high demand energetically for mental and physical acuity.

Many of you have written in to tell me of your life-changing activity working in the garage or shed or basement since you began your woodworking journey with hand tools. I get it and perhaps always have without knowing it. Here’s an inspiring letter to me that I put out five years ago:

Hello Paul

It is mid morning here in Wyoming and I just returned from the cardiologist.

In several of your videos you talk about getting exercise while working the wood or “real woodworking.” I wanted to share a brief real life story to give support to your exercise being part of working the wood. In November 2012 I had a major heart attack and again in October of 2013 I had a second major heart attack. The result of the two left me with only 65% heart function. I went through the regular heart attack recovery rehab both times, except after the second heart attack I returned to hand wood working. I went back to the doctor this morning for a full run of tests and the doctors were surprised that my heart function is now at 90% plus. They wanted to know what I had been doing to improve so drastically. I told them of the wood working, mainly using the plane (no 4 and 41/2). They asked me more details and I explained just what working the wood entailed. The three heart specialist from the University Of Utah Cardiology determined that it was the working of the wood that had increased my heart function to where it is today. I feel better and stronger now than I have in the last 40 years. So Paul, keep telling people about the exercise we get while working the wood. Now you have some medical evidence to support what you have been and are saying about the benefits of working the wood.

Blessings Jim

Whereas I do sweat and get out of breath using hand tools, I rarely if ever could or did using machines. Whereas machining has its place for speeding up and easing some tasks, it doesn’t offer much by way of exercise and yet exercise is accepted as a great way of feeling well. Mostly, for me at least, a vigorous workout sawing and planing by hand methods always leaves me even now after 50 years of it with a sense of the wellbeing we hear so much today. This too seems always to result in peace and quiet even though I can hear the surge of blood coursing through my brain and feel the heartbeat ramped up in my chest. With safety in mind I rely strongly on living and thriving in a much healthier and safer environment as I enjoy the quiet, the rhythm and the cohesion I get from working mainly with my hands.

From what I have gleaned over the past thirty years of feedback from students and enthusiasts either in classes or online in more recent years we’ve managed to reverse the point of view that hand tool craft work such as woodworking is, well, old fashioned, out dated and non progressive. I think that that alone still amazes me.

But in the world of woodworking it is not just that woodworking is good for us as a pastime so much as it has the most amazing health benefits when we work the wood with our hand tools. And even when we are or feel complete novices inept in our experiences, somehow we manage to be that glass half full. All we did was hone a chisel or two, refurbish an old #4, something like that, but we somehow feel so much better. As an example: I saw the two handles to my living room door waiting to be reinstalled on the door.

The door has been freshly painted and indeed the living room itself has several elements of restoration to make it the backdrop for making furniture for. To say that the handles lacked lustre is an understatement. I decided they needed either replacing or restoring so I took them to the garage and cut through the grunge to bare metal again. I polished them further with buffing compound and they seemed to me to be transformed. In the process I felt my spirits lift too – polished if you like.

Heart, mental wellbeing, physical exercise, the pulls and stretches of hand working in the shop, is to see the workbench and tools as your personal training space. So too the lifting and straining in the placement of wood in the vise, on the benchtop in clamps and then of sawing and planing it there in the shop. This then sets the chemistry in motion and that changes everything from the way we feel to the way we think. I am not altogether sure I know anything at all about neurotransmitters, dopamine, serotonin and such like, telling us how good we feel or depressed we might be, but I do know that when time allows space and I go to make whatever I make my outlook on life shifts for the better – everything seems brighter, our mental and physical wellbeing swells.

What do you think? Are you up for winterising the workshop rather than leaving it till we feel less likely to, getting some heat in, some extra lights, making the home shop more inviting, welcoming even?

47 thoughts on “As the Days Draw In”

  1. Paul, I’m in the process of building my shop and just today finished putting OSB boards over the rafters, to say I’m excited is an understatement.
    It’s only a small space 14 feet by 8 feet and was considering heating with a small wood burner.

  2. Hello Paul,
    My garage is actually busier in the winter time. This is because I do not have to look after vegetables garden anymore so more time for woodworking. And more need for exercising my triceps and arms when sawing and planing manually.
    Also, bearing in mind my love for hand tools I think I will need bandsaw and thicknesser/jointer. We do not get planed hardwoods and little softwoods here in Poland so I spend 80% of my time on repetitive tasks and only 20% on what builds real skills. I want to reverse it so that skill building is 80% (joinery etc.).

    1. It’s the same with me Artur! I spend most of my free time in the garden during the spring and summer months and look forward to getting out in the shop during the winter. It does get chilly out there sometimes, but the exercise helps, and I can bring projects into the house for finishing (if they ever get close to finishing!).

  3. I’m always surprized when people say something or someone (often targeted at me) is ‘old-fashioned’. They say it as if it is a bad thing. So I disagree with you here: yes, planing wood by hand is old-fashioned and out-dated. But that doesn’t stop me from doing it! Nor photography using an ancient Pentax MX film camera that I repaired myself over the course of 6 weeks a few winters ago. Anyway, I consider myself generally old-fashioned and don’t think that that is a bad thing. Perhaps in other people’s minds, perhaps. So be it.

    This morning rode the bike to my new house, as I’m working on preparing it to move there. The ride is only 2 km, but two round-trips add up to 10 km (always take the scenic route on the way back). Spent much of yesterday afternoon chopping up a large log of half-rotted wood. After a while you can feel the heart pump and sweat running down your face. Later today, riding back home through the rain. I prefer dry weather, but riding through the rain makes you feel alive. Just as that hill does when you have to climb it. It’s good to stay active. No need to run marathons, just keep busy in a healthy way. Chopping a log, planing, riding a bicycle, walking behind a lawnmower (as opposed to riding a lawn tractor), all in moderation and while listening to your body (i.e., stop when you body is telling you it has had enough) can’t be bad. They say sitting in a chair is the new silent killer, perhaps as lethal as smoking.

    One thing I shall not be able to do anymore these winter evenings is watching Paul Sellers’ woodworking masterclass videos, as, alas, they can’t be downloaded anymore for off-line viewing (as I have only very limited internet acces, I used to download them and watch later at home). Pity, as I’ve spent many a pleasant evening the past winter watching them. But on the other hand, that leaves more time for actually doing some woodworking myself. Made my first dovetail box today. Dovetails (all five of them!…) were tolerable. Made a few mistakes (Z-shaped ‘box’, hence the need to saw one side of pins off and make the box slightly smaller and redo the pins, this time in the correct orientation), and I think the saw I used has too much set as the bits that were chopped with a chisel were pretty good but the bits that were sawn with the gents’ saw were much less so. There are a few gaps here and there but I noticed definite improvement comparing the first joint to the last (fifth…) joint. Still, a pleasant way to have spent this warm afternoon outside, making a dovetail box. And even though the result is far from something that would be displayed in the White House, making it was very enjoyable. That simple silly box took 5 hours! It was specifically dimensioned to hold my collection of electronics measurement probes. But the box is the by-product; the goal was starting to learn making a dove-tail joint.

    The wood came from an old particle-board cupboard (40-50 years old) that used to belong to my neighbour’s father and later served in my brother’s bedroom. Recently dismembered the cupboard and threw it away, except the few bits (such as drawers) that were made of solid wood. I think mahogany, but not sure.

    1. At age 36 I wouldnt call me old fashioned but I do love old things. I learned the basics of woodworking from my grandfather who was a bricklayer by trade but had a great working knowledge of joinery and taught me using his own tools which could be classified as old fashioned now. We built dog kennels, carved walking stick handles, made wooden models and a whole manner of projects almost every weekend. I continue to enjoy using vintage things now across all of my hobbies including photography and I also have an old land rover 88″ which I rebuild myself over the course of a few years to teach myself mechanics and metalwork skills. I even have the odd vintage bit of clothing too.

  4. I’m a half way to the next glass kind of guy! I get kind of anxious this time of year as I try to complete all of the fall chores and finishing the things I didn’t get done during the Summer. Even if it’s really cold I walk my dog three miles every morning, only when we get deep snow do I stop walking.
    I have my projects lined up for this winter, finish my wife’s kitchen, build a proper work bench and finish remodeling a bedroom so my winter is booked!

  5. I never called that building we added next to the house a garage. It was always the workshop. And then finally, some years later, I started to make it really match the name. In many ways, the best thing about it is the lighting: high efficiency, daylight spectrum fluorescent lights.

    Here on the West coast of Canada, we’ve entered the seasons that make us a temperate rainforest. But when I enter the shop and flip on the lights, the sun comes out! It’s the best encouragement to be out there making!

  6. Hello Paul
    This is Jim from Wyoming who sent you the message about the cardiologist from Utah. I’m still working the wood! No more heart attacks! Feeling great and working almost daily a few hours in the shop. Warm, well lighted, and feels like home away from home. Thank you for your dedication and commitment. Cheers

    1. So good to hear from you Jim. Just trying to keep people in the driving seat through the winter and encouraging them not to shut down which is so easy to do. Just a few hours in Paul’s Gym with Paul has a personal trainer.

    2. Jim,

      As I read your letter to Paul, I wondered how you are doing. I was very pleased to read your comment. Congratulations from a fellow “bonus round” woodworker. My story is similar, although not as dramatic as yours. In my case, it was an aortic valve replacement (9-years ago). With hand tool woodworking as a major component of my wellness routine, at 67, I’m running three times weekly (a 5-mile course of interval running), finishing up a grandson’s first adult bed, and preparing to begin work on a series of boxes to use as Christmas gifts (Sorry Paul, I’m totally stealing your design). I feel better, and am more fit at 67 than I was at 45. More importantly, I honestly believe that my brain, and psyche are both healthier and more robust. I give hand tool woodworking credit for these latter benefits. I’ve rambled on long enough, so I’ll wrap up by saying that since my recent move to hand tool wood working, bad days aren’t as bad or frequent, and good days are even better. Take that winter!

  7. I’m in the fortunate position that my hand tool workshop is in the spare room so it’s quite warm in the winter, I only have to brave the chill of the garage for machining on the bandsaw. I have put up some extra lights though, as I can’t rely on daylight as much. It definitely makes it easier to just do a bit here and there when your workshop is warm and inviting.

  8. At present I have no electricity in my ‘shed’. Its a great usable space of 14’x10′ with two big salvaged double glazed UPVC windows on one side which give me a lot of light. However, in the winter time I tend to do a lot of my woodwork outdoors (most projects up to now have been large and functional rather than what I would call fine woodwork).

    This year though, as I progress with the hobby i’ve found I really need some lights and electric sockets so I can run a drill press and maybe a small tv to keep the kids interested when they are in there with me. It’ll probably be spring when I start to get it electrified as I need to run armoured cable from the house to the bottom of the garden and then fit the usual consumer unit, light fittings and sockets. It all takes time.

  9. My gym is in a 9 by 9 feet basement high enough for me to stand inbetween the beams of the floor above. It also hosts a knot of pipings going into and out of the house above, and some long term storage boxes (which I’m getting rid of). Temperature is fairly constant all year round. While small and awkward to work in, it’s indoors and its mine and I love it.
    I’m in the process of building a bench that fits the space, and am thinking of a way to move the stairs out of the way while I’m down there.
    As commented above, there’s less chores outside during the winter so more time downstairs for me 🙂

    1. I once saw a similar situation but the joiner had dug down six inches to make a narrow trench to give extra headroom at the vise side of the bench.

  10. Hello Paul,

    I’m determined not to let the long, dark, cold winter here in Finland dampen my spirits or my enthusiasm for being creative and productive, in equal measures. That said, the cold when combined with dampness wreaks havoc on tools and I can’t help but be distracted by the winter-long risk of rusting when I’m otherwise keen. Could you give some pointers on some practical measures I could take? I’ve already employed the ‘twine and shellac’ you recommended on my old 78 tote which works a treat, but rust is a whole other matter. All input gratefully received!

    Best wishes, another Paul.

    1. Boeshield T-9 is the best I have used for keeping rust at bay and lubricating too. It lasts for months if not years. Is £21 too much to ay for a 12ounce spray? No. It will coat all of your tools and then machines too. I think it will indeed end your rust issue permanently.

      1. If it does the job (as I’m sure it does!) I think that’s a fair enough price. Thanks for the time and the recommendation Paul.

  11. Robert W Mielke

    I’m 70 and retired now for almost 10 years. My hobbies give me reason to wake up in the morning. I look forward to the planning and preparation for project as much as the actual work of making something.

    I spend my life now in a 10’x20′ single room apartment. Still I’ve managed 4 workbenches in that small space which shows you where my priorities lie. I love the Autumn and Winter in New England. The trees are in their full glory right now.

    I don’t have a shop anymore but by switching to hand tools only I can continue making little projects indoors in the warmth of my unit. When I pass away some lucky people will find my wall to wall collection of tools which I would like to see go to someone who loves woodworking. I live alone so I haven’t even made a will to direct my wishes. To be honest I don’t care about material things after I’m gone.

    Have a happy holiday season which will be upon us before you know it Paul. Good bless!

    1. Robert,
      Please don’t leave all those tools to be thrown away. I love old tools, not the collectible kind that are kept on a shelf, but “users” as I call them. I really feel that tools absorb the feelings from their owners. My favorite tool is a try square with the date 1888 scribed in the back of the handle. I know that someone provided for his family by using that tool. If the time comes when you can’t pick up a tool and work and I hope that time is a long way off. Please let me know and I will drive up from Missouri and rescue them from from the dumpster. May your tools always be sharp and you wood without knots.

    2. Trinidad Regaspi

      Don’t know where you are, Robert, but in my city there’s a small public library with a tool lending section. They also hold workshops so people can learn to make things which are later donated to nonprofit groups (little libraries, bat houses, duck housed, etc). Perhaps your collection could start something similar in your area, if one doesn’t already exist.

  12. I took up woodworking late in life and find it both physically and mentally stimulating. I can do a few hours every day pottering about making something. It takes thought and effort and also requires mostly standing. It is also very distracting as one cannot dwell on the cares of life when concentrating on getting nice finishes with sharp tools or designing, planning and even just sweeping up. The alternative to the workshop being reading or on a screen of some sort (like now!) – it is bound to be good for one.

  13. hallo Paul,
    is that a special spokeshave you are using in one of the photos?
    two inspirations in the comments here:
    jim from Wyoming on how woodworking improved his heart health
    Rich C about lights and heat in the workshop

  14. Busy summer in 2019 for me. Two and a half days in the hospital, multiple blood tests done, minor surgery on my forearm (melanoma), glucose test done, ear doctor visit, MRI on my brain, high cholesterol…the problem? Anxiety, stress, and poor diet. Answer? No more over exertion at the gym or outside. Eat healthy (vegetables and fish). Walk. And my personal diagnosis – woodwork more. Never felt stressed when woodworking. Never felt like I was losing my mind and health. Always felt physically and mentally satisfied after hours in the shop. I sleep better too.

  15. I have no shed, I have no garage, I have no spare room in my apartment, where I live with my wife, two children, and two cats. I’ve made myself a small and simple benchtop workbench which I clamp to kitchen tabletop in my living room. I keep my wood on a bookcase and my tools in shoeboxes (need to make a tool chest somewhen of course, as my tools collection constantly growing).

    So it’s warm in my “workshop” in winter. Actually, in winter I’m doing more woodworking as I spend more time indoors; for example, in summer I also do gardening on my balcony, which at times takes all of my spare time, living no time for woodworking.

    I’m not able to do big projects with my current setup, but that is fine, I’m still learning and taking any chance to practice this craft. And I love it.

  16. For my entire adult life I was a teacher, a University professor, musician and a professional tuba player. It was a satisfying, artistic life. But just like athletes, one can’t play tuba forever and with age, abilities diminish. I turn 62 this month and decided in September that it was time to put down the instrument. It was a day that I dreaded because for an artist, the art becomes more than what you do. It becomes who you are. What will I do with the rest of my life? Fortunately, my Grandfather, who died shortly after I was born, left me a new artistic pursuit in an old tool box. I restored 100 year old planes, saws, files and brace and bits and began learning to use them. And in doing so, I discovered a new artistic pastime. My boxes and projects are still imperfect but it does satisfy the artist in me. Your videos and encouragement have been a major inspiration. I learn every day. Thank you.

  17. Our winters here in Florida are relatively mild; we’re lucky to get lower than 40 degrees F most days. I enjoy getting out in my garage on those days, with my personal space heater to knock out the chills. Much better than sweltering.

    I want to thank you for all that you’ve contributed back to the world, both in your woodworking expertise, and in how you see life. Your videos, blogs, books and posts have had an impact on how I perceive my world. You are a true teacher.

  18. We do not have that problem here in Florida; though, some years we can feel a cold weather that for us is like living in the North Pole (really?)… then till afternoon, when the sun comes out and makes us to remember that our State is called Sunshine for some serious reason. We have two garages at home that we converted into a spacious shop (still I have it kind of full with tools), but now is much better because we used to have a complete gym inside, and what I recently built was a separate roof in the backyard, and moved it there. It even helped us in gaining desires for full working out again like 4 days a week. When I have time, during weekends, go to “The Brake Depot” to get wood. What kind of place/shop is that? Well, I drive with my car, and an 8 foot trailer in the back, around the closest neighborhoods, and when I see that somebody had thrown a bed or some wood related items, I push down my “Brake,” stop, and inspect it; then put it back in the trailer if worth it. You will be amazed how often you find good-shape-wood, just by going to The Brake Depot. Well, 70 % of the roof made outside, was due to those endeavors. Thank you.

  19. Paul
    I’ve only recently took up woodworking. Now my father, a joiner, is losing his sight it was my duty to fill the garage floor with shavings in his absence.
    Importantly though, with caring for my mother (type 1 diabetes and dementia), it’s now become a place I can get lost in but still be on hand.
    And now I’ve completed my workbench it gives me a focal point to hit the reset on the sanity button.

    Somewhere north of you,
    in the dark.

  20. Oh I sweated and lost my breath when that screaming router fired off. The most unnerving of machines.

  21. Robert Brunston

    Dear Paul
    I want to share my experience!
    I am a hand tool woodworker, I get my exercise from planning, sawing and I also walk on a treadmill. July of this year I had a lung transplant and I have been on the fast track to recovery! My doctors were very surprised how quickly I could stand by myself and how strong I am at 64 years of age I am making great progress in my recovery! One of my doctors calls me the beast because of my strength! I owe it all to handtool woodworking, it’s a great way to get in shape.
    Thanks again Paul for all your teachings!

  22. Thomas Tannhäuser

    Hello Paul
    I’m looking forward to the cold season.
    Then there is not so much to do outside.
    I have more time for the workshop.
    There is light and a stove where you can heat yourself with the waste wood and warm it up.
    The grandchildren come and look forward to grandfather and the workshop.

    Greetings from Germany
    Thomas (TomyTausSanderE)

  23. Hi Paul

    Just to say that science and medicine may have caught up with your long held view, as often seems the case. I saw a published study a few months ago that showed that the right type of exercise could in fact reverse the effects of aging in terms of improved heart health. Not that you needed external validation, but it is there in fact

  24. Hi Paul

    And on the weather changing – I used to live in Seattle and did most of my woodwork under a large lean-to roof at the back of our old house. In winter I’d double up on the layers and come inside occasionally to warm my hands up. I wish I had known about the Boeshield T9 stuff as my tools suffered in the famously damp environment of the Pacific NW. Now that I live in Southern California that’s not so much of a problem any more, though I must admit that I miss the cold and the leaves turning. What’s the old expression? You can take the Scotsman out of Scotland, but you can’t take Scotland out of the Scotsman. Something like that anyway

  25. Richard Harnedy

    Hi Paul and all woodworking members. I recommend bringing a small hot whiskey to the shed in these cold winter nights. This works well but only with hand tools!

  26. Two important old fashioned tools are a wool hat and a good handkerchief. It is interesting how the practice of being attentive and sensitive to the work at hand with all of your senses aligns with the practice of meditation. Perhaps this underlies the therapeutic, emotional benefits some of us report.

  27. Terrence OBrien

    The cold feels very different when working with had tools rather than using machines. We ski and play hockey, and do just fine in the cold. But, stand around without really exercising, and it gets pretty cold pretty quickly.

  28. Don’t forget us ‘down under’! We’re just coming into our summer here. But in winter, Tasmania gets quite cold during the evenings (high 30s or low 40s). I am fortunate enough to have a large shed (10m x 6m – ~30′ x 18′). But as it’s made out of galvanised steel, it can get warm in the winter during the day due to the sun. So winter weekends during the day can be OK for me, but as I work full time during the day, I really don’t tend to go out there when I get home of an evening as any heat that’s built up during the day has pretty much gone by then. I plan to buy a wood heater (cheap second hand one) when I find the right one to keep me out there during the winter. However this winter, instead of woodworking, I’ve been buying and restoring old tools as I am able to do this inside for the most part. Unfortunately (?) I’ve come across too many bargains and now have a back log of tools to restore! But at least now I am able to get back in the shed of an evening to start putting them to use.

  29. Just a thought: These may be times to explore carving, which can be done many places in the home where it is warm. Paul, have you considered teaching us how to carve a bit more furniture ornamentation? It may be a way for those with cold shops to keep their hands on things in a warm kitchen or basement.

  30. Actually, I think winter is the best time to be in the shop. I’m not quite there yet myself, but one of my fondest memories was being in my buddy’s shop in the middle of winter, with the silent woodstove cranking out the heat from a year’s worth of cutoffs and scraps, a bit of music playing in the background, as we knocked out some long-forgotten project…
    All while the snow piled on slowly, making everything else impossible, and thus creating the space to enjoy this woodworking guilt-free/

  31. Mr Sellers, I had asked you earlier in the summer about Spear & Jackson hand saws. I would like to report that I purchased my first a few weeks ago and am happy to say that it’s one of the best values and saws I own. For us new woodworkers we value your opinions and experience regarding not just woodworking techniques but the hand tools as well.
    Thanks again for the tip!

  32. Herb Shaw Portland, Oregon

    Woodworking, the cure for the common, “what ails you”
    Hi Paul
    Here in the Pacific Northwest we have had a delightful Fall with the trees blazing in their colorful glory. However, yesterday we were treated to our first cold spell including 60 MPH wind gusts to remind us that winter will soon arrive. And so, I am looking forward to moving my woodworking inside from the patio that has served as my workshop. As I’ve reached the age of 84, I have gone through the journey of woodworking changes from a dedicated workshop replete with all the machinery one could stuff in 500 sq. feet to living in an 1100 sq ft condominium. With that, I made the decision to try and work with hand tools and as you and all your followers know, what a liberating and healthful experience it has become. I sometimes walk away from the TV and plane some wood so that my wife can hear the soothing swoosh and see feathery wood curls floating to the ground. Oh, the workbench is against one wall of the living room. Yes, she puts up with it because it makes me a happy devoted husband.

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