I’ve spoken often on the benefits of physical work over a workout and then too in view of their being more sedentary work than ever in the history of our world. You don’t need to go back much more than a century to find 90% of working-age people were engaged in physically demanding work. I am convinced that though the exact opposite is the case today, even much of the work of those working physically is much eased by automation and the use of powered equipment. You will rarely see anyone using a handsaw or plane on a job site and neither will they drive many nails with a hammer. This indeed has had a serious impact on the natural form of exercise we get. I get winded every hour or so on a given day and it’s not because I have a disease or I am unfit or because I overexert myself. It’s because the physical demands of my chosen way of working using hand tools require the level of input and then too that I want it, prefer it and feel good from it. At the end of the day, I feel tired and I feel well. After supper, though I do feel tired, I still walk for a good hour come whatever the weather is.

Don’t start all at once. Woodworking by hand is as much an exercise program as a workout with a personal coach in the gym. Listen to your body but not so much you sit at the sides without moving. I was at the gym yesterday and two young men walked past me and seemed to be disabled until I realised that they had developed so much muscle they could no longer walk well or normally at all. That’s not going to happen with you at the workbench, but you should be careful to establish habits of physical work as your muscles develop. I am not muscular at all but I do have sufficient muscle to be able to chop mortise after mortise for hours and then days in a row without taking much of a break in a day at all. That is I take a break for lunch and to cycle four or five miles. This nourishes my carb levels by stoking the boiler and get’s my pulse levels to a decent beat for half an hour.

This week I will rip most of my stock from larger stock by resawing on the bandsaw. The sections of oak are some four-by-eight sections, quite heavy. This then is weight training, which involves stretches, pulls and pushes. I will of course plane all surfaces by hand with a hand plane before parallel rips take place and by this, I return to the same stretches, pulls and pushes but with each level, there is a diminishing demand. As the smaller pieces unite into jointed frames the work goes from lightweight work to heavier frames. This then results in heavier maneuvering of materials but in the creating, of course, I have hammer blows, plane strokes and then too saw strokes because I do use handsaws of different types for all of my hand joinery.

Oh, my most powerful muscles are in my shoulders; the upper trapezius, deltoid, middle trapezius, lower trapezius, and latissimus dorsi. This development has come from benchwork but not bench presses. I like that my actual real work prepares me in the day to day.

By the end of today, I hope to have my hardwood milled down in size to manageable components for two or three projects I have planned.

20 Comments

  1. John Lamb on 27 January 2020 at 10:58 am

    For those of us lucky enough to be able to do the work you describe and enable, it is a delightful and lovely thing. Having worked at a computer or in meeting rooms for decades I had the belly and weak muscles that that entails. Now one year on from stopping work I just completed my own workbench and have regained upper body strength and mental happiness. It’s a great pleasure and a privilege. Some young folk from the neighborhood come in to my garage and ask me what I’m making and in some small way I try to pass on the knowledge or at least interest in working with your hands, though I’m a rank amateur.

    Lastly, I happen to be here in the UK and have the unusual event of being the first commenter. Usually on the west coast of the US – I’m hours and hours out of date.

    Thanks again Paul for all you do. I hope you don’t mind I’ve taken to referring to your advice as the “testament according to St Paul” with equal measure of respect and irony 😉

    Best wishes from Edinburgh

  2. Nathan jones on 27 January 2020 at 11:58 am

    I feel great after a good day at the bench or digging holes in our clay laden garden to plant new trees.
    Since starting hand my muscle and muscle memory has become that much stronger and sensitive to the work.
    Those guys you passed in the gym, that was funny. Iron addicts.
    Paul do source your timber from various places or known haunts, nature? Looks good.

  3. Eric Weller on 27 January 2020 at 1:39 pm

    My father always said, Hard Work, Works!

  4. Marcus Burtonshaw on 27 January 2020 at 2:14 pm

    Excellent post Paul. One question, you use the term “resaw”. What is meant by it? thanks for the post.

    • Paul Sellers on 27 January 2020 at 3:33 pm

      Usually, the wood is in larger sections or indeed still in the round as in in the stem. Taking it cutting into smaller sections means sawing it again and so resawing.

  5. Paul Bowes on 27 January 2020 at 2:20 pm

    Paul,

    like you I have worked with my hands all my life.

    Yesterday I flattened the top of my two year old “Paul Sellers” inspired workbench by hand using a #7 and #5 hand plane. A great hour of upper body effort with the added benefit of the slow release of the SPF odor which increased with every stroke.

  6. Tom Bittner on 27 January 2020 at 2:32 pm

    Not only are you getting in shape but you are accomplishing something useful and productive while improving your mind and coordination. ( even if it’s only firewood) You also become tougher and your endurance increases.
    Beats paying gym fees and becoming muscle bound so you can’t move.
    I suppose it doesn’t impress the women much though…….

  7. George Geyer on 27 January 2020 at 2:39 pm

    When I was growing up I worked with my Dad and his Uncle who was the family carpenter. My father was a plumber. Hand tools were the only tools used by them and I was taught how to use and care for them. I love to watch you work Paul and practice your instructions. Thank you 😊.

  8. Steve P on 27 January 2020 at 2:55 pm

    Hey Paul,
    Maybe the bigger guys at the gym just happen to use a Lie Nielsen #8 on a daily basis.

    • JEFFREY J DUTTON on 28 January 2020 at 4:37 am

      that would be pushing iron rather than pumping it

      • Randy Ewart on 28 January 2020 at 2:14 pm

        I love Jeffrey’s comment: “… pushing iron, rather than pumping it.” Sounds like a new motto for traditional woodworkers, or even something that could/should be printed on a t-shirt (inspired by Paul Sellers, of course).

  9. Bill Peterson on 27 January 2020 at 4:25 pm

    Hello, I am new this week to your blog. I have been following your videos for quite while and I am in the process of making a workbench. Your videos are great instruction and I totally agree with your comments today. Hand work is a great workout program. Thanks.

  10. JOe on 27 January 2020 at 6:20 pm

    You raise a good point Paul about physical labor. I faced a dilemma back in the late 1990s. I had finished my schooling and moved back home to start my career. My grandmother lived next door to us and was in her mid-90s. I moved in with her so as to keep an eye on her. I had lived with her in high school to keep an eye on her as she was in her 80s at the time. I just loved spending time with her. A win win for all.

    Initially when I was back after 8 years of independent living, I was reluctant to let her do anything for me. She was old and I didn’t want to be a burden. At some point after about 3 months of her say “what you don’t love me, let me do your laundry”, we reached a happy medium. I let her do my easier laundry and make my lunch. I have no doubt that this little extra physical work (plus her knowing I was coming back after schooling was done) helped to keep her more active and able to go out and visit friends. I didn’t want to be a burden but then again, I didn’t want her to feel unloved. She passed away about 4 years after I returned. In many respects, those last few years with her were the best. I was a bit older, and more mature, got to hear all the old stories again while we did chores in the house.

  11. Mark D. Baker on 27 January 2020 at 7:01 pm

    For about 40 years, I was involved in heavy construction. I gauged my work effort by my food consumption and weight each Monday morning and the following Friday. Each Monday, if my starting weight was at 185, I knew my body was again ready for the grind of the workweek. Each day of work required 5 gallons of water to be drank during the 8+ hours of the day’s tasks to keep my metabolizing my body’s needs on the site. Each Friday, I found my weight at 165, even though I ate enough to feed 4-5 people, I was still burning it off at work. The weekend was to regain what was burnt up and lost. Keeping hold to your body’s needs and maintaining it, through the labors of the workweek WAS our exercise, no need to waste time as those who sit at a desk through their week, I had my work as exercise. I never sick and only lost work from accidents others caused me. I was a ‘First Responder’ at the job sites as well and needed to be fit to take a victim out of danger if it was needed or stay with them until EMS came. One of my needs at this was already provided by my heavy-duty workload. I was to be able to hold my weight and my victim’s weight with one arm. Surprisingly, my grip was for each arm double my weight. I never worked out at a Gym, just my job.

  12. Don Hummer on 28 January 2020 at 12:53 am

    Working as a framing carpenter in high production work in Arizona built my strength and endurance. My brother in law was a gym rat. I had to pour some concrete at his house for a small master closet addition. He came out in a muscle shirt and shorts, showing off all of those muscles!! After three wheel barrow loads of concrete he was throwing up his breakfast all over the sidewalk!!!
    Endurance built by work is much different than endurance built by running, I know I do both. Each compliments the other. One of the best workouts I have ever had was with a #4 stanley plane I had modified to replicate a hand hewn look on some box beams. Four hours of that and I was ready for lunch and a nap!!!!

  13. Ian Mckenzie on 28 January 2020 at 8:51 am

    Just wondering Paul, do you find you have less energy now than say thirty years ago? Or has continuously being physically active mean you haven’t noticed any changes?

    • Paul Sellers on 29 January 2020 at 7:26 pm

      Many things are my choice including my working day. Since taking on commitments as a married man at 22, mortgage and house bills, I have pretty much always worked a 12 hour day physically on average. I choose to work six days although Saturdays are more lenient and I might choose to do something else with family for part of it. My stamina remains about the same since I was 45. I take 30 minutes for lunch and exercise for half an hour in addition. I always start the day with exercise, breakfast, and then more exercise. My work begins around 7.30 with writing. I start in the garage most days around 9 and work there until 5.30. I have not noticed any deterioration in my ability to work physically at the bench making for full days.

  14. Lucian C Laurie Jr on 28 January 2020 at 8:56 am

    Not to mention the mental gymnastics of planning, visualizing, measuring, and assessing. The benefits of woodworking are as much mental as physical in. Y humble opinion.

  15. Bob on 28 January 2020 at 6:23 pm

    Having been a plasterer for 35 years (plastering is still all hand work, unchanged for millennia no doubt) and a hand tool woodworker for several, I would only add that, in my opinion it is critical to do some type of stretching and calisthenics to sort out the imbalances inherent in the work. No need to go to the gym, pushups are right there on the ground in-front of you, yoga has enormous benefits for the hard working body and mind

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