It will surprise many of you that in times past I set up my woodworking designs for machine-only methods that required me to spend 8-10 hours days operating two or three machines hour on hour. The orders kept coming in and I had set up mini production lines for the different products I made. The tablesaw, router table, spindle moulder (shaper USA), bandsaw, chopsaw, radial arm saw and jointer/thickness planer occupied a floorplan covering 14 metres by 14 metres with a single workbench for assembly in one corner. Health issues ranging from respiratory problems to days when I couldn’t walk through pushing wood into machines gradually emerged. I ended up working purely for money to the point that I lost interest in woodworking and pursued only. I had come to believe as many did and still do that this was essential to income without realising that my abilities with hand tools would have far surpassed anything I could achieve by machine. This reality caused me to take a reality check.

Was I enjoying my work? No!

Was I healthy? No!

Was I inspired? No!

I could go on and give you a hundred more issues I did no longer want to work with would but the reality was my work had become boring.

A comment recently made me aware of just what it took to disconnect from what had indeed become mainstream woodworking in the USA. Here’s another one. A 1989 man came into my workshop one day and asked if he could see my tools. There we were, standing in a premier hand tool woodworking workshop four metres by six, with walls host to a quite vast collection of vintage hand tools and slap bang in the middle was my three-foot by eight-foot-long workbench also set up with hand tools, and he was asking me if he could see my tools. I was at best bemused!

I asked back, “Excuse me”? looking around at the walls and bench and display tables laden with vintage tools.

“Your tools! can I see your tools?”

I said, “Well here they are, all around you.”

“No! Your tools.”

It was only then that I realised he meant the machines in the room next door. Dismissing what was in front of him, in my view, beautiful displays showing the golden age of handmade finely crafted hand tools in bronze and ebony, chariot planes, massive mortise chisels, Ultimatum braces, Norris planes and some hand-dovetailed, steel-soled versions, Scottish panel planes and a few hindred more. What he wanted to see was the machine setup I used. This pivotal point made me realise that woodworking machines had at some point been renamed power tools and to Americans, a tool was indeed whatever got the job done and what got the job done yesterday. How different this perspective seemed to me to be. Quite a distortion to my world altogether.

Breathing the wood dust from the machines I used daily had indeed caused my breathing to change, even though I always used a mask and dust extraction. My posture pushing, pulling, twisting and manoeuvring wood into, through and off the outtake of machines also cause serious physical issues. One day I calculated that my personal wellbeing was already compromised. Even though it had taken just a few short years to get there. Was money worth more than health? Of course, it wasn’t. Considering all that I did I decided I could disengage from the kind of world that was so invasively polluting. It wasn’t so much the atmosphere but the culture that was redefining how we worked using what. The great argument professional woodworkers reason is that you can’t make it using primitive hand tools. I started to argue back, ‘ You can’t if you don’t have skill.’ I did have skills and plenty of them. I could make anything a machine could make and I was about to pursue it. I could not risk losing my health and wellbeing to live as a part of the machinery. I must dismantle the conveyor belt until I settled on what I truly wanted. The only reason I did need machines was when I started the woodworking school. Preparing 600 pieces of wood for each class was impossible by hand. Doing the same for an individual piece, I needed only a simple bandsaw. That would do me.

Of course, many things have been introduced to make machining safer. Today you have downsized power feeds for replacing the push and pull of infeed and take off. Digital readouts and dialling in has simplified many operations but in a space of 10 square metres machines are just totally invasive, swallowing up valuable space, yes, but then that invasiveness is polluting too, the atmosphere is charged with both dust and noise, both of which don’t always go away when you switch off the machines. The process of machining demands a different protocol, a regimen that focusses totally on safe practices and much more. The periods of long-standing machining were over for me. Within a single week, I was in recovery and I do mean in recovery, recovering what I had lost. Not just recovering better health though, I was recovering my creative workspace and, not to be at all dismissed, this thing we now recognise as wellbeing. It’s all too easy in our cavalier-bravado, macho-being to say, ‘What’s this thing people are calling “wellbeing?We never used to use terms like that when we were out there doing it.’ Well, I might say the same, but I do recall men having problems at the start of a given workday, men who back then suffered from a Second World War post-traumatic stress disorder but that wasn’t named back then, and within minutes seemed more apt to recover themselves by somehow physically working. Our not having a name by which to identify something didn’t mean we or others didn’t have it, we just didn’t know it was there. I know many carpenters on job sites who get their greatest sense of wellbeing when working on a roof with a hammer and a handsaw and a mate to work with. That’s just a reality. I think too, even those that do rely on a chopsaw generally still enjoy the feeling of cutting something awkward to fit when it won’t fit on a chopsaw and they have to resort to using a handsaw and get there.

I have tried to encourage everyone to more seriously consider how woodworking using primarily hand tools can improve your life and in what ways. I know many of those in my first days of teaching wanted less to do with machines and more to do with developing skill. In that time I saw the more sedentary occupations taking over the lives of people and more men moved towards office work. An engineer, for instance, might no longer stand at a milling machine for hours but would develop computing knowledge and skills to preset machines to do what he once went out into the shop to do. This, of course, meant less physical exercise and more sitting. Weight gain was inevitable and so too the exercise physical work necessitated. It is now the same in many areas of woodworking where it has been replaced by wood machining coupled with technologies. Those who came to me had a desire to shift to become skilled with hand tools like myself. Working with computers, designing software, was how they paid the bills, so outside of that they shunned computers for the main part because they sought the demands of making with their own hands, bodies and minds working in synchrony. Mental and physical activity could thereby be dovetailed in the activity exercise of making just about anything they chose to from wood.

Last year I built my new shed. I felt my self-awareness reach different levels as I climbed the ladder to batten down the tin. I once again used more muscles than normal balancing on a rung atop a ladder. Over the weeks my mind improved as did my physical health and muscular development and that is for someone who does work standing every single day without much break at a workbench or in a workshop. These seemingly minor invlolvements in alternative ways of expending effort seriously impact us to create a sense of much better wellbeing. I think it is true that just about anything you do or make to improve your surroundings by making and repairing and maintaining will also improve your life on the whole and what may seem small, easing a sticking door or replacing a broken catch, anything, leaves you in a condition of feeling physiologically and psychologically better. This is especially so when you achieve something you were intimidated by or you procrastinated over doing. Improving things around you will automatically improve things within you. Overcoming a lazy attitude or making excuses not to do something will transform you and because of that or those successes you will go in search of other things to improve and be improved by. Developing any skill, even at the smallest level, is ever important to me and then too keeping in trim by repeating the work it takes as exercise can do nothing but good.

37 thoughts on “HealthinessWoodworking”

  1. Not to mention injury, never needed more than a band aid from hand tools, the jointer however swallowed the tip of my pinky finger like a tic tac

    1. Darren Wheatley

      Well thanks Keith, you’ve just ruined tic tacs for me… 😂

      Thankfully I’ve never done that, but I once sliced the very tip (fleshy bit) of my finger off with a marking knife and square!

    2. About a month ago I plunged a 1 inch wood chisel into the base of my hand and had to get 3 stitches. It was nice and sharp so it made a nice clean cut.

      Ironically, I was working on my workbench so I have proper work holding. I’m just glad it wasn’t an electric router!

      1. I think there’s a sellers quote about injury – something like “with hand tools, I always stop befor I hit bone!”

      2. Shortly after I learned to sharpen chisels and planes properly, I was taking a course in kitchen cabinet making. At one point the edge of my chisel touched my middle finger, leaving a cut which started oozing blood. I stuck it in my mouth (I know — that is not quite the way one should do it), and then wrapped it with a band-aid. Blood was oozing through, so I put another band-aid on, tightly — that stopped further bleeding. Through out the week, I put on two bandaids daily with antibiotic cream — on Sunday, I took the bandaids off, and the cut was completely healed except for a little flap of dead skin — I’ve never had a cut heal so quickly — I attribute it to the surgically sharp chisel; and, I have been even more careful how I use these tools since then.

      3. I did the same with a lathe chisel several years ago. I dropped it while putting it away and my stupid reflexes made me try to catch it. The urgent care doctor commended me on the cleanliness of my cut. Told me I should go into the sharpening business…

  2. An impressive post to read. Very recognizable to me. Shan’t go into the personal details. This particular quote stuck out the most:

    “I think it is true that just about anything you do or make to improve your surroundings by making and repairing and maintaining will also improve your life on the whole and what may seem small, easing a sticking door or replacing a broken catch, anything, leaves you in a condition of feeling physiologically and psychologically better”

    THAT! (insert plethora of exclamation marks)

    Only indirectly related to your post but something that came up in my mind immediately when I was reading your post: one thing I always love when sailing is that moment when you leave the harbour or sluice on engine (stomping marine diesel engine causing everything in the boat to vibrate and rattle), hoisting and setting the sails, then seeing them take hold and propel the vessel. Then comes the turning point: shutting down the engine. That sudden silence when the diesel dies down and you suddenly hear the gurgling of the water, the wind in the sails and the sounds of the seagulls. Hard to put into words just how much of a change it is. Same boat, same water, same location, utterly different experience.

    This first struck me when I was still a toddler and has continued to do so ever since. Again, hard to put the deepness of the experience in words.

  3. I grew up with machine tools, by that I mean in school the woodshop class was all machine tools (except the hammers) so when I started making things for around the house as an adult I started collecting the required machine tools and would often have to delay or skip a project because I didn’t have and couldn’t afford the right machine and my woodworking eventually tapered off to almost nothing.

    Then I was working on a cabinet and having trouble getting all my machines and gadgets to give me the precision I needed and went in search of other ways of doing things. I was looking for a better gadget or machine in reality but instead I found Paul. That was about 2 years ago, since then I’ve been selling off my machines (except my bandsaw) and even discovered I get better results from an S&J handsaw than I did with my chop saw and usually faster too. I also now have a backlog of projects and try to spend as much time as possible in the garage.

    I work in the IT industry, and it’s certainly a very sedentary one and has had a negative affect on my weight and physical fitness. I have a long way to go on that front but I have noticed hand tool woodworking has made a big help to get me more active

  4. The last part is really powerful. If you ever read the popular book “Getting Things Done”, the author talks about how your brain only has so many cycles, and each thing takes up valuable space. So that sticky door or broken catch etc takes up valuable space in the back of your mind. Getting this items checked off your list frees up your mind to focus on other things.

  5. Deep thoughts in this edition. Thank you for sharping your inner thoughts. For me, I have never been driven by woodworking. I enjoyed it as a sometime thing doing useful projects. There also was trapshooting, fishing, golf, tennis, dog training, and so many other pastimes. And I was a leader in my profession, driven to do the best I could, and creating new ways to accomplish the job. Now I’ve retired, woodworking is more my interest. YOU are a big part of my enjoyment. Over the years, I acquired machines to complete my projects. I lacked a mentor who could teach me to sharpen, so the saw followed a straight line, and the plane raises a fine curl. The frustration of working with hand tools was the lack of a properly sharpened tool applied in a way to coax a desired outcome. You are my mentor, thank you. I so enjoy using those beautiful saws and planes and chisels.

  6. What would it have take to have a all hand hand tool shop that would be as productive as a machine tool shop? When you switched over did production stay the same? Did quality improve? Could you make a living with just hand tools?

    1. The most difficult area is not the joint making equipment, you know, the power router, the mortising machine, not even the chopsaw or the power planers. I pretty much do without any of those and generally don’t go to others to do it for me either. No, it’s only the rough-cut, ripping down, resawing to near size by hand that is the most difficult time-wise and most of us do not have that time nor the energy. This afternoon I spent two hours using the bandsaw and a bench plane to dimension 20 pieces for my upcoming series. It took me two hours and that was fine because it was just the single most excellent stimuli in both physical and mental exercise I could want. I use a vernier to get the exactness from hand planing thicknesses and this is much more high demand to match the tolerances of a machine yet not relying on anything more than my own power of mind and body to do it. Because there is no dialling in and inserting wood to let the machine do the work for me, I must make decisions that match my energy and accuracy levels. When I was done just now I felt totally satisfied and I never once got that from power feeding wood into the machines I once owned. Also, the quality of finish from my hand planes means only minimal hand sanding and that would be the same for say a belt sander or an orbital sander. I think the bandsaw gives me the extra help and the balance I need to achieve so a bandsaw is important. I never want to go back to owning a machine shop again. Yes, I think I could for sure make a living from woodworking with hand tools but ther bandsaw is the deal-breaker.

      1. The part I have found Paul that I can’t stand is the thicknessing of the wood. I have used a scrub plane and gone from 3/4″ to 3/8″. I felt proud at the end but don’t want to do it on a regular basis.

        My solution, though somewhat expensive, is to pay a local mill to S4S and get wood to thickness. I don’t mind the rest of the work by hand. Of course, during times where I have been between jobs, I do it myself. Otherwise, I just save up and pay for this service.

        1. In my limited experience of the last few months building my workbench from very rough reclaimed roof trusses, I would definitely agree with you on this. Thicknessing wood by hand is quite a work out and has probably made up the majority of my time spent so far.

          Therefore I would say after a bandsaw I might consider adding a thicknesser too. Then again I assume much of the rough thicknessing can be done with the bandsaw and cleaned up by hand plane. So maybe not after all

          1. Please, no!!! That’s how I felt when I read this. But I do understand being time-strapped and indeed disability too. Pollution takes many forms not the least of which is noise, atmosphere and then just loss of space through that and more. Invest if a good bandsaw, work with it for six months, make certain you always have the right bandsaw blades in stock and that you learn how to set up a bandsaw correctly. Even the most compact power planer is highly invasive and much less needed than you might think if you use the bandsaw effectively. Just a few swipes with the hand plane will get you dead square stock in relatively short order and you will end up treasuring how little you have allowed invasiveness and the exercise that is so very beneficial.

          2. I’ve been tempted by the idea of a thickness planer as well because my re-sawing cuts would require so much work to get back to flat. But then I got a new much better bandsaw blade and all of a sudden it took a lot less work to plane. In fact I don’t have to plane it flat any more, just smooth it.

          3. Great, thanks Matt. The blades make a huge difference as does sharpness. No one should penny-pinch over blade buying nor push the blades for too long.

          4. Malcolm Smith

            Good post although I’m late to the show.
            I’ll state up front, I have no production pressures but I do believe in working smarter.
            I can understand the temptation of machines for dimensioning but if you are finding yourself with lots of work to do with a plane then you should stop and ask yourself why. The fact that a bandsaw and the like are appealing is because the best way to dimension stock (and limit excessive hand planing) is with a saw. I’d suggest keep practicing that key skill: get your body out the way; keep everything from shoulder to saw toe moving in a single plane; let the plate cut the way it wants too (straight); and try to remove the fear of cutting to the line (leaving more work to do later). (If needs be, make 2 lines and aim to cut dead on that ‘safe’ line – you might find removing the fear will see you dispense with those training wheels (line).
            Sometimes too a machine mentality creeps in – machines need more flat and true surfaces to work from than hand toolers imo. (I actually see some hand tool gurus encouraging steps to be done that are not necessary or done too early). So do what you need when you need it. Otherwise you can find yourself planing the same edge or face perfectly more than once.
            And when it comes time for planing, in my (very) limited experience, the biggest danger to losing that line is trying to full length plane out a hump so just spot plane the humps – better a hollow than a hump for final dimensioning.
            I used to enjoy producing shavings (still do, but more than now) but since I restored several 26/25 1/2″ rip saws and built in precticing, I now feel my scrap bin(s)/stack would let me edge band and (thick) veneer the Forth Rail Bridge.
            I’m not highly skilled or highly experienced and I remain an apprentice but by doing as much as I can with rougher tools, when I can/should, I find myself doing less.
            PS. My problem now is not yearning for a machine saw but rather for a bigass frame saw 😍.

  7. Like a gun in the waistbelt… People are into the undeserved potency all the power tools can give them and i have had this mindset that i just need another tool to start this and voyeuristically pore over eBay to boost my potential potency. Tho i may need some things.
    Thats again where having the tool guides has allowed me to be satisfied with what I’ve bought instead of chasing expertise thru ownership. Tho it can still get ya.
    I like to to consider what is said here often that the tools become an extention of your hands and mind — and so the most satisfying of the tools must surely be the ones pushed under your own steam.

  8. Voyueristic was an incorrect choice of word. I meant that u look from the outside in – not as a doer just a dreamer.

  9. I’ve been a trim carpenter since 1982 I’m 65 now and still have to get out in the field but if been doing hand tool only work in my shop and loving it I’ve learned a lot from Paul and always enjoy watching his videos when I sit down and relax in the evening

    1. I got into woodworking because my wife settled on a house she wanted that had been “re-muddled.” That and the original construction in 1929 was a little weak in places with nailed drawers in the cabinetry that were in some cases starting to fail. So, a good deal of the projects I have had were essentially finish carpentry. It’s really satisfying when you install trim, a shelf or new drawer and it looks like part of the original construction.

  10. Vivian Parker

    This was a wonderful post, along with the comments, which are all so heartfelt as well. Today I am wishing for all to be safe, and enjoying the peace and tranquility of meaningful work.

  11. Mr Sellers I really like what you said about not having a name for something back then not being the same as it not existing.

    My grandfather who fought in WW2 may very well have suffered from PTSD, especially as he was taken POW at 17 years older weeks before the War ended and spent 5 years in a Siberian work camp (he was made to fight for the Germans by his very patriotic father) .

    Only some 60 years later did he start openly talking about those experiences and I think that if people had known about and acknowledged PTSD, it might have helped him a lot.

    1. It was called various names at the times, from “nostalgia “ in the civil war, to “ shell shock” in WW1, to combat fatigue or battle fatigue in WW2, to operational exhaustion, etc.

      Actually George Carlin did a skit on it which is quite interesting and one of his more serious acts, look it up, a good watch.

  12. But then for a bandsaw, what is an actual truly “useful” resaw capacity. I looked into it and here in the US, the ones in my price range are all 10”. And all the 10” bandsaws I can find in the US have a max resaw capacity of 3-4”, whereas I saw in your blog a while back about a UK saw that had closer to 6”! I frequently need boards bigger than 3 or 4” so I haven’t bought one yet. Even if I save for a 14” saw that is a huge chink of real estate to take up valuable garage floor space.

    1. Whereas the thick cuts of over 4″ do need some extra oomph! 95% of cuts are under 2″ and then less than that. On an economy bandsaw like the one demonstrated you can cut higher than 4″ but you MUST have a sharp blade. Even on my 16″, I determine beforehand which cuts will require the greatest depth of cut and I cut those first. I also think nothing of cutting a wider board down in width to fit it onto the bandsaw and then joint the edges and glue back together.

      1. Hi Paul. I have been resawing boards by hand using my rip saw. Using a triangle pattern, switching back and forth from each side of the board. After this I plane down to my thickness line and have found it much more enjoyable and faster than using just the scrub plane alone for thicker boards. I am currently building the garden bench. I am using 1 1/2 ” thick construction grade pine from my local home depot ( for economical reasons- and it is looking very nice :)) Using the above ripsaw technique on the longer rails is difficult because of the length.
        What are your thoughts on a roubo style frame saw? I found a blade on highland woodworking for just $12.99. I am going to try to build a roubo frame saw to thickness the remaining rails.

    2. Having worked only with hand tools (including stock prep) for many years, I finally got a bandsaw last year. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I went for a 14″ model, and it was worth every penny to me. I have a hard time describing its many uses, but what I will say is that while resaw is nice (and I’ve got 12″ of capacity), you will probably find yourself ripping stock through the thinner dimension more often, among other things. In general, it helps you get to the business of your hand joinery quickly and without much fuss.

      Do you have any way to try one?

      Regarding floor space, you can get something with a mobile base that allows you to move it out of the way (and sometimes this is the only way that people can make it work). But if you get a benchtop model, you still have to have some bench spot to put it on. Keep your eye on the used market. Sometimes there are some really good deals out there.

  13. It has been my opinion that a man is the most happiest when he is building something with his hands. I am too the point where sitting on my butt in front of a computer is about to drive me crazy.

  14. Big Expensive Dirty Loud Amputating Machines? No thanks.

    I have been paid to do a variety of work: farm work; grounds maintenance; bust up and lay down roads; garbage and trash collection; factory work; retail clerk; more factory work. All this before finding my true calling.

    Of all those jobs, despite being indoors, despite decent conditions and better pay, the only work I really disliked was the factory work.

    It didn’t assault my soul or my health, it wanted my mind. Mowing a field, felling a tree, dealing with a jackass customer, even planning how to dump a heavy bent-up garbage can is more interesting than servicing a machine.

    I never intended to do woodwork. I made something for my brother, he said he’d make a frame for it, but he couldn’t, so I tried. I enjoyed the exercise. Next thing you know I’m researching cabinet saws, planers, jointers, router tables, band saws, dust collection systems…. You know, woodworking by the “book”. I was seriously considering sinking $18K+ and 350 square feet for, what exactly?

    Factory work! Except I have to pay for the factory and work for free.

    Thanks Paul for showing me I can do what I want so much more quietly, efficiently, safely and effectively. And my mind is welcome to tag along and help out.

  15. As an older woodworker and likely to be in lockdown maybe for months over this virus pandemic it seems an ideal opportunity to practice and develop hand skills whilst not consuming too much wood.

  16. I do have PTSD from active duty. I have always enjoyed working with wood. I helped my father as a child who built most of the furniture in our home.
    I have had to stop working in my profession due to my symptoms and have spent the last 5 years feeling incompetent as I lost that part of my life.
    It is interesting that I have purchased power tools to save time and attempt to overcome my own difficulties but have never been satisfied with the results.
    Veterans Affairs have approved a psycho-social rehab plan that includes 12 weeks with a local fine furniture maker. When I met him to discuss what I hoped to achieve he asked what i wanted to make as most of his ‘students’ come wanting assistance with a project. I do want to get to a live edge dining table made from timber milled from our property (red cedar, river she oak and tallowwood) but what I really want to do is learn how to sharpen my chisels, planes and saws. I want to be able to cut in a straight line and make a piece of timber flat and square. The rest will follow.
    Small steps

  17. Paul your so right!

    My son landed a wood machinist apprenticeship. After two years, hands ripped to pieces, and showing all the symptoms you describe, he finally had enough and walked out after a row with the boss. He turned to horticulture. There was a lot of spade work and general grunt to be done daily but he was in the fresh air and never looked back. He is now a manager in a huge garden centre and landscape section which he loves to this day. He never stops talking about plants and garden stuff so never happier.

    Thank fr sharing that story

Comments are closed.

Privacy Notice

You must enter certain information to submit the form on this page. We take the handling of personal information seriously and appreciate your trust in us. Our Privacy Policy sets out important information about us and how we use and protect your personal data and it also explains your legal rights in respect of it. Please click here to read it before you provide any information on this form.