Working Alone

In some ways i am used to working on my own. Even with a crowd around me I tend to isolate. Working with machines automatically isolates you. Especially is this so if you adopt the safety protocols machine woodworking always demands. But there is another kind of isolating that most if not all miss. When I am working the demands of focus filter out all the excesses caused by people, noise, sights etc surrounding you. When I am out in nature i constantly filter out sounds in a cacophony of birds to identify a single species. Trucks and cars in road noise too can be filtered out if you have the sensitivity to do it. In the workshop, my work keeps me in tune with the immediacy of whats within inches of my body, my eyes and my hearing. It isolates me in the midst of any and all else. I am used to it.

The last three months I have been alone every day apart from just the odd a half-day when someone comes in and keeps me distanced company as they do their work. Someone asked me how it felt to have such isolation. In reality, it really doesn’t feel much different for me than when everyone is in. Why? Well, I do miss everyone very much, but when I am making it’s as if I am translated to a place others may never experience or may not be cognisant of perhaps. I know the intensity of making can do that to us, but mostly it’s because, well, the radio is on or someone is chitchatting somewhere on the periphery of things. The isolating capacity of making is probably one of the most elevating and separating experiences we can enjoy but when we wear headphones, ear defenders, or have loud radio noise and music permeating the atmosphere we lose the fourth dimension available to us.

One of the most isolated times of my life. I will never forget this time carving these motif medallions. Not much to them but, well. they exemplify true isolation for me. One day I’ll tell you why.

I have been working to reorganise a 1,000 hand tools (I stopped counting). I am not recirculating them just yet because there are enough tools available out there times one thousand more than will ever be taken up or needed in today’s world. We just keep feeding the frenzied consumerist group with new stuff. I mean throwaway saws as in carpenter’s plassy-handled hardpoints whether westerners then too Asian pull-strokes and and such. Throwaways! You know! People buy into that stuff like they did the Stanley utility knife and such.

I sharpen my Stanley folding pocket knife blades for about two or three years before they get too small and thin. One day, as they have for three decades, each archived tool will go back into circulation. The ones I have tested out and tried and experimented with, I mean. They will be given away to those starting out on the hand tool journey. Then they will have that special meaning and value. Anyway, I say all of that to say I am enjoying the challenge of putting them into a retrieval system for sanity’s sake. I want to be able to locate a pin from a numbered box with a click of the mouse, except I use a pad on my Mac.

The past weeks have passed so quickly and I must say I have enjoyed the days immensely. I think adapting for me was easier than for most perhaps. I am already isolated in my work by my creativity and its insistence on total the total exclusion of extraneous events, information, noise, interruption, etc. In essence, it is the point of convergence for me. The epicentre of creative processing that in essence reflects my presence in another sphere–something like when rays come from the centre-point of light or a source of heat. In this, I lose all sense of time and space. My awareness of periphery may still be there but is at it’s very lowest point, perhaps even comparable to sleep.


Don’t get me wrong though. I am missing those who come in too. Whether it is those in the office, the studio, and then too those doing woodworking. Currently, Hannah and Jack are hankering to return and hopefully, half days will happen in the very near future. It’s people that we all need and we need them mostly because we love them not because we need them. Big difference. I have missed every single one of my friends here but soon things will change and we will reinvent a new future. The big things that won’t change will be consumerism, wastefulness, and excessive living. I am afraid we may have lost our moral compass on those.


  1. I find the wood I am working with is perfect company. The sound of my newly sharpened chisel cutting a cross grain mortise join in Blackwood, looking for another Fibonacci spiral off the plane or chisel, listening to the saw cut cross grain or ripping. The smells are a bonus from macrocarpa or Huon. I rarely look at the time. Sometimes think of my how my grandfather would have done the same job better because it was his profession, and just a very zen hobby for me.

    1. I have finally built a shop to indulge my love of working wood. As part of this my brother gave me several of my great great grandfather’s wood working tools. Included in this are planes by Stanley and Record as well as chisels from Buck and Stanley. After cleaning and sharpening them they all make a sweet sound that probably hasn’t been heard for over 100 years as my father and grandfather were never much for cabinetry like the original owner was.

  2. Solitude has never bothered me, on the contrary, I find it peaceful. But loneliness I’ve only experienced when in company. Schools are probably the loneliest places of all, strange as it may sound to some.

    Looking at the doors in that dumpster, I do feel a strong urge to jump in and remove the doorhandles, locks and hinges, and probably the glas panes as well, to recover for future use. Nowadays I might even recover the wood too….

    When I was a child I’d watch my father sharpen those Stanley-knife blades on the oilstone and grin, telling him he was supposed to throw it away and insert a new one. Guess who, a few decades later, sharpens his own Stanley-knife blades… (despite having a box of 100 of them, bought at a yard-sale for 0.50 euro, so no pressing need to re-sharpen old ones anymore). That attitude got deeply ingrained in me over my formative years. Most people probably say you shouldn’t resharpen simply because resharpening isn’t an option for *them* due to lack of skill.

  3. I too find myself slipping into a state of total focus when I am working on a project of some sort. It does not matter if it is a physical activity, like woodworking, or a mental activity, like writing computer code. When I am “in the zone” the rest of the world just falls away, and along with it, all the stress, angst, and worry about the world.

    I never feel alone when I am in this mode, just dialed-in to my task and my goal. I also find that when I let the outside world distractions or pressures creep in, my work suffers. This is particularly true when time pressure exerts itself (even something simple like my wife saying “it’s time for dinner” can break the trance).

    I like to have a bit of music going in the background, particularly when I am engaging in a physical activity. I don’t really pay attention to the music (if you were to ask me what the last song played was, I’d probably have no idea), but the rhythm of the music seems to settle into the rhythm of my work. It is also like a bit of spice on your dinner making the experience more enjoyable. When I think back on the activity, the music is there in my memory, albeit in a very abstract manner, and it makes me smile.

  4. Thanks Paul. What I like about woodworking is that while doing it, I am 100% mentally in the current moment. Not thinking of the past or future.

    Talking to those that I care about on the phone is different than being in person. I used to spend one night a week at my dads house but not now. Sure we talk a lot on the phone. It’s not the same as being with him.

    1. Hey, Joe. Over the years I have come to understand that tomorrow does not yet exist and yesterday is long gone even at one second past midnight–neither exists. So what I do in the here and now affects today and tomorrow only. Tomorrow has enough troubles of its own so I dwell in the here and now where we are supposed to live and breathe and have our being. There are boundaries to our habitation and they are geographically established and limited. That simplifies things too. Don’t you just love the simplicity of all of that.

      1. Paul not only are you a bright star in the passion of crafting wood to your will, you have a wonderful philosophical view of the world around you. Please keep on inspiring others as you do in your own inimitable way. I would love to bump into you on the riverbank and watch kingfishers as they flash across the water whilst we discourse.

  5. During this isolation period I’ve passed a lot of time in “double” isolation. Not only isolated at home with my wife, but isolated in the shed of the garden, where my workbench is. I’ve restored two planes and two saws, with the sound of rain as only company. Despite of situation, it has had a good effect on me, since I like to be alone and concentrated when I do things like that.
    I’m an absolut lover of music too. My personal “library” of vynil records and CDs reaches about 1000, bought and listened all along my life, but when I working with tools and wood I prefer silence. I never listen music when I’m on the workbench, since it affects my concentration. And as woodworking, when I’m listening music I normally don’t do anything else, since I want to listen that music without losing anything of it. Same with reading -about 1500 books at home-, and so on.
    I don’t like to watch TV or cable TV channels, but I’ve passed a good heap of hours watching Paul’s videos. It has been the only person that has come in into my house during isolation period.
    I’ve missed my friends and my family these past months, of course, but I really enjoy to be alone when it comes to make things like woodworking, listening music or reading.

  6. Hey Paul, one thing that has really helped me not feel so isolated lately is the live Q&As you have done. Seeing you in real time with very handy tips and answers, plus interacting with other woodworkers on the chat in real time. Keep up the great work!

      1. Great! I don’t even know what I don’t know. So I always pick up several things new to me that I wouldn’t think to ask.

  7. Trapshooting, fishing, and woodworking are not the same, but they have similarities. For 20 years I walked to the firing line at shoots and at practice, leaving my world behind and having only my “tool” and the target in my world for those moments. I also experience the same “divorce “ when entering a stream to fly fish. I step into another world. Each experience gives me peace.

    1. I was a trap shooter 50 years ago, then rifle, now pistol shooter. Fly fishing for trout in Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, or Wisconsin with my elder son has afforded me great pleasure and wonderful memories. Although I have been in the architectural/commercial millwork business for about 50 years, I was always on the admin side, and never learned the trade. Only now am I learning to appreciate the simplicity of a Lie Nielson #5 or a Veritas #4 and what they can do and how to make them do that work as compared to the power and complexity of a Weinig 22 AL11+1 moulder, or similar, which probably makes all of the standing and running trim for all the homes built today. All kind of different, yet all kind of the same.
      The solitude of all three endeavors brings me pleasure and relief from the hustle and bustle of the world around me.

  8. The whole covid thing hasn’t affected me too much. I’m retired, live in the boondocks and spend quite a bit of time in my wood shop which is about 100 feet away from the house. Funny though, I do talk to the wood and to myself a fair amount. I never used to do that. Maybe it’s just me getting old. A neighbor stopped by the shop the other day and asked who I was talking to. “The only one who truly understands me” was my reply.

  9. The focus and quietness are difficult for some to understand, but craftsmen, creators, scientists all seem to know about that pleasure and productivity of that kind of mental isolation and quiet. There is nothing but you, a tool, and the wood, or what ever you are focusing on. Thinking seems to arrive in pieces and you discover as you try to explain your thoughts, that they are much more complicated than they seemed when they emerged.

  10. Dear Paul

    My comments are a bit off topic but as always I hope you are doing well, eating well and having regular skype meeting with grandchildren. Grandchilden especially young grandchildren are great for grandparents because they have a way of really making a grandparent feel special.
    Recently I got two of the Chinese marking gauges that you recommended and I really like them, the hardwood has a lovely feel to it and with a small bit of sharpening the gauge is perfect for my needs. I both two of these gauges and I was very happy with quality control of both gauges and also the high quality of both gauges especially the brass.
    I have taken a break from woodworking due to the pressures of matters outside the shed but I did some tonight and I will be back at it tomorrow again.
    Keep up the woodwork and the blog.

  11. Mindfulness is like a foreign country and it takes a lot of effort to get it.
    If a dramatic event occurs that is shocking or changes your relationships and routine, senses get heightened and time slows down and the world is fresh. This is a window to mindfulness. Over a few months the world gets faster, u start drinking coffee, blaring the radio, scanning the net,, getting tired and staying up late searching for peace and then back to work or something.
    Loneliness i reckon really gets a grip when u start buzzing in the anti mindfulness world too loud and don’t have the tools or the tools leave u to engage your mind. Like depression or age, disability and dementia.
    Although creativity is like the light, Hope is like the sweet sleep.

  12. I have finally set up one half of my garage as a workshop and begun the process of learning some hand tool skills. I enjoy being alone after working for 41 years in a factory and office. You are more isolated in an environment where your and everyone around you is putting on a kabuki play of social interaction than when you working and concentrating alone on something you enjoy or that is meaningful to you. Before it gets too hot, I am off to the garage to try and establish the 10° angle on the wedge on my rebate plane. Thank you for the instruction and inspiration.

  13. I truly enjoy being in my shop. I especially enjoy the isolation of being alone with the company of my radio . The back ground noise is soothing when I stop to think about the next step or procedure I am going to do. Being by myself has proven to be truly rewarding also. I have better concentration and and more awareness of the task at hand . O work safer, think clearer and get more done. Watching your videos and reading your blogs has been a tremendous help. Thank You .

  14. I appreciate your reflections Paul, keep them coming. I too find time seems to fly by when I am in the shop either working a piece of wood or sharpening my tools(thanks to your video(s) on sharpening). Especially in these times with so much going on in the world, my time in the shop working the wood is very cathartic. A little cello music in my headphones while working the wood seems to lower my blood pressure.

  15. Just by the very nature of what we do this is a form of isolation. As well, being deeply focused on a project leaves one in a Zen state where nothing exists around you. I do not know how many times my wife of 46yrs has lovingly left me a cup of coffee beside me on my bench only to find it half hour later cold. There are not many like us that create in wood so there is never a crowd anyways. Just be thankful that we have a wonderful hobby that sometimes pays for itself and is an absolute delight around Christmas or birthdays. Our friends treasure the little gems we make for them or for repairing old memories. We are truly blessed and even at 70 I have more than enough capacity to spend the day in the shop either working or puttering. There is ALWAYS something to either finish, organize or dream up. And then there are jigs…. A friend asked one day “What do you do in your shop?”. My quick response was “whatever I want”. If I can dream it up I can make it. How many people do you know that can do that? As I say, we are blessed.

  16. Always, from adolescence on through adulthood, great is that time alone with my closest friends – tools and machinery of any sort and type. Being with close family, extended family, friends and professional colleagues is a welcoming and dear part of life. But to have that solace with tools, that is special.

    Whether it was mowing a remote field, plowing snow from a long lane alone late at night, in the workshop fixing something, or better yet, now there making something, it has always been exceptional working with inanimate but such willing partners. The tools have always been, there ready to be taken up to the tasks at hand, competent of their repertoires and in their executions, and lending an almost visual attitude of ‘let’s not just make this work, let’s make this work out as best as can be”. What fun!

    Then inevitably, once a particular session ends, and after each tool or machine has been maintained carefully, each returns stoically to its assigned parking space, ready to go at it again. Upon gazing at the session’s product, I’m left with a sense of “Yeah, OK. But that time in producing it with tools was the worth.”

  17. Thanks for your thoughts here Paul. I get a lot of what you’re saying and I’ll be mulling over some things as your words make me think. I’m very pleased to be learning from you, both with woodworking from your videos and also in ways other than woodworking when reading your blogs. Best regards.

  18. The simple truth is that there is a significant difference between ‘being alone’ and ‘loneliness’

    ‘Loneliness’ is a consciousness of being solitary, against ones desires or needs. Hence the punishment of being sentenced to solitary confinement .
    ‘Being alone’ is often when we are so absorbed in what we are engaged in activities such as reading, listening to music, thinking, or even working (wood or otherwise), that we do not desire or need the presence of another person.
    So we see that whilst ‘loneliness’ is a problem, ‘being alone’ is often a joy, and indeed, a necessity of life.

  19. Loneliness is mans greatest fear. Even as he grows older and looks for solitude he can’t overcome loneliness. He goes into his workshop and he plays his music and has his dog to talk to but he can’t stand total solitude. Like a child with a security blanket those props such as dogs and music soothe him, they are his security blankets. They can’t function without back round noise or the movement of that old dog to make them feel not so alone. His obituary reads “he will be missed by puppy and kitty and please donate to the SPCA”. Is retreating to a shop really a joy or merely a form of mental therapy?

    1. Well, Mr. Whalen, you seem a “Glass Half Empty” sort of soul. I can just imagine the sort of toasts you’d give at happy events like, say weddings, for example. If therapy is your profession, I’d suggest you hire a professional besides yourself.

  20. Not long ago the Mrs. and myself put an old metal cart in front of the house out by the curb with a sign: Free Stuff
    We were able to get rid of quite a bit of items we no longer have a use for, but were wanted by others. Funny, we had to make another sign: Don’t take the cart or trap. We had to cover things because of all the rain.
    Anyway, a small pile of tools quickly found new homes. I have no idea if anyone will ever figure out that cheap junk Stanley plane, but better them than me..

  21. There’s a childlike joy in only having the bare essentials in tools and knowing them and admiring them.

  22. You are not alone when you go home to your partner at the end of each day. The same person you saw when you awoke this-morning. They’re even with you in many ways when you’re apart.
    Being in a workshop by yourself, isn’t being alone. You’re doing things, making things, for other people. Part of a Company, a community, and a family.
    Alone is when there is no-one. When nothing you do affects anyone but you.

  23. I must say your website is excellent with lots of information on how to work with and improve my wood working skills.
    Due to the lockdown I have build a workbench, I have been looking at your link to add a record vice that I got recently from the UK. It is now installed and I am ready to make something from wood that I have found rewarding.

  24. Paul, you haven’t posted since this blog – we’re all getting a bit worried I think!

  25. Hi Paul, and other writers and readers,
    I have been mostly a reader, I love to read Paul’s blog, and a lot of time is spent reading the replies he gets. If is helpful to get other peoples persective on what Paul has written and how folks have interpreted his writings. I have been alone in my own head for years now, I might even say my entire life. I was the child who rather played by himself then with others. I guess having been the bullied child kind of put me in this place. I have grown accustomed it. Even in the USN I prefered to be alone. While over the years it has caused me some trouble, with drinking and drugs. I am in a good place now in my life as I am entering my soon to be retirement years, my wife would like me to work till I am 70 but my thoughts are go out when I am 66 and work part time.
    While I know some of my thoughts might sound like I need some help mentally, I was lucky enough to get that help years ago. I have come to grips with my mistakes in life and now I am in a good place. I love woodworking and Paul and you all have helped me a great deal. I thank each of you I have built quite a few of Pauls projects and I am just finishing up some bedside tables for my daughter. So thank you all for taking the time to listen and express your thoughts it is greatly appreciated. Regards to one and all.

  26. Hi Paul I’ve learnt a lot from your videos, being an ex trade teacher in the secondary area I have enjoyed your banter. My reason for contacting you is I’m re-cutting teeth into a tenon saw 12 tpi as the old teeth were all over the place. I understood the majority of your directions but for some reason I’m missing a necessary component which is the depth of the teeth as per various tpi????
    Thanks Warren

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