When my hands ache from working, I remember the opening days entering the workshop to my apprenticeship and using hammers and mallets that gave me my first blisters. Not having worked more than an hour or two a week with my hands in school, they were indeed unprepared for eight hours of hammering and banging, driving nails and such. My first job was making something like 100 batten doors from T&G 4 1/2″ wide boards that were nailed to three crossledgers and two diagonal bracings; that was about 90 nails per batten door, all of which were nailed through by a 16-ounce claw hammer and then clenched over on the opposite side and points punched back in with a nail set to sink below surface. We completed a door every half hour, so sixteen doors a day each day for a week. These blisters formed at the four points where my fingers connected to my inner palm. The hope was always that they wouldn’t burst — they inevitably did. Could I stop nailing and do something else. “Don’t be such a “*****!”, would have been the only answer. No one those days dared wear cotton gloves with plasticized palm grips for fear of such name-calling and worse. Aside from that, these gloves had yet to be invented.
In those early days, no one I knew at the time used tape measures. We all had what we called a three-foot, four-fold ruler made by the then Rabone Chesterman Company from boxwood. By 1970, these were rendered pretty much obsolete by Britain going metric which was dubbed many to be a dumb move. At first, I did think that that meant ‘they’ felt it was a stupid move to adopt a metric system, but I realised later that it didn’t mean that at all. It meant that it was more a means of dumbing down everything to a system that required little or no thinking, in the same way, changing the British pound from 240 units to the pound to a base of 1/100ths. Mentally, we who had been trained to use both imperial and metric systems, be that measurement systems or money, were caught in between the generations and the mainland aspect of the continent of origin. For those used to it and raised with it from birth, imperial had a sort of cozy comfort feel to it and separated the men from the boys of that era, apparently. I think it was that feet and inches, imperial as it was known, took some brainpower to figure out its multiples and to divide them mentally as you were working. The then pound was divided into shillings and pounds. Twenty shillings to the pound and 12 pennies to the shilling resulted in 240 pennies to one pound. The pound was also divided by other coins such as crowns, half-crowns, sixpences, threepences and also quarters of a penny known as farthings. Imagine 960 farthings to a pound. Dividing 5/32nds of an inch into four is more difficult for an exact fraction in imperial than dividing 5mm by four, that is until you got used to it. Whereas the metric system didn’t need too many brain cells at all, the thought then was that it was good to stretch the brain as much and as often as you could, so “they” said. The three-footer, with 36″ to a yard, folded neatly into 9″ increments via brass knuckles and slid neatly into a long leg pocket, knee-high on the outside of the right leg where the knee folded. The metric versions were just that fraction longer at the fold points but longer they were and it never quite fit the knee-fold quite the same. Try as they might, Rabone had both yard and metre in a single rule, so there was always that 3.37-inch gap to the imperial side, resulting in a blank space twixt the two measuring systems. It always seemed as though someone had forgotten something.
By the time I was introduced to metric my hands no longer blistered and they haven’t done so for five decades to date. So it is with the human body. It adapts, absorbs and develops its own ways of protecting itself. I have no segs or callouses in the palms or on the fingers of my hands which seems funny. Here is a reality too, switching topics but still around health. When I used machines over the many years that I did, I might spend prolonged periods on one machine or another. It was nothing to spend eight hours on a table saw or at a spindle moulder (shaper USA) or router table or shoving wood into the gaping jaws of a thickness planer. No power feeds for us at that time. The shunts and shoves took their toll. During the more industrial periods of my life when I was younger I inevitably suffered many different aches in my back. Some issues would take me out for a week at a time. By that, I mean I couldn’t stand or walk straight up. It didn’t make any difference how much time I spent with the occupational therapist advising and training me, the constant repeating of actions to get wood into and through a machine day after day always resulted in bodily injury at some point, often later in life, and not so much at the time. Of course, this is in commercial settings and not in the amateur circles of home use. Since those days, the past 30 years, I have not had any back issues and I am glad my brain is not fogged up from years of only machining wood.
What I love about my handwork is that my body gets just about all of the exercises I need. Stretches come for maybe an hour or two a day just by planing alone. My legs spread in strides and widths simply by the requirement of bracing to push against a fixed position to get every plane stroke through each full thrust I make, and then through adjusting my height because the workpiece is too heavy to lift into focus. You would be surprised how much you lower and raise your height for different tasks just by adjusting the spread of your legs. How much effort these strokes of working take is of course never measured but it is very sizeable, especially when you think that I will indeed take a thousand full-length strokes in a few hours of a given day and that I do this every day at different points. This can be planing, sawing, spokeshaving and axing wood. Add in to this the fact that we are constantly lifting and moving wood and projects too. And then, of course, there are other efforts we exert in the day to day to day of making that maintain muscle and sinew to keep the body in as optimal a condition as it can. I did think of something recently, please don’t shoot me down too readily, but I have worked manually for at least 8-12 hours a day, six days a week, for 56 years going on 57. I actually don’t know anyone that has worked for 56 years. It is not a common thing. I have a contraction in both my hands that causes me no pain. I have no ache anywhere in my body except for some muscle ache caused by the covid vaccine that is almost gone now. I have no aches or pains resulting from my physically working standing at the workbench and moving round the workshop in the day-to-day. In four months’ time, I will hit 72!