Is Woodworking Self-care :-)?

Well, of course, it is!

It seems that all things extra in life now carry the added titles of well-being, mental health care, and quality of life together with two dozen others. Often this state of well-being breaks down into something encapsulated as physical wellbeing it’s really a relatively new term identifying what has always been there.

Physical well-being refers to your state of physical health which includes every aspect of your life: we have emotional wellbeing, social wellbeing, intellectual wellbeing and spiritual wellbeing. In times past we asked someone how they were and if they were honest and they knew you well enough they might share any one of these elements with you to say what has concerned them recently. In most cases, we say fine when we are not really fine. We keep to ourselves what needs keeping ‘private’. That’s the most common practice unless we really know someone.

In my world of making, most areas of well-being are taken care of in the planning, designing and making of things. How on earth is that possible? Well, planning itself is an outreach of future. When we plan we hold a hope for something yet to come and that something to come carries the very dynamism of power we need to reach forward into a future that unfolds second by second as we enter in. Hope, by its very nature, can seem more to be a sort of nebulous term. The sort of thing where we say something like, ‘I hope so, better keep our fingers crossed.‘ Or, ‘I’m wishing for a good outcome.‘ For me, these terms seem altogether pretty hopeless. How about what really does happen when we engage with the idea of planning, making and delivering? Something like, ‘I made some changes this week that work.’ and then, ‘I don’t know, but just the thought of making this new project really inspired me so I cleared and cleaned out my garage and put things in order so I could make a new bed.’ These positive statements tell it the way it is inside our brain and show action with words as steps of faith.

Engaging proactively with work we choose to do or engage in for good reasons releases the chemicals dopamine and serotonin which are the unseen molecules that send out signals we generally refer to as happiness. Happiness and hope are interlinked to deliver a sense of sensory pleasure. These are memorable events that engage in release when we make just about anything, grow anything, cook and bake anything. The serotonin part of the release, though similar to dopamine, creates a long-lasting feeling of being comfortable in our making mode and it doesn’t need to depend on our being particularly good at it either. Happiness and well-being are hinged at the knuckle like a finger to the hand or two hinge flaps where one is the anchor and the other is the moving part.

My brief skirmishes into the greater world for different things are a bit like food foraging in different seasons. While blackberries are out of season right now, but I think fondly of forays yet to be with my granddaughter carrying a plastic bucket. This is always the case when an idea pops into my head and a sketch in my brain tells me how it can be done. My brain muscle (it’s not a muscle but it does need exercising regularly) is working its way around any problems I see to deter me. I overcome them and before I know it I have designed a tool like a router plane or a new-looking marking gauge that knocks the socks off of all others.

The idea of making immediately reaches forward to this thing called future and the creation of events that are solutions, but not ones only for me, it’s for others too. Consider first how even the very thought passing through the brain left- to right-side thinking begins the transition and the transmission. This is where the chemistry in our brains releases minute proteins that readily send a sense of feeling better about things across the blood-brain barrier to work its way in increasing positive internal feelings as what we now refer to as our well-being. It gives us a lift in spirits to help and enable us to generate the power we need to overcome the kind of lethargy and can’t-be-botherdness and once we take that very first step it’s as if the waters part for us to break through into an inspired day. The fact is that these efforts and energies are not merely two-dimensional and much more than three-dimensional as they break down any and all walls of resistance to enter dimensions we never dreamed possible and still know almost nothing of. That’s why through the years I have found myself still working into the early hours following nothing more than an idea; after already being in the making zone since 6 AM the previous day, the flow of work bursts on through the usual barriers to creativity as unique periods when I accomplish and accomplished my very best work, achieved what seemed so very impossible, crossed the barriers and such like that. How many times did I want to give up when a design didn’t quite come right but perseverence and determination gave me the chemistry I needed and I felt remarkable for days after. This for me has always been the power of making. Multidimensionality of this kind, thinking designs into dimension and then following through with the energy and power making brings comes from an inexplicable inner drive that no one else can give you. Now imagine how this will affect your mental attitude.

A long time ago, 40 years now, my body was breaking down through a medically incurable disease. From what the doctors specialising in that particular field said, it was irretrievably so. Taking stock of what was said, and surgery offered no positive fix beyond a temporary relief, I signed myself out and started a regimen of self-help but still relied on the medical team for what they did best which was X-raying, blood testing other valid and valuable support. In essence, this mechanism of taking charge was the first step. Other steps followed which included researching how others had achieved their own successes towards improved health. As each day passed I felt a release to progress whatever I could take charge of and made many lifestyle changes with each one leading to improvement. I then adopted those that gave me the best results as part of my lifestyle. This in essence is a culture. By its very nature, culture is the power to change but it’s not merely some kind of temporary diet but a total adopting of elements, rethinking what habits we have, working differently and so on. There was a time when I worked to make money. I realised that the need, though still great, had to change. I didn’t need two or three vehicles, a big machine shop, two and three vacations a year and such that people seem to think will take out stress. I just needed to live the kind of work I wanted to. Literally, get myself off any kind of conveyor belt and try to understand why I had done or was doing what I was doing and especially so if they were just habits. Often, we are carried along by circumstances and of course, we can’t usually just quit because many things we are involved in cannot just be stopped or dropped just like that. But we can begin to slowly dismantle what we had gradually established over a number of weeks, months and years. For me, at one period, much of it had been diet. Then it was dismantling the way I worked to reverse some if not all of the negative elements that took away my joy. How is it possible that square cutting my wood using a handsaw and a plane can give me so much more than a chopsaw or a radial arm saw? Well, it’s really simple. When I held classes for twenty students needing as many as 100 pieces of wood ready for the class it was impossible to hand plane up and size 2,000 pieces with four sides and two ends by my own hands. Teaching 1.5 million people online each month on the other hand meant I could hand cut, plane and bandsaw every project and prototype I made and in that process show to others that not only was it possible, it might well be what they wanted and needed for their own wellbeing. How much more would that be for any individual following me who wants the addition of self-discipline, character building and so on to add into a better lifestyle in their own lives? My own lifestyle was greatly improved by thinking then of others too.

I suppose in my world I am used to things self-healing. My body generally takes care of itself but not always. Sometimes, I need added support that only comes from outside myself. After my hand surgery, the next morning when I woke up, I couldn’t wait to go to my workshop and see how my hands would now make. Wow! But one thing I was told was that the medical team had done their part. The real work would now rely on me. Whereas the occupational therapist and the doctor guided me about pressure and such, they didn’t tell me what many tried to tell me online which was, “Be kind to yourself.” “Take your time and don’t do too much too soon.” Things like that. I realise that they were trying to be kind. What I actually needed was regular and consistent exercise and funnily enough a lot of that was to actually include almost everything `i was doing in my day-to-day using hand tools in exactly the same way I always had. Stretching, twisting, pulling pushing and so on. It was amazing how quickly things fell back into place. A big part of my work includes seamless transitioning from exercising on my bike cycling to work followed by DIY cooking my breakfast. Cooking for me is not throwing eggs and bacon into a frying pan and waiting ten minutes. I don’t eat meat and I can’t eat the usual carbohydrates other people can with pastries, cereals, fruit and such. I have to weigh most food and choose foods for energy.

I know at the younger end of the age spectrum we might be more concerned about the great issues rather than longer-term personal health care, after all, well, we’re healthy anyway. But knowing what I believe I know now I could probably have kept myself in prime physical health had I understood that health can be managed into a lifestyle that at the very least considered where and how I lived, what I was putting into my body and much, much more. A job should be more than just a job and so too a place of work. I have always worked with very creative people in all realms of making life. They enrich my life and hopefully, I inspire and enrich theirs. There is perpetual symbiosis every day and we spark initiative in cross-pollinating as we go through our workdays. And it is not just in the workplace either. I have been enjoying printmaking since I took a course in intaglio printing a couple of seasons back. This has led me to other courses and art events outside my daily work but in the spheres where other creatives work and enjoy sharing the workspace. Coming away after a two-day event I find myself smiling, recalling, and valuing in that deeper way work alone brings. Yes, I consciously use the word work because I see work as having the deepest of all values where the work invested results in great levels of self-care and to such a degree I can actually feel what I call ‘after-healing’ which is always still taking place both from the physical time of being at the work and then in equal measure for a prolonged period beginning at the immediate point of leaving and then reaching forward into what I spoke of earlier, future. The process of simply making is like dynamite in blasting away any kind of doldrums to release joy by working at just about anything with my hands.

So hopefully we see how physical healthcare includes every aspect of our bodies and physical wellbeing includes mental healthcare. These two are not two separate entities but interactively linked. There is nothing lightweight about working and if we can take stock of our personal lives to allocate some space to pay complete attention to something we love to work at then one hour in any given week of tedium might well be enough for recovery to blast off. In my days of direst need my handwork has always changed things for me and often when I least expected it. So many of you out there have shared many a dozen emails or cards with me telling me how you changed your lives by becoming woodworkers only to realise that it was by becoming woodworkers first that you were indeed able to change circumstances that you never thought could possibly be changed.

And that is why I do what I do!


  1. Where I grew up and lived it was called the “ Protestant Work Ethic “ while it had nothing to do with being Protestant it was taught and enforced in my father’s household. As a youngster I didn’t like it much! I was doing what seemed to be endless pointless work when my friends had all times to themselves to do as they pleased, they were even allowed to watch television!
    Eventually it worked into my personality, I was always doing something useful around the house. It didn’t do much for my social life at the time, I really didn’t fit in.
    Over the years I found this work ethic served me well and now in my “retirement “ I “work” just as hard as I did for other people. I have been making household furniture for over 45 years with no real formal training except for what I can observe from other people. I have many other interest as well learned the same way or just by doing. I don’t know what I’d do with myself without these things.

  2. Paul, first I would like to thank you for your blogs and videos. I live in Houston Texas and my father was a carpenter who trimmed houses for well known builders in the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s. I want to thank you for introducing hand tools to me through your videos. Although my father has long since passed away your videos bring me closer to him and help me to not forget all the fond memories I have working with him every summer from the time I was 12 till I was 20, (family business). I am repainting one of the rooms in our home and I had an opportunity to expand on some built in shelves so I seized the opportunity. I am including a picture of my no 4 stanley hand plane that I am using to smooth the surface of the new shelves. I like the idea of using a hand plane instead of a sander. You get a smoother surface, no dust in the air. Cleaner for my lungs and HVAC system. Not to mention the cardio workout. By the way because I know how to sharpen and tune up the plane( thanks to your videos) it worked like a charm. It was enjoyable to use. Keep up the good work and God bless. I guess I can’t include a picture but that is ok.

  3. paul, please consider (in your spare tine??) compiling your blogs into a book:
    ‘paul sellers -a lifestyle woodworker-‘ and sign me up for the purchase of a copy or two or…

  4. Woodworking sure is self care! Not only do I get exercise, but it is a mental thing too! If I am “antsy” and feel a bit restless, I become a bit “edgy” and loose patience with my kids – I need to DO something. Going to my shop and work on a project, or even just do a 5-minute tidying up or sharpen a tool, brings back tranquility and peace.
    I can see the same thing in my kids. I have two daughters, 5 1/2 and 7 1/2 (that half year is important at that age!), and when they start arguing and bickering and cannot play nicely, it is time to go outside or do some practical thing – baking, arts & crafts, building with Lego or what have you.

    Man is made for work, not idling through life. The need for doing physical work, to handle physical objects, is inate in us. I can visualize things in my head or on the computer, but physically drawing on a sheet of paper is the best method.
    I find all of this very revealing about our human nature.

    PS: I just finished a project where I cut dovetails – and the dovetails were nearly perfect straight off the saw! Could you imagine! I have become skillful enough to achieve something like that. 🙂
    That is really something!

  5. “Plan to succeed”… One of the many useful lessons the Royal Navy taught me. Forming a strategy that utilises your strengths and assets to lead inevitably to your desired outcome.

    I have some American White Oak boards arriving soon so I have refreshed my favourite saws and #4 plane, my chisels and mortise gauge and cleared the bench and my mind.
    All is clear; I’m ready!

    Thanks, Paul. Have a good day.

  6. Hi Paul, thank you for this’s particular blog. Very interesting to compare your sentiments and aims with those of ours. We have just created a new “Men’s Shed” near Fleet in Hampshire. I believe our goals match yours in both the field of men’s mental health, physical wellbeing and a joy of woodworking. Thank you for all you do for both.

  7. I’m looking to make your marking gauges from a couple of years ago on YouTube. Would love to hear more about the marking gauge in the picture above.

      1. Waiting on bated breath. I have learned so much from your teaching. Next project is a dining room table for our family

  8. Wow! Well said Paul. You are quite a philosopher, somebody with a lifetime of insights, as well as a generous, productive, pragmatic and creative maker and teacher. 🙂

    I hope some Universities honour you. You deserve recognition. Both sides of “the pond” and elsewhere. And perhaps by HRH, as the US President already did ( a CBE rather than a commission at this stage?)

    I should follow your approach to diabetes more; I recently changed to fried bacon, egg, tomato and full fat Greek yoghurt with blueberries for breakfast ( i.e. fat over carbs – fat can be slimming paradoxically). A bit more like my dear old grandpa ate every day – and he was cycling, slim and fit into his Eighties, despite smoking and drinking in moderation. Your approach seems tough but sometimes that is more committing (and effective) than more moderate changes. :). Continued good health!

  9. Good day Paul,

    I enjoyed this week’s philosophical view on life you wrote. Like you, I too am working through my medical set backs. Last summer I had surgery to remove a meningioma tumor behind my left eye. The surgery went well; however, I struggled for months afterward to get back into the shop. The desire was there but my ability to work on a project for any amount of time was short lived. You can guess my frustration. But the old adage we all know – time heals all wounds. As I pen this note I’m waiting for the second coat of lacquer to cure on my latest project, and I’m working on my kumiko box dimensions of my next project.

    Paul, it was your videos and weekly emails, among others, that got me back into my shop with a goal of making one project a month.

    Thank you and keep up the good work.

    C’est si bon,

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