Lee Valley & Veritas Woodworking
Lee Valley 35 Years  
  Volume 7, Issue 5 - May 2013    
Working Smart in Your Shop
Some young hobby woodworkers seem to have unlimited energy to expend in their shops. At my age, I would need a time machine, which is not among the machinery found in my shop, just to keep up with them. Nonetheless, I don't feel aging has caused me to become less productive in my shop. In fact, I have completed at least one project, small or large, every month for the past three years. How do I pull off this age-defying trick? The answer lies in working smarter, which in practical terms means conserving energy and reducing fatigue. I focus on the following four areas when woodworking to keep me productive and in good physical shape.

Conserving Energy
What consumes energy when we work in the shop? Apart from pushing, pulling and lifting, walking and standing drain energy. I plan my shop and activities to avoid unnecessary walking. For example, everything I need while using the table saw, from push shoes to a featherboard to the crosscut sled, is kept at or next to it. All other machines and their accessories are organized similarly.

When starting a project, instead of getting one tool at a time as needed, I gather all the tools in one basket and bring them to the workbench. The tools are returned to their cabinets in the same manner at the end of the session. Also, I put oft-used items and tools (pencils, pocket rules, ear plugs, etc.) at every machine station and around the shop to eliminate trips to find a square or a rule. Lastly, I use remotes that I keep in my apron to control the lights, radio, dust collector and even the garage door.
Self-contained machine set-up   Gathering tools using a basket
A self-contained machine set-up helps improve your efficiency and decreases energy use.   Getting all the tools you need is made easy by using a shopping basket.
Compared to standing, sitting can reduce energy use by 20%. Japanese craftsmen often sit cross-legged on the floor while working with their hand tools. If you plan, you too can do many tasks while sitting, including assembly, using a mortising machine or scroll saw and other fine-motor tasks. My folding bar stool gets as much use as many other shop tools.
Do repetitive tasks such as drilling while sitting
With the right set-up, many repetitive tasks, such as drilling, can be done while sitting.
  Mobile machine station
  My mobile machine stations have storage space and are easy to put away so that the shop can be used as a garage at night.
Reducing Fatigue
To prevent wearing myself out, I usually limit each shop session to no more than eight hours per day. If I embark on a large project, I spread the work throughout the week. I also ensure that I take breaks. Studies have shown that stretch breaks help increase a person's endurance and reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injuries. I like to start around 9 a.m. so that halfway through the day I can have lunch and take a rest break.

Having proper footwear increases comfort and prevents fatigue. If I plan to stand for a long period of time, such as while sawing stock on the table saw, I use an anti-fatigue mat on the concrete floor. Finally, machines in my shop have mobile bases and can be positioned close to a project for quick access, if needed. Even the workbench can be moved around easily.
Using Proper Posture
Having poor posture while working can cause neck, shoulder and lower back pain as well as fatigue. Most of my machine set-ups allow my elbows to form a 90° angle, which is the general guideline for proper working height.

How high should a workbench be? Some determine bench height by using a simple formula such as measuring the distance from the floor to the crease on the wrist. Determine your bench height based on your own height and the kind of work you'll be doing. Having the bench at a lower height allows you to use the force of your body while, for example, handplaning, while having it at a higher level makes assembly work easier. On a low bench, you can raise the work to the proper height with aids such as a bench-top mini bench or a Moxon-style twin-screw vise.
Raise work to a comfortable working height
Raise the work to a comfortable height to benefit both your work and body.
If you suffer arm fatigue from using a metal plane, adjust your stance and use your body (not just the arm) to push the plane. Having proper posture and using proper techniques can help you avoid excessive fatigue. It can also lead to better woodworking results.

Managing Strains
Handling a 4'x8' plywood sheet requires heavy physical labour. At the lumberyard, I ask that the sheets be cut to size for the project, sometimes at no extra cost. This makes both transportation and storage easier.

When building jigs, I make them as light as possible. My cross-cut sled, for example, was built using 1/4" thick plywood for the base instead of 3/4" thick stock or MDF. It's easier to handle the sled, and I can even remove it from the table saw using one hand.
Build light-weight jigs
Make your jigs with stable materials that are strong but light.
Some tools, because of their design, weight or vibration, can cause wrist, hand or even shoulder strain. Often the solution is as simple as improving the grip on the tool by, for example, adding rubber sleeves onto a keyless drill chuck or wrapping a clamp handle with hockey tape. It is always a good idea to use the lighter versions of tools, such as a palm router or a smaller smoothing plane, if they can do the required job as well as the heavier models. If you're a hand-tool aficionado, use diamond stones to make your sharpening chores less physically demanding.
Improve the grip on a tool
Sleeves made from an inner-tube improve grip and torque on a keyless drill chuck.
In addition, consider limiting the amount of time you spend operating a high-vibration or heavy tool such as a sheet palm sander or big pneumatic nailer. For sanding, using a random orbital sander places less strain on your wrist, and some even feature a suspension system that reduces transmission of vibration to the hands.

As helpful as these shop habits and similar measures can be, we must be prepared to accept our limits and perhaps take a page from renowned teacher James Krenov's book. Best known for his cabinet work, he ceased making cabinets when his eyesight started to fail. Instead, he spent his later years making hand planes, largely by feel.

Text and photos by Charles Mak

Charles Mak is a businessperson and enthusiastic hobby woodworker, teacher, writer and tipster. He works part-time at his local Lee Valley Tools store.

Further Reading
CUErgo. Sitting and Standing at Work. Cornell University Ergonomics Web. http://ergo.human.cornell.edu/CUESitStand.html.

LeRoy, Thomas. "Pain-Free Woodworking." Fine Woodworking. August 1999: 74-77.

Miller, Jeff. "Body Mechanics." Popular Woodworking Magazine. December 2012: 44-47.

United Kingdom. Health and Safety Executive. Manual Handling Solutions in Woodworking. Warwickshire, 2000.
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