The physical work of making things

I love making things. I draw, I paint, I sew both by hand and with a machine, I knit, I crochet, I use power tools to carve stone and cut wood, I do fine finish work on both with chisels, files and sandpaper. All of these things require a lot of the soft tissues in my hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders. After decades of hard use, these things are taking their toll. Getting old sucks. I had a physical therapist say to me “I haven’t seen an elbow this bad since that professional baseball player I treated”. I am forced to pace myself and have learned some stretches and exercises that help me be happy in my work as well as allow me to continue to make things with my hands. Most importantly, I’ve learned that making the work space favor me is vital.

  1. Warm Up. Just like an athlete, get the muscles you are going to be using warm before starting on the work. For big things like sanding, carving, and painting I do shoulder stretches, toe touches, neck rolls and my small hand warm ups. Sanding something five feet long requires your whole body, warm it all up. There are a bunch of stretches and warm ups for hands suitable for all kinds of small work warm up. I do these every time: http://www.weareknitters.com/blog/knitters-life/hand-exercises-for-knitters/
  2. Set up the work space for the most comfort, When I’m doing hand work like sewing or knitting, all I need is the couch, a light, and a foot stool (I’m short). If I’m drawing or painting pictures I sit at a large work table with an adjustable height stool. I use the same table when cutting sewing patterns, but I stand. If I’m painting large things, especially spray painting, I work outside with drop cloths. I have blocks of wood, old buckets, and bricks to pull things up off the ground, this reduces my need to bend over. I use my pebble filled socks and clamps to position the work so I don’t have to touch it while painting (which also contributes to a good paint job). For carving and power tool use I’m out in the back yard with a outdoor work table, saw horses, clamps, my pebble filled socks for bracing work, my sun hat, and closed toes shoes. Trying to work in a space not well suited for the mess at hand brings stress into the project before you even start that new-to-you technique. The only crafting I have ever done in my kitchen required the stove or toaster oven. I’ve worked on projects at the kitchen table, but it’s not great. Your average dining table is too low to work at standing, and too high to work at sitting. Make the space suit the work at hand instead of trying to force the project into the space. This might mean investing in an adjustable height stool, making risers for your kitchen table, or buying some ugly but really good work lights.  A sculptors stand is awesome if your are skilled enough to build one or have the funds to buy one, they are useful for far more than clay sculptors. http://www.utrechtart.com/Utrecht-Sculpture-Stand–European-Beechwood–Adjustable-Height-MP-35141-001-i1014778.utrecht?utm_source=google&utm_medium=cse&utm_term=35141-1001&country=US&currency=USD&gclid=Cj0KEQjwk-jGBRCbxoPLld_bp-IBEiQAgJaftUg8zqF3FeTqiX3MxEbQfwc9ftTkz0UGelfPYfDzkBgaAoUO8P8HAQ These little guys are magnificent for small table top work: http://www.dickblick.com/products/amaco-no-5-decorating-wheel/?clickTracking=true&wmcp=pla&wmcid=items&wmckw=30211-1005&gclid=Cj0KEQjwk-jGBRCbxoPLld_bp-IBEiQAgJaftcysELGT1FJK3WPBJIfiMQ-yd80txVsHoiozaDMhUyoaAm8P8P8HAQ And also: good light, good light, good light. While Ott lights are awesome, they aren’t always necessary, but getting light on the work is. A couple cheap adjustable task lights can make a huge difference in your work comfort.
  3. Position your body comfortably. This means good posture: sitting or standing up straight, shoulders down and back, head up. If you are working standing: bend from the hips, plant your feet wide, keep your knees slightly bent. Move frequently. Walk around the work or turn the work to yourself, don’t stick in one spot straining to reach or twisting and crouching. When working seated, the good posture guideline still applies. When I’m drawing or sewing, I adjust my chair so that I can get close to my work without hunching my back, which usually means placing it slightly above hip level and pushing back from the table. This way I’m leaning my whole upper body from my hips in towards the machine instead of hunching my back or craning my neck. When I’m sewing, knitting or crocheting, I find sitting up straight and bringing the work up to my sight line is best. It’s tiring to the arms, but not painful unless you work past your limits. I know knitters and crocheters talented enough to sit up straight and work with their arms relaxed and their hands in their lap because they don’t have to look at what they are doing, but I’m not one of them. I even know one who is so skilled and coordinated she knits socks on her daily exercise walk around her neighborhood. This is Michael Jordan level body awareness and talent folks!
  4. Know your limits. When applicable, build strength to extend those limits. As previously mentioned, I’ve worn out a lot of soft tissues in my body, the worst damage resides in my elbows. When I start to get the pins-and-needles feeling in my pinkie, I know it’s time to stop, stretch, shake it out, and relax a bit. If I don’t, I’ll soon have a sharp stabbing pain in my elbow that ibuprofen only slightly lessens but does not alleviate completely. I find the vibration of power tools difficult to deal with. I have some shock absorbing gloves I wear, but even then I can rarely work for even an hour at a stretch. I take ibuprofen ahead of heavy work to allow me to work longer. Talk to your doctor about using even over the counter drugs like this. For me, this is a carefully monitored quantity approved by my doctor, a limited number of times per week. I do exercises with small weights to build strength in my hands and arms that has helped reduce my need for therapy and drugs. I also have taken yoga, which has taught me how to really relax my body as well. All these things combine to allow me to keep making art. I cannot slack though, I must exercise and stretch to stay in ‘maker’ shape. That said, I also know makers who never learned how to listen to their own bodies. They worked so much that they did serious damage to the point where the pain is constant and cannot be stopped without surgery. This is often compounded by depression as the inability to make when the desire is strong, is heart-breaking.
  5. Allow yourself to recover. Our swimming pool got really green. The weather snuck up on us this year and I didn’t get out there soon enough to keep it from turning into a scary swap in a time frame that felt like over night. Oh well, I’ve got a lot of scrubbing in the next week. That said, the little bit I did Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon is still with me on Tuesday. I’m pacing myself, but it’s hard work. I’ve got the chemicals in and the scrubbing will be just as effective if it’s done a section at a time or all in one day. It won’t harm to pool to spread out the work. It will hurt me if I try to do it all in one day. Today I’m going to go vacuum the gunge I scrubbed off over the weekend. Tomorrow I’ll scrub new sections. This recovery time is critical to my general well being.
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