Luthier Tips du Jour Mailbag - Working Pain Free

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In this episode, Robbie O’Brien answers a viewer’s question regarding garnering a pain-free work environment. Robbie discusses things he does in his shop to avoid working with pain.

Video Transcription

[on-screen text reads: Luthier Tips du Jour Mailbag]

Mailbag question: I have pain when working on my guitar. Have you experienced this and can you offer some suggestions on how to work pain-free?

Robert O'Brien: Today's Tips du Jour Mailbag question comes to us from France. "Dear Robert, as I'm working on my guitar, I'm often having pain, probably because of the way I'm standing. Have you experienced this and can you offer some suggestions on working pain-free?"

First of all, Felix, I recommend a complete medical evaluation. That way you can eliminate the possibility of any underlying medical issues that are causing the pain. As luthiers, we do a lot of repetitive motion, heavy manual labor, and we work with vibrating tools like sanders. All three of these things have been known to cause ailments like carpal tunnel syndrome, bursitis and tendonitis. These ailments can be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Now there's nothing we can do about the genetic factors. However, the environmental factors we can certainly do something about, and let me show you some of the things I do in my shop that help me work pain-free.

Proper workbench height

Felix, I'm a tall guy and one of the most obvious things in my shop that I do is check my bench height. All of my benches are at least 36 inches tall. This one's coming in at 36 1/2. I made this myself. I wanted a taller bench so that when I'm hand planing and doing things, I'm not forcing my back. As I have several benches in the shop, let me go ahead and measure this one too. This one also is 36 1/2 inches tall from floor to the top of the working surface. My bench where my students work and where I do a lot of my assembly work is at 38 inches tall from floor to the top of the bench. My sanding station is the tallest work surface that I have, and it comes in at 44 1/2 inches. It's quite tall, but that's what I need to work standing upright rather than bending over.

So Felix, I think that that's priority number one, is bench height in my shop. If I'm hunched over the bench trying to work, you're creating a lot of tension and stress in the shoulders and back. So I try and have an adequate bench height for the task at hand.

Tool grip pressure

Something else that I've identified as an important factor in working pain-free is the grip that you have on the tool. For example, this chisel. Be aware as you're using it, the amount of force needed to do the task. Over time, I find myself sometimes gripping that tool harder and harder when it's really not necessary. Relax. Don't grip that tool too tight. Just use the amount of force necessary to do that task.

Work with sharp tools

And what goes hand-in-hand with that is work sharp. If your tool is not sharp, you're having to use more pressure and more force, especially like a scraper. A scraper will work you to death. Hand planes as well, they'll work you to death. They'll be your worst enemy if you don't work sharp. If the hand tool is set up properly, tuned, sharp, and you're using the tool properly, it should become a friend, not an enemy. This will help relieve your stress and tension as you work.

Don't work under pressure or tension

Speaking of stress, try and work stress-free. Don't work under pressure. Don't work under tension. Now I know that's not always possible, but try not to. If you're going to create a lot of tension in the neck and shoulders, this is going to reflect in your work and also in your health.

Finally, take a few minutes throughout the day to do some breathing and stretching exercises. Sometimes I find that if I'm working under pressure and under stress, if I just stop, take five minutes, do some breathing, do some exercising, I find I can go back to work much more relaxed. Now I'm not saying to roll out the yoga mat on your shop floor, but hey, if that's what it takes, why not? So Felix in France, thank you very much for your question and for watching my videos. Remember, this is supposed to be fun. So hopefully with the information I've provided you here, you can enjoy it a little bit more. Happy building.

[on-screen text reads: More Luthier Tips and online courses available at Private and small group guitar building and finishing instruction available.]



Robbie O'Brien

Luthier and Instructor, Lutherie Academy