Workbench ergonomics and Working rhythm

Changing things has consequences

New Face Vise

After several years of working in my shop with little or no change. I felt it was time to shake things up a bit.
What did I do? Brace yourself – I added a face vice to my bench and moved my bench about 2 feet. So what? You might ask? Good question, I had no idea how much disruption I was adding either until I tried to actually use this setup. Was it bad? Not really.

But the point of this article is that a good fit and a well-practiced rhythm is much more important that we often think. So often when I work I find myself thinking I should get this or that tool. Or I need a new bench or some such thing.  However, over time natural rhythms develop that fit us and are crucial to good and fast work. Changing things can destroy this and have a very different effect on our work than we anticipate. And it can take more time than we might imagine to develop new and equally effective rhythms in the new environment.

Change is not always better

Over the years I have read a lot of articles about bench heights, holdfasts, vises, planing stops, you name it. And I learned many useful things in these articles. But thankfully I did not try to apply all of them.  Why am I thankful? Because personal ergonomics and working rhythm are far more important than we normally realize. Constant change actually prevents us from developing a working rhythm which in turn prevents us from achieving anything like efficiency. And if you work primarily with hand tools a lack of efficiency can turn every project into a slow and frustrating process. Yes it is fun to experiment with new toys (oops I mean tools)  but that kind of fun does not accomplish anything. 

I am an amateur woodworker but although I am not fighting deadlines, I do not find much pleasure in slow and mistake prone processes. Nor do a wish that every project would last forever. I like to actually finish things. But beyond even that, I do not enjoy even low level stress. And changing your work environment or tool set constantly is a great way to maintain a constant supply of low level stress. 

An example of a rhythm breaker

The change that brought this to the forefront for me was adding a front vise to my bench. It seemed that all the cool kids were doing it.  The front vise was such a fixture on every bench I saw it seemed that I must be crazy not to have one. However, for many years I had no front vise. Over time I developed a set of holding strategies and working rhythms that became second nature to me. I actually resisted getting a front vise for fear it would just annoy me. Something to bump into while I was working.

In actuality, I was not totally wrong about the annoyance of mounting a piece of hardware right where I like to stand. That is not to say there is no advantage to having a front vise. It did, however, force me to move nearly a foot farther away from the end of the bench which has caused me to have to readjust many of my previous habits. I know this sounds like nitpicking. But the point of the article is that disruption of enough small things is a big thing which can reduce your effectiveness and efficiency considerably.

Reorganizing can be just as bad

I also moved my bench about a foot. Big deal, right? Actually it was surprisingly annoying as well. It moved my bench just out of comfortable reach of the shelves where I store my planes. This small change caused my to have to change my working rhythm considerably. Now my planes have to stay on the bench until I am done with them. I can no longer comfortably reach back and put them on the shelf.

So change is bad right? No, but if you are the type that never does anything the same way twice. Or if you are a compulsive reorganizer with a serious tool buying habit I am suggesting you take a moment to reflect. Give a bit more thought to the things that truly improve both your woodworking experience and your quality of output. Practiced habit can lead to a rhythm of work that is both more efficient and relaxing than constant change.

Before I was anything else, I was a musician from a family of musicians. As a musician, my goal was to practice until I was no longer aware of the instrument, my technique, or the notes. Once those things were relegated to muscle memory, I was free the focus entirely on the music. Food for thought next time you want to make a change.

Make sure the change is making better music not forcing you practice things you have already mastered because you have changed instruments.

Tips for developing a working rhythm.

  1. Always put your tools in the same place.
    • If your tools are not stored within reach and sensibly organized, work will be interrupted by frequent frustration as you try to locate the next tool you need.
  2. Make sure your bench fits your body.
    • If your bench is too high or too low work will never be comfortable.
  3. Practice with any new tool until using it becomes second nature.
    • Do not assume the tools you have are inadequate until you have mastered them.
    • I think this is especially important with sharpening tools.
  4. If you have a good working rhythm consider changes to your environment carefully.
    • Every change brings a bit of disruption. But an important change even though disruptive will, in the end, improve your working rhythm.
  5. Watch this video for inspiration. Nuff said.


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1 comment

  1. great work

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