Woodturning Ergonomics Save Your Body!

Ergonomics Overview: Woodturning is very addictive and one thing is for sure, we're all addicts! Most of us will use any excuse we can think of to get some more time in front of the lathe. If you turn as a hobby, lots of time in front of the lathe can present its own unique set of challenges if you're not used to turning for extended periods of time. As a production turner, I turn up to twelve hours per day or more and even though I'm used to this routine, I'm always looking for ways to reduce the amount of stress on my body.

Good ergonomics at the lathe - hollowing with the Jamieson system
When using a hollowing system with a captured
boring bar, all of the stress of hollowing is
transferred to the lathe and tool rest.

If you are woodturning for pleasure and you over do it one weekend, you've got all week long to rest up and feel better before you're in your studio again. When you turn professionally and you over do it, you wake up the next morning still sore and aching and you've got another twelve-hour (or longer) day ahead of you. Taking time off to rest up means you're not getting paid and that usually means that if you're breathing, you're going to be turning.

When I was demonstrating all across the country for The Woodworking Shows, I always met a few turners at every show that told me they were having problems with turners elbow (tendonitis), a sore back or neck, leg problems or grip/hand problems from turning for extended periods of time at their lathe. Most of these turners turned as much as they could on the weekends, and occasionally during the week if possible.

Some told me that they had to give up on woodturning for a few weeks because of tendonitis, or some other repetitive stress problem. Since I turn professionally, they always wanted to know what I did to keep myself healthy and able to turn every day. Here are a few things I've found through the years that have really helped me to turn without the problems that I hear many others turners occasionally suffer from when woodturning for extended periods of time at their lathe.

Woodturning Ergonomics: General Warm Up and Stretching

One of the things that has really helped me through the years is to do a short warm up and stretching routine before woodturning or chainsawing. This gets the blood flowing and gives a light stretch to my arms, hands, legs, neck and back. If you just roll out of bed one morning and go turn for several hours, or start cutting logs all day, you're probably going to have lots of time to reconsider your actions over the next few days.

This is especially true of you're doing a lot of heavy lifting or chainsawing. Like every other physical activity or sport, you should always warm up and do some stretching exercises before you begin woodturning, or doing any of the supporting activities that woodturning requires. I vary my warm ups and stretching exercises depending on what I'm going to be doing that day. If you need some ideas for warm ups or stretching, lots of sites on the Internet can help you and give you the proper routines.

Woodturning Ergonomics: Oh, My Aching Back

When I first opened my studio many years ago, I was turning on a Woodfast long bed lathe. During the first month of use, I found out that the spindle height was almost 2" too low for me. This caused me to stoop over a bit when turning (not a lot mind you, but enough to cause me problems) and I ended up with a sore back most days. In all the rush to get my studio up and running, I neglected to make sure the lathe spindle height was right for my height. I enlisted the aid of my wife to accurately measure my resting elbow height when standing up straight.

This showed me that the spindle on my Woodfast lathe needed to be raised about 1.75", so I raised the legs of the lathe up using 2"x4"s bolted to the leg protrusions. (I prefer my lathe spindle height to be about 1" or so above my resting elbow height. Many turners prefer the spindle height to be level with their resting elbow height). With the new modifications in place, I no longer got a sore back from woodturning all day long. It's the little things that add up and make a difference. I see turners all the time stooping over their lathe to turn. If you're one of them, think about raising your lathe up and see if having the spindle at your elbow height makes a difference. Your back will appreciate your efforts.

Woodturning Ergonomics: Sore Legs and Tired Feet

My studio floor is made of concrete, with an epoxy coating over it to reduce dusting and make it easier to clean. If you do a lot of standing you know that two things can have a big impact on how your feet and legs feel at the end of the day – your shoes and the type of floor you're standing on. Most of us have concrete floors in our studios; a few have wood or some other material. No matter what your studio floor is made of, standing on it for extended periods of time can be hard on your legs and feet.

Anti-fatigue floor mat
Anti-fatigue floor mats sure make a hard floor easier to stand on.
I've been lucky through the years because I've never had a problem standing all day long. In fact, my studio does not even have a chair in it at all. I stand all day and it never causes me any problems. However, if you're getting older or if standing for a couple of hours at a time causes you problems, here are a few things you can do to make it easier on your body.

First: Consider some type of anti-fatigue mat for the areas you stand on frequently (like in front of the lathe, bandsaw, finishing station etc). I know what you're probably thinking... You've seen them in catalogs and they are none too cheap and you've wondered if they were worth the money. Well I can tell you that they are worth the money and I use several of them in my studio. They really do make it easier on your body and I find no problems in using them at all. One thing I did was to secure them to the floor with tape, so they would not move around or slip when I stepped onto or off of them.
Closed-cell anti-fatiue mat
Another type of anti-fatigue mat,
available at most woodturning suppliers.

Steel-toe work boots
Steel-toe work boots are my favorite woodturning foot wear.
Second: Shoes! You need a good pair of shoes with good arch support. If you turn in flip-flops, tennis shoes or anything that lacks good and proper support, you're probably going to have sore feet and legs if you turn for any length of time. I turn in steel toe (safety reasons) safety work boots, or steel toe work shoes. They are made for folks who have to stand for long periods of time (like factory workers) and feature a very good insole and arch support. The steel toe is an added bonus, which I've been very thankful to have on occasion through the years.

Every once and a while I get lazy and I wear a pair of regular tennis shoes when turning. I can get away with it for a few hours, but anything more and my feet and lower legs start to bother me. When I wear my work boots, I can turn all day long without any fatigue problems. My grandfather always told me to take care of my feet and my feet would take care of me. Good advice for any of us. Consider getting yourself a good pair of work boots or shoes. You can even get steel-toed shoes now that look like tennis/running shoes, so if you're not the boot type, you can still get good support and protection in a snappier looking shoe.
Steel-toe tennis shoes
If you prefer tennis shoes, steel-toe versions are available for extra protection.

Woodturning Ergonomics: Sore Arms/Elbows

Several years ago when I first began production turning, this was a big problem for me. As a production bowl/platter/hollow form turner, I turn a significant amount of wood every day and over time; I developed the dreaded Turners Elbow. Initially, I thought it was just because I was turning so much wood, up to sixteen hours a day or more. To get some relief, I tried several of the armband type devices, but they offered little help and were a pain to use.

Since I turn professionally, a bad elbow was not acceptable, so I began to look at every phase of the turning process to see where I might improve how I did my job. I finally settled on sharpening as the culprit, the fact that I was not doing it frequently enough. If you think about it, the only thing that moves the gouge through the wood is your movement of the tool. If the edge is dull, or not as sharp as it can be, you have to push/pull harder to make the tool cut.

Sharpening your gouges frequently
goes a long way towards making
woodturning easier on your body.
Over time, using a tool with an edge that's not as sharp as it can be can strain the ligaments, muscles and tendons in your arm, causing lots of problems like soreness, burning and pain when gripping or lifting items with your arm. If you turn a lot, or turn for extended periods of time infrequently, you are causing repetitive motion stress to your body.

It's no different from sitting at a computer keyboard all day, working on cars all day, manufacturing items, or anything else that requires repetitive motions. The key for me to eliminating my turners elbow problem was to simply sharpen more often, about four to five times as much as I had done previously.

If you think about it, when the gouge is fresh off the stone, it really glides through the wood and life is sweet. As the edge begins to wear, it requires more effort to push/pull it through the wood to make the cut. This extra effort can really do a number on your arm, if it happens regularly and for extended periods of time. However, if you are always using an edge that is really sharp and you keep it that way, your body will appreciate your efforts.

Today, I turn during the production season up to eighteen hours per day without any more problems. In fact, I've never had turners elbow again after I altered my turning/sharpening protocols. Before I made these adjustments, I suffered from turners elbow for about five years on and off. At times it was so bad that I could hardly turn at all and other times, it was just a real pain. I've been pain free for several years now and my studio's total output is several times what it was when I started years ago. Give it a try.

Remember, there's no such thing as sharpening too much! Don't wait until the edge is dull to resharpen your gouge, periodically refresh the edge. The more you sharpen, the more you'll love woodturning. Trust me on this one!

Woodturning Ergonomics: Sore Hands

One of the side benefits of being a turner is that you develop really good grip strength. Whether your handling a gouge or a chainsaw, having a good grip is beneficial when you’re a woodturner. One of the things that can make your hands sore is having handles that are either too large, or too small for your hand size. This is very much an individual thing that you have to determine for yourself.

I've found that some manufactured handles are just too small for me. Take my Glaser bowl gouge for example. It's way too small for my hands, requiring me to alter my handle with a slip on grip, to get a comfortable fit. Another option is to use handle-wrapping tape that is sold at many stores (like the kind they sell for bike handles). Some of my manufactured handles are too large, or are made with an uncomfortable handle design. To get a better fit, I turn my own handles for some tools.
Glaser replaceable tip bowl gouge
Glaser bowl gouge handles (lower) are too small for my hands.
I much prefer the larger slip on handles shown above.

It's easy to turn your own handles to the perfect size you need. Just stop every so often and give it a grip and see if it feels good. Some turners turn oval shaped handles, which can make the grip even better and more comfortable in some situations. However, a round handle that fits your hand is fine for most turners.

I use a lot of metal handles in my studio, so I can insert and remove different gouges rapidly. These are for the most part, about right for me since I have large hands. If your hands are smaller, they might be too large for you. Make sure to give them a go before buying to make sure they fit comfortably. Like anything else that you will be using for extended periods of time, your tool handles need to fit your hand properly. If you cannot purchase the right size, then turn your own! It's a very easy spindle turning project that you can take pride in every time you use your tools and your hands will feel better as well.

Safety Note: Always follow all manufacturers safety instructions before working with your lathe, or any of the tools or products you may use. If you are unsure about any operation, obtain competent professional instruction before proceeding. Use and wear all necessary safety devices during turning and observe safe woodturning practices to prevent accident or injury.

Steven D. RussellSteven D. Russell is a professional studio woodturner, teacher and writer. He has written numerous articles for international woodturning magazines, which have been published in more than 78 countries around the world. Steve has demonstrated in numerous cities across the United States. His studio, Eurowood Werks, specializes in bowls, platters and hollow forms with unique visual and tactile treatments.

Steve is also a regular featured writer for the Guild of Master Craftsman's "Woodturning" magazine, published in London England. Woodturning magazine is the world's leading magazine for woodturners. Look for his monthly articles covering technical topics, or project based articles in each issue.

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