Coming out of Hibernation? Woodworking through pain?

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Blog entry by Willeh posted 02-07-2014 06:02 PM 2646 reads 0 times favorited 10 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Hey folks,

It has been a long few months, lots of setbacks, challenges and difficulty with motivation.

Started off last summer with a lot of drive to really improve my woodworking skills and increase my productivity. I dove into a Roubo project, and was progressing really well with it. I had hoped to get that done, and possibly a smaller bench for my basement, so that I wouldn’t have too much time off during the cold months of the winter (No heat in the shop).

Unfortunately part way through the summer, I started to experience a lot of back pain, which progressed and progressed until I found myself totally unable to head out to the shop. A trip to the MRI machine revealed that I managed to get 4 severely bulging discs in my lower back, all of which are also severely herniated and fully displacing the spinal nerve roots. Painful? you betcha.

Anyways, long story short, I’ve not been allowed to do any lifting, carrying or physical work, and I’ve had a really low tolerance for sitting, standing or pretty much doing anything. This has pretty much kept me out of the shop since August, and unfortunately stalled my progress with my Roubo, and shelved a number of other projects with it.

Now, after months of rest and therapy, i’m finally starting to get some relief from the pain, and with that, some desire to dust off the tools and try to get back to my hobby. Unfortunately, there are still some hurdles to clear. While I’m not in quite as much pain as I was in, it is still there, and i’m still fearful about getting too physical and hurting myself. Secondly, it’s still cold in the shop (averaging around 10 deg F), and finally, I don’t know where to start. I’m not sure i’m ready to just get back into the Roubo, I’m thinking of doing a smaller project to get my head in the game to sharpen up the skills after months of rust.

My questions for my fellow lumberjocks:

How do you deal with woodworking with major back pain? Any tips/hints to avoid hurting myself while still bing productive?

Also, what do you do to get back into the swing of things after a long time away from the shop?

Look forward to your suggetions, thanks!

-- Will, Ontario Canada. "I can do fast, cheap and good, but you can only pick two... "

10 comments so far

View dbhost's profile


5772 posts in 3738 days

#1 posted 02-07-2014 06:52 PM

My advise, start back off small and light. Do simple, but fun stuff. I did some restoration work on some family antiques such as my grandmothers recipe box for my wife while I was fighting back pain. I also spend time doing design work when it is too hard to get into the shop.

-- Please like and subscribe to my YouTube Channel

View Dez's profile


1167 posts in 4583 days

#2 posted 02-07-2014 06:53 PM

Man can I relate!
It has been almost 6 years since the accident that disabled me. Following the surgery I couldn’t do a thing for almost a year.
I have continued to try and work with wood but it has been very difficult what with losing the house and shop. We had to move and the new place (thanks to my wonderful MIL) does not have a shop but does have a two car garage.
Needles to say most of my machine tools are in storage and what I use now are the portable tools (bench top) and hand tools. The hand tools do allow me to continue woodworking but also make things harder.
I divide up the work, all small stuff anymore, into an hour or two scattered throughout the week so that I have plenty of recovery time between. Even small boxes tend to take weeks or sometimes months to finish but at least I get to work with wood.
I changed things like bench height and added fixtures that allow me to position the work into more ergonomic positions and sit more. I bought a drafting chair that has a 16” height adjustment. I added more adjustable lamps for better lighting considering a more limited range of motion..
I do more scrollsaw work and carving and I have to keep the work area warmer so that I don’t cramp up.
I use more tools like a rotary grinders etc.

-- Folly ever comes cloaked in opportunity!

View hoosier0311's profile


706 posts in 2531 days

#3 posted 02-07-2014 07:07 PM

I consider myself very fortunate to not have trouble with my back. My Dad had some towards the end of his time here. I raised all his benches and tools up to where he could stand without any slouching over. also made a bench that was comfortable for him when he needed to sit and work. No real silver bullet but it did get him back out in the shop. I’d say go slow and don’t push it to hard.

-- atta boy Clarence!

View BinghamtonEd's profile


2298 posts in 2875 days

#4 posted 02-07-2014 07:38 PM

Sorry to hear about your pain, Will. I had my discectomy/laminectomy 4 years ago after 10 months of pain and finally not being able to move my leg, and can relate to your story. The first week of this year, I hurt my back again shoveling, and spent 2 weeks laying on the floor and doped up. I’m back at 85% and just getting back into the shop doing small tasks right now. Some things I’ve found :
- Most importantly, watch your posture, especially when lifting. I’d hold off on the bench, as it has a lot of heavy pieces. Just when you start feeling like you can lift it, that’s when you shouldn’t lift it.
- Be mindful of your mechanics when hand planing. It doesn’t seem like much, but slight twisting while you’re planing can aggravate things.
- When you start to feel uncomfortable, in my case I could feel the sciatica starting, it’s a good time to stop and go read a woodworking magazine. I sometimes do my PT stretches while reading them.
- Yeah, do your PT exercise, strengthen your core.
- Keep muscle relaxers on hand. If I pull something in my back or leg, I need one or else it sometimes has a domino effect and everything seizes up within a few hours.
- No power tools when on narcotics.

Some tasks that I did when I could get back in the shop but had to keep it light :
- Wine rack with mortise and tenon joints. I could sit on my stool and clean up the joints and the parts were light.
- Practice my dovetails. Over and over.
- Organize my tools.
- Restore old tools
- Sit at my bench and drink beer and read a magazine.

With your current limitations, think of it as a great time to work on the finer details of your woodworking game.

-- - The mightiest oak in the forest is just a little nut that held its ground.

View BoxBuilder's profile


129 posts in 3636 days

#5 posted 02-07-2014 09:43 PM

Can relate as well. I have spinal stenosis & am currently doing therapy with minimal improvement. Looks like surgery at Rothman will be the next step. As the others have already mentioned, ease back in with small projects & be ever mindfull of what you are doing with & to your body. Best wishes for a more normal, productive year.

-- Richard, Pennsylvania

View rustfever's profile


775 posts in 3816 days

#6 posted 02-08-2014 02:01 AM

I to, have back problems. [One ruptured disc, not 4]. I find the correct working height of tools is very important. I have lifted most tools from 2.5” to 4” above the height dictated by the manufacturer. [BYW, I am 6’!” tall.] This does not eliminate the problem, but it lengthens the time I can be in the shop from and hour to 7 or 8 hours.

-- Rustfever, Central California

View Jake's profile


850 posts in 2136 days

#7 posted 02-08-2014 02:49 PM

Some great tips here. Nobody has mentioned what I find to be the most important thing:
- keep your back WARM.

So definitely keep out of the shop if it is cold and/or put on a few extra layers around your lower back. In my case it has been a key factor in how my back does.

Also, core exercises are key, keep doing them daily. Best of luck in your recovery! !

-- Measure twice, cut once, cut again for good measure.

View Natalie 's profile


367 posts in 2472 days

#8 posted 02-08-2014 03:40 PM

Dear Fellow back pain sufferer,
Never Give Up! After 10 years of increasing misery and a couple episodes of being in bed with lots of drugs for weeks at a time, I has a microdiscectomy. The BEST thing I ever did! It was like a miracle cure for me. For people who have idea that back surgery is only a last resort and very risky, look again. This surgery to fix a bulging disc has a 98% success rate and its very easy to endure, with a very short recovery time, but most people don’t realize that. I have two other herniated discs and an area of spinal stenosis, so I may be needing that again in the future, but for now I’m good.

So, I have to be careful and take it slow. Here’s where it’s an advantage being the girl. My husband works part-time at a real job, and part-time from in his home metal working shop. He is almost always on hand to lift things for me, and usually with a smile. I belong to a woodworkers guild which has a shop and guys are usually more than happy to give me a hand. I am not embarrassed to have all my plywood cut to rough dimensions before bringing it home. I have used 1/2 inch plywood when I can, and have found that I can get away with that more often than I thought and it saves money too.

The best decision I made last year was to trade some of my wood stash for help building my shop cabinets and I bought an inexpensive workbench instead of building one. I have focused on doing he lighter work. I am still in the setting up shop phase, which I thought would be done over a year ago, but progress is progress and I take it where I can get it.

Here’s where it’s not cool being a girl: In addition to the back thing, I had a double mastectomy in Sept of 12 and had complications with the reconstruction, which have still not been resolved—4 surgeries later. I am scheduled for the end of March to go to the Mayo clinic in MN for a very complicated surgery, and I’m counting on it being the cure. With all this going on, it has taken it’s toll on my upper body strength and my stamina, but I keep going back out to my shop and doing the things mentioned above by BinghamtonED. I love his comment “sit at my bench and drink beer and read a magazine.” I do a lot of that, minus the beer, add tea or wine, sometimes vodka. Bottom line is, I have not given up the hope of getting well and getting my strength back.

Speaking of Mayo clinic, have you considered going somewhere that is considered the best at dealing with your back issues? You can do research online and ask/insist that your doctor give you a referral. With the exception of air fair, it costs no more than any other hospital or clinic and is usually a teaching center where they do a lot of charity work, meaning they will take what insurance pays and write off the rest, or finance it. I have a $9000.00 bill that I am paying only 80 per month on and there is NO interest or fees. I’ll be paying that 80 for a long time, but with no interest or deadline, it doesn’t make any sense to pay it off. If don’t have any insurance, and you keep asking and are persistent, you may also be able to get what needs to be done without having any insurance. I work at a teaching hospital and we do that more often than you would guess. There are almost always non-profit places to stay. I am staying at Nazarene Well House for $30.00 per night. Since I’ll be there 3 weeks, that is a great help!

Take care all and keep on keepin on.

-- Natalie - My mind is like a bad neighborhood, I don't like to go there alone.

View Willeh's profile


228 posts in 2845 days

#9 posted 02-10-2014 10:00 PM

Thanks for the great tips and support. You guys are awesome. This is such a great online community :)

-- Will, Ontario Canada. "I can do fast, cheap and good, but you can only pick two... "

View BinghamtonEd's profile


2298 posts in 2875 days

#10 posted 02-11-2014 01:12 PM

So what’re you going to start on???

-- - The mightiest oak in the forest is just a little nut that held its ground.

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