How to carve without killing my back?
March 22, 2020 9:26 AM   Subscribe

I like to do linocuts and printmaking. And now, so much free time I have since my job has temporarily disappeared. Problem? I can't carve for more than 20 minutes at a time before the pain/stiffness in my neck, shoulders and mid back are unbearable and I have to stop.

I try to take breaks, stretch, but it doesn't matter. I also can't take anti-inflammatory drugs so when it hurts... it hurts! I have seen a physical therapist for my upper back issues before and admit I'm very weak and need to be strengthening but that is an on-going process.
In the mean time: what is an ergonomic set up? I have tried differerent heights of tables and chairs but in the end I pretty much have to be hunched over to have the pressure/strength/control for doing the work. I only like traditional lino, and I use a bench hook to keep it in place but that also means I can put a lot of careful force down and it just kills me, painwise. I use a heating plate to warm up the lino to make it easier to carve, but that doesn't matter to my pain, just my art lol.
Also I'm a very short with short limbs.
I've never really found an ergonomic set up for ANY of my creative hobbies (sewing, weaving) and just assume at this point I'll just be in pain forever for the love of all this stuff.
Any thoughts?
posted by wellifyouinsist to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You could try strapping a hot water bottle between your shoulder blades.
posted by flabdablet at 10:09 AM on March 22, 2020

Have you tried a drafting table? The higher table plus the ability to tilt it how you like might help.
posted by Weeping_angel at 10:19 AM on March 22, 2020 [5 favorites]

You’re doing the right thing by having a physical therapist, that will ensure you build strength over time.

I don’t do lino but have done a wide variety of woodworking and crafting tasks - a 36”-40” high table, standing, will give you better leverage with less stress. If you need to sit use a barstool.
posted by q*ben at 10:37 AM on March 22, 2020

I do close work, often under magnification, when assembling my machines, and have found it useful to have an entirely separate bench area for that task -- because I want the table surface to be very high, so that my elbows can rest on the table surface while also being only a few inches below my shoulders. I guess I'm saying maybe don't give up on trying new work arrangements?

Also, have you considered a powered engraver and a ball vise? I mean, see if you can borrow a set for a little while first since they're pretty pricey, but it could be worth investigation.
posted by aramaic at 10:41 AM on March 22, 2020

A steeply tilted table like for drafting or calligraphy should let you work with a more upright posture, but don’t forget to support your feet (up higher than the floor if needed) so that you are sitting using the right part of your butt.
posted by janell at 11:57 AM on March 22, 2020

Ditto drafting table. Unless your work has to be flat with you leaning over it. Sitting or standing at a drafting table about 30° off vertical for long periods is hella easier than leaning over a level surface.
posted by zengargoyle at 12:01 PM on March 22, 2020

Treat it like physical exercise and warm up every day before each session. Train the muscles you're using to develop strength as well as control, and take time to loosen up at the end of each session -- the first fortnight to a month of doing a lot of this will need you to let your body have time to adapt. Lift some weights, do some core strength workouts to help support the changes you've just made.
posted by k3ninho at 12:38 PM on March 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Have you thought about something like a modified massage table so you could lie face down?
posted by Sophont at 1:29 PM on March 22, 2020

Another linocut printmaker here. How sharp are your tools? That has a big impact on how much force is needed to cut through the lino, even when it's warm.
posted by Sublimity at 4:44 PM on March 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

I mostly work on lino on a bench hook at my dining room table right now, and while I don’t end up in pain as quickly I feel the same overall challenge: working hunched over a level surface while doing a lot of careful work is awkward and taxing! I’m tall and long limbed and that’s not any better really.

I have considered the drafting table notion folks are suggesting, or some equivalent, to reduce the working angle; that feels like a good bet if the angle doesn’t cause too many problems itself. Might mean modifying the bench hook setup to stay in place vs gravity, and learning to not let the lino slide away.

I also share your inclination toward actual lino but am trying to not rule out the softer modern media alternatives; I am prone to tendonitis in my wrists and worry that lino is going to just not be viable all the time whereas the buttery modern matrices are physically far gentler to carve on. But I feel like your issue may be more postural so that may be a secondary thing even at that.
posted by cortex at 10:12 PM on March 23, 2020

Yeah, I’ve done some do probably need a flat, not angled surface.
What you absolutely need is the right chair.
Look for ‘ergonomic kneeling chair’ or ‘ergonomic kneeling stool’ like this one or the original. (I meet a lot of illustrators...I always ask them what kind of chair they have and it’s rarely anything else. Definitely also great for sewing and moves the effort of staying upright from your back to your hips, core, and legs, much stronger muscles and more of them.)
The biggest part of your problem is that the effort is so one-sided. (And why it’s in your upper back.) Is it possible to clamp the work down and pull (on a pole or wall or something) with your left as you push with your right, for leverage? (You will probably still experience some soreness from the effort but less, lower, and in the middle. Pain on one side carries a higher risk of RSI.)
You might also try contacting a professional illustrator who’s been doing lino for years and ask what they do to avoid shoulder, arm, hand, and back pain.
posted by sexyrobot at 12:21 PM on May 31, 2020

« Older Telecommuting: home desk high, chair low. Seat...   |   Annotated French edition of Chrétien de Troyes’... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.