The Joys Of Working With Your Hands


One of the best decisions that I ever made was to take a deep breath after 10 years in the newspaper business, some of it spent covering big stories in exotic locales, and ponder my future. The upshot was that I quit the business to learn something that I had long yearned to do — be a carpenter.

I ended up apprenticing to a fine carpenter nearly 10 years my junior and over the next two years learned how to build houses (and some rather pricey ones at that) from the foundations up, including doing hand-cut cedar shake shingle roofs, interior trim and other finish work, installing skylights so that they never would leak, and some of the other more complex aspects of the nail-bending trade.

More or less contemporaneous with my second career was the decision to move to a farm where I pitched in with the milking, planting, harvesting and other chores.

While I had felt out of balance, I did not realize how cattywampus my chi (Chinese for life force) was until I had spent a few months away from rush-hour traffic, fluorescent lights, typewriters and the occasional word-processor screen. (Widespread use of computers was a few years off and the Internet well over the horizon.)

The housing market collapsed in the first months of the Reagan presidency and I went back to the newspaper business for good, but never again did I feel as out of balance as I had. This is because I made sure that I leavened my day-job loaf with hiking, gardening, cutting wood and swimming — lots of swimming. The joys of working with my hands was a wonderful lesson that was easy to learn and impossible to forget.

If there was a downside, it is that when I would come home from an especially exhausting day of handwork I seldom felt like doing anything other than eating, drinking and screwing. But I eventually learned to balance those primal urges and resumed book reading and writing in a journal.

Hey, if you’ve spent your life sitting on your keister, it’s never too late to trade in your executive desk chair or Barcalounger for dirty fingernails even if it’s only some of the time.

Image by Asbestos

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  • SteveK

    A excellent article Shaun, thank you.

    Making something nice with your hands is a thrill… and a reward in, and all by, itself.

    “Measure twice, cut once” is something that, once learned, is carried thought to most (if not all) aspects of life.

  • DLS

    It’s actually a nice thing to do, Shaun, any kind of hand-work, and it’s especially warming to note you can make home re-mods or additions or improvements (to the whole grounds, not just your home) any time you feel like it.

    As of now I have to settle for nostalgia about my old Chevy and how I had the thing purring because I was under the hood with my hands and connected mind (as with your carpentry) as often as I could be. Wore out a pair of Ben Davis coveralls doing it…

  • Hemmann

    Shaun

    great, nice article.

    i came at this the opposite way. i was a cabinet maker for twenty years before i moved into computer science and telecommunications.

    Surprisingly, computer programming and building a set of chairs employs the same techniques. One of the benefits of vastly different lines of work that share common methodologies is worth noting.