Working with your hands: A risk assessment

 As promised, here’s the final version of one of the many semi-posts that was languishing in my Notes app until recently. This is about one of the three jobs I’ve been doing in my sort-of gap yah, and why it’s the perfect counterbalance to Oxford; similar ideas are discussed in this post. The other two jobs, by the way, are bar-tending and tutoring, both of which I might write about later. 

Over the last six months and many summers, I have worked as a carpenter’s assistant and general dogsbody at Hollow Ash Shepherds Huts. This involves odd bits of Actual Carpentry, with complicated measurements and the like, plus occasional on-the-hoof conferences about seemingly impossible problems such as how to get an 18-foot shepherd’s hut out from between two load-bearing poles that are around half that distance apart, with no manoeuvring space (hint: it involves an approx. million-point turn and quite a lot of swearing).


And, occasionally, a tractor.

Apart from that, most of my workshop activities have been intellectually unchallenging. Here are the main tasks I’ve been doing:

  • Painting the interior boards for several huts
  • Grappling with the hell that is putting gloss paint on fiddly window-frames in a barn which contains much sawdust and an astonishing number of suicidal flies
  • Sweeping the floor and emptying the bins
  • Gradually executing a stealth campaign to transform the workshop into a wonderland of tidiness, organisation and freedom from extraneous bits of wood that “might be useful one day”

This is obviously a far cry from the kind of thing (academic reading, wrapping my head around complex and often utterly irrelevant issues, writing essays, despairing of the future etc) that filled my time at Oxford. To my mind, the difference is twofold.

Firstly, my productivity  at Hollow Ash is entirely tangible; at the end of the day, I can literally see how many boards I have painted, or how satisfyingly devoid of sawdust the floor is. By contrast, when researching an essay, the point at which you’ve ‘finished’ and can start writing is determined by some mysterious balance between how much time you have, versus how potentially important the infinite amount of unread information at your disposal looks.

Secondly, most of my Hollow Ash work is pretty straightforward. I don’t really carpent (it’s a verb now, alright?) at the level which involves doing mental acrobatics to ensure that the edges are lined up or the walls have the right number of sides; I do the simple tasks. And sure, there’s a degree of perfectionism that can and does flourish in that line of work, but it’s more about developing the muscle memory to sand quickly, paint evenly, or spread glue to just the right thickness. This leaves my mind free to roam in whatever weird and wonderful directions it chooses, or to listen to a slew of audiobooks.

There are downsides, of course – I’m under no illusion that this is a sustainable career path for me, unless I were to dedicate a lot more time to learning proper carpentry. At my skill level, the work is not well-paid, and it seems advisable to move out of my parents’ house while I’m still in my 20s. But this period of temporarily disengaging the stress-muscles has been exactly the antidote I needed to Oxford, and I count myself incredibly lucky to have had the time and resources to do it. I’ve been slowly coming back around to the fact that I do love reading, writing and being busy, and now that I finally feel less bleary-eyed and cotton-wool-brained than during finals, I’m as ready as I ever will be to move on to more challenging things.

Working with my hands rather than my brain has also reminded me of something I forgot for a while during my degree: I love making stuff. It doesn’t much matter what – I’ve had spells of focusing on jewellery, stop-motion animations, clothes, pictures, pottery, bizarre papier-maché concoctions, you name it – I’m just fundamentally happier when at least part of my life is devoted to some kind of physical construction. For the last few months, it’s been shepherds’ huts, but they’ve acted as a sort of gateway drug for other creative projects; I’ve started sketching again, and my scrapbook has been less neglected than it was last year.


Laying the groundwork for future creativity. Or something.

Just in case you’re falling too wholeheartedly in love with the utopian ideal of building small wooden dwellings in rural Herefordshire, I think I should mention another downside of working with your hands: the potential for injury. I’m first-aid trained and excessively sensible with power tools (due to the large part of my brain that constantly screams “LOOK OUT FOR THE SHARP SPINNY THING” whenever I use them), but I’m pretty clumsy in smaller matters. While I haven’t inadvertently removed any actual limbs, I’ve inflicted quite a number of minor injuries on myself in the workshop, including the following:

  • An impressive collection of Very Bad Splinters
  • Probable repetitive strain injury and large hand-blister from continual paintbrush use
  • Severe bruise to the thumb from shutting it in the gate when leaving work
  • Extensive mild scratches to the upper extremities, inflicted by rogue sharp objects
  • Bruise to the knuckles caused by accidental punching of a pile of scrap wood. If you were thinking of getting into a fight with a tree, don’t. I can assure you from experience that you will lose.
Scan 49

This is what I imagine would happen were I to let down my guard (literally or figuratively) and stop being incredibly cautious with the machinery.


5 thoughts on “Working with your hands: A risk assessment

  1. I guess you have read ‘The case for working with your hands’ by Matthew Crawford? subtitled ‘or why office work is bad for us and fixing things feels good’ – along similar lines to Zen and art of motorcycle maintenance. Well worth a read anyway – a bit like your blogs!


  2. Hello dear Rowan I loved your blog, as always. Thankyou very much for it. I loved the photos of the hut, particularly inside. I’m glad I didn’t know too much about the workplace dangers! This is to wish you a happy time at the larmer tree job. I do hope it works out well. If there is any chance of seeing you when you have had time to draw breath that would be lovely…either here, if you can make the trip, or we could meet half way if that suited you better? Let me know in due course. Lots of love, and good luck! Grandma xx


  3. Pingback: Pub life: How I learned to love home | Just an anglophone

  4. Pingback: On opting out: How to make life choices when you’re a professional ditherer | Just an anglophone

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