High Heels and Pounce Bags

Last Sunday, in The New York Times Magazine cover story, Michael Sokolove reported that in the world of sports, “Girls are more likely suffer chronic knee pain as well as shinsplints and stress fractures.” And, according to some research, ankle sprains, hip and back pain are more prevalent among women athletes, as are concussions in sports that both sexes play.

I guess I’m lucky. I played soccer for three decades and while my knees do hurt on occasion, I never tore an anterior cruciate ligament (aka ACL). After a mild sprain or two, my right ankle isn’t quite as strong as it once was, but I’ve never been on crutches for more than a week. And no concussions (at least none I remember). What finally ended the game for me was a snapped wrist during a stint as keeper. I was in a cast for four months, and my right wrist is now chronically weak , and I’m chronically afraid of breaking it again. (But for the record, I blocked that shot.)

The difference between men and women, according to experts Sokolove interviewed, is biometrics. Quite simply, men and women are built differently, and after puberty, men tend to add muscle whereas women tend to add fat, so women don’t have the same intrinsic strength to support muscle and ligament movements. And, because of women’s hip shapes, we tend to run differently. According to some experts, the female body can be trained to address these differences, which may reduce injuries.

I find a similar issue in woodworking from time to time. At 5’5″, I’m of average height for a woman. But the benches in our shop were built by men, and my bench used to belong to Editor Christopher Schwarz, who is just shy of a foot taller than am I. So, properly using a hand plane at that bench is for me impossible, as my elbows are always bent far more than they ought to be. This is an easy fix – either build my own bench…¦or wear high heels. (Thus far, I’ve opted for the heels.)
















On the left, I’m wearing 4″ heels; on the right, I’m in flats.

Sawing is also a challenge, at least for some women. In “How to Saw” in the Spring 2008 Woodworking Magazine, Chris illustrates proper sawing stance, with his legs and body positioned straight on to the cut, and the elbow of his sawing arm swinging freely past his torso. Let’s just say that if I line my body up in the same way, my sawing arm cannot swing straight back unimpeded. In this situation, I opt to stand a bit left of center…¦or wear a sports bra. Again, it boils down to a fashion choice.

It took me a long time to get comfortable with our Powermatic table saw, too. Pushing a board through the cut is quite scary for me. Compared to the guys, my torso is a lot lower and closer to the blade when I lean forward, and my arms are a lot a shorter. So, my hand, arms and chest are always closer to the blade. Thus, I have to more often give up some workpiece control by using a push stick when one of the guys might not choose to use one.

And then there’s gloves (no, I don’t wear them at the jointer). One size does not fit all. It doesn’t even come close. Forget the home center or hardware store. When I need nitrile or vinyl gloves for messy finishing jobs, I have to drive miles to a medical supply store. And even then, I’m not always able to find women’s smalls.

Hand-held tools can also be a challenge. We have some drills in our shop that I simply cannot pick up and use with one hand, due to their weight. And on others, the grip is far too large to be comfortable. I realize these tools are designed for the “average” user , but I do wish more manufacturers paid attention to the fact that far more women are now buying and using tools. I don’t think our relatively smaller frames and hand sizes are usually factored into that “average.” (Of course, my chronically weak right wrist doesn’t help matters. Darn , guess I can’t use that Firestorm pictured above.)

In my soccer “career,” until college I was usually the only girl on the team. I wasn’t the best player, but I could hold my own. By age 16, most of the guys were faster, stronger and a whole lot bigger than was I. So I compensated by improving my blocking, tackling and passing. I’ve had to learn some similar “fixes” in woodworking. And of course, it affords me the opportunity to match my pounce bag to my shoes.

– Megan Fitzpatrick

26 thoughts on “High Heels and Pounce Bags

  1. Brian Healy

    Hi Megan
    Firstly, I trust you don’t wear those shoes in the workshop. Definite safety issue.
    We have no problem supplying any size of glove (disposable or otherwise) for our female employees. We get them from our safety equipment supplier. Okay, we are in Australia but there must be several safety supplies outlets in your city. A box of 100 pairs of disposable nitrile gloves costs very little and could last you years.

  2. Al Coppola

    I’m male, a bit short (at 70) 5’7", but have large hands. I can relate to the problems discussed because there were and are many times that I wished that some tools were more comfortable to handle and use. With today’s technology, it should be a simple matter for manufacturers to reduce the size and weight of many tools, making them more user-friendly for our female woodworkers as well as very many of us who do not need all the brute power being built into many of today’s tools. Alittle less power for a little more comfort seems like a good trade to me.

  3. Peggy Schneider

    Thanks, Megan, for commenting on these things. I took a class at Lonnie Bird’s school last summer, and didn’t figure out until I was back home that one of the reasons I had trouble hand-planing is that I’m 5’4" and the benches were too high for me to get any leverage or power. As for sawing, parts of my anatomy got in the way. This year I’m going back to Lonnie’s with a 4" high platform to stand on and the handle of my Dozuki saw cut shorter!

  4. Rob Porcaro

    Hi all,
    I’ll jump in with a few thoughts:

    For Gail S.:
    I’ve adjusted the height of my bench with blocks screwed to the base to allow the heel of my hand to touch the benchtop with about a 135 degree bend at my elbow. I experimented with various heights and tasks at the bench and this works for me.

    For Dwight S. especially, but this may help anyone:
    Here’s a website for an adjustable height bench that can be customized: http://www.adjustabench.com/index.asp
    There are others. Keep woodworking!

    For Megan: Hey, I thought heels are for crushing woodworking joints.

    Happy woodworking!

  5. Jon Johnson

    Megan, your analysis of feminine body mechanics is insightful. Ergonomics is still a fledgling science so men have to adapt to ‘average’ as well.

    Women have struggled to adapt to masculine tools since antiquity. The Amazons in Greco-Roman mythology were forced to, uh,let’s say, surgically modify their torsos, in order to facilitate archery weaponry (bowstrings tend to smart!) Just think what a boon to ancient mankind the sports bra would have been, eh?

  6. Barbara Raymond

    In our workshop we have the male at 6’2" and me at 5’6". Unfortunately, there isn’t always consideration to height for me, the female in house. Since we both are involved in woodworking and don’t have space or ways to accommodate the variance in height, we usually make benches at a height comfortable for him. Since he raised his table saw and jointer, that may be why I am uncomfortable using both.

  7. Tom Bier

    For a quick height adjustment check before you cut down the bench legs or build a platform just raid Chris Schwarz’s stash of SYP 2x12s and lay 2 or 3 on the floor & see how it feels.

  8. David

    Megan – I can’t help with the table height problem on stationary power tools, nor the grip sizing issue with portable power tools. I can, however, help with the disposable glove problem – skip going to the medical supply store. Med supply is way too expensive, and as you noted, often way out of the way.

    You can get vinyl or latex gloves in the size you need very easily – at the drug store. Just go into any CVS or Rite-Aid and ask at the Pharmacy counter for "exam gloves". At my local Rite-Aid, you have 4 sizes to choose from, including small and extra-large, and they’re dirt cheap in the store-brand labeled box.

    David in NC

  9. Ronald Bland, Sr.

    MEGAN:
    Without Tongue in Cheek in our Tongue and Grooves; what wood a Woodworkers Life be?

    We measure twice and cut it short, oh where can that board stretcher be?
    Great article Megan, keep up the great work
    Ron

  10. andy fischer

    Megan,
    I am a female woodworker and have been using tools and making things out of wood for as long as I can remember. I started by making models back in the mid to late 40’s.
    I am also a professional golfer and have been playing for 62 years and teaching for 42 years.
    One thing that we golfers have the advantage over woodworkers is that our tools(clubs) can be adjusted in several ways to accomodate different sizes, shapes, etc.
    We have several sizes of golf gloves, not as many choices as men(10 vs. 4), sizes of grips, flex of shafts, length of shafts, and lie of the clubhead.
    So maybe there needs to be some thinking of this about height of benches, and other things that have a work top, sizes of handles for tools, weight of tools, etc. to be considered female friendly and maybe that would attract more females and even smaller men.
    I actually recycle my golf gloves to use in my shop or when working outside in the garden. I turn one inside out and then can use it on the other hand.
    You could get into golf and then after the glove is not good for golf you could recycle them for woodworking. I actually save lots of my gloves for Judy Ditmer, as she loves them for turning. She cuts the tops of the fingers off.
    You go girl and keep up the good work.

  11. Courtney

    I love my shop and one of the things that bugs me is the size of the batter release buttons to get an attached battery off a power tool I have to use clamps to press the buttons hard enough. Expecting an "average" hand span or strength is poor design. Even men with hand problems would have a tough time.

    I usually have to opt for electric power tools because of this.

  12. Bruce Sinton

    When I worked in Civil / Municipal Engineering some moons ago, I used to do quite a bit of Plan drawing.
    At the Draughting Table , sometimes I sat on a chair, sometimes standing on the floor , and the rest of the time on
    a little platform about 100mm (4" to you Americans)high.
    Gave my back a good time, RSI and all that.
    I think I similar platform for your bench would make life much easier for you ,and safer than wearing high heels.

    I don’t think OSH would approve of those high heels in a workplace either!

  13. Big John

    Megan,
    My Daughter started wood working thirteen years ago, while still in Jr. High. She’s now 5’7", and Dad’s shop built for a "normal" 6’4" male is just too hard to cope with. So she has always gone to her Grandfather’s shop, where everything is a bit lower. Everyone has a handicap, too tall, too short, too light, too fat, broken bones, bad eyes, the list just goes on and on. Being female, male, short, or tall just makes trying things interesting. With determination, care, some thought and imaginative modifications, and a love for the craft, almost anyone can enjoy wood working. As for my Daughter, every time she entered a wood working contest at school, she always beat the boys. Why? She simply wanted to do her best, not to win, but because she loved it. Difficulties and all.

  14. Bruce Jackson

    Well, the short story of my 4’10" wife and me is that each bought the other a Christmas gift each wanted.

    That is, my wife thinks I could be a gourmet cook so she bought me (actually herself) a stainless steel double-boiler. Meanwhile, I spotted a cute little block plane at the local Sears and thought that my wife (actually me) just absolutely had to have one. Perfect size for her, too.

    I used to do weights, so when my honey decided she wanted to pump iron, I really was hard put to find a pair of dumbbells she could lift comfortably without putting her in too much danger. Do you know that each dumbbell weighs only three pounds? And I had been pushing 45-pounders in my good days. So, jointers I have weigh 10-12 pounds each, fores were 8 or 10, and smoothers were maybe 3 or 5 pounds. So, the dumbbels talked me into block planes of, maybe, one pound? That sound about right?

  15. Alan Garner

    Megan,
    You may be fully aware, but I would imagine that teaching a woman how to stand, position themselves, etc., when using a handsaw or other handtool, needs to be done understanding male and female arms are different.

    A man can straighten his arm out, palms up, and from the shoulder to the hand is relatively straight. When a woman does that there is a noticeable difference. There is generally a definite angle at the elbow. The right forearm angles to the right from the elbow. Left arm angles to the left from the elbow.

    Maybe an opportunity here for an article or more for women.

    Alan Garner

  16. Grant Wilkinson

    Megan

    I’m sorry that I over reacted. I’ll post something to that effect on your blog. I read it a few times, and thought that you were actually doing it. I was wrong.

    I know what you mean about the challenges, though. My wife faces them when she comes into my shop to help out. Some of the women in our woodworking class suffered with it, too. There, the school made platforms to butt up against the benches. It didn’t help with with the power tools, though.

    I hope that you’ll accept my apology for being a jerk.

    Grant

  17. megan

    Grant,
    It was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and illustrate the challenge we vertically challenged woodworkers face. While my heels do indeed raise me close to the right height for my benchtop, I can’t really work in them — nor would I want to. With my luck, I’d drop a chisel on my toe! Not to mention it’s not particularly easy to keep one’s balance in heels.
    Megan

  18. Gail S

    Thanks for the great article, Megan. I relate to ‘table saw intimidation’ at 5’3" and shrinking. I also struggle with tool weight and small hands, especially with the more powerful/effective hand tools like circular saws and drills.

    I wonder if there is any formula we smaller-than-average people can use to come within an inch or two of the best height for our tools, stands and workbenches. i.e. ‘best height for X is at the end of your fingertips when you’re standing straight up’, etc. This has been an ongoing challenge that I’ve yet to conquer.

    Any thoughts?

  19. Grant Wilkinson

    In my neck of the woods, you would get away with those high heels only until the first workers’ comp inspection. Then, your shop owner would be paying a huge fine, and no doubt, you would be wearing proper footwear. I can’t believe that you are serious when you say that you wear those in a shop. If you are, you should be ashamed to promote their use as part of Popular Woodworking.

  20. Dwight Shirey

    You ought to try these things in a wheel chair! I’d look a bit strange in four inch heels. After the accident made my legs just something to tag along, I spent nearly two months doing nothing but making new, really short stands for all my stationary tools – of course, some of them I just sold and started over with smaller, lighter, bench top models.
    I’ve been wondering, why doesn’t some top tool manufacturer make a line of really good tools that have height adjustable bases? It sure would make things easier for all of us who are ‘vertically challenged’. And talk about a safety issue! They would have a gold mine on their hands. I mean, I sold a unisaw and replaced it with a decent benchtop Delta with a home made rolling base. Goodness, I would have paid about anything to have my unisaw with a hydrolic bottom.

  21. Elisse Goldstein-Clark

    I am 4′ 9 1/2" tall (though I lie a lot and tell people I’m 5’…), and was not blessed with the upper body strength of Attilla the Hun. I applaud you! THANK YOU for discussing issues important to US, and the ways in which we make things work! And I loved the "matching accessories" concept! Because of height & "leverage", there are Many things that are far easier to do in 4" heels- the running joke is that I even garden in 4" heels!

  22. dlwurscher

    Great Story Megan.

    We men tend to see things only from our perspective.

    CAN the heels, only looking for an accident to happen, may make the guys in the shop mad, but that’s life.

    Either shorten the bench or add a 4′ wide platform around it. Ramp the floor to the platform.

    You could get a concrete or wood hole saw, and drill 4 hole in the floor to lower the bench (ha-ha).

    I often wonder what styles of furniture etc. would have evolved if women had been involved from the beginning.

    Again great article, keep up the good work, one’s mind grows when made to think about new things and ideas.

  23. Keith Mealy

    wah-wah-wah.

    At a foot taller than you, I can tell you it’s not all roses at the 99th percentile, http://www.halls.md/chart/men-height-w.htm , either. When I built my workbench to the right height, I was amazed how much my backaches went away.

    My table saw is not only on a mobile base, raising it up an inch or so, but has another 3" lift that I built into the base.

    Gloves? I took me 14 months to find a pair or XXL. When I mistakenly tried on a pair of XL framer’s gloves, it took a full two minutes to get them off.

    Shoes? When I find them, I buy them. Same with shirts (37" sleeve).

    Cars? Forget style — do I have headroom?

    I’m sure someone else will comment. Generally I meet someone once a year who’s visibly taller than I am. I have two friends that are 6’10" — I can only imagine their lives.

    Meanwhile, consider making a 4-6 riser platform that you can use in front ot the bench or tools. That will let you use "sensible shoes."

    All in jest– take care.

  24. John Cashman

    I am very much looking forward to seeing some video of Megan planing some curly maple in high heels. To be honest, I wouldn’t mind seeing Chris planing in high heels either, but I’d rather see Megan.

    But wait until safety week is over.

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