The Agony of De Feet

Our shop here at Popular Woodworking is one of the most pleasant shops I’ve ever worked in. There’s an abundance of natural light, it’s well equpped, and it’s air-conditioned. The only complaint I really have is the floor. It’s hard, unforgiving concrete and a long day in the shop leaves my back and knees aching. I’ve worked in shops with wood floors, and it makes a huge difference. In our Woodworking Essentials supplement in our October issue we mentioned our prefence for wood floors over concrete floors several times.

One of our readers wanted to know the scientific basis for our preference. His question was this:

“In the shop article (center supplement) it is stated twice that a wood shop floor is easier on the feet than concrete.  What property of wood would make this so?  I have heard this same argument about tile vs. wood for kitchen floors.  None of these materials is compressible under “foot” pounds” of load so how can feet know the difference?”

I’ve never heard anyone question this before, so I decided to investigate. Most of the information I found was anecdotal. Everyone knows that a wood floor is more comfortable, but there isn’t much information about why that is. As our reader suggests, the floor isn’t compressing when you step on it, so what makes the difference? So I went in search of the scientific principle behind the mountain of anecdotal evidence. One source I found was the Maple Flooring Manufacturers Association. Another was the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. Here is what I learned:

When you take a step, there is a good deal of energy generated at the point of impact. What happens to this energy when the foot meets the floor makes all the difference. It can either be absorbed by the floor or absorbed by the body. Any energy that bounces off the floor surface and returns to the body,is felt as an impact. One step doesn’t have much effect, but the cumulative effect of many steps over time can lead to foot, knee, hip and back problems. Tapping yourself with a hammer lightly on the bottom of the foot once wouldn’t cause an injury, but repeated tapping all day long could.

If you think of the energy of the foot impact as similar to any other form of energy, like a sound wave, when it encounters something it will wither be absorbed or reflect. Sound waves don’t compress a material when they hit it, but the vibrations from that energy are absorbed and dissipated by the material. Send that same sound wave at a solid reflective material like concrete and it will bounce back at you.

The essentially hollow structure of wood allows it to absorb much of the energy generated when a step is taken, or even when you shift you weight from one foot to the other. Even though you aren’t compressing the wood, the energy is able to move through the structure of the wood floor. Concrete on the other hand absorbs very little of the energy, most of it is reflected back through the body. Wood as a flooring material possesses an excellent combination of characteristics that make it an ideal flooring material for basketball players, dancers and woodworkers.

We recently had a reader suggest gluing pieces of anti-fatigue mats to the soles of the shoes he wears in the shop. A better solution is a set of shock-absorbing insoles. A company from my home town came up with a great material for this called Sorbothane. They also have a lot of technical info on their site.

When you kick your feet up at the end of the day, you really should have one of these mugs. The only place in the universe to get them is from the Popular Woodworking Store where you can also get T-shirts, sweatshirts, and caps.

thanks for reading,

Robert W. Lang

9 thoughts on “The Agony of De Feet

  1. Dan

    Let me second the previous comments on footware. In a previous life, I taught school which had concrete floors overlaid with tile. After the first week, I was feeling foot pain. I searched for suitable footwear and settled on an athletic shoe in black (used by referees) which loosely met the dress code. I retired a pair of shoes yearly, but had little difficulty with foot pain.

    I currently have a shop with a concrete floor and do not care for it. Additionally the nonresilent surface punishes the tool I inadvertently drop. However I am instaling anti-fatique mats in frequent use areas to not only reduce the impact but provide insulation from the chill.

    My previous shop was smaller but better suited for work due to the wooden floor comprised of 5/4 6" wide pine planking…..great surface to walk upon but more difficult to clean (vacuum required) and showed oil/grease/stain/paint effects when using these products.

    My next shop (dream world) will have a combination of hard surface (ceramic tile) and wooden planks with in-floor radiant heat.

  2. Bob Lang

    Well John, I think that’s the question of the day. My thinking is that it does make a significant improvement. On the Maple Flooring Association’s website they talk a lot about lower rates of injuries on gym floors, and I believe most of these are installed over concrete, especially the ones in arenas that are removed and replaced on a regular basis.

    Since there has been so much interest in this (and we’re looking to improve our own shop) we’ve decided to do some experiments. Our plan at the moment is to put down some AC plywood or OSB on the floor of at least part of the shop and see what difference it makes. Not scientific, but it could be an effective and inexpensive solution.

    Plan B, if we can talk the bean counters into it is to put down the least expensive solid wood floor we can find over the concrete. Lumber Liquidators has some pine and oak for about $1/square foot and some foam pad that goes underneath for about 50 cent/square foot. The cost to cover the floor of a two car garage-sized shop would be about the same cost as going to the Chiropractor every other week for a year. We’ll keep you posted.

  3. john winkler

    nice insight wood floor v concrete. Do engineered wood floors glued down on a concrete slab have the same energy absortion as a wood floor over plywood and a joists?

  4. Steve Ott

    Great article!! Like everyone else, I have also known that wood floors feel better after a long day, and now I know why. And if you think about it, it makes sense. Wood has cells in it that would absorb the energy of a step and not transmit that energy back into your foot. Thanks for sharing this info for all of us.

  5. Mike Kiernan

    I walked the halls of The Pentagon for over 20 years. Every one of them was concrete. If you knowingly wear a hard sole shoe on concrete for more than 3 days then whatever pain you have is what you deserve. I learned real fast that a soft sole shoe or boot was the only answer. The SORBOTHANE inserts mentioned are a good start provided you put them in a boot. You wear a running shoe around a working wood shop and you are begging for a stomped foot. Remember shop safety. There are reasons why there is a safety standard for shoes and boots (ANSI).

    And in defense of the poor concrete floor, when was the last time a concrete floor burned from absorbed oils, grease fumes and varnishes ? Just 1 fire and your entire shop goes P-O-O-F. And wait until you hear from those wonderful insurance folks who tell you they will pay off this claim BUT either you install a concrete floor when re-building, that won’t burn, or they will not underwrite you, ever !!! No reputable insurance company will. And if you find one that will you had better read the fine print real close as well as your attorney. Hidden ‘accidental’ clauses are a very unpleasent and nasty suprise.

  6. Steve Blethyn

    As a professional carpenter with a workshop that has a concrete floor, I have to agree totally with the article ‘The agony of de feet’. However… there is one point that seems to be missing. Michael Ward almost hit on this when he mentioned the shoes in the picture, but have any of your ever dropped an 8′ x 4′ sheet of 3/4" ply on your toes. I guess not. Why is it that Health and Safety on the other side of the pond (I’m from the UK) seems to have forgotten that toes can be crushed, especially when caught between falling objects and a concrete floor? In past employment, a work colleague was cutting a large circle on a band saw, the waste fell onto his foot and he now has toes numbering four on his right foot. My current employer wont let anyone in the shop without steel toecap shoes. These may be expensive but hey, the boss pays for them, he want staff with ten toes.

  7. Christopher Phillips

    Great article, very informative. I love the blog format and think it’s a great supplement to your magazine.

    I suggest running your blog articles through your proofing department. Typos and bad syntax are a distraction and somewhat less than I have come to expect from your magazine.

  8. Ed Miller

    Another factor I have noticed with most concrete floors is that they are very cold compared to wood floors. Cold floors often means cold feet and poor blood circulation in the feet and legs which may contribute to the fatigue and strain caused by the hard concrete. An anti fatigue mat has the additional bonus of providing some insulation value to the concrete. I am fortunate to have radiant floor heating in my concrete floored shop and do not find the need for mats. Because the floor is warm, my feet stay warm and are far less tired at the end of a day than I ever found after working in my old shop with conventional heating.

  9. Ian Peter

    As a full-time safety professional, I’ve had lots of experience with the occupational concern of standing on concrete floors all day. If you stand in the same location, anti-fatigue mats are a great solution. But I agree with your reader that it is often a lot more practical to attach the mat to your feet for many work situations.

    Fortunately there is a great product readily available (at many industrial safety suppliers) called ERGOMATES. I use these in my own workshop and recommend them highly to help reduce the pain and fatigue brought on by standing on concrete floors all day. Note – I don’t have a financial interest in the company!

    The ErgoMates are like an over-sized sandal that straps onto your shoe, with very high shock absorbtion and great slip resistance…just like walking on pillows. And they don’t look too geeky, either. You can get more information on ErgoMates at http://www.ergos.ca, or just Google Ergomates.

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