Don’t Let Jewelry Making Become A Pain in the Neck- Ergonomics in the Jewelry Studio by Holly Gage
Let’s set the stage for the perfect studio day. I put on my favorite music, which varies daily, but today it will be a little Led Zeppelin as I sing poorly along. Chris joking in the background, says I am ruining the song and messing up the lyrics. I collect the necessary supplies and start creating something I hope will be awesome (don’t we all). I start really getting into my project, I start looking over my glasses to see the tiny details as my progressives don’t quite do the trick, and time passes from minutes to hours as I get lost in the rhythm and flow of my project. This is what my family calls Holly’s World.
I start bending down closer and closer to my workbench, where my project is coming to life. I
don’t even realize the fatigue in my neck or the pain in my shoulder or wrist until I take a necessary bathroom break. Then I return to my obsession as the family starts going to bed, lights are shut off, and doors are checked for the evening. I am left silhouetted by my task light. Does this sound familiar?
The problem with this scenario is our focus on our projects, but not so much on the setup of our studio to be ergonomically correct. Ergonomics refers to the design of your space to be comfortable without undue stress on the body so you don’t experience the aches and pains typical for many in our industry.
Who am I anyway to discuss this topic? Well, I’m one of the many who studied everything about the technique and design of my jewelry, but nothing about ergonomics. As a result, I suffered rotator cuff problems, neuropathy in my elbow, and compressed and bulging discs creating a pinched nerve in my neck, sending shock waves of what can only be described as an electric pain searing down each arm. My thumb and forefinger were numb, making it hard to hold on to my Metal Clay work, leading to excessive klutziness and breakage.
Once, I mentioned a pending operation to replace two of four discs and a titanium plate screwed into my cervical spine area, did so many others raise their hands on jewelry forums and say, “Oh boy, I’m experiencing that!”
I started writing this article several weeks into my operation recovery. I cannot bend, lift or twist, and I hold my head stiff as if I’m wearing a tie that is too tight, but I can type. And my hope is to help you avoid debilitating pain that makes you slow down or even quit the love of expressing yourself through the deep enjoyment of jewelry making.
I’d like to add that I called in a couple of experts. Fran Olsen, a talented jewelry artist with 47 years as a licensed Occupational Therapist, assisted me in the facts concerning the accuracy of posture and ergonomics in the studio. She worked as a Medical Service Corps officer at a Naval Hospital, treating hand patients during the Vietnam War. Then afterward, she worked at the Behavioral Medicine Department, providing services for a Pain Management Program.
Also, Dr. Jo is a Physical Therapist and Doctor of Physical Therapy. She has a great channel on YouTube of stretches targeting several parts of the body. Because of her generosity, I was allowed to pull many of her videos targeting the neck, arms, and back which are stress points for the jeweler and similar to my two on-and-off years of physical therapy, several times a week.
My Newly Designed Ergonomic Jewelry Studio Space
Including Ergonomics in the Jewelry Studio Space
Your work surface is where you live a lot of the day, so your desk, chair, and lighting all play a significant role in the long hours at your bench and your overall comfort. Your goal is to prevent unnecessary strains on the body so you can focus on your jewelry.
Having an all-in-one purpose chair with lumbar support for your back and the ability to adjust height will be an invaluable asset. This way, you can adjust it up and down as need be for the task at hand. [Figure B]
I have a mesh chair that is comfortable and has breathable material. If working with fire, your cushion should be fire-resistant. The depth of the chair allows my back to be straight against the back of the seat and my feet to reach flat on the floor.
When I need to raise my chair for the proper 90º position for my arms for typing, my eyes are level with the top of my computer screen, and my feet sit on a slanted foam fulcrum. Fran suggests a slanted footrest. It is hard to find proper seating for someone only 5’ 11/2”, like myself, but this allows me to be at the proper height, with my knees slightly below my hips at 90º for best comfort.
A chair that swivels in a 360º radius is practical for convenient movement within the space. I like the option of locking wheels. When needed, they can lock in place so you are not fighting the stability of the chair when you need the pressure to close a bezel, for example.
If you don’t have a good chair and a stool is your only option, as with my husband, Chris,, who works on lapidary equipment, many of the same rules apply. However, you obviously can not put your back against support, so you must be much more mindful to keep your feet flat on the floor or footrest and your back and neck in alignment.
Fran suggests a NadaChair, which she has, and is portable support for your lower back. It moves with you and helps prevent lower back pain. It can also be used in a regular chair if not ergonomically correct.
An adjustable height surface would be a dream as they can be adjusted up and down with a button or crank. Still, if you don’t have one, and many of us don’t, you can select various surfaces or stations with different height options for select studio tasks. The aim is to find a comfortable position without stressing any body part, not to mention avoiding cross-contamination of materials. For example:
A jeweler’s bench is higher than my other surfaces and is excellent for carving and close Metal Clay work. I want to be able to look at my piece head-on without straining my neck like a crane. [Figure A demonstrates poor ergonomics Figure A1 is better.]
For many metalsmiths, this is the location of their bench pin for sawing sheet metal and other tasks. Pay attention not only to the height of the surface but your distance from your bench and the position of your neck. For instance, when sawing, you should allow your arm to move freely up and down without reaching forward when you saw, and remember the cutting motion comes from the elbow, not the wrist. Keep the saw moving in the same position and turn the piece being sawed versus twisting your hand and wrist. You will have more control over the saw and less stress on your hand. This is not a guide on how to saw, but how to work comfortably. Nothing beats a good class on technique. [Figure D]
A lower desk can have dual purposes. I use that space for my Online jewelry teaching courses, with a demonstration area and also a place for assembling greenware when I don’t need such a close view.
My medium-height desk is for “dirty work,” hammering, cold connections, finishing, polishing, and patinas. In this instance, my bench is too high for comfort, and I do not want nor require my work at eye level. If I need to stand, I’ll widen my stance to shoulder width for additional leverage, with my back straight and a relaxed tailbone to reduce lower back pain, and feet solidly planted on the ground. Holding a bent or leaning position over strains your neck and back. My chair also adjusts to this height.
Finally, I have a station across the room for all hot work, such as torch firing, soldering, or kiln firing with a metal surface that can take a good amount of heat without burning. Your stations should fit your needs. Obviously, you don’t want your face too close to a torch flame, so again, you want a safe and comfortable distance from your work without stretching forward. For prolonged hot work, allow your elbow(s) to rest on the bench or an elevated rest, as these will be more comfortable when holding a flame on a piece for a long time.
There are instances where my table height is not meeting my needs, usually a bit too low, so I will bring in a block of wood or a sturdy box to raise the area. The key here is not to increase it where it will stress your wrists, but where you can work on the project with a better line of sight and arm comfort. [Figure E]
Choose a surface that contrasts with your materials and tools. It will be easier to see and not put as much strain on your eyes trying to find them should you look away. Not finding your tools is so frustrating when you want to be efficient.
Lighting and Eye Wear
Lighting is crucial too. If you can’t see what you are doing clearly, you’re straining your neck and eyes unnecessarily to view what is in front of you.
A well-lit room is an optimal situation, whether it is natural light or overhead lights. A task light or two, or an Ott light®, in addition, can illuminate your space even better for small tasks allowing you to be more accurate in the execution of your jewelry work. Ott lights® have “natural” light bulbs allowing you to see the true color of your materials, stones, or enamels. Natural Reveal® GE light bulbs in task lamps will have a similar effect.
Position your light(s) on the side or in front of you, pointing down to your surface. You don’t want lights to glare in your eyes. Lights positioned from behind create shadows, and you don’t want your big ‘ole head to get in the way.
Speaking of glare, buy a light that diffuses the harsh light bulb. Most of these lights have a milky white diffusing lens, or the bulb has a milky coating. My alternative is to put a “tent” over the light, which I use during my Online Jewelry lessons to take the glare off my work and my face. The tent is made of parchment paper which defuses the light nicely. [Figure F]
You may need magnified glasses to see the detail more easily. There are many types available from Jewelry retailers, such as visors, flip-up glasses that attach to your regular glasses, or readers that you can pick up for a couple of dollars at the drugstore. [Figure E]
Make sure the glasses are well-fitting, and you are not stressing your eyes. Too strong or too weak can lead to eye strain and migraines. I had a pair of progressive glasses made by an optician, so I wouldn’t have to keep switching glasses which I found cumbersome. The eye doctor can also help you decide what additional lens strength you need. When using these aids, you want to be able to move your eyes into the proper position versus moving your head and neck up and down.
It goes without saying that if you can’t see your work clearly, you will make mistakes and strain your eyes, neck, back, and shoulders in the process.
Ergonomic Posture in the Jewelry Studio
The problem with not knowing the proper position for my body and not recognizing the smoke signals my body was sending, such as little aches and pains, was my nemesis. My self-talk sounded like, “I’ll just do this one last task,” or “I just want to finish this piece.” This turned into several hours with my neck poorly positioned. Instead of taking my glasses off, I looked over them for convenience...for years! I did this, making my gaze even more dramatically extended downward into an awkward position. I’m not suggesting you sit like a tin soldier, but I am asking you to take a second look at how your posture could shorten a long, happy career. ,
Your back should be against the back of the chair with your knees slightly below your hips at 90º and your feet flat on the floor. If you have to scoot forward in the chair, then your back may be unsupported, forcing extra stress on your back and shoulders.
Work closer to your body versus stretching your arms to the middle or another side of your work area. Your center of gravity is at the core of your body, so when you lift a guillotine, for example, you put less stress on your arms and shoulders when lifting or maneuvering when it is close. Consider this: when you are raising an item of any weight, it is much easier to lift when your arms are bent and close to your body versus when your arms are straight out in front of you. This concept follows along those lines of thinking.
When working on a piece of jewelry, you should not be hovering over your project unnaturally, bending your neck. Your neck should be straight as your eyes also look straight on.
Move to a comfortable table height, or build a platform that raises the project to a comfortable height ALONG with your arm and hand position versus cork-screwing your neck to get closer or bending your wrists in a contoured unnatural position.
We’ve all heard stories of aches and pains people get from repetitive motions. The more commonly known Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, for example, causes numbness, tingling, and weakness in the hand and arm. It is caused by frequent, repetitive, small movements with the hands, so changing your position is helpful.
Ergonomic Tools in the Jewelry Studio
Calling all tool junkies! Pay attention to the tools you buy, their design, quality, and placement in the studio for their best effectiveness. I know it is tempting to purchase a bargain tool, but keep in mind poor design and quality make you work harder than needed, and spending a couple of extra dollars can make all the difference. Also, consider where you place them in your space, as this can prevent awkward and painful stressors on the body.
The handles of your tools need to be angled so your wrist is not torqued in a strange position. The handle should not be too small to cramp your grip requiring excessive force, or too large to make them hard to secure in your hand safely. You can often adjust a tool’s handle with an air dry clay or 2-part epoxy resin to the size and shape. [Figure F]
You want to avoid extreme or awkward positions when using the tool in your hand. You’ll want to change the angle and placement of your jewelry piece versus contouring your body in a twisted or stretched position where your strength is off balance and not working to your benefit.
To avoid harmful repetitive wrist motions leading to Tendinitis and nerve pain, consider a power tool that can do the same job as your hand tool. For instance, a rotary hammerhead attachment tool can replace hammers; drills can replace a hand vise, and polishing wheels can replace hand polishing. There is the popular Foredom® with flex shaft or my favorite Foredom® portable mini, which is a lightweight handheld model that is quite agile.
Repetitive finger movements can also cause cramping, so reduce the number of repetitions by planning ahead when need be.
Automated tools are not calibrated correctly if they are causing excessive vibration, and it is time to get them checked by a professional. That vibration causes fatigue in your hands and makes it difficult to use the tool for the job precisely.
Chances are, if you use excessive force with a tool, you have the wrong tool, or size, or are misusing it. All factors need to be checked before you proceed with using the device.
Placement of Tools
Consider the placement of your tools. If they are properly located, you will not have to stretch, contort, and twist your body to reach them. [Figure F]
Which hand is your dominant hand? Place the tools you use most at arm’s reach on the correct side of the bench and where you don’t have to stretch to get them. If you pay attention to where you place the tools down — right-handed tools on the right, and left-handed tools on the left, you will spend more time creating and less time looking for them on your bench.
Each workstation should be looked at critically and analyzed for ease. If you only have one bench, consider having a logical set of tools in a portable and divided container classified by task. This keeps excess clutter off your desk and keeps the necessary tools at hand.
For instance, have a tote for your Metal Clay wet working tools, then another tote or section for the greenware working. Organize them in order of use.
Another example is your finishing bench with your rotary tool. Have the rotary tool on the dominant hand’s side and all the attachments in an easy-to-see holder on the other side. Remember not to forget your mask and eye protection.
Dropping Tools and Tiny Things
I spend more time than I’d like to admit crawling on my hands and knees, looking for tools and gems. I might suggest knee pads for anyone doing it as much as I do, and since my neck problem, I have yet to regain the feeling in my thumb and forefinger, making me twice the klutz I was before. I have two suggestions:
Get an inexpensive handheld restaurant tabletop sweeper. Now that I can’t pay my grown children .25¢ anymore for finding a lost gem on the floor, I just run this small sweeper under my desk and pick up everything in the vicinity, including reclaimed bits of Metal Clay and findings. Turn it over, and there it is. You might have to dig through an embarrassing amount of dust and dirt, but I’ve killed two tasks: cleaning the floor and finding the gem. [Figure G]
Another quick way to find it is by using the flashlight on your mobile phone. Shine it parallel to the floor, and the light will sparkle off the gem’s surface, making it much easier to see.
Take Time to Stretch
Even though I put this section last, it is by no means an afterthought. With all the precautions stated above, it is a good idea to stretch every so often during your day. Athletes stretch before a race, and so should you because, after all, we spend a long time at the bench. Stretching every 30 minutes would be good. Set your clock or phone to go off as a reminder.
DISCLAIMER: These videos are only designed to help you perform the correct technique of exercises and do not replace your healthcare provider. There are many manual manipulations a therapist can do that simply can not be done on your own. If these techniques aren’t done right, they won’t help, and they could make things worse. So, if you experience any pain while doing these techniques, STOP immediately and see your doctor. Also, if you are presently in pain and/or experience it often, this is another sign to contact your doctor.
For Your Neck
Oh, what a pain in the neck! Here are some simple stretches for neck pain. Remember to be very careful with neck stretching exercises. Pain can be caused by weak and tight muscles, among other things, in the neck and shoulder area. The second video shows chin tucks are great because they can help relieve headaches and they can help correct posture. I was taught to do them in the studio and even at stop lights while driving in the car. I believe they have helped in strengthening my neck as well. [Neck 1 & 2]
Neck Pain Stretches & Exercises - Ask Doctor Jo [Neck 1]
Best Neck Pain Relief Exercise - Real-time Routine [Neck 2]
For Your Shoulders
These shoulder pain relief stretches are great for helping to relieve general shoulder pain and shoulder tightness. [Shoulder 1]
Shoulder Pain Relief Stretches – 5 -Minute Real-Time Routine [Shoulder 1]
For Your Back
The lower back can be tricky to stretch, depending on what is causing the pain. The first exercise targeting this area is a pelvic tilt. It is a stretch for the low back, hips, and pelvis.
The second stretch is for upper back pain and can be caused when the rhomboid muscles get overworked & stressed. Stopping to stretch is a great way to take a necessary break. [Back 1 & 2]
Best Low Back Pain Relief Exercise – Real-time Routine [Back 1 ]
Upper Back Pain Relief - Ask Doctor Jo [Back 2 ]
For Your Wrist
Here are two exercises to relieve wrist pain. The first video helps to relieve wrist pain & tightness, often coming from tight wrist flexors & extensors, so this is an excellent way to ease the pain.
The muscles in the wrist area also go up into the elbow, so the second stretch is excellent for the wrists, hands, and elbows. [Wrist 1 & 2]
Wrist Pain Relief - Ask Doctor Jo [Wrist 1]
Best Wrist Pain Relief Stretch – Real-time Routine [Wrist 2]
At the End of the Day
The 10-minute Jewelry Studio Clean-up
At the end of each day, I perform a 10-minute clean-up, putting everything back in its place so I can find tools, gems, and projects and start with a clean bench for the next session. You may think this is an organizational freak’s guide to ergonomics in the studio. Still, you’ll find that if you organize and perform a 10-minute clean-up at the end of each day, things will stay in their proper place, you’ll spend less time looking for your tools, plus your body is not stretching or reaching and twisting unnecessarily.
Ergonomics in Other Parts of Your Life
I’ve now been looking at how I do other things and need to implement these tips in other parts of my life. I’m lifting my mobile phone up to save my neck from looking down. I get closer to the items in the garden versus reaching and twisting to tend to them. I’m looking at my body position when I watch TV, and I take a break every 30 minutes or so to stretch.
I hope you will consider some of these changes and exercises throughout your day to avoid the unnecessary pain many people experience.
Holly Gage of Gage Designs is a 2015 Saul Bell Design winner recognized for distinction in jewelry design. She creates contemporary jewelry and teaches her unique techniques with a gentle blend of design instruction and technical proficiency. Holly brings her innovation, creativity, and gift of helping others find their artistic voice through classes, mentoring programs, and master workshops. Classes are available live Online, throughout the US, and abroad. She is a full-time jewelry artist, Certified Metal Clay Instructor, author, and conference speaker. In addition, Holly holds a BS in Fine Art and Education. Her jewelry and articles on techniques and design can be found in over 75+ regional and national publications, including the Best of America Jewelry Artists; Named 3rd in Handmade Business: Top 12 Makers, Movers, and Shakers; Metal Clay Today; Art Jewelry and Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist; Making Jewellery: among others. You can find more information about Holly’s jewelry, classes, and awards, along with numerous Metal Clay tips, tutorials, and blog, on her website at www.HollyGage.com