How to figure out the best height for your cutting table and how to make it happen.
Just how high should your cutting table be?
I often get asked this by students attending my ergonomic workshops and lectures and the truth is that it depends; first on what work you’ll be doing and what tools you’ll be using and secondly on your magical 90-degree baseline angle measurement. Sounds tricky, doesn’t it? Well, read on, because it’s actually easier to work out than you think!
To establish your cutting table height, first you need to understand your tools.
Most of my students are quilters, but you may need a cutting table for a number of other creative activities, whether that’s card making, scrapbooking or pattern cutting for clothing design. Each of these trades and or hobbies rely on various tools. These days (and in my students’ case) we often use a rotary cutter for cutting fabric instead of traditional scissors. It is a quick and easy-to-master tool. Let’s take that as our example here, we’ll measure its depth when we hold it in our hand while in use, but we’ll get to that.
Secondly, you need to understand your best working height
When we are working at our fabric cutting table we need to work in a position that allows movement and reach in a safe and comfortable way. We don’t want to be overstretching to reach across the width of the table and we don’t want to be causing our neck, shoulders and back pain while we work either.
I’m going to use myself as an example and show you my best working position at my cutting table so that you can easily work out yours.
I'm 5 foot 3 inches in my shoes and my baseline ergonomic angle measurement is 39 inches from elbow to the floor. I have worked this out by keeping the upper part of my arm close to my body and extending out my forearm and hand. Almost as if I were about to shake someone’s hand who is the same height as me. I turn my palm to the floor creating a nice straight line between my elbow and palm (at 90 degrees to my body). I still have a tape measure attached to my wall that was used for a video I made for Quiltcon and I can use it to take my measurement from elbow/palm to floor. This gives me my baseline ergonomic angle, which as I say is 39 inches.
Now I need to know the sweet spot for using my rotary cutter. Rotary cutters require gravity to help with the downward pressure. For me it’s about a 4 inch drop from elbow to table (measured with arm kept neutral straight from elbow to fingertips). See photo
39 minus 4 equals 35, so this means my cutting table height should ideally be about 35 inches high. This allows me to work both accurately and safely when using my rotary cutter with a 24 inch ruler. It also stops scrunching up my shoulders if a table is too high, or an aching back from bending over a table that's too short.
If you are using your sewing scissors to cut a pattern at your cutting table, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends having your table at waist height. That’s because scissors don’t require the same amount of applied force as a rotary cutter, they glide, so you can cut at closer to 90 degrees with scissors than with a rotary cutter.
When I studied pattern making (for clothing) and tailoring, we were taught to glide our shears against the surface of the table. This is very accurate and easier on the wrist as you are not supporting the weight of your huge shiny Singer sewing scissors, or even worse your pinking shears. Does anyone even own pinking shears anymore? Mine are so dull, they can't cut butter!
Now that we have our best working height we can find or build the perfect cutting table.
In my case, I know that a 35-inch high cutting table is going to be perfect for my work, so finding my new cutting table should be easy. Or is it? Because 35 inches is not a standard height for a table. In fact tables and desks have no standard heights.I’m a big fan of “use what you have” so take a look around the house and see what you can appropriate. Let’s say my existing table is 30 inches high, okay so I know I need to add 5 inches to my table to bring it up to snuff! I can do this with bed risers, wooden table legs, wheels with locks. For folding tables you can cut plastic piping , but be sure to factor in the distance from floor to table leg bend. So if it's 3 inches from the floor to the table, legs bend or knuckle as I like to call it, then you’ll need to add 8 inches, not 5. Make sense? Many guilds have a set of these in their retreat kits, as they know the venue will have banquet tables there.
Here are some things to keep in mind during your search for a new table:
If you’re considering a fold-up table, check out how it adjusts. The table should be easy for you to set up on your own and also to adjust the height. It should not require stress on your back, shoulders or arms to do so.
If you need a table with wheels, then make sure they have reliable breaks / locks. The last thing you want is to be halfway through a cut and have the table move. You may just screw up a cut or you may end up in the emergency room with a finger wrapped in a paper towel.
Do you need storage and if so what kind? If you are working in a smaller space then maximizing the space under the table might be a good investment here. I’ve got a set of wire baskets from Ikea under mine. They hold various rotary cutters, fresh blades and a handy bin to dump my scraps in.
Do you need a multi-purpose table? Are you aiming to just cut fabric, or do you need to use this table for something else as well? If that’s the case, and you have the room, go big! The thrift stores are full of sturdy once loved tables, take one home and show it some love! Mine is a repurposed dining room table, it doubles as my desk and I use a bar stool as a chair. I keep a footstool tucked under the table for my feet, it keeps my hips and sacroiliac (SI) joint happy.