Woodworking: Basic Safety Tips
Woodworking can be a dangerous undertaking if you are not careful and choose to disregard safety guidelines. A circular saw, router, or other piece of power equipment can disfigure and even kill if not used properly. Even hand tools, which must be extremely sharp to provide best results, can cause serious injuries. In addition, the sawdust and fumes from wood can be harmful to the lungs if inhaled on a regular basis, especially if the wood was harvested from an orchard or tree farm where pesticides were used to control insects.
Fortunately, the advances in equipment and safety products have made it much more easy to have a safe working environment. Many tools come with built-in safety features like blade guards or emergency shut off switches. Other items such as feather boards and bench dogs can be made or purchased very inexpensively. And other parts of woodworking safety don’t cost a thing, but draw instead on practice and common sense.
There are several key aspects of safety when it comes to woodworking, and they apply whether you have an advanced shop with many different power tools or are working with basic hand tools in your basement or den.
Protecting your body from accidents is a key aspect of woodworking safety. Unfortunately, people get lazy or too comfortable or they feel that the safety equipment gets in the way. A vast majority of shop accidents and injuries occur because people were not using their safety equipment.
One of the main concerns when working with wood is eye protection. Wood chips can fly off when sawing, drilling, hammering, or any other task that penetrates the material. It usually happens far too quickly to be able to close your eyes or look away. Safety glasses solve this problem. In addition, if tools should break or a part comes loose, your eyes and forehead will be protected. Too many accidents have happened to just brush away this safety concern. It would be very difficult to pursue any woodworking interests with only one eye.
A good pair or safety glasses should be on everyone’s list of safety equipment and should be used any time you will be cutting or removing wood with force or power tools. A quality pair of glasses will cost around $12 and could last you your entire life if properly cared for and put away when not in use. Those who need vision correction can even purchase safety classes with bifocal inserts in different strengths for under $20.
Some power tools can be quite noisy and can damage hearing. Even repetitive hammering produces loud sharp noises. Many of us know a longtime woodworker who has difficulty hearing due to exposure to equipment over the years. Protecting your ears from the loud decibels is important, especially if you use noisy power equipment such as saws, on a regular basis.
Earplugs work well, earmuffs work even better, and a combination of the two is ideal when working with loud equipment that produces sound in the high decibel range. Earplugs cost just pennies, and a set of earmuffs runs about $15. You can get them with a radio and antenna built in for around $50.
Over the past decade or two, extensive research has been done on the hazards of inhaling wood dust and particles, and the results show that it can cause respiratory diseases. Treated lumber or wood that came from commercial orchards is especially volatile. It is important to capture and remove these particles from the air or protect yourself from breathing them.
A work area with good ventilation will help, but even if you are working in an open area, you will be breathing in the dust if you are standing over the machine while it cuts the wood. If you plan to do a lot of cutting, drilling or sanding, it is best to have a machine that keeps the particles away from your face and prevents you from breathing them in.
There are several methods available, with the most basic being a dust mask. These lightweight masks made of filtering materials fit over your nose and mouth and are typically held in place by a rubber band. Innovative designs improve breathing and deter fogging of safety glasses. A box of 10 high quality dust masks costs around $10. They do not filter out toxic materials with fumes.
You can also purchase a dust collection system or respirator that you wear on your head or strap on your body. These systems are battery powered and allow you to move around freely. Some people feel that they are uncomfortable and impair vision, but they can be a critical way to protect your long-term health if you plan to spend a lot of time woodworking. Prices range from $50 for a basic system to over $250 for a system that also has head and eye protection.
Another option for dust collection is to use a localized unit that mounts under your worktable, saw, or other equipment and plugs into an outlet. They range from $50 to $250 depending on size, power, filtration system and other factors. A complete shop dust collection system, with a 1- horse motor and large dust ports averages around $300.
Control Your Environment
It is also important to prepare your work environment before starting a project. Be sure to put unneeded items away and pick things up off the floor. The less clutter, the less likely that something will get in the way or cause you to trip or be distracted.
In addition, good lighting will help you to see your work (and your fingers) better. Positional lighting such as a shop lamp will allow you to move around more and to direct the lighting exactly where it is needed.
Try to find an area where people will not be coming in and out. This is for your safety as for theirs, and is especially important when children are present. Be sure to unplug your equipment when you are done working and put away dangerous items such as utility knives and saw blades.
Avoid clothing that hangs loose, including long sleeves or apron strings. Long hair should be pulled back as well. Most power tools have a rotary motion that can grab and wrench a loose piece of fabric or strand of hair. Even if you are just making one cut or a quick drill hole, all it takes is one second for things to go bad. If you get in the habit of following these steps every time, you will develop good safety skills.
As one woodworking expert described, “Safety is like using your turn signal. If you do it every time you go to make a turn, even if it’s just going out of the driveway, then you will remember to do it in every situation, especially when it counts the most.”
But don’t get so comfortable with your work and surroundings that you forget to think about what you are doing. Even though you may have done the same technique many times before, it is important to be conscious of the motions you are making and the movement of the tools.
One other environmental factor mentioned by several of the woodworkers was to have a phone nearby in case an accident does occur and you need to call for help. If you use a portable phone, be sure to put it in the same spot each time so you can go directly to it if needed. It is also a good idea to keep a first aid kit in your work area, just in case.
Take Your Time
As we all know, when we rush to finish something, mistakes tend to happen. In woodworking, this could be disastrous. Take your time, double check your clamps, footing, hand placement, power cord location, and other variables before you start the equipment. Even with hand tools, it is important to make sure you aren’t going to saw through something electrical or nail into your hand.
Don’t force a saw cut. If a blade gets hung up, back it out and start over. Also, wait for a tool to stop completely before taking your eye off of it or moving it away from the wood. Most drills, saws and other power tools take a few seconds to quit spinning after the power is stopped.
If a task feels uncomfortable, don’t do it. You might get a tiny jitter in your belly the first time you start up the circular saw or feel the screw tighten down as you drill, and this is normal. But if you are overly apprehensive and can’t hold your materials firmly or concentrate on what you are doing, back off and take a few breaths or find someone to help you with that particular step.
Another important aspect of woodworking safety is to know your tools and use them appropriately and safely. To learn more please refer to the newly published “Woodworking Beginner’s Guide” mentioned at the end of this article. It describes many tools that beginners are likely to need and offers information about how to use and care for them.