I have been woodworking for a lot of my life. When I was younger I tried making forts and toy guns and swords, rubber band guns and the like, latter furniture and historical based goods. I have tried my best to be safe. Sort of.
I grew up watching things like this old house, the woodwrights shop, and new yankee workshop. Home repair, furniture, all kinds of different uses of tools and techniques by a variety of people with great skills, and occasionally some without. That continued to an era of home improvement and diy shows. One of the big things I notice looking back is the lack of safety precautions. Before you get worked up, yes, I know Norm Abram always said a quick psa at the start of the show, “Before we use any power tools, let’s take a moment to talk about shop safety. Be sure to read, understand, and follow all the safety rules that come with your power tools. Knowing how to use your power tools properly will greatly reduce the risk of personal injury. And remember this, there is no more important safety rule than to wear these: safety glasses!” But thats more of a nod than anything. A lot of safety sort cuts are taken for television clarity.
Over the years I have found myself more and more effected by sawdust. One of the benefits of modern power tools is the ability to speed up the process but there is a not so hidden price with that. Dust. A hand saw is a straight blade that usually cuts on the down stroke if you are using a western saw. That means as is produces sawdust it is pushed away from you. Sure some of it does come back up but its a relatively minor amount. Even then you are only producing so much dust at a time, no matter how strong you are you are unlikely to get the speed and consistency of a power tool.
Lets take a second and break down what happens with a circular saw blade. Like a hand saw, a circular blade is made of individual teeth. Depending on the intended cutting the blade is designed for those teeth have a number of different configurations and this can effect the size of your dust in a couple of ways. If you have a pointed tooth it is going to score a thin line, resulting in very small dust, stuff that catches the air easily and stays in the air longer. A flat top tooth is going to generate a wider, heavier dust that will be more prone to falling. The important thing to think about is the circular blade.
A circular blade will pass down through your wood taking most of the dust with it. After it passes through the wood it will drop most of the dust out the bottom and continue around to take another bite. Keep in mind your blade is spinning at a couple thousand rmp, so when that dust clears the gullet between the teeth varies. Often the dust will start to trickle out the bottom but the centrifugal force and the speed of the blade flings it out during the entire time that the blade is rotating. Sounds pretty reasonable right?
The thing to consider is now that dust has some elevation and it has some distance, you have gone from a pile on the floor to a circle around you, including above you. Power saws also produce finer dust than a hand saw, so it will be in the air longer.
When we think about safety we think about cutting ourselves on sharp blades, or blunt impact from a missed hammer blow or something falling, but how often do we think about breathing? As I said before, over the years the effects of sawdust on me have increased, I have taken steps to combat that but not as many as I should. There have been a few nights where I have been miserable due to being stuffed up and my breathing was compromised due to “just doing a little light sanding”
This all came to a head just yesterday. For my birthday I bought myself a shop air filter. It has been up for 2 or 3 days. I have worked a couple of hours a day in the shop with the filter going. Now my table saw is about 36″ off the ground, the filter is 7′ off the ground almost directly above the saw. My white filter is tan. It has a nice coat of dust on it. That is with a shop vac hooked to the bottom of the saw and pulling in dust. So how do my lungs look?
Vision is super important, safety glasses are important, cheap, and easy to grab and throw on. But how much more critical are your lungs? This is the age of covid, we wear masks, if we are smart, every day when we leave the house. It’s a pretty easy thing to continue that on and incorporate into your shop time. But what should you wear?
Anything is better than nothing. If you are on a budget a cloth over your face is a good start. There are a variety of places you can get cheap surgical masks these days, maybe not as easy as they once were but supply has increased with need so its do able. There are specific masks you can get for wood working, often available at your big retailers near the safety glasses, vests, and hearing protection. One of the things to look for is what type of protection do you need and how will the mask provide it?
Disposable masks are nice in that they don’t need to be cleaned. You can find masks that will say they are for woodworking or for dust and allergens. These will work fine for most people. However there are a few other things to consider, like finishes. Most dust masks will do nothing or very little to filter fumes from solvents and finishes. For most of us hobby woodworkers a well ventilated area with a good cross breeze is our go to answer. The best? definitely not, but we don’t really do the volume of work to pay the money for a mask rated for gases, of do we?
There are a variety of half and full facemasks available that offer replaceable filters that you can change out by your need. Read the descriptions carefully and match up your finishes recommendations to the cartridge’s the mask can equip. For most of us that will be a mask rated for VOC’s, volatile organic compounds. If it says particulate its good for the dust but not the vapor. You can get a good half face mask for around 25 us dollars, replacement filter costs vary.
Once you have the mask there are a few things to think about, storage, cleaning, replacing the cartridge’s. Most of those will be addressed by the manufacturer but here are some easy rules of thumb.
Don’t store masks where they can fill up with dust. Pretty simple but there have been a few times I have taken off a mask, set it down and come back to find it full because I left the opening pointed up. Store your mask someplace away from the bulk of the dust production where it can be easily accessible, get airflow to dry, and preferably in plan sight so you will see it and remember to put it on. Mine have a hook by the door to the shop.
Easiest thing is clean as needed. If you notice it smells funny, or it’s dusty on the outside, give it a clean. Chances are you have gotten something in or on it you don’t want to be breathing. At the very least I like to wash mine about every 2 weeks minimum but it’s usually a lot more often. Thats for the mask itself, don’t try to wash and reuse cartridge, they are one shot deals meant to be replaced.
Replacement of cartridges
How often they need replaced will vary a great deal by how much you use them. Again a good rule of thumb is if it’s hard to breath through or smells odd, replace it. Also keep spares sealed up, dust settling can clog them up as much as breathing through them can.
Personally I like 3M masks. I have two but I really only use the one. I have a half face and a full face mask. I got the half mask in school years ago and it served me well but I got annoyed with having to put on the mask, then the glasses, then the hearing protection. Also it didn’t work as well as I would like with my face shield for turning. Hence the full face. It cuts out a step of putting it on which means I am more likely to wear everything I should. It also has the benefit of the face mask helping me remember to clean my mask. When the dust builds up and I need to clean it off I remember to take the whole thing apart and clean everything. As a bonus both masks use the same cartridges so I can but multi packs and not worry about having the wrong cartridge for the mask I want to wear.
I love woodworking and hope to continue to do it for many years to come, part of that is respecting the tools and the capacity for damage they can do to me as well as taking necessary precautions to protect myself from by products like dust and fumes.