We’ve all heard the joke about the woodworker in a bar who holds up two fingers to order four beers. Or the one about “What does a woodworker do with the third hole on a bowling ball?”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve introduced myself as a woodworker and had the first response be, “Let me see your fingers.” Why has our craft become known for being so dangerous? Why is woodworking considered as hazardous by those who don’t do it? Why do certain professionals such as musicians, surgeons and NFL quarterbacks stay completely away from woodworking? Why is it that tool manufacturers don’t help promote safety better – especially because they bear the brunt of liability issues? Or better yet, why don’t they require some kind of user-competency test before you can purchase their products?
Why has the SawStop met with so much resistance from manufacturers when the technology is so great? What is the real reason that school systems across America have eliminated woodworking classes from the curriculum? Why do some of the most comprehensive books on woodworking not even mention safety? Is safety just not an important issue or is it taboo?
The answer to each of these questions is, simply, “risk.” Safety has always been an issue of defense instead of offense. The corporate world would rather address the issue when it becomes an issue. As a craftsman and educator I choose to take a contemporary approach to safety education: Be aggressive instead of passive.
In my experience, safety is a “skill.” That’s right; safety is a skill, a fundamental in technique, just like cutting a dovetail. It does not occur through happenstance or luck; it happens through planning, understanding and proper execution, just like the “fit” of a tight dovetail joint.
Most accidents occur because of improper techniques, bad habits, haste, fatigue, inexperience and overconfidence. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but a few simple adjustments in the way you work at each machine, coupled with a few rules about control and exposure, along with understanding that you and the tool both have limitations, can make woodworking (and bowling) enjoyable for years to come.
Before Machines Ruled the Shop
In great-grandpa’s days, before the Industrial Revolution, woodworkers rarely got hurt in the woodshop. That’s right, serious accidents didn’t happen when the user provided the power. You’re thinking, “Now wait – I’ve always been told that a chisel is a very dangerous tool.” But that’s only the case when it is being used or stored improperly. Yes, hand tools have risks – but those risks are minimal in comparison to power tools.
Woodworking changed the day that tools started to rotate under their own power. This rotation and excess power caused unbelievable risks to the user. Old-world craftsmanship had to change; a new generation of woodworking had to be developed with many new and unforeseen challenges.
Grandpa never had to deal with terms such as kickback, work zone, high-speed cutter, guard, pinch point, feed rate, anti-kickback fingers, splitter, point of operation, face shield, dust collection, ear protection and on and on. For grandpa, woodworking was a human process; today it is both a human and mechanical process. Here’s where the crux lies. In John Feirer’s book “Cabinetmaking and Millwork” he states: “Remember at all times that you must guarantee safety for two: the tool and you. The machine can’t think, but you can.”
As a woodworker and educator I am concerned about the entire aspect of woodshop safety as it relates to the manufacturers, the end user and the techniques they use. Years ago I wrote a letter addressing these issues to every woodworking tool manufacturer. I was asking for help with the distribution of a new safety video that showed proper use of the most common stationary tools. The video won a 2002 “Telly Award,” so the quality was exceptional.
My request was that this video be given, for free, with the purchase of each stationary tool. No promotion, no strings, just pure education. In the letter I wrote, “I know that this issue will cause your attorneys to shudder, your accountants to wonder, your engineers to question, your safety director to feel uneasy, and your corporate heads to turn. But, it will also cause your customers to take a moment of pause, and realize your position and commitment toward their safety.” No one responded.
During the last four years it has become a quest to find a publisher willing to spotlight a series on safety as it relates to working in today’s shop. The average woodworker today probably took a high-school woodworking class before man walked on the moon, and an awful lot has changed since then – including the 1971 enactment of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). The purpose of this law was to ensure safe and healthful conditions in the workplace. This act of Congress caused manufacturers, employers and all high school, college and vocational programs to re-think the entire process of hazards in the shop. Their focus on woodshop safety shifted to more on guarding and less on the attention to sound fundamental procedures to using all equipment safely. Although OSHA requirements work well to protect us in the workplace, they have no effect on how we work in our private shops, and I believe this has added to the complacency of safety. Couple in the fact that the only place most woodworkers learned shop safety was from Woodworking 101 in high school (and for some; that was in the day of black-and-white photography).
The purpose of this series is to explore safety for today’s woodworker, explore how specific stationary tools work and why they can bite, kick, throw, grab and pinch – and what we can do to minimize these actions through control and preparedness. Before operating any power tool you must become thoroughly familiar with the way it works and the correct procedures to follow. As you learn to use a machine the correct way, you will also be learning to use it the safe way.
Set the Stage for Safety
It’s not a bad idea to start off with a look at general shop safety. I remember in my old high-school shop class the instructor said that you should always remove your rings and watches before you use any power equipment. It’s a great rule, but really not very practical. If your hand is so close to something that your ring or watch are going to catch and pull you in then you’ve already put yourself at risk. I remember the safety speech in high school about keeping your fingers away from the blades on the jointer because they can cut you. What? That was my entire safety lesson! I also remember bits of the other common-sense rules that included: dress properly, watch your hair (not a problem for me today), keep the shop clean, no horseplay, don’t carry screws or nails in your mouth, unplug the machine before you make any adjustments and so on. Great common-sense rules, but we need more.
When it came to the technique side of how to use stationary tools, everything was according to the textbook, but it wasn’t enough. We were never taught the theory of the machine, the actions of the machine and the results of those actions. We never learned anything about where the control points were to maintain safe handling at and through the point of contact, nor did we learn the best ways to minimize exposure. This is the perfect place to begin safety in today’s shop.
Learn This Word: Control
All woodworking machines operate by rotating or reciprocating motion, or by a combination of these motion
s. Each machine is engineered to provide control that counters the actions taking place – especially at the point of contact. There are three concerns for control at each machine: the direction of the rotating/reciprocating cutter, the position of the wood at the point of contact, and the execution of the movement of wood through the process.
A well-designed machine uses control to counter the kicking and grabbing forces that naturally take place with rotating/reciprocating cutters and provides the user with a clear range of motion through the entire process. For example, a power miter saw does a great job using control to its advantage. The motion of the blade rotates away from the operator toward the fence, which causes the blade to actually push the wood, while being cut, against the control of the fence. At the same time the motion of bringing the blade down into the wood forces the wood down to the control of the table. The point of operation on a power miter box is at the bed and the fence. Because the wood is held stationary during the cutting process, it makes control easy to manage, unlike a table saw. Another great way to describe control is by examining the cut that takes place on a band saw. As the blade rotates downward toward the table, all the force behind the blade is pushing the wood directly on the table. As long as the wood is flatly supported on the band saw table, at the point of contact, there will be no kicking or grabbing because the control is the table at the point of the cut.
Control can also be added to machines by the guarding, hold-down devices, fences, fingerboards, push sticks and other devices. Machine control and ways to create additional control will be discussed with each individual machine throughout this series. But remember this: No cut should ever be made without the use of the control surfaces.
Limit Your Exposure
I like to give two meanings to the word “exposure.” The first is obvious: How much cutter are you presenting at the point of contact? For example: How high should the blade be above the thickness of a board when using a table saw? I’ve lectured at trade shows for nearly 20 years and still shudder at how irresponsible “pitch men” selling blades and saw accessories can be. No guards, no splitter, blades as high as they go.
Face it, we live in a world where “guards removed for clarity” is an acceptable way to work in the shop. That’s just wrong. There is no advantage to seeing the actual cut take place when it causes the user to be at risk. We know what wood looks like when it’s cut. When it comes to how much blade should be exposed, the rule is to minimize not maximize. Like the late Roger Cliffe use to say: “How high the blade should be above your work is a definition of terms, the difference between amputation and laceration.”
The second type of exposure is in terms of repetitiveness. Each time you make multiple cuts or passes you put yourself at more risk. For example there is no sense in making several passes over a table saw blade to make a wide cut when you could have done it in one pass with a dado blade. As you expose yourself to extra passes or multiple moves, you expose yourself to more risk. Exposure, however, can cut both ways. I believe it is better to make two passes at 1/16″ on a jointer to remove 1/8″ of stock rather than to make one pass with an 1/8″-deep cut. There will be less blade exposed, less kicking force and if the grain tears out on the first pass, it is easy to correct it on the second pass. This second point of exposure merely causes you to think about the safest way to approach each cut on any given machine.
Three Types of Limitations
There are three types of limitations to consider. The first two are common-sense: your physical limitations and the limitations of your shop space. Everyone has difficulties handling a sheet of plywood, jointing the edge of an 8′-long board or band sawing the corners off a large tabletop. There is nothing wrong with asking for or waiting for help to arrive. Just make sure that you and your helper work together as a team and if necessary do a dry run of the motions along with body and hand positions before the cut is performed.
Always dedicate one person to guide or direct the work while the other obeys commands – it’s hard to have two people steer a car at the same time.
The second common-sense limitation is determined by the space in your shop. Small shops will require a lot of pre-planning and strategies for large or heavy wood.
The third limitation, which is definitely the most important limitation to understand, is what each machine is capable of doing or not doing. Every machine has a limit as to the size of material that it can cut or handle safely. It’s important to understand that there is always an alternate way to cut, size, shape, dimension and sand wood.
Some machines have very defined limitations while others don’t. We automatically know the width, depth and thickness limitations of a planer because the bed is only so wide and can be adjusted up and down only so much. When using a planer, you have to know when a board is too short or too long. You have to know the proper feed rate for the depth-of-cut. And you have to know to what thickness stock can be planed before you need to add a carrier below your stock before the knives become dangerously close to the cast iron bed of the machine.
Other machines have equal concerns. You just can’t go to a jointer and safely joint a board that is only 3″ long or cut a 1″ cube in half on a power miter saw. One common-sense guide to the limitations of any machine is if you don’t feel comfortable before making a cut, or if any safety device has to be removed or altered, then let that uncomfortable feeling be your guide. Search for another method of cut. Each tool has limits and most often those limits are not listed on the front of the machine. It is a great idea to establish some guidelines to follow, such as my 12″ and 3″ rule. This will easily help you determine when you are working beyond the capabilities of each machine.
The 12″ and 3″ Rule
The 12″ and 3″ rule should always be addressed at every machine every time you use that machine. This rule should be the Golden Rule of shop safety. No exceptions. If you are ever in doubt about the control, exposure or limitation of any machine, this rule will clarify and establish boundaries to make its use safer. Because it is a two-part rule it is best to explain each one individually.
The 12″ part of this rule states that if your wood is less than 12″ in length, you should pause to ask yourself if it is too short to safely run through this machine. For example, a board shorter than 12″ might be too short to run through a planer, but long enough to cut on the band saw or power miter saw. The 12″ rule is just a way to evaluate the risk of short lengths at each stationary machine. The key to determine if 12″ or shorter can safely be cut on any machine will also be dependent on the 3″ rule.
The 3″ rule, which is by far the more important of the two, is a boundary that you should observe: Always keep your hands at least 3″ away from any guard, shield, pulley or pinch point. Let me clarify: Your hands should always be 3″ away from the front, sides, top and back of any guard on any machine. Because the blade is contained within the guard or shield, that gives you a little extra distance from the cutter. Any time the cut requires your hands to be within this boundary, that’s when it will be necessary to use push sticks, hold-down boards or some clever fixture to aid the cut.
Here is how the 12″ and 3″ ru
les can work together. Let’s say that we have a board that we want to cut in half that is only 8″ long. If you choose to cut this board at the chop saw, you can follow the 12″ and 3″ rules because the hand that supports the wood on the table can still easily be 3″ or more away from the shield that covers the blade.
Here’s another example: Let’s say that we have a board that’s 4″ wide and we want to rip it in half. Although this cut is within the limitations of a table saw, it will place my hand or hands inside the 3″ boundary of the guard. When it comes to pushing this piece of wood through I would definitely use a push stick.
But if the piece of wood is wide enough so that my push hand can be more than 3″ from the guard, I will not use a push stick when ripping on the table saw. I will explain when and when not to use push sticks later in the series. Just as a hint: When using a push stick you surrender a degree of control.
Even though your home shop isn’t regulated by OSHA, it makes sense to observe the same safety rules used in industry to protect workers. You can’t do woodworking from a hospital bed, and there is nothing more precious than your health. Personal safety – which includes your eyes, ears, lungs and hands – are priority one when it comes to safety.
I have always worn safety glasses and can’t imagine how hard it would be to live in a world without sight. I recommend that you always wear ANSI-approved eye wear while working in the shop. It’s also good to have goggles as well as a face shield in the shop for when the chips really fly.
I’ve always been especially concerned for my lungs and make it a habit to use high-quality dust masks when needed. I recommend the kind that are NIOSH rated for woodshop dust particulate and can be reused from day to day under normal working conditions. I replace these when they start to loosen up and no longer fit properly or when they become so used that they no longer are easy to breathe through.
It’s a good idea to store these overnight in a plastic bag. These “particulate respirators” are not suitable for solvents, oils, resins and finishing. I always use a high-quality NIOSH approved mask that has charcoal cartridges that filter out toxins from finishing materials. These masks must be properly selected, based on the contaminant and its concentration level. They must be properly fitted and used in accordance with all the manufacturer’s instructions. It might be a good idea to buy this type of mask from an auto parts store that sells automotive paints. Sales people there can help you choose the correct cartridges and show you how to adjust the fit of the mask, plus they can explain the correct way to store the mask and when it is time to change cartridges.
Ear plugs have always been my weakness. I should have used them more often when I first started working with wood – especially with routers. During the last 15 years I have become more vigilant about protecting my hearing and today would not be in the shop without them. You have to choose what works best for you. Some people use the foam ear plugs and some use the ear muffs. Be aware that foam ear plugs have to be inserted properly to work and ear muffs can get awfully hot. There have been times when I have used foam plugs along with ear muffs for extra protection (usually as a way to doubly block out the sounds of my wife calling to disrupt my shop time).
The issue of gloves is important. I definitely recommend that you wear heavy-duty rigger’s gloves when handling large timber or stacking wood and when carrying heavy sheet stock such as plywood, particle board or MDF. But I would never wear gloves while using power equipment. Any saw that rotates or reciprocates can grab the glove and pull you into the machine. With heavy gloves you lose tactile ability that is important. Your fingerprints have a sticky quality that’s important when pushing a board forward or back.
When it comes to solvents, finishing materials and resins, a good rule is if you stick your hands in it then you should stick your hands in gloves first. Be aware that some solvents and resins affect rubber and latex gloves differently.
The field of woodworking has just started to recognize that there are health hazards associated with working with different woods, glues and finishes. By being aware of some of these potential hazards you can better prepare yourself for their contact.
•1 Trees produce resins, chemicals, bark and even antibodies to protect themselves from diseases, insects and fungi. These natural safeguards may also have a profound effect on people who come in contact with wood.
•2 Be aware of allergic reactions to wood. If you develop a runny nose, watery eyes or hives, you should make a note of the type of wood that seems to bring on these symptoms. Contact your doctor and seek some advice.
•3 If you experience any reaction to wood dust make sure you limit your exposure. Wear a mask.
•4 Be aware of the mold and spore effects of spalted or decayed wood. Some people have severe reactions to the fungus and spores in these types of wood.
•5 Do not work with (or burn) treated lumber in your shop. This wood may have been treated with creosote or arsenic. This stuff is for the outdoors.
•6 Man-made or composite boards (plywood, particleboard, MDF and laminates) contain resins that can be hard to breath and can also be eye irritants. Although we cannot eliminate these products from the shop, it is important that you protect yourself while using these materials.
•7 Be aware that some woods contain tannic acid, which could be an irritant to some people and can cause your hands to turn temporarily black.
Resins and Glues
•1 White and yellow glues, as well as hot hide glue, are usually non-toxic, and clean up easily. However, urea formaldehyde (resin glue), cyanoacrylate (Super Glue), epoxy, polyurethane glue and contact adhesives (laminate glue) are all poisonous, and should be handled and cleaned up with care.
•2 When you use resin glues, cyanoacrylate, epoxy, polyurethane glue or contact adhesive, you should wear gloves and a dust mask. After you apply the glue, make sure you immediately clean up any spills or drips. Do not let these glues get into your eyes, nose or mouth. Each glue cleans up with a different type of solvent, so make sure you know what the solvent is and that you have some on hand when you start mixing or spreading it.
•3 Always wear eye protection when you are scraping glue off the wood, floor, bench or wherever it is.
•4 Cyanoacrylate (Super Glue) has a special concern – try not to glue yourself to your project. If you use this glue, keep a bottle of solvent on hand.
•5 Some glues cannot be mixed on plastics or with plastics. Make sure you learn the correct procedures when gluing anything other than wood.
•1 Almost all woodworking projects need to be finished to protect and preserve the wood. Finishing materials, if used recklessly, can be dangerous.
•2 Pregnant women and women who are breast feeding should avoid finishing projects. Exposure may be especially dangerous during the first three months of pregnancy.
•3 Correct storage and disposal of finishing products must be observed. If you are not familiar with what that means you should contact your local fire marshal.
•4 Most of the finishing products for wood are made with some kind of organic solvents. Most of these chemicals attack the central nervous system,
and some can damage the lungs, liver, kidneys and blood as well. They may irritate the skin, eyes, nose and throat, producing acute and chronic effects. The acute effects last only a short time.
An overexposure to high concentrations of finishing chemicals may cause dizziness, shortness of breath, headache, nausea, confusion, lack of coordination and irrational behavior. These symptoms pass as soon as you begin to breath fresh air. Chronic effects don’t pass. They’re caused by frequent exposure to low concentrations of chemicals. The effect of each exposure is minor, but the damage is cumulative.
Be aware that some of these chemicals can cause chemical burns. Some strippers contain lye or bleaching agents such as oxalic acid. If you come in contact with these materials, immediately flush the affected part with water for at least five minutes. If the area blisters, especially if it involves the face or hands, you will have to see a doctor.
•5 Make sure that you protect yourself. To prevent these adverse effects from happening while working with these chemicals, make sure you wear gloves (either rubber or latex), an apron, face shield and an organic vapor respirator.
•6 Here are rules to follow when working with wood-finishing products:
• Make sure the area is well ventilated. Open the windows and create air flow that helps remove the fumes from your working environment.
• Wear a close-fitting air respirator with organic vapor cartridge filters (charcoal filters).
• And be certain to wear a face shield and rubber gloves.
•7 In addition to health risks, most of the materials used to finish wood are highly flammable. Here is a list of good housekeeping practices that will help prevent your shop from burning down.
• Keep all finishing materials in their sealed metal containers. Store the metal containers in a fireproof cabinet.
• Make sure you properly dispose of rags and paper towels saturated with finishes in either a sealed metal trash can or better yet get them outside your shop and lay them out flat to dry. Disposing of soiled rags in a bucket of water is not a good idea – especially with oily rags.
• Do not wad any rags up when using them or after. Rags saturated with linseed oil may spontaneously ignite. Always lay your rags out flat to prevent fumes and heat from accumulating in the wrinkles and folds.
• It’s a good idea to have a fire extinguisher ready just in case.
• Never run a heater when finishing.
•8 Be careful of how you dispose of finishing chemicals. Dedicate a “satellite” container into which used solvent, paint and stain can be disposed. Check with your fire marshal to determine the best way to dispose of these chemicals. However it is possible to recycle some of the used solvents by pouring them into another container and letting the solids settle out, then re-pour the clear liquid back into another container to use it again. Mineral spirits and turpentine can be use this way. Some solvents can be poured into a shallow pan. This will allow the solvents to evaporate leaving the hard solids, which can then be put in the dumpster.
•9 Always cover your workbench with cardboard or newspaper to protect it from spills. If you spill on the floor, clean it up as soon as possible.
Woodworking is largely a matter of common sense, awareness and being prepared. Most shop accidents occur as a result of either being over confident, tired or inexperienced. When you work in your shop don’t rush; nothing good can come from it. There are no advantages in quick results. Develop a sense of rhythm when working in your shop; this will keep you in tune with what you are doing. Woodworking on power equipment is primarily a mechanical process. As you learn to use machines correctly, you will also learn to use them in a safe way. Remember my statement earlier: “Safety is a learned skill.” Try to always use a machine in the same manner. Do not do it differently from time to time. If safety is a fundamental part of the routine of machining wood, then working wood will always be safer.
I suggest that every woodworker have a safety program or a personal commitment to developing good shop habits. I’ve prepared a list of 18 rules that should be printed out and hung on the wall. If you ever allow anyone to use your equipment, make sure you review these simple rules with them. To download a copy of these rules, visit popularwoodworking.com/nov07. PW
Marc Adams is the founder of the Marc Adams School of Woodworking in Franklin, Ind., one of the largest woodworking schools in the world. <br /> For details, visit marcadams.com or call 317-535-4013.