Woodworking Safety Week: My Story and Others

Every once and awhile, I scoot this tusk tenon from out of its mortise, pull off my eyeglasses and press the tenon to my skull. It’s a simple but important reminder of where this all began for me.

Hmmm, before I begin there, let me back up even more.

Safety on most jobsites and in most workshops is job No. 4 , somewhere after the importance of the Makita girl calendar and somewhere before the obligation to clean out the Binks spray gun.

When I began working wood at age 8, I never had a safety lecture. Perhaps it wasn’t as necessary. We didn’t have electricity on our farm so the chances of me dismembering myself with our family’s ultra-dull Craftsman handsaw were rather slim. I’m sure my dad didn’t lie awake at night thinking about all the damage I’d do to myself with the crap-tacular coping saw in my tool tote. Safety just wasn’t as big a deal when you have only hand tools at your disposal. Sure, you can hurt yourself, but it takes some doing.

When I started at Popular Woodworking in 1996, however, it was like being let loose in a candy store after closing time. There were all the machines that my father and I had dreamed of on the farm. Table saws, drill presses, mortisers (that’s plural! Meaning more than one mortiser!) and disc sanders galore.

During this initial love affair with the unspeakable beauty of three-phase power, fellow employee David Thiel and I were assigned to build a couple Gustav Stickley-style tabourets for the magazine. The tabourets had legs that tapered in width and tapered from the floor to the top. Plus they were joined to their stretchers with friction-fit tusk tenons.

Each table has eight of these little tusks, and because we were building two little tables for the article, I had 16 little tusks to cut, chamfer and fit into their mortises.

This was a job for the utterly awesome Wilton disc sander we hand at the time.

As you probably know, the disc sander is a fairly safe machine , as long as you work on the side of the disc that is spinning down against the table. The other side of the disc should be avoided , or you could lose control of your work.

I was merrily sanding away my little chamfers on these tusks when I casually slid over into the “no work” zone to touch up the inside tapered face of the tusk shown above. I lost control of the tenon and it flew up at me.

I wasn’t wearing safety goggles or glasses.

Instead of skewering my eyeball like some sort of k-bob, the tenon struck my skull at the top of my left eyebrow and below the eye. The instant it happened, I turned off the machine and went to the bathroom (luckily I hadn’t soiled myself). The tenon left two red welts on my face.

Since that moment, I have always worn safety equipment (glasses and hearing protection), and I have strived to keep the guarding on all my machines. Come visit us sometime, you’ll find we have a basket guard and splitter on our table saw. Today I noted that the splitter was broken, and so in honor to “safety week,” I’m going to get it fixed.

And then there’s that tusk tenon. The little table has never been my favorite, but I can’t get rid of it. It’s a painful reminder of one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done, and how I’ve become much smarter ever since.

Still to this day, that is the closest call I’ve had in 28 years. Not bad.

Below are some of the other bloggers who have posted stories on their sites about this week. Some are funny, some are serious and some are sad. All are important. Check them out.

– Jeff Skiver: Safely Dealing With Scared Cats

– The Village Carpenter’s Top 10 Safety List

– Matt’s Basement Workshop on workshop dust

– The Wood Whisperer and Lumberjock’s Safety Challenge (This week was all Marc’s idea, by the way. Kudos, sir.)

– Stu’s Shed’s Safety Posts.

– Al Navas and the Carnation flower injury (good post).

Keleo’s Workshop kicks off the week with a funny (but also disturbing) clip from MadTV.

Fine Woodworking has posted some good safety videos on shop communication rules and router safety.

– Craig Stevens posted a video for teaching safety to your children, a good chart on the hazards of wood dust and a third post on cleaning up finishes safely.

Check back this week for more stories and important information.

– Christopher Schwarz

6 thoughts on “Woodworking Safety Week: My Story and Others

  1. Kevin Drake

    My horror story involves a flap sander and a fluorescent light. I was leaving the shop late one night and decided to sand some shaker style pegs on my flap sander on the way out. The light over the flap sander was the only one on. I lost control of a peg and the flap sander threw it into the light. The light exploded, and the broken glass fell into the sander. The shop was now dark as the flap sander showered me with broken shards of glass. I wear glasses so my eyes were protected, but I still had glass in my eyebrows and eyelids. My lights are now all encased in plastic sleeves (made for that purpose). They may still break, but at least I won’t get a glass shower.

  2. Bruce Sinton

    There is nothing like a lesson learned the hard way to make you remember it.
    How many times before that were you told to use safety goggles, use the guards on the saw etc. Lots of times ?

    TedM- My Brother In Law had a similar event but he didn’t have any eye protection.
    He got a fractured skull and lost an eye.

    There was an upside to this. He had a Nazi drop a bomb close to him on the island of Crete in WW2 , and he spent the rest of his life on a war pension. His eyesight was pretty poor and he got bad headaches.
    After the loss of the eye ,in woodworking he no longer got the very bad headaches.

    Bruce

  3. mike hamilton

    About 20 years ahead of you, I was cutting the center out of plywood trapezoids for use as upholstery bases for slip seats in chairs. Cuts were made by dropping the ply onto the blade of a old Unisaw. One silly lapse and I had a welt on my chest that framed an unmarked trapezoid of flesh. It lasted a week and the shop foreman and I had a long talk about safe practices. Thanks goodness it didn’t hit me edge-on, a 5 horse saw throws hard!

    Mike

  4. Gene O'Rourke

    I don’t do very much in my shop that I would consider "right," but here is one thing I’m really happy about. When my son was 5 years old, I gave him a leather tool belt, a hammer, and safety glasses for his birthday (all kid-sized, and available from Lee Valley). He’s eight now. I never let him get anywhere near power tools, of course, but if I’m working on something and he wants to watch from a safe distance, the glasses are a must.
    Well, a few weeks ago, he wanted to make a gift for his grandfather. Nothing fancy, just a little wooden heart. He knew exactly what he wanted, and I helped him lay it out on a board. I chucked an auger bit into a brace, and showed him how we’d hog out some of the waste. Before I could hand him the tool, HE was telling ME to be sure to get my glasses on. Now, I don’t think a brace and bit is going to throw chips into my eye, but I sure didn’t tell him that. I just put on my glasses, and thanked him for looking out for me.
    A little later, he caught me picking up a hand saw without my glasses on. Once again, I thanked him. There’ll be plenty of time later to teach him when it’s safe for the glasses to come off. For now, I’m just happy that he is learning that safety is a fundamental part of the craft.

  5. TedM

    I had a similar experience a few months ago when a bowl blew up in my face. However, I was lucky enough to be wearing a faceshield, the very same faceshield that I bought only the week before. I keep the pieces of the bowl near the lathe as a reminder.

  6. David

    Chris – I’ve an entry for "the most idiotic woodworking injury of the year", and it happened this last Saturday. It doesn’t involve shop tools, though the reason behind the action was entirely woodworking, and it has a point about safety.

    Many wood finishes require some modification with solvents before they’re optimal for use. Toward that end, I use the cheapest available container that fits the need and is disposable – in this case, steel cat food cans with pull-off lids.

    I was preparing the final rub-out abrasive for a polyurethane-coated small table, which involved diluting Mennzerna abrasive with mineral spirits.

    I reached for an empty cat food can at the sink, picked up the sponge, and ran it around the inside of the can. What I didn’t realize in the foam and suds is that the side of my finger was directly contacting the portion of the can where the pull-off lid had originally been joined. The result was an instantaneous and very, very deep cut. It bled for a good hour and required butterfly bandages and cyanoacrylate glue to close, and two days later still makes typing (to say nothing of doing anything in the shop) painful.

    Here’s the application to woodworking safety – (1)the dangerous sharp things in your shop that you pay close attention to will not bite you. The dangerous sharp things in your shop (or your sink) that you don’t think about will be the ones to cause (painful) injury. (2) If you cannot see a sharp edge, you are at risk of an accident – and there are many situations in a woodshop where it’s easier to do something with the sharp edge of the tool obscured by a jig, the work, or a machine.

    My overall point is that my cavalier attitude and familiarity where the issue here, and it certainly has applications to safety in a woodwshop, whether my injury was the result of a cat food can or a sharp chisel.

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