Sorry, But I Have to Mention Fire Safety - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Sorry, But I Have to Mention Fire Safety

 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Woodworking Blogs

Last week, the woodshop across the street from mine caught on fire. Luckily, no one was hurt, the firemen arrived quickly and the damage wasn’t too bad – they’ll be back at work in a week.

But the dramatic event did make me review the situation in my shop to see if things could be improved. As always, things can always be improved.

For most of my woodworking life, I have worked in commercial or industrial workshops where fire and safety inspections are routine (yes, Popular Woodworking was classified as a commercial shop and had to follow all the rules).

So when I set up shop in Covington, Ky., I had a pretty good grasp of how to do it correctly. I have active heat and smoke detection that is linked to my alarm with redundant cellular backups. I replaced all the sketchy wiring in the building. I have commercial fire extinguishers in every room (though they aren’t required). Plus lighted exit signs with battery backup (also not required by the city).  Oh, and all the equipment designed to generate flame is stored in a cinderblock outbuilding.

But after seeing the smoke across the street, I knew there was more I could do.

Today I purchased a cabinet designed to protect flammable materials. For the last five years, I’ve been reducing the flammable finishing materials that I use. I’m done with lacquer and lacquer thinner. And I am done with acetone and NAPTHA.

But I still use shellac, which requires alcohol. And most waxes have flammable solvents. And I have MAPP gas on the premises. So a protective cabinet is a good idea.

Most fireproof cabinets start at $370 for a small one that is sized for home use. I wanted something bigger and more industrial – like what we used at the door factory. A quick search on Craigslist turned up a bunch of used ones that were being decommissioned by factories. I picked up the one shown here for $300. It’s big enough to live in (36” x 36” x 65”) in a pinch.

Note that this is BEFORE we loaded the cabinet up with solvents and flammable gasses. So don’t bother commenting on the gas cannisters above the cabinet.

I placed it in the cinderblock outbuilding. That way if there is a fire that involves my machines or solvents, most likely I’ll lose the roof and not the rest of my workshop (and home above).

I’m sure some of you will call me paranoid for these steps (and the rest of you will suggest 20 other things I can do – please don’t bother because I have passed my fire inspections). But seeing a neighboring shop catch fire is sobering.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 15 comments
  • Deano

    Thanks. In our house I have almost ten Nest combination smoke/CO alarms, fire extinguishers on each floor and yet in my basement shop I have Naphtha, paint thinner and other flammable solvents right underneath an area with two external doors that would be critical to escape a burning house. Dumb. It is all going to the distant garage today.

  • john2t

    Reviewing your Safety status is a very good thing. Just a couple of other
    points. Get everyone there to take a first aid class. Especially how and where to place a tourniquet. Check around for free ones. Get a good first aid kit, Mark it! If you have a wall phone, Put a large sign by it with all the emergency numbers.

  • CaEd

    About fire extinguishers.
    Regularly schedule the service and certification for each extinguisher.
    Put the proper signs and use the correct clearances.
    Learn their proper use; what kind of extinguisher for what kind of fire and how to properly use the extinguisher and how to direct the powder/chemical onto the base of the fire.

  • tms

    I’d like to second the notion of a plywood flammables cabinet. I purchased a used one at the local university’s surplus yard for $90. The only problem with it was the spilled paint inside it. Just for safety’s sake, I bought a gallon of bright yellow intumescent paint and repainted the outside.

    Intumescent foams up when heated and adds an insulating surface while at the same time sealing the door gaps, thus adding time before burn through.

  • jglen490

    Chris, never be sorry for reminding people to work safely and to be aware of their own safety in the moment. Work is hard, but forgetting safety is exceptionally costly.

  • John Passacantando

    Great post, super important reminder re flammables. I am setting up a shop with a bunch of old Grizzly stationary tools that came with yards of old hoses to connect to a dust collector. All hoses have the remains of bare copper ground wires running through them. Is there a length of hose from machine to dust collector, below which, we don’t need to worry about grounding for static electricity or is this another big risk in a shop? Anyone know?

  • SRC

    An excellent and important post.

    I have experienced fires on two jobsites in the last few years, both with identical causes. In the first case, the fire started up against the outside the building under construction. Workers quickly put it out with fire extinguishers placed nearby. Minor property damage, but no one was injured.

    3 weeks ago a fire broke out on the 3rd level basement in a different building I am involved in. Exactly same cause. 2 construction workers and 3 firemen died on the scene. 40+ were hospitalized for burns and smoke inhalation. Construction completion was scheduled for next month, but the heat damaged the structural steel which needs partial replacement. The police and fire department’s investigation is underway so I can’t get access to inspect the damage to our work, but a 6~8 month delay is likely.

    I think your decision to place fire extinguishers in your shop was very smart. We should all do this. I hope you have two exits from every space. Most importantly, and this could have saved 5 lives recently, I strongly recommend you have someone watch when you use open flame such as a torch.

    We tend to focus on the work in front of us, and don’t notice what happens around us. Heat and sparks always move, and
    it doesn’t take much to start a fire we could easily put out if we noticed it quickly, but after a little time passes, it may be too late.

    A burned shop is a waste. The dead people might include you.


  • Nancy Hiller

    Excellent post. Thank you.

  • Joe Leonetti

    Chris, I’m an organic chemist (and a woodworker). I know people who have been seriously injured by flammable solvents; one for about 2 months was touch and go if he would survive. You are not being paranoid. I’ve been looking for a flammable solvent cabinet as well for all the same reasons. Thanks for the Craiglist suggestion. One of the things I really like about my home and garage is that it has a built in fire sprinkler system.

    If not wanting to put in a sprinkler system, I wonder if you could get some sort of fire suppression thing to put in the flammable solvent cabinet. Similar to what a chef may have in the stove at a restaurant. Most of the fume hoods I worked in had them. It was just a smallish size bottle turned upside down that would activate by head.

    If you haven’t already done so, you may want to look into getting some of those emergency ladders that you can use to get out of a second story window. They don’t cost much and have aluminum steps and rope so they don’t take up much space.

    So, I don’t think you are paranoid at all. What you have done seems quite reasonable to me.

  • ctregan

    Those oily rag disposal cans are a good idea too. They also look really cool.

  • Jim Dee

    EXCELLENT column. And I wonder if anyone will pipe up with “stick to woodworking” complaints as they did when you wrote about Jennie Alexander . . .

    I want to heartily endorse everything you say here, and also what “flyfisher111” says (I have emptied a powder-type extinguisher putting out a lab fire at my workplace, AFTER swimming upstream through panicked students to get the fire extinguisher and bring it to the fire: breathing and cleaning up that powder makes a bad day).

    I also want to add sprinklers to the mix. When I set up my own commercial shop in the late 1990’s, AFTER I got my occupancy permit from the city, my insurance agent walked through and offered a big discount if I put sprinkler heads over my water heater and in my finishing room. They ended up costing more than the fire extinguishers I mounted by every door, but the discount on my insurance paid for them in a few years.

    One final note: we had extra flammable cabinets at work, and took to storing non-flammable items in them (fasteners and hand tools). We actually got dinged for this practice during an in-house inspection: in the case of a fire, fire personnel might misdirect time & effort based on the presence of the flammy cab.

  • Gravitysmith

    Great advice for fire safety.

    It is worth noting is that if you are careful, then according to OSHA 1910.106(d)(3)(ii)(b) you can make your own cabinet out of plywood, and save some money. The relevant section says:
    “Wooden cabinets constructed in the following manner shall be deemed in compliance. The bottom, sides, and top shall be constructed of an approved grade of plywood at least 1 inch in thickness, which shall not break down or delaminate under fire conditions. All joints shall be rabbetted and shall be fastened in two directions with flathead woodscrews. When more than one door is used, there shall be a rabbetted overlap of not less than 1 inch. Hinges shall be mounted in such a manner as not to lose their holding capacity due to loosening or burning out of the screws when subjected to the fire test.”

    A bit of trivia about the cabinets as well. The cabinet is not intended to contain a fire inside a cabinet, but rather to keep a fire outside the cabinet. To quote OSHA 1910.106(d)(3)(ii): “Storage cabinets shall be designed and constructed to limit the internal temperature to not more than 325 deg. F. when subjected to a 10-minute fire test…”

    • TJdaMan

      Gravitysmith, that’s an important bit of “trivia.”

      I think most people don’t understand that those cabinets aren’t so much to contain fumes, fire, etc. within as they are to keep things from really getting wild (or delay it at least) when their oily finishing rags spontaneously combust in a pile on the floor.

      Spontaneous combustion is a very real risk, I have seen it several times and know of a few dumpster fires directly attributable to it.

    • William

      Any idea what might be an “approved” grade of ply? I’d be delighted to build a solvent cabinet.
      A couple of points: Put your fire extinguishers at eye level: they’re more likely to be noticed when they’re needed. Make everyone in the shop aware of them and their locations: years ago I ran and got a hose to put out a small grass fire outside my shop without thinking of the extinguisher that was ten feet away. No harm done, but….
      I once experienced an oily rag spontaneous combustion. Guys had collected rags from their special cans into a 50 gal. barrel for disposal without adequately covering with water. They ignited while said guys were bringing it down in a (very slow) freight elevator. A lot of nasty smoke but could have been a lot worse.

  • flyfisher111

    One point I learned – the hard way – about fire extinguishers. Always place them adjacent to the exits. Get to the exit and grab the extinguisher. Now you have the option of fighting or leaving.

    In my case, around 1970, we started a new lab in the plant. Austerity would have been putting it mildly. I was able to persuade the plant manager to get the dry powder extinguishers out of the lab, as the powder goes everywhere and into everything. To prevent damage to the equipment, I wanted CO2 extinguishers. While I was on vacation, they bought only one large one and placed it on the wall midway in a long, narrow room that had work tables down the middle. While giving some visitors a tour, an ether (boiling ether is incredibly flammable) extraction was in progress. Something happened and suddenly there was an ether fire along the ceiling, with everyone scrambling for the exit. Meanwhile I was swimming upstream trying to get to the lone extinguisher while being pushed backward by the throng. By the time I reached it, the fire fizzled out, as there was only about 200ml of ether. Lesson learned – the hard way.

    Lesson #2 – Buy at least 1 large extinguisher, say a 5 or 10 pounder. The small ones don’t last long. My late brother-in-law gave me a 10 pounder back in the 70’s. It saved 2 houses from certain destruction. Rather than recharge it for about the 5th time, when we moved last month, I gave it a decent funeral, noting the black marks that came from beating in a garage door.

    Another note: Kidde has recalled a lot of the extinguishers made over the last 10 years. See:

    Of my 5 extinguishers, I had 3 of these.

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