If you love woodworking, your shop is a personal haven. Whether it’s in the garage, basement, or a backyard shed, it’s where you go to relax, create, problem solve, and spend some quality time with all those tools you’ve amassed over the years. (Yet somehow, there’s always one more tool you’re gonna need, whatever the project.)
People who work with wood for a living—professional carpenters, builders, furniture makers, cabinetmakers, sawmill employees—are well aware of the importance of wearing personal protective equipment, including goggles, work boots, hard hats, and respirator masks. As a home DIY woodworking enthusiast, take a tip from the pros and familiarize yourself with the hazards of wood dust and other byproducts of the craft—and learn how to stay healthy.
What are the risks of working with wood?
Regular exposure to wood dust is associated with an elevated risk of lung cancer, as well as cancers of the nose and neck.
Visible wood chips aren’t the problem—they’re too big to get deep into your airways and will be mostly filtered by your nose. It’s the tiniest wood dust particles—sharp, invisible, and measuring less than a micron—that are the main concern, as they can lodge deeply into the lungs and damage lung capacity over time. In fact, despite its appealing smell and natural- seeming origins, wood dust is classified as a carcinogen. Wood dust may also contain unhealthy levels of synthetic chemicals or harbor bacteria and fungi, which can further irritate the respiratory tract.
Asthma attacks and allergic reactions, such as coughing and sneezing, are other indicators of unhealthy exposure to wood dust.
According to data from the US National Occupancy Exposure Survey, the highest exposure to wood dust occurs during machine sanding, commonplace in the building of furniture or cabinets. Be especially vigilant when using these types of tools:
- Sanders (such as orbital sanders, palm sanders, belt sanders, and drum sanders)
- Saws (including table saws, circular saws, jig saws, and band saws)
- Handheld power tools (including shapers, routers, and planers)
Reducing the danger of wood dust
The easiest way to protect yourself is to wear a mask whenever you’re sawing, sanding, or otherwise generating dust—and whenever toxic chemicals are in use. A paper mask won’t do. Choose a high-quality mask that fits snugly to your face. The Makana Mask, for example, captures more than 99% of particulate sized 0.1 microns or greater. It’s form-fitting, light, comfortable, and reusable.
Work outdoors or in a well-ventilated space. If your space isn’t naturally well-ventilated, try an air filtration system, whether portable or permanently installed, and keep it running whenever you are using tools that generate dust.
The second environmental option is to collect dust as it’s created, using a dust collector that powerfully sucks dust from the source. Most come equipped with HEPA filters for capturing smaller particles.
There are also tool-specific filters, such as saw hoods that wrap around the back of a miter saw. These resemble a tent for the tool, sequestering the dust, which is then sucked up by a shop vac. Other options include a downdraft table, which is a workbench that has a built-in ventilation system, pulling dust away while you sand, grind, and saw to your heart’s content.
But the story doesn’t end with wood dust. Other woodworking materials, such as varnish and glue, can be toxic, too. Read the product label and make sure your ventilation, PPE, and air filtration systems are equal to the task, per the manufacturer’s guidelines.
Cleaning up the wood shop
Work’s done, machines are powered down—you can pop off your mask, right? Nope. It’s important to be aware that wood dust can linger in the air for up to 30 minutes. Keep your mask on while taking a break, switching tasks, or cleaning up the shop.
Simple tasks like sweeping with a broom can launch fine dust particles back into the air; consider using a shop vac instead. Experts also recommend wet cleanup: Use a clean, wet cloth to wipe down surfaces such as your work bench. For tool storage, consider cabinets instead of open shelving, to keep your shop less dusty overall.
Now all you need to do is pop dusty work clothing into the wash, take a shower to get any dust off your skin, and if you like, crack open a beer, knowing you’ve kept yourself protected from the harmful effects of wood dust exposure.