Whether you’re working in a commercial woodworking shop, or on the first project in your garage, dust control is an important issue.
With repercussion ranging from dust in your finish to potential health issues, dust control tools and measures have become more prominent in woodworking over the last decade.
The good news is that the vast majority of dust can be controlled with a few simple steps.
Reasons to Control Dust
The health effects of long-term exposure to wood dust are the primary reason to control dust in your workshop.
When I was in high school I worked in a lumberyard cutting wood for customers.
I never wore any hearing or dust protection equipment.
I discovered that after about four years I was more sensitive to the dust and would become congested and tight in my chest.
Now I wear a respirator whenever I work with wood.
I discovered later that my experience is not unique.
I’ve heard many stories from professional woodworkers who have had to retire due to severe allergies stemming from decades of working without any form of dust control.
Beyond simple allergic reactions other health effects include: Eye & Skin Irritation, Respiratory Effects, Nasal Cancer and increased sensitivity.
Sawdust poses a serious fire hazard in a workshop.
Wood is flammable and the light powdery dust form it can burn very quickly and with explosive force.
If wood dust is concentrated heavily in the air, and then exposed to a spark, it can cause an explosion.
The fire jumps from particle to particle in a similar manner as a grain silo explosion. Fortunately this is not very common.
Sawdust lying around your shop is more likely to catch fire and burn from a stray spark or flame.
Sawdust on a smooth floor can become slippery and cause accidents.
Dust in Finishes
If your trying to achieve a smooth “piano like” finish it will not be possible with dust in the workshop.
The dust will settle on your finish and leave imperfections.
Dust collected in power tools can reduce their lifespan.
The dust can block air ports and get into the internal parts thus shortening their life.
The best way to control this is to draw the dust away from the tool with a vacuum during use. (More on this later)
You should also use compressed air (or a vacuum) to blow dust out of the inside of the tool.
If you run a commercial woodworking shop, dust control is the law.
There are various regulations covering employee’s exposure to dust in the workplace.
Effective dust control is required to comply with these laws and avoid heavy OSHA fines.
Checking for Dust in the Shop
Still not convinced that you need to control the dust in your workshop?
Then try this simple test.
After a day of working in your shop turn off the lights and use a bright flashlight or a laser pointer.
You will see all of the particles in the path of the light beam.
Keep in mind that this is the same air that you’re breathing!
You either need to remove the dust from air or your lungs will do it for you!
Note: This simple test is useful for determining if your shop is clean enough for applying a finish to your project.
Types of Dust
There are three types of “dust” that you will encounter in your workshop. Each of these requires a slightly different control strategy.
Wood shavings are typically created by planing wood by hand.
These shavings are long and curly.
Shavings don’t affect your lungs, but they do require special collection considerations.
They may tend to clog dust hoses and are best collected with a dustpan.
Chips are smaller than shavings and are typically generated by routers, shapers, and planers.
Electric planers can produce a lot of chips and require a good shop vac or collection system to run smoothly.
Check your vacuum frequently as these chips can fill up a system quickly.
Sawdust is often created at the same time as chips.
Sawdust in the workshop is a serious safety issue and requires proper control.
The fine dust can be difficult to control and requires special precautions.
Dust is most frequently created as a by-product to cutting operations such as with a table or band saw or from sanding.
The best way to control sawdust is at the source, as we will discuss below.
Dust Control Strategies
There are many dust control strategies and the most effective are often the simplest.
The hazards are increased when dust is concentrated into an enclosed area.
Because of this opening a door, window, or garage door can have a big impact.
Even more effective is to use a fan to blow the dust out. You can also work outside for especially dusty operations.
Masks & Respirators
Dust masks and respirators are an important part of personal protection in a workshop.
Even if your working in a well-ventilated shop (or outside) you still need to wear protection.
The most common masks are the disposable white cloth masks.
These offer some level of protection, but are porous and allow small particles to pass through.
They should not be used when working with chemicals, as they can’t filter them out.
The second level of protection is a professional respirator.
This is a rubber mask that has replaceable canisters.
The canisters can be changed for different operations.
Canisters for filtering out dust particles are typically made with pleated sheets of filter material.
Chemical filter cartridges typically have carbon in addition to the particle filters.
These are useful when working with finishes and chemical strippers.
They have a limited lifespan so please read the directions before using.
When using a respirator it is important that it is fitted properly to prevent air from leaking in around the edges.
Read the instructions carefully for proper fitting.
As a general rule, when working with a respirator, if you can smell the dust or chemicals, you have an air leak.
Air cleaners (a.k.a. Air Polishers) are used to continuously filter the air and remove small particles.
They are useful for removing the very small dust particles that escaped your dust collection systems.
An air cleaner is a good addition to an already existing system but your should put your efforts and money first into controlling dust at the source as well as preventing it from getting into the air in the first place.
Air cleaners are also useful for cleaning the air to an extra degree if you are trying to achieve an ultra-fine finish.
Tool Dust Collection
As we mentioned above, you should try to control the dust at the source, and tool-based dust collection is the best initial strategy.
Many of the tools on the market today offer dust ports and, in some cases, built in dust bags and filters.
The dust filters and bags work well but can allow small particles to pass through.
The best strategy is to use a hose that connects to the tool’s dust.
A shop vac or stationary system can then be fitted with HEPA grade <1 micron filters.
This not only helps to control dust, but also in the case of sanding, can actually lengthen the life of your sandpaper and make the process go faster.
If you have a vacuum system we recommend you upgrade the filter and keep it clean.
In our shop, we keep two filters on hand so that we can quickly replace the filter, wash out the dirty one, and allow it time to dry.
Shop vacuums are very effective at controlling dust.
As mentioned above, go ahead and upgrade your filter for the best results.
Shop vacuums can be used to suck up dust and wood chips in the shop.
They can also be connected directly to hand and stationary shop tools to collect dust.
When connected to tools they should be turned on before and after the tool is used.
When working with chip producing tools such as a planer or router they may require frequently emptying.
Dust collection systems are ideal if you have a large workshop or do a lot of woodworking.
The stationary dust collector can be setup out of the way and tied into all of your tools through a central collection line.
The systems allow for the use of various fittings and options such as floor sweeps.
Single Stage Dust Collectors
Single stage dust collectors are designed to suck dust and debris into filter bags.
They are called single stage because all of the materials are sucked through an impeller on their way to the filters.
The primary disadvantage of this, is that the impellers have to be made bigger and stronger to withstand the impact of the debris.
The larger impellers tend to be noisier and require more power to turn.
Dual Stage Dust Collectors
In a dual stage system the debris first enters a cyclone separator chamber where the large debris is separated from the fine dust.
The fine dust then moves on to the filter bags.
Because only the dust is passing through the impeller, it can be lighter weight.
The filter bags in a dual stage collector are designed to filter out dust (not chips like a single stage).
They are often made to <1 micron standards vs. 5 micron for a single stage filter.
Various pre-separators are available and can be added on to a single stage system to help remove large chips.
The separators are typically a plastic cap designed to be fitted onto a metal trashcan.
The area within the trashcan allows the large chips to “fall out” and collect at the bottom allowing the fine dust to travel on to the dust bags.
While not as efficient as a dual stage system, a pre-separator is a great add on.
You will typically experience a static pressure loss with these systems though.
Filter bags are available in a wide range of sizes and filter ratings. The filters are rated in microns referring to the smallest particle size the bag can filter out.
One micron or less is ideal for a shop filter.
Most systems come with bags around 5 microns.
Whole Shop Systems
Setting up a whole shop dust collection system is the ideal way to collect and control dust from the point of origin.
With a whole shop system a main line is run with lines branching off to each piece of equipment.
Blast gates are used to control the flow from each machine.
If you’re considering purchasing a dust collection system, you should design the layout first to ensure you purchase the right size collector.