This is a section from A Beginners Guide to Woodworking: Helping New Woodworkers Make Better Projects, which is available on Amazon. Over the next couple months, you will be able to read the entire book, and I hope that you like it enough to get tour own copy. Enjoy.
Chapter Seven – Safety in the Shop
Given the fact that I started out with less of my senses than most new woodworkers, taking care of myself has always been a priority, even though there have been times where I wasn’t necessarily the best educated in the craft.
For many though, safety seems to be one of those things that only become important after something bad happens to them. Having worked in a tool store in the past, I remember seeing several people come in to purchase a Saw Stop brand table saw with one of their hands freshly bandaged up from the hospital.
Some of these folks even had their spouse standing next to them, just glaring the entire time.
A Saw Stop table saw has a special mechanism inside that stops the blade and drops it into the cabinet and out of sight when it makes contact with your body. It happens in a blink, and you are only left with a minor scratch if anything.
It’s much safer than any other table saw on the market, but I would imagine is sold to many more bandaged up woodworkers than other saw brands.
The people that would come into the store to buy this saw after an accident obviously had the money to buy the tool the entire time, but for some reason they never made it a priority.
Now, facing a very upset spouse, the near miss experience of losing fingers, and a trip to the hospital, the price of getting one of those saws became suddenly a lot less expensive.
Safety is not a handsome subject for many woodworkers, and there are some out there that will even make fun of you or put you down for being safe as you work in the shop. Let them.
Your safety and your body are not any of their concern, and one day you may just see them with a bandage of their own.
Never let anyone pressure you into taking risks with your body. If you don’t feel comfortable about something, then learn more before you do it. If you think something is not safe, wait and think before attempting it yourself.
The irony about safety in most cases is that it only takes a few seconds. For example, wearing safety glasses is important, we all know it’s important, yet many times we do not wear them.
The sad thing is that it would only have taken a couple seconds to put them on and save a lost eye from a flying chunk off the lathe.
Compare a lifetime of sight to a few seconds, and nobody would choose to lose an eye, but in practice it happens all the time. Yes, the overwhelming majority of the time nothing will happen, but it’s not about those times, it’s about the one time that the glasses work.
There are enough one eyed woodworkers in the world, and plenty with less than ten fingers. Be safe instead.
Learn Safety From the Beginning
One of the best ways to learn safety is right in the beginning as you are learning everything else.
You will not really know what not to do when it comes to your tools in the beginning, so you need to figure that out.
Instead of waiting around to learn about what the limitations are, start learning about them right away so you can avoid making a mistake from ignorance.
A mistake from ignorance is an error on your part, but it’s based in the fact that you did not know something. They are still your fault, because all of that information is available for you to learn, but it’s still just a mistake due to not fully understanding.
For example, until you know that a belt sander can pinch your finger in between where the belt enters the machine and the little table top, you don’t really know how important it is to stay clear of that area.
This is a mistake from ignorance, because you just do not know the tool very well as a beginner. It’s important however to really spend some time learning about your tools, because a pinch like that can pull skin from your finger, and possibly even send you to the hospital.
Another example is the router. The spinning bit on the router or router table can eat up loose clothing just like it eats up wood. Again, the big problem is that the machine will wrap the material so fast that it will not be able to cut you free.
When this happens, you are going to be pulled towards the router. If it stops in time from the clog of material wrapped around the cutter, you are lucky, because routers typically don’t stop like that.
Odds are you are going to have some kind of injury before you can think to unplug the tool and get yourself out of that situation. It will just happen too fast to do anything about it.
Rather than taking chances and learning the properties of your tools through experience, spend some time learning form the experiences of others. There is nothing wrong with letting someone else tell you about their hospital trip so you can avoid a trip of your own.
A learned experience like this is worth far more than you can imagine, because you might come out worse than they did if the same thing happens. It really all depends on the individual situation.
In the beginning, do some searches on tool safety, and try to cover all of your tools. In the very beginning, if you have very few tools, start with those. Then, when you have exhausted a lot of material about them, find more, and make sure that you are learning all you can.
When you are in the contemplating stages of buying a tool, and you are spending a lot of time online reading reviews, and thinking about all the wonderful things you can make with it, look at some safety stuff too.
You can start learning what not to do right away before you even get the tool in the shop. In this way, once you do start using it, you are already in a much better position to know what to do. Also, you will keep yourself as safe as possible while you are making your projects.
You May Only Get One Chance
The scary part about safety is that you may only get one chance before something really drastic happens that changes your life forever. For most people, woodworking is a hobby, and we all have “real” jobs that provide income to support our families.
If you cut off all the fingers on your left hand while using the chop saw, you may never be able to work again.
If your primary job relies on your hands and your body, you really need to put safety in the very front of your thinking while in the shop. The last thing anyone wants is a career ending injury, but you really can’t have that happen when you are the one person putting food on the table for several other people.
If you can’t do it for yourself, then do it for them, or don’t participate in woodworking at all.
Going back to the chop saw example, if you have never gone through something like that, you don’t know how you are going to react. You may just pass out from the sight of your own fingers on the ground, and in that case you will probably die from blood loss unless someone sees you and calls for help. It’s not a rosy picture, but it’s reality.
People die from woodworking accidents. Make sure that you are doing everything possible to be as safe as you can in the shop, because you may only get one shot to get it right.
If something goes terribly wrong, but you are wearing protection, and you know how to react, the outcome will be far less than if you are using experience only to learn about safety.
Experience is a great teacher, but experience is also an indifferent teacher. It does not care about the payment for the lesson, it just teaches the lesson. If you are working with a lot of big machines, the experience can cost much more than any normal person is willing to pay.
This section is not meant to scare you off woodworking, but to show you that there are real risks associated with the craft. Sometimes people just don’t know, and as a beginner you should assume that you don’t know in just about every situation.
By learning about some of the worst things that can happen, you open your eyes to the real risks, and you put yourself in a better position to have the desire to learn about woodworking safety.
Make sure that you do everything you can to be safe, and understand that you may only get one chance. A mistake can happen so fast that you may not even see it coming. In a case like that, you will not be able to react until long after the damage has been done.
If you are not good with blood, or have never really hurt yourself before, you may not have the capacity to rescue yourself, and that can lead to even more problems past the initial injury.
Take woodworking safety seriously, and you will be in a much better position for the day that something does happen. You will be far more prepared, you will have things in place to help reduce or prevent damage to your body, and it will keep you doing your hobby longer.
Read Your Manual First
One of the best places to start learning about tool safety is in your manual. Manufacturers put safety information inside their manuals in the hope that you will read it. They want you to have a long life full of woodworking…and tool buying.
When you get a new tool, even though you have already spent some time learning about using it safely before you bought it, you can now use the manual for more targeted information.
When you look online, you are going to get a more general set of safety rules for certain tools. Table saw safety is a broader category than the specific recommendations that will come in a manual for that one single model of table saw.
There may be things on your tool that are not on many others, and these will be covered in the manual, and not in the general safety instruction you find online.
This can sound like a miserable activity, but there will be some hidden benefits. As you read through your tool manual, you might discover some things that you did not know your tool was capable of doing. In that case, you will not only increase your knowledge of safety about the tool, but you also now know more about how to use it.
Your individual product manuals will have a lot of good safety stuff inside them, so make it a point to go through them before you start using each tool. You might run past something that prevents an accident, and you might also learn more about your tool.
With every tool, there are going to be times that you need to perform maintenance. This can be as simple as changing a blade, or as complex as adding a new power cord or replacing a gear.
Any time that you work on your power tools, you want to make sure to follow the directions inside the manual for powering down the unit.
Most tools do not store power, so they do not have to be discharged like some electronics. To be extra safe, make sure that you look inside your user manual to see the correct procedure for disconnecting power before working on the tool.
Again, in most cases, it will simply be to unplug the tool, and leave it unplugged for the duration of the service.
When you are changing a blade, this is considered service, and it’s a good idea to unplug the machine. The last thing you want is an accidental power up while your hands are on the blade, which can happen if you accidentally bump the switch.
On newer tools, the switches better designed to prevent this, but if the tool is unplugged then the risk is reduced even farther.
Any time that you need to put your hands in the danger zones on your tools to either work on then, change a blade, or for any other reason that makes sense for safety, make sure to disconnect the tool from all sources of power.
Follow your manual for the exact directions, and ensure that the tool is completely de-energized.
Working around wood and tools, a fire extinguisher is a handy item to have in the shop. Even if you are not working with a heat source specifically, tools can catch fire from dust build up.
Having a fire extinguisher in the shop for instances like this can be the difference between you having an interesting story to tell, and you having a tragic story to tell.
Most stores sell fire extinguishers for home use, and they range in sizes. Obviously the bigger units have the capacity to fight a fire for longer, so make sure that you are getting something that you are comfortable using. Also, look at the type of fire extinguisher to see what it can be used to extinguish.
Not all fire extinguishers are created equal. Some are meant for any kind of fire, some for electrical fires, and some for only certain fires. The best thing you can do is get the type that is rated for the biggest variety of fire types, because you don’t know what is going to happen in your shop.
You may get an electrical fire, or you may get a fire from a pile of shavings. If you have to choose your fire extinguisher in the heat of the moment, you may not make a good choice.
Instead, but an all purpose fire extinguisher that is capable of handling multiple fire types. Keep it in the open, where you can see it often, and in the same place all the time. This way, you know where it is when you need it.
For most people woodworking is a solitary activity, done away from the rest of the family. If this is the case for you, it’s a good idea to put a few things in place to keep yourself safe while working alone.
While working alone is not as safe as having someone right there that can help in the event of an accident, there are some things that you can do to make it safer.
If you can, try to make all of your big cuts with power tools while someone is watching. If you can have someone spot you for your cuts, and you get all of your materials milled, you can do the assembly alone and you will be using tools that are less risky.
All tools carry risk, but you have a much bigger chance of cutting yourself on the table saw than you do with your sanding block or nail gun. A nail in the hand hurts, but it’s still better by comparison than missing fingers.
Ask someone to come into the shop with you while you mill your pieces. You can do yourself and them a favor by getting everything marked out and ready before they watch, and you will be able to mill the pieces much more efficiently.
Once you have everything cut, perform any other power tool processes while they are in the shop. Maybe you have to use a router to round off the edges on some of the pieces you just milled. If that is the case, complete that step to.
Now, you can feel safer knowing that you are only going to be using a glue bottle, some clamps, and a sanding block for the rest of the time you are in the shop alone. If you work like this, you increase the chances that someone will be available to assist in getting you help should you really need it.
Another thing you can do is have someone check on you from time to time. While not as effective as having someone in the shop, a family member can pop into the shop and just take a look at you from time to time, and that can help them be aware if something happens.
Again, this is not as good as someone seeing you hit the ground immediately, but it’s better than nobody looking at all.
People that do not have anyone to check on them might want to look into getting a service that you can call when you need help. There are companies like Life Alert that give you a small clicker that you can press when you need help, and medical units can be dispatched.
This will come with a fee, but it’s better than lying on the ground in the shop for days until someone notices you missing.
You can’t take the money with you, so you might as well pay for a device that will send help. It’s far better than the alternative, and it can give you a little peace when you are working in the shop alone.
Another thing you can do is to set up a time when you are going to call a friend after you are done in the shop. A simple phone call is all it takes to tell them that you are all done, and that you are ok.
If they do not receive the call at the time they were supposed to, they can start trying to reach out to you. If something did happen, you now have at least one person that is actively trying to reach you, and knows that you might be in need of medical attention.
Working alone is perhaps the best excuse to get to know other woodworkers in the area. Woodworking is a popular hobby, so odds are that you might be able to make a friend or two that live locally.
If you need to make some cuts, or need to have a partner in the shop for a few things, knowing someone locally means you are in the shop by yourself a lot less. You can meet someone like this by joining a local woodworking group or club, and then you have one more way to keep yourself safe in the shop, and so will they.
I do a lot of work in my shop alone, and I really pay attention when I am working on power tools or with edged tools. Even with all of that extra effort, an accident is an accident, and it could happen to me just as easily as anyone else.
The point is to be extra careful when you are in the shop alone, because you may not have the help you need if something goes wrong.
Take the time to get a spotter, ask for someone to sit out there with you, or sign up for a monitoring system that you can use when you run into trouble. Being alone and hurt can be terrifying, especially if you are bleeding, or need medical attention.
Let people know what you are doing, and get friends to check on you. Make your activities known to as many friends as you can, and you will be safer working alone in the shop.
Part 42 – Wrap Up
I hope you liked Part 42 of A Beginners Guide to Woodworking: Helping New Woodworkers Make Better Projects.
As you can see, this is a different kind of beginner woodworking book, and I encourage you to get a copy for yourself so you have it all in one place.
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