Dust from hand tools causing problems

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    Paul Oram

    I have been woodworking now for 3 months – working in my garden workshop that ive just built. So Im new to this completely. Setting up the space as well as using handtools and getting a feel for wood. In that time I have experienced suffering from dust 3 times.

    Each time I have adjusted my routine accordingly.

    The first time was down to the natural impulse to blow dust out of planes – obviously it blows back in your face – so from that impulsive action i got dust in my throat – and experienced how it can burn for a few days. So obviously the answer is not to do that!! 😉

    The second time was squaring wood, I used an old palette and worked with that – A smoothing plane in particular really creates dust – so leaning over the plane applying pressure puts you right in line for dust. The sun shines directly into my workspace at around 4 in the afternoon – very beautiful but it lights up the dust in the air so you can see it – it billows up to face level and just hangs in the air. Sandpaper is a complete no no.

    This time it got deeper into my lungs.

    So I then realised I needed to do more, bought a wet dry vacuum and a respirator breathing mask.

    Every now and again, just in my enthusiasm I forgot to put it on, sawing can be a problem. I have a few Japanese saws and as they cut on the pull stroke, you are literally pulling dust into your own face. So after the third time, where I really felt it deep in my lungs to the point that my whole chest tightened up I just keep the mask on all the time.

    I vacuum after every task. I attach the vacuum to the desk while sawing. Doors open etc.

    So my next idea is to buy an air filter that hangs above the work bench. My concern is that it will just suck everything upwards into my face!

    I asked my local wood supplier about this – the reply was predictably macho – ‘never worn one mate’.

    So I’m just after advice. The honeymoons over, its not as romantic as i imagined with a mask on all the time, although Im used to it now.

    Slow, deliberate movements when using saws, controlled careful planing, maintaining sharp tools, just knowing the nature of the materials, this all helps me improve my working practices.

    This isnt the machine vs handtool discussion but controlling dust in a handtool environment.

    I also wander about the air in my work shed – humidity can swing from 50 to 90%, although it feels dry inside. Is that in itself a fundamental problem – oh boy what have I got myself into?

    Any advice out there welcome.

    Keith Walton

    Wow, not being macho, but at my job where theres multiple machines cutting and sanding MDF all day in the shop I feel about how you do. At home with my hand tools on wood I feel so free from this and enjoy the work 100% more. I would probably get an air purifier for your shop, also you should get a particle counter to see what the air is truly like, because you seem, no offense, a little obsessed, so knowing exactly how much dust is even in the air should help your approach.

    Nicholas Russon

    One of the biggest differences I’ve found between machine woodworking and hand tool woodworking is that I produce far less dust from the workpiece. I’d suspect if your hand plane is producing dust instead of curled shavings, you probably need to adjust it properly. I’d found hand planing to be a frustrating experience and had pretty much given it up until I watched one of Paul’s earliest videos on YouTube about how to properly set up a hand plane … I realized just how badly I’d mucked up my initial set-up and sharpening.

    The kind of wood you’re working with may also be a factor: some exotic woods are much more likely to trigger allergic reactions than typical domestic woods (in my case, pine, red oak, and maple). The wooden pallet industry uses whatever is cheapest where the pallets are made, so you might need to avoid them as a source of rough lumber.

    Also, if just blowing off the dust can get you feeling a burning in the throat, you may be extra-sensitive to wood dust so taking precautions makes sense. When I use my table saw, I always turn on the dust collector (I think they’re called extractors in the UK) and if I’m using a power router I use a shop vac to keep the dust down to a minimum. Even so, by the end of the work, I’ve got a thin coat of fine dust all over the working area (the shop vac and the dust collector get most, but not all of the dust). If you’re allergic, that isn’t going to be a good situation for you at all.


    It sounds like you are particularly sensitive. There are charts that show various woods and their likelihood to cause allergic reactions. Have you looked on one to see if the particular wood you are using is a stronger allergen than others?

    If by “respirator,” you mean a paper mask, you may find a half-face respirator with cartridges far more comfortable. If you are only dealing with dust and not vapors, you can find lighter filters. In the US, for example, 3M makes a round, pink filter (2091) that is very light.

    If you are as sensitive as it sounds, I am concerned whether an air filter will solve the problem. An air filter will not draw the dusty air up away from your work area fast enough to bring all of the dust with it. It cannot move the air fast enough to achieve this. Some dust will move up, some will settle. Also, many of the air filters do not state the filtration capacity of their filters, i.e., whether they go down to 10 microns, 2.5u, etc.

    Perhaps it is worth speaking with a physician (an allergist)?

    Larry Geib

    Why species of wood are you using?

    Makes a bit difference to most people.

    mark edsforth

    Hello Paul. I use a shared workshop where not everybody is quite as meticulous about using the extractors so there is often dust around. However, we do have a ceiling mounted dust extractor. At first I wasn’t sure if it was doing very much, but having cleaned it twice (replacing the filters) and I am amazed at how much dust it is gathering. Dust which would otherwise be airborne. It is a Record unit and it works very well. Might be worth thinking about.

    Paul Oram

    Thanks for all the feedback. I just visited my doctor, who reassured me that all was ok with my lungs.

    Which was good to hear.

    I don’t have an allergy – no rashes or irritations.

    Wood-wise ive just been using pine, poplar and beech – but I think the real problem came from using an old palette – recycling and all that seemed a good idea, but I think it was treated with something – it gave off really fine powdery dust. Ive got a piece of mahogany which I hear can be problematic – if and when I use it for something I’ll make sure it doesn’t involve to much working. I should probably buy my wood ready squared.

    Mask wise – a proper rubber half face mask from Elipse – for dust and fumes.

    Yes, the Record Air filter (a green metal box that hangs from the ceiling) was the one I was thinking of getting – so thanks for the recommendation.

    So I think it will be fine as long as I learn by my mistakes and take certain precautions.


    Using pallet wood — just a really bad idea, imo.

    Imagine a pallet used to transport leaky drums of pesticide from China all the way to the EU. Soaking in all that toxicity for weeks on end. Then it’s re-used to transport chlorine pellets to a manufacturer of sanitation products, then fertilizer to your local garden center, and then it sat in a dark warehouse, rotting and serving as a home for rats and worse.

    Then you decide to bring it into your workshop and cut it into pieces, with your face mere inches away? To each their own, but imho it’s a terrible decision. There are no health standards for pallet wood, no safe storage requirements, and no laws regarding disclosure prior to transfer to an unsuspecting user like the OP.

    Given the crazy prices I see for lumber in some parts of the world I don’t blame anyone for considering any free source of wood, but it’s not free after you factor in the resulting ailments and the doctors to diagnose and treat them.

    Paul Oram

    wow – I never thought about it like that. I thought it a good way to practice on free wood. You see so plenty of ‘how to make from palettes’ books out there – but yeah, I’m inclined to agree with you.

    Keith Walton

    if a pallet travels internationally there are definitely standards and it will stamped if the wood was treated. one time use pallets custom sized are often fairly safe to use. if its stained i wouldnt use it. use some common sense. if you buy windows and they come from the manufacturer in a pine or oak crate that is obviously brand new and cut to size, use it up. if its stamped MB or has weird stains or is reused and filthy, dont cut it up or burn it.

    Paul Oram

    So a few weeks on now, i’ve splashed out a bit and got myself covered.

    I have a Record AC400 Air Filter On a high shelf above my workbench. Incredible how much this sucks out of the air. Its not to noisy at all, has a remote control switch and can be set to turn itself off at the end of the day, so you can leave it on to continue to filter after you’ve left.

    But, this won’t deal with the dust at the moment its created of course. So I also purchased a full face respirator – a power cap IP – which I purchased from an english webshop I might add as it was considerably cheaper than over here in the Netherlands!

    At first I thought this was a bit over the top, and I felt a bit like Major Tom, but finally this makes a real difference. Its comfortable, doesn’t hinder working, and keeps your face cool as well.

    Again the dust this collects is quite shocking – so im very glad I bought it. I will probably get a lathe sometime in the coming years, so it will then be an essential piece of kit.

    You do forget you are wearing it sometimes, as I reach to scratch my nose … 😉

    So yeah Dust. It needs to be taken seriously.

    • This reply was modified 3 years, 5 months ago by Paul Oram.
    Thomas Angle

    Just a note on the rash or irritation. You do not have to have a rash or irritation to have an allergic reaction. I notice that pine irritates me a little and more than any other wood. I can tell when I worked with the next day. Also mold and mildew get too me. I can tell you if you have it in your home in a few minutes. I have been in home where my respiratory track burns for hours after I left. Either case I had no rash.

    It might be helpful to get an allergy test. There might be a certain species of wood that you have problems with.

    Arbovale, WV

    Proverbs 18:13
    13 He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.

    • This reply was modified 3 years, 5 months ago by Thomas Angle.
    Andrew Sinclair

    Great thread Paul.

    I’ve been thinking about one of those record ceiling-hung units, hearing your good experience I’m pulling the trigger! Lungs are definitely one of my most important tools 😉

    Even using planes alone gives a fair amount of dust. And yes, mine are sharp. End grain and plywood are particularly dusty when hand planed.

    One thing worth thinking about is external ventilation. An open door or window with a fan next to it blowing outward can give a lot of air exchange without stirring up dust from inside the workshop too much. Depends on where you’re based of course, but worth doing whenever practicable.

    Anyhow, great to get people thinking about this key health issue.

    Two other things to think about in handtool woodworking are metal filings when saw filing, and the very fine metal dust from 0000 steel wool. Fine metal is actually quite reactive (eg Iron Filings can be a catalyst IIRC), so it seems wise to wear a mask around these and make an effort to vaccum them up. Btw Mark Harrell of Bad Axe sawworks made me aware of the sawfilings issue (iirc).

    Paul Oram

    I’m glad this post is still proving informative to people. Its been over a year now, I’m still busy in my shed and am really enjoying it. It can be quite blissful making things as the sun streams through in the afternoon.

    I think the thing I’ve learnt is just to work slow and from task to task. So the dust is continually managed as a factor within each task. So if the next task is to rip a long piece of oak – best put a mask on. If I’m doing a lot of plane work I will also switch on the extractor, open the door and have the bin at the end of the bench so I can just brush all the waste directly into it.

    I also vacuum up after every task. I’m now one year wiser so my shavings are all nice a curly.

    A lot of what I do is restoring or repurposing something ive picked up from a charity shop/junk shop. If anything involves any metal fittings that need filing or removing rust from then do this outside in the open air, and wear a face mask. Steal wool – especially the really fine one – yeah – I used it a few times and then thought better of it.

    So, I would conclude, in my humble opinion (common sense really) – that slow, deliberate, thoughtful working – is not only the key to better craftsmanship but also the key to maintaining your health!

    Colin Scowen

    I know this may be a bit of a stable door after the horse has bolted sort of reply, but a trick my dad showed me for when I am sweeping the floor, was to spray the floor with water. This caused any dry dust to ball up and be 1. More manageable, and 2. Totally not airborne.

    Colin, Czech Rep.

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