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Turning Safely Pt. 1: Because Fingers, Eyes, and Lungs are NOT overrated

Shop safety may not be the most fun woodturning related subject, but it is obviously one of the most important issues any woodturner - whether a hobbyist or a pro - should be aware of. This is the first of a two part post, and in this post I'm going to address the biggest risks associated directly with your body and all the parts you (likely) want to keep intact and healthy. In part two, I will address risk mitigation when it comes to processes and procedures used in the shop.

First, please understand that I'm speaking only from my own experience and casual research I've done over the years regarding these subjects - YOU are ALWAYS responsible for YOUR OWN safety in the shop. Some people will have certain conditions or circumstances that may require extra attention or considerations, so please keep that in mind (asthma, allergies, back/joint problems, etc.). Also, the type of turning you do (pen turning vs. bowl turning vs. artistic turning, etc.) will determine the particular safety measures necessary for you.

Eye Protection

Perhaps the most obvious safety measure for a turner is eye protection. After all, the entire turning process usually involves wood shavings, chips, and dust flying through the air - often directly at your body or face. Quality safety glasses are a MUST and you should be wearing them any time you are cutting, carving, chipping, sawing, drilling, using chemicals, or even removing bark from wood. One errant wood chip is all it takes for you to end up in a doctor's office. When I'm working on the lathe, I step up to wearing a full face shield almost 100% of the time because it offers better protection from flying debris (and the occasional chunk of bark or loose wood). Sometimes, especially when you're wearing a dust mask, glasses or a face shield might have a tendency to fog up, so invest in glasses or a mask with anti-fog lenses. The extra $10 is worth it in the long run if it keeps you from taking off those glasses "just to do this one thing really quickly." A decent, sturdy face shield can be purchased for $15-$50 and safety glasses for $2-$20. Your face shield should NOT use an elastic band to hold it on your head; it should have an adjustable plastic band around your head and another over top of your head, at the very least. And the shield should wrap around the sides of your face as well. The ones that just hold a flimsy piece of plastic to your forehead with an elastic band will do nothing other than smash against your face if any sizable piece of wood strikes it (and they usually don't wrap around very much either). I keep two face shields and probably 5 pairs of glasses around my shop so there is always one nearby for me or for a visitor to my shop.

Fingers & Hands

I can speak from experience on this subject, as I imagine many others can as well. Woodturning is unique in that the piece of wood you're working with spins and the cutting tool is brought to the wood. In most woodworking it is the other way around - the cutting tool spins/moves and the wood is brought to the tool. It's easy to remember not to touch a spinning saw blade because the outcome is predictable - blood spatter, torn flesh, etc. Less so with spinning wood, especially when you're hands are always in such close proximity to it. There are safer (safER, not safe) ways to touch a piece of wood when it's spinning on the lathe, and there are less safe ways; but there is never a guarantee that something won't go wrong. Until you know exactly what is going on in the wood you're working with, you should never touch it while it's turning. Just stop the lathe, wait 5 seconds, and use your eyes (since you always wear your face shield, your eyes should be in tip top condition). An unanticipated void or bark inclusion could easily rip off a nice bit of skin if you touch it at 1250 rpm. Assuming you are very familiar with the piece of wood you're turning and you know it's pretty smooth, it is generally safe to gently feel the surface for that last little hump on the side of your bowl that you're trying to even out or to see if your pen has that perfect smooth profile you've been working toward. If/when you do touch spinning wood, MOVE YOUR TOOL REST OUT OF THE WAY. You definitely do not want your fingers lodged between a bowl and the tool rest - you could lose skin, dislocate/break your finger, or possibly tear it clean off (and nothing ruins a nice bowl quite like blood stains). If you must touch spinning wood, always touch the lower portion that is moving away from you; touching the top part that is coming toward you could result in jamming a finger or possibly jerking away quickly and ending up inadvertently putting your hands in a worse place. Also, keep long sleeves pulled back, you don't want them wrapping around the wood and pulling you into a spinning lathe. And if you like to dress more formally when you turn, always wear a bowtie, never a long necktie. ;)

Quick side story... while turning my second bowl ever (a small one out of lignum vitae, an extremely hard wood) I was sanding it and even though I knew it had a small divot on the edge of the bowl, I wasn't careful enough. The divot hit my finger and jammed a splinter of wood under my fingernail. I stopped the lathe, grabbed a pair of needle nose pliers, pulled the splinter out from under my fingernail, then promptly passed out. When I regained consciousness, it took me a couple of minutes to even figure out what had happened. It could have turned out much worse (pun intended). Be careful, folks.

Lung Protection

It isn't necessarily the most obvious safety precaution, but for anyone who does a lot of turning or woodworking, protecting your lungs is something you need to do for the long term. I'm sure we've all been turning something, then we step away, blow our nose, and are astonished at the colorful Rorschach image we just created. Yeah, that's gross. You know what's even more gross? Lung diseases.

There is a slew of information about the dangers of dust and particulate matter (PM) on the internet, so I'm not going to go into great detail here. Check out the OSHA or CDC websites if you'd like to read the studies or regulations related to PM. Woodturning creates a lot of particulate matter that ends up floating around in the air, so you should always be wearing a dust mask (and sometimes even step it up to a full respirator, as the circumstances may require) when you're turning or sanding. I'm not talking about the crappy paper dust masks; I'm talking about the higher quality ones that can filter out finer particles. I have two that I like quite a bit that are washable and I've been using them for years. They are far more comfortable than a respirator and do not inhibit your ability to breathe easily the way a respirator can. One filters down to 3 microns and the other down to 1 micron, I think. (See below for a little info on particle size.) Check out some specialty woodworking stores and I'm sure you can find similar ones. You want to find a mask that will filter out most of the smallest particles possible... and that you will actually wear. An N95 or N99 mask is a great option if you can find a comfortable one (they filter 95% and 99%, respectively, of particles less than 0.3 microns). You need to wear your mask per the manufacturers directions, especially if you have a beard, since a beard can work against the mask's ability to do its job.

PM gets to be extra dangerous when it's smaller than 10 microns - your lungs can often deal with the stuff that's 10 microns or larger. Under 10 microns is more dangerous long term and under 2.5 microns is the really bad stuff. To catch PM that small and floating around in the air is difficult. Dust collectors and air cleaners will help, but masks that filter PM are still required even with dust collectors and air cleaners. I do my best, especially while sanding, to capture the dust at the source. My dust collector intake is inches from whatever I'm turning and it does a pretty good job. I have a basic 2hp Harbor Freight dust collector that I upgraded with a 1 micron aftermarket bag and the amount of dust in my shop is much less than it was with my 1hp unit with a 5 micron bag. Ideally, a dust collector would vent to the outdoors, so those tiny particles that can pass through the filter would be ejected from the shop altogether. Also, when you're cleaning up your shop, give some thought to vacuuming rather than sweeping. Sweeping will cast a lot of tiny dust into the air. If your vacuum has a good filter, it should remove that dust without making as much of it airborne.

Finally, just a couple other tips/thoughts that I have no scientific proof are effective, but I feel like can be helpful sometimes. If I've been doing something that is especially dusty and every step I take seems to kick up more dust, I'll take a spray bottle and mist the air and floor (away from my tools). My theory is that the fine mist will contact and be absorbed by the particles and either pull them to the ground or keep them on the ground. I've tested this in my shop with a strong beam of light (to see the particles floating in the air) and it appears to work to some degree at least for the larger "nuisance" dust particles, so take it for what you think it's worth. Also, a couple of times a year, since my shop is in my garage, I will open the garage door, set up a bunch of fans blowing toward the outside, put on my dust mask and safely glasses, then use a leaf blower to blow all the dust I can out of the shop. This can take half an hour of working from the back of the shop toward the door over and over, and results in ridiculous clouds of dust pouring from my garage, but it gets all that dust that has accumulated on light fixtures, shelves, blanks, logs, crevices, underneath benches/tables, behind stuff... everywhere... Even with the fine dust film left on all the surfaces after everything settles, my shop is WAY cleaner and just feels better to be in.

So, that's what I've got for now. I know I haven't hit every little detail or possible circumstance, so feel free to comment below or DM me on Instagram or Facebook (@chadeameswoodworks) if there's something else you'd like me to address. I always welcome (and love to receive) feedback, so don't hesitate to let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!


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