Turning Safely Pt. 2: Common Sense Tips for Safe Processes & Procedures
Updated: Apr 5, 2019
After my "Turning Safely Pt. 1" post last week, I realized that the subject of woodturning safety is not particularly popular compared to the other subjects I've written about. It was also a much longer post than I intended, so I'm just going to give a quicker rundown of some of the circumstances that I've found to be relevant to general woodturning safety. This isn't groundbreaking info - it is 100% common sense. Any of these subjects could be an entire post of its own, but to me these are some of the major areas where safety can be an issue, so I'm just going to hit some highlights for now. Shop safety is the responsibility of the individual. You have to use your own judgement based on your experience and comfort - what I consider "safe" may not be the same for you. Accidents in the shop can happen in an instant and the consequences can potentially last a lifetime, so be careful.
Chainsawing logs - First, wear proper safety equipment. At minimum this should be a face shield; ideally, it would chainsaw chaps, a helmet/face shield, and hearing protection. For me, half a day of chainsawing is very likely to lead to at least a day or two of low back pain if I'm not careful (ah, the joys of getting older). If you can lift the logs you're cutting, get them up onto a sawhorse or some other type of stand, so you're not bent over straining your back and leaning over the blade of your chainsaw. Kickback in that instance could result in the blade of your chainsaw hitting your head... have you ever seen what a chainsaw does to flesh? Whatever you do, don't do a Google image search... not pretty. A stand can be made easily enough with a 2x4 and a handful of long screws.
Recently, I've have a substantial amount of big wood that I cannot lift, so to save my back, I've got into the habit of squatting (and keeping my back straight) when I'm cutting these logs on the ground. I also try to stay out of the line of the blade in the event of kickback or a broken chain. When you put your running chainsaw down, make sure the blade has stopped (use the safety lock lever) and don't set it down on a hard surface where it will rattle around and possibly come into contact with something it shouldn't; putting it on a small pile of wood shavings will usually be enough to keep it steady while you reposition your logs.
Bandsawing blanks - My worst shop injury to date was on my bandsaw; I slipped and stuck one of my knuckles right into the blade. It was bad, but it could have been much worse. I patched myself up with CA glue (superglue) and duct tape (really, I did... photo below), but I should have gone to urgent treatment for stitches. I'm pretty cautious with my bandsaw now. Never force a piece of wood into the blade; you might slip. Never take your eyes off of a moving blade if your hands or any other object is close to the blade. Make sure your workpiece is clear of the blade when you start your saw. Be in a position where you can quickly get to the off switch in case something starts to go wrong. Do not try to saw round log sections without some type of jig/brace to keep it from rolling into or out of the blade - there can be a significant amount of rotational force applied to a log section when the blade is both entering and exiting the cut. If it isn't properly stabilized, this can either pull the log forcefully into the blade or it can catch the back side of your cutoff and launch it back at you (trust me).
Mounting blanks for bowl turning - I could write a separate post for every different mounting technique (and maybe I will), but for now... Be careful with soft/punky wood (often spalted wood). Use a faceplate and solid screws if you can. If you use a tenon in a chuck, consider "strengthening" the punky wood by applying some thin CA glue to the tenon/shoulder (use thin CA so it soaks into the wood and doesn't leave a lump on your tenon/shoulder). For any type of wood, be aware of any cracks in/near your tenon and make your tenon as deep as will fit in your chuck jaws. Because of the shape of a lot of my bowls, I tend to use smaller tenons than many people are comfortable with (as indicated by the comments I've received). I know what I can get away with in most situations and that's something you'll have to figure out for yourself. The diameter and length of your blank, the type and condition of the wood, and the forces you apply when you turn will all impact how you choose to mount a blank. I often use a 1/2" worm screw drive in my chuck to initially mount most bowl blanks. It's a quick, easy, and relatively stable way to mount a blank. Any blank that is a bit out of balance or otherwise awkward gets the tailstock to help hold it as well. With the worm drive (since it often doesn't require the tailstock to be in place), I can have full access to the bottom of the blank to form my tenon and also get the outside shape of the bowl established. Mounting your blank between centers with a spur drive and live center is also a good option, especially for awkwardly shaped pieces of wood. After your blank is mounted, be sure to turn your lathe speed down (or be sure the belt is in a slower speed position) before turning on the lathe. If things are out of balance, use the tailstock to help secure the piece, remove and reposition the piece, trim your blank, or reduce your lathe speed before attempting to cut.
Other Random Safety Notes
Keep fire extinguishers on hand and in different areas of the shop. Whether a traditional style extinguisher or one of the disposable can types, get something that can handle wood/paper, chemical, or electrical fires. There are a variety of fire extinguishing devices available (sprayable, throwable, automatic, etc.) so find what works for you and your shop.
Never leave oily rags or oily sawdust piled up. Despite the skeptics out there, spontaneous combustion of oily materials is very real - I know someone it happened to and the smoke alone caused severe damage to his newly renovated house. Lay your oily rags out flat and let them dry/cure before tossing them.
Be aware of your shoulders and back when you're turning at the lathe. It can be easy to tense up and white-knuckle your way through a bowl, but if it's that difficult give some consideration to your technique or the sharpness of your tools. Sometimes extra effort and force might be necessary, but often it isn't. You might also be trying to push your tools beyond their capacity; having the right tools for the right job makes turning so much easier. When I'm turning a bowl and everything is going right, my grip on my turning tool can be so light that someone could easily just snatch the tool from my hands.
Wear nitrile (or similar) gloves when working with chemicals (mineral spirits, stains/dyes, oils, lacquer, polyurethane, etc.). As someone who has had severe hand eczema and hugely costly treatments for it, I can tell you that such conditions are no fun. So, try to avoid things that will trigger or worsen any allergies or skin conditions. On that note, be aware if any particular wood species cause a reaction from your body. I'm pretty allergic to cocobolo and banksia pods, so I avoid turning those. If you need to turn something that causes a skin reaction, wear long sleeves and gloves if you can, and don't inhale the dust.
Feel free to add any of your own tips or questions as a comment below or hit me up on Instagram or Facebook with any feedback or suggestions!