Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Getting Into Fine Woodworking, Part 2: Dust Collection

In part 1 of the series, I talked about possible locations for your shiny new workshop. Now that you've picked out that perfect spot, it's time to think about how you're going to keep yourself healthy in it! Besides the obvious (read all instruction manuals, follow proper safety procedures, blah blah blah), one of the most important things you can do for your shop is install some sort of dust collection system.
There's a variety of different systems you can get, and what works for you largely depends on your budget, your style of woodworking (primarily hand tools, primarily power tools, or a mix of the two), and your shop's location.

Why You Need Dust Collection

I'm talking about dust collection, not collecting dust!
I could write books on the subject of the hazards of dust collection. But, luckily, plenty of people have already done that for me all over the internet herehere, and of course on Bill Pentz's site here (disclosure, he sells a patented dust collector, so grains of salt advised).

It gets down to this. Sawdust comes in many different shapes and sizes. A lot of the largest particles can be filtered out of your lungs by your body, and are relatively harmless.  It's the dust particles under 1 micron that are really the dangerous ones — they can settle in your lungs as you breathe them in and stay there for a really long time. After a while, this build-up of dust in your lungs can cause you all sorts of health problems, which can ultimately lead to the end of your hobby (or worse).

Why Dust Collection Isn't Enough

My respirator. Below is a cheap-o dust mask which really
doesn't filter out much of anything useful...
You may have the best dust collection system money can buy, but you're still exposed to some amount of dangerous particles. No dust collection system will filter out 100% of the bad stuff. So, in addition to a good dust collection system, you need to protect yourself with respirators — especially when doing things like sanding, where the output of fine particles is par for the course.

I personally use and recommend the 3M 62023DCA1-C Tekk Protection Professional Multi-purpose Respirator for my woodworking. It's comfortable, safe (it filters out lead dust too, so this will easily filter out the worst of your sawdust), and the exhalation valve is on the bottom of the mask, meaning you won't fog your safety glasses up (you are using safety glasses, right...?). You can buy locally at Lowe's, or on Amazon.

I usually wear this while I'm using any of my machines (and especially during sanding), and for at least an hour after the last time I used any machine. This is in addition to my dust collection, which is usually good enough to collect most of the dust at the point I generate it. But without this mask, I was finding myself coughing sawdust for hours after finishing. With it, that's a thing of the past.

Bare Necessities

To get started in fine woodworking, you don't need a whole lot. Probably the simplest system to install consists of two machines: an ambient air cleaner and a reasonably powerful shop vac.

Ambient Air Cleaner

My air cleaner.  Not that powerful, but it does the job.
The ambient air cleaner usually hangs from your ceiling and circulates air through a combination of coarse and fine filters. None of the affordable air cleaners remove all of the dust from the air (the finest filter is usually only a 1 micron filter, whereas HEPA filters go down to 0.3 microns or less), but they definitely help in keeping the air cleaner and eliminating a lot of the dust that will eventually settle all over your shop.

Within the woodworking community, there's a lot of controversy as to the relative value of these machines. Since they generally don't have HEPA filters, the argument against them claims they don't actually filter anything dangerous out of the air, and can stir up dust even more through the circulation of air in the shop. The arguments for the use of these cleaners generally centers around keeping the shop cleaner when you're done. They do filter out a lot of dangerous particles, but true to claims, they won't take out the most harmful tiny particles.

Whether you decide to get an air cleaner or not is a choice you should make based on your needs. It's not strictly necessary to have one, especially if you can otherwise ventilate your shop (by opening up a window and running a fan). Many people combine box fans with furnace filters to provide a similar level of filtration for far cheaper (and then blow the air out a window).

Dust Collector

Whether you get an air cleaner or not, one absolute must is a dust collector of some sort. These are machines that provide suction through either flexible hose or permanent ducting. The air is passed through filters and filter bags, with the dust and junk ultimately ending up collected in the machine.

Almost all power tools of any size these days come with ports for attaching dust collector hoses. Making use of these ports with a dust collector will help keep your air and your shop cleaner — and your lungs will thank you.

Dust collector prices can range from dirt cheap to absurdly expensive, and can be as complicated as your mind can dream up. For a beginning woodworker though, it's unlikely you need such a system. A good shop vac with a HEPA filter and good filter bags will take you far (buy these specifically, your shop vac won't come with them!). Though a shop vac may not have the power to get everything, especially from tools like table saws and planers, it'll do a great job with sanders and other smaller tools. And, it's a cheap investment that will go far towards protecting you.

What I Do

Simple duct system running from my vac.  Not the best
(it uses right-angle bends, which is bad...), but it works.
My shop vac and cyclone separator.

In my shop, I still use my good ol' shop vac. Mine isn't even the most powerful — a meager 3hp peak. But, it does the job great, and with a HEPA filter and good filter bags, the air that exhausts from it is as clean as possible.

Since my vac is of the smaller variety, I augment it with a 20 gallon drum which I've attached a Dust Deputy cyclone separator. With this setup, all of my dust, chips, and debris go into the drum, and never reach the vac itself.

Add to that a remote on/off switch and some PVC ducting and hoses, and the system is pretty versatile. True, the suction from my vac isn't powerful enough to get everything, especially from bigger tools like my table saw and band saw. But it can keep up reasonably well with my planer, and does definitely make a difference, even with the biggest of the tools.

Certainly not the most optimal solution, but it works well for me. And even with all of this, I still do use my respirator whenever I'm unsure of the air quality.

— ● —

However you decide to configure your system, it's important that you have something in place, and that you also use a respirator to ensure the dust your system isn't collecting doesn't end up in your lungs.

So, with the dust collection debate settled, we'll turn next to building up your shop. ■

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