The dirty truth about dust control
Okay, I think it’s time we talked about dust control.
Someone new to the craft of woodworking may underestimate just how important good dust control is – not only for maintaining a clean and tidy shop, but for keeping clean and tidy lungs.
Up until a few months ago the vast majority of my woodworking experience was in my father’s shop, and let me tell you he’s got a great dust collection setup. Metal piping crisscrosses one of the walls and there’s a remote control attached to his woodworking apron that he clicks to effortlessly start the suction.
On top of that there’s an air filter mounted to his shop ceiling to trap any stray particles in the air, and a couple of separate vacuum systems for his orbital sanders. I won’t go so far as to say there isn’t a speck of dust in the shop, but it’s pretty darn clean.
I also thought the setup was a little bit overkill in my earlier woodworking days. Sure, the vacuum systems and piping made sense, but did he really need the air filter, too?
Well, I’m here to say it’s not overkill. At the start of 2023 I began my own side business of selling laser-engraved walnut charcuterie boards, trays and more. The boards need a ton of sanding to get them buttery smooth, and for the first few weeks I was just using my battery-operated orbital sander with the crummy little dust bag that comes with the tool.
No vacuum suction, no air purifier, no dust collection whatsoever. And it didn’t go well.
At the end of every day I’d emerge from my workshop looking like I’d just survived a volcanic eruption with all the dust caked to my work jacket and pants. All that loose dust was also having an impact on my final finish since those fine particles that were landing on the piece were getting ground into the wood and causing swirl marks and scratches.
I was also worried about the impact it could potentially have on my long-term health, even though I was wearing a woodworking dust mask with a HEPA filter the entire time. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, wood dust “is associated with toxic effects, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, dermatitis, and respiratory system effects which include decreased lung capacity and allergic reaction.”
I decided I’d had enough and bit the bullet and bought an expensive new sander with a fancy dust collection hose and vacuum attachment. But the most amazing thing to me was the new mesh sandpaper that allows the fine particles to be sucked into the machine. I couldn’t believe how much of a game changer it was compared to the cheaper paper I’d been using.
“You spoiled brat,” my father-in-law (also a hobbyist woodworker) said jokingly the first time he saw it in action.
I liked it so much I started to use the vacuum attachment on other tools, like my table saw, planer and jointer, but the chips quickly filled up the bags so I needed to find a different method.
One day my dad took me up to the attic above his workshop and he dug out the old portable dust collector he got with his first table saw. It has a 60 hz induction motor that groans every time you start it up and sometimes pops the GFCI outlet in my shop. The manufacture date only has the first three digits (199) meaning it’s probably at least 25 years old, but it works. The 4″ diameter hose offers plenty of suction for my planer and jointer.
Woodworkers may debate the merits of certain tools, specific brands or varying techniques, but I think it’s safe to say that no one should doubt the importance of ample dust collection in the shop. It can save your workpieces, and might just save your lungs.