Woodshop Safety

Back to Techniques Department

If you've poked around this site for more than a minute or two, you've surely seen this notice:

Safety First!
Safety in the workshop is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY alone; I make no warranty as to the safety of any technique or tool shown or described on this site.  Before beginning any project, you must understand woodshop safety, know how to safely operate any machinery that is to be used in the project, and understand the safe use and any potential safety hazards involved in the use of all materials to be used in the project.  See the General Safety Notice and the Chemical Safety Note for additional information.

While it may be human nature to skip over the above warning paragraph to get to the interesting stuff below, I include this notice on every how-to and technique-related page for two good reasons: first, I want the safety notice to be noticed, and read.  Second, and more importantly, I want to impress on the reader the fact that IN THE REAL WORLD, YOU'VE GOT TO LOOK OUT FOR YOURSELF!!  Even if you're following step-by-step directions given on this site, I can't possibly foresee and write down everything anybody might need to know or do to complete an operation in the woodshop safely.  Thus, I leave it to you, the reader, to find your very own mentor to teach you safe working habits for the woodshop.  What I include on this site is really meant to be used with, not in lieu of, professional  hands-on instruction.  O.K., that's enough of the soap box; now back to the interesting stuff.

Safety Topics

Apple Bullet

The Essence of Safety A few condensed shop safety rules to live by.

Apple Bullet

Safety Devices Every Woodshop Should Have A listing of safety devices to meet every shop's line of work and inventory of tools.

Apple Bullet

The Well-Stocked First Aid Kit The woodshop has special requirements (like the ability to keep working  in a dusty environment after a minor accident), and this suggested first aid kit addresses those needs.  This is WAY better than duct tape and a hankie.

Apple Bullet T H E   E S S E N C E   O F   S A F E T Y  Apple Bullet

Inlay Banding Divider

Having worked with the do-it-yourself and woodworking public for over ten years, I've heard a lot of accident stories, and I've noticed some features in common between many of them.  I propose here to equip the fairly-handy-but-still-dangerous, which includes pretty nearly every woodworker I've ever met, myself included, with a few safety tips and concepts to keep in mind while working in the shop.   These six rules are, to my mind, the essence of woodshop safety: a handful of simple principles that, between them, cover pretty much any given situation you could come across.  Post them on the walls.  Engrave them on your tools' tables.  Tattoo them on the insides of your eyelids.  Whatever it takes, if you contemplate and follow these rules, you'll be a lot safer in the shop.



The cardinal rule of finger retention: always have at least three devices between you and any injury.

What's the safest way to get from New York to L.A.?  Fly, of course.  There's no accident in that.  Aircraft are incredibly complex systems; millions of parts flying in close formation.  One little thing goes wrong and you crash and burn, right?  Nope.  The reason it's so safe to fly is not simply because pilots are so highly trained (which they are).  It's because aircraft are designed with multiple redundant systems so that if any one part breaks, there's at least one backup that can take up the slack.  For example, nearly all commercial passenger aircraft have two or more engines.  They can stay aloft with one.  There are two pilots (plus a flight engineer, usually), but only one is needed.  The electrical system might have two or more generators, batteries, and an emergency ram-air generator.  Every critical system includes multiple independent, redundant elements, i.e. there are backups to the backups.  The end result is that, short of a major design flaw, at least three things need to go terribly wrong before you've got an airborne emergency.

I use this same principle of design in the woodshop all the time.  Take, for example, making a cut on the router table: the fence guides and controls the cut, but the bearing on the bit is a backup.  If the bit somehow does grab a "big hunk o' wood," I'm using a push stick to keep my fingers away from the cutting action and I'm standing clear of the right end of the fence, in case the wood should make a hasty exit in the wrong direction.  When possible, I use feather boards to help keep more "artificial hands" on the wood and maintain even better control just before, during and just after the cut.  Also whenever possible, there's some sort of a safety guard on the fence to cover the exposed cutter.  The result: a lot of different things need to go very wrong all at the same instant before I'm going to be getting stitches.  Also a big part of this equation: personal protective equipment to protect against flying debris, dust and chemicals, damaging tool noise, slip-and-falls, stuff dropped on toes, and other accidents.

The same concept should apply to everything you do in the shop, whether you're using power tools or hand tools.  There was a story in the papers just a couple of weeks back about a three-year-old saving his father's life by calling 9-1-1 after his dad made the mistake of shoving too hard on a dull chisel, which skipped out of the cut and ended up stuck in a major artery.  A few years ago, nearly an entire floor was blown out of a local apartment high-rise, after the painters had been lacquering the woodwork.  The painters wore respirators to filter out the fumes, but nobody made sure there was adequate ventilation in the area, so when someone flipped on the lights - BOOM!  A ventilation system to back up the respirators would have avoided this outcome.



Make every part (at least) twice, once in your head, and once in the wood.

Success in the woodshop is all about planning.  Skill and experience may mean that less formal planning is needed, but there's still a lot of planning that goes into every project.  Every operation involved in the making of the project is no different.  Lose your focus, and Murphy's law (whatever can go wrong will go wrong) will take over, resulting in a mistake and / or injury.  Skill and experience in the woodshop tend to translate into working habits (hopefully good ones) so that when I go to the tablesaw to make a long board into two short ones, I don't put a half-hour into thinking about it.  Still, habits are unreliable things and "familiarity breeds contempt."

Before making a cut, especially with any power tool, take a look at your setup and think, "what could possibly go wrong with this?"  If the blade should suddenly grab onto the wood (for any or no reason at all) and try to fling it into the next county, what would happen?  Would I be in its way?  Would my hand get pushed or pulled toward the blade?  Might the blade break off and send shrapnel around the shop?  Would I be able to turn off the machine quickly, or might a broken cutter or flying debris block my path to the power switch or escape routes?  It's a good habit to be a "what if?" pessimist, and try to envision the worst-possible-case scenario.  Prepare for that, and, chances are, nothing will go seriously wrong, simply because you'll have prevented the potential for most things to go wrong in the first place.  

Habitually thinking each cut through before making it, or even making a "dry run" at it with the cutterhead retracted and the power off, is a great way to spot potential problems before they become problems.  This way you can rehearse your push-stick technique, and simulate the cutter binding to see what that does to your setup.  For example: if the cutter were to bind, and the wood rotated, causing your push stick to slip off, you'd still catch a chunk of wood right where it hurts.  Maybe a featherboard or a different position for the push stick could solve the problem.  The only time I've had a kickback on the tablesaw happened when I was crosscutting a board.  I checked the blade height, had the guards on, used the miter gauge, and made sure the wood was supported - well, almost.  I forgot to really think the cut through, otherwise, I'd have noticed that while the table supported the board quite nicely NOW, once it was cut in half, the left side would want to fall off of the table.  That time, the board started to fall when I was about 1/2" from completing the cut.  With just enough wood connecting the two halves of the board to put up a good fight, the left side dropped, pinching the blade tightly in the kerf - BAM!  The resulting kickback bent the blade, bent the miter gauge, cracked the motor housing (it was a cheap saw), chewed up the board, and cracked my nerve.  That was about the time I came up with this rule -- and got a roller support stand.

I also habitually build the entire project, start-through-finish, in my mind before I even hit the print button to print out the working drawings.  Having mentally set up every tool and made every cut in my imagination, I can usually foresee where I might run into a difficult, dangerous, or even impossible cut.  At that point, it's pretty easy to change a few lines on the computer screen and prevent the problem.  I can also use this opportunity to make notes right on the working drawings to remind me of the best way to make the parts.



Concentrate on what you're doing, take the time to do it right, and learn when to quit while you're ahead.

I learned a tip in college that has stuck with me, and it illustrates my point here perfectly.  I studied technical theater, which is all the behind-the-scenes stuff that makes all the on-stage magic possible.  While loading a show into the theater, several of us were waiting for a rigger to finish installing some overhead winches, so we could get on with hanging some scenery.  I think I had just made some sort of impatient comment when the technical director said "never trust a rigger who is in a hurry."  The rigger works over everybody's heads, so if he messes up his job, chances are, somebody else will get hurt, possibly me.  The difference in woodworking is that if I am in a hurry, chances are it will be me who gets hurt.

If you ever find yourself rushing through a job, the question to ask yourself is "why am I doing this?"  If you're not woodworking because you enjoy it, then go find something less hazardous to do that you actually do enjoy.  If you enjoy woodworking, however, then why rush?  If you take the time to enjoy the process, you'll probably find that you enjoy it more because you'll be making fewer mistakes.  A very common event leading up to the ruining of a project or trimming of a fingertip is for someone to make a relatively minor mistake.  They then get frustrated, and instead of stopping for a breather and to figure out how to solve the real problem, bullheadedly press on with patching the damage and completing the project .  Thus the minor mistake is never resolved, and it leads to a break in concentration that usually leads to a really big mistake.  It is far better, and safer, to stop for as long as it takes, or even sleep on it, so you can come back at the problem with fresh eyes and a fresh attitude.  Fix the error that led to the mistake, then repair the mistake and finish the project with your fingers and your sanity intact.

The concept of not rushing implies that you are working in the opposite manner, very deliberately focused on doing the job at hand, not on the sun setting in the west, or the dog walking by.  It's all about concentration.  There's a standing rule in my woodshop: nobody comes in when I'm using the machinery until I stop what I'm doing and acknowledge them.  There's a signal light on the wall that can be flashed to get my attention, but it's not so distracting that it could break my concentration.  A moment's distraction at 1700 rpm can easily lead to an accident, so no visitors, no pets, and definitely no kids are allowed when the machinery is running.



Don't push a tool beyond the limits of its operating envelope.

The operating envelope is the speed (rpm), force, temperature, etc. the tool is designed to withstand during use.  Its limits are usually explained in the owner's manual.  For example, running a bit in a router that was designed to run in a drill press, or vice versa, is very bad juju.  A drill press tops out at about 3,000 rpm, while a router runs nearer to 30,000 rpm, and can go as slow as 8,000 rpm, still nearly 300% the maximum speed of the drill press, so you're looking at completely different operating envelopes for the two types of cutters.  Put a 3" forstner bit in the router and you'll produce more smoke than shavings, not to mention the shrapnel flying around the shop, busted wood, busted tools, and busted woodworkers.  On the other hand, running a router bit designed to work at 30,000 rpm in a 3,000 rpm drill press means that the bit is running at one tenth its intended operating speed, which makes for a very rough, grabby cut, and could lead to breaking both the bit and your hand.

If you don't have or can't get the right tool for the job, how about changing the job?  Design changes can eliminate hazardous parts of the manufacturing process, and may actually lead you to a "creative opportunity" that you would otherwise have overlooked.  Another way to change the job is to alter how the tool does the job by making a jig.  Jigs allow you to expand the versatility of the tools you already have.  Of course, any jig needs to be designed to keep the tool within the tool's operating envelope.  Thus, mounting a router to a lathe duplicator would still be a bad idea, since the router is designed to be fed into the wood at a much slower rate than the running lathe could provide.



Stuff breaks, so do like the airlines: establish a preventive maintenance schedule, and ground anything that's not , er, "woodworthy," until it's fixed.

Looking back at our safety "prototype" example of commercial airlines, there's another big reason why accidents are as rare as they are.   That's because the aircraft are inspected frequently and there's a structured program of regular overhauls and preventive maintenance. This way, most problems can be fixed before they really become problems. In the woodshop, I try to perform a tear-down and overhaul on all my machinery and certain hand tools on an annual basis.  Whenever I change blades on the tablesaw, planer, jointer, etc. I do a quick inspection "inside the box" (the metal housing of the tool) to check for loose wires, FOD (Foreign Objects and Debris), damaged, clogged or gummed-up parts, etc.  I'll also make a periodic check of all safety guards and similar apparatus. As a result, my tools rarely break down in the middle of a project, which makes it a lot easier to live by rules #3 "work deliberately" and #4 "always use the right tool …"

I also try to always have a spare, sharp blade on hand for such tools as the tablesaw (a spare combination blade), the bandsaw, planer, jointer, hand planes, chisels, drills, and a few key router bits. An 11-piece chisel set means if the perfect-size chisel is dull, there's always a nearly-perfect-size chisel right next to it in the tool roll. This way, if a tool does break, the key tools in my shop have a backup somewhere so I'm not stuck, I'm not tempted to use a broken tool anyway, I'm not forced to repair the tool and then rush to finish the job, and I'm not tempted to use another tool for something it wasn't designed to do just so I can get the job done. This all goes back to the redundant systems of rule #1.



Always have an escape route and "S.O.S." signal standing by, just in case everything does go wrong.

My tablesaw has a power switch on the front, and another on the back.  Either can disable the saw, so whichever side of the table I might find myself, I've got a way to shut off the saw in a hurry if needed.  My garage has two doors, and the usual entrance has a fire extinguisher right next to it.  The first aid kit is also close to the door.  When I'm working alone, I make sure I've got my cell phone in my pocket.  All of these are safety measures that I hope to never need, but in case everything should go wrong and I've got to "bug out" in a hurry or call for help, I've at least made the preparations.  (I'm a "worst-possible-case scenario pessimist, remember?)


So, how about that guy whose young son saved his life after he shoved a dull chisel into his femoral artery? What happened there? Let's take the situation apart:

1) Sharp tools need less force and don't tend to slip out of the cut suddenly - FAILED RULE #5: "inspect and maintain…"

2) Cutting toward yourself with an exposed cutting edge? Really?!? - FAILED RULES #1: "multiple redundant safety systems," #2: "think it through before you 'do'," & #4: "right tool for the job" (should've used a vise or holding clamp).

3) When you really need more force, use the right tool for the job: take the time to go and get a mallet, or a saw, or a router, or whatever - FAILED RULES #3: "work deliberately" & #4 (for a second time).

4) Never work in the shop alone and without a "big red button" of some sort (like a GPS-enabled cell phone with 9-1-1 on speed dial) to call for help in case of emergency - PASSED RULE #6.

The guy apparently got this one thing right, so he's still on the right side of the grass and, therefore, not eligible for a Darwin Award.  And disqualification from that sort of award is always a good thing.  In closing, always listen to that little voice inside when it says, in the voice of Richard Karn (Al Borland from TV's Home Improvement), "I don't think so, Tim."  It might just save you a trip to the emergency room. Apple w/ Bite

Top of Page

Apple Bullet S A F E T Y   D E V I C E S Apple Bullet
E V E R Y   W O O D S H O P   S H O U L D   H A V E

Inlay Banding Divider


NOTE: This list is still being built.  I've posted this page as-is because I feel that there's enough good information here so far to be worth making available, and it may be some time before I can properly complete the following list.

General Shop Equipment & Main Work Areas

Personal Safety Devices

Lumber Storage Area

Finishing Area

Tablesaw, Radial Arm Saw, Router Table, Shaper


Miter Saw / Chop Saw / SCM

Router (Portable)

Drill Press

Portable Saws

Sanders (Stationary & Portable)

Jointer & Planer

Wide Drum or Belt Sander


Top of Page

Apple Bullet T H E   W E L L - S T O C K E D   F I R S T   A I D   K I T  Apple Bullet

Inlay Banding Divider


In issue #216 of Fine Woodworking, Patrick Sullivan provides a different take on the first aid kit, with special emphasis on the common injuries and needs of woodworkers.  I highly recommend obtaining a copy of this article (titled Cutting-Edge First Aid, at www.finewoodworking.com) since it provides a great deal of information on proven ways to stop bleeding, close wounds, and care for wounds in a working environment.  (In other words, you won't end up with a huge, fluffy sawdust grabber wrapped around the small cut on your hand.)  I'm providing here a list of items  I personally (as a woodworker; I'm not a doctor) recommend for a woodshop first aid kit based partly on the information provided in Dr. Sullivan's article, and partly on my own long experience of minor woodshop injuries. (I've been cutting fingers and banging thumbs for twenty years now, and it doesn't look like I'll ever really stop!)  I leave it to you to obtain and read the article and to educate yourself in the techniques of proper first aid; this is just the stuff I keep in my kit.



Top of Page