Mastering Your Small Wood Shop Dust Collection

Woodworking can prove to be a lucrative hobby or career and it’s satisfying to be able to make something useful and beautiful from wood. However, woodworking produces a large amount of waste that may be difficult for a small shop to manage.

According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, exposure to wood dust can lead to dermatitis, asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, chronic bronchitis, or cancer. Wood dust can cause skin, eye, nasal, and lung irritation, leading to surface dryness, obstruction, and prolonged colds. Additionally, wood dust is exceptionally flammable and presents a fire hazard. It is critical that wood dust is properly collected and disposed of.

This article will discuss options for wood dust collection in a small shop.

(Courtesy: Pixabay)

Wood Dust Collection Solutions

The Bare Minimum:

The absolute minimum you will need includes:

  • An angled broom or push broom that can reach underneath your worktable and equipment;
  • A hand brush and handheld vacuum;
  • A dust pan;
  • Window- and door-mounted exhaust fans;
  • A nonmetallic dust receptacle with a lid, such as a plastic rolling garbage bin;
  • Pressurized air to blow wood dust from tight crevices and corners;
  • Latex gloves and protective clothing that covers your arms and legs; and
  • A facemask or respirator rated for fine-grain wood dust.

This minimalist approach may or may not be the most cost-effective option available. The use of exhaust fans, for example, in a heated or air-conditioned room will lead to significant energy loss. The regular disassembly of equipment and moving of fixtures will be required as well, which may be costly – especially if you are producing items for sale.

The guiding principle is simple: collect the wood dust as it forms and blow out any airborne sawdust. This means disassembling guards and collecting wood dust from inside your equipment, moving equipment to collect wood dust that has settled underneath it, regularly dusting walls and window/door jambs, and installing and cleaning filters for any HVAC vents servicing the workshop. You will need to wear the protective gear as part of the cleaning process, and likely while working.

This method should be used only as a stopgap until a better solution can be secured, but it is better than nothing.

Good Practices for Dust Collection:

Most modern woodworking or wood finishing equipment has a wood dust collection port that can be connected to a vacuum line. A better solution than the bare minimum is to collect the wood dust as it is being formed with a downdraft collection system.

 A good source of woodworking equipment bearing these collection ports is OVIS. OVIS is a family-owned business that carries a broad line of quality products for the woodworking professional, hobbyist, or homeowner. 

For this method, along with the supplies needed for the minimum option, you will need: 

  • A portable shop vacuum or wet dry vacuum
  • A hose adaptor to fit onto the wood dust collection port

This option will significantly improve the air quality of your workshop over the bare minimum option, but not to the extent where a respirator will no longer be needed. This setup also requires manually rotating the vacuum from machine to machine, and for any stations without a compatible port, you will still need the broom and brush.

 A Better Approach to Wood Dust Collection:

 An even better setup would include permanent downdraft installations for your machines, as well as ambient air cleaning.

For the machines, this setup entails a wall-mounted dust collector. Collectors come in varying configurations, sizes, and horsepower ratings, but the major types are as follows:

  • Two-bag, single-stage collectors suck up the dust through the impeller and deposit it into the lower bag. Fine sawdust is collected and filtered exhaust air is returned to the shop. This is the most common type of collector. These can be problematic, as an inhaled piece of metal – like a screw – may cause a spark when it strikes the impeller, potentially causing an explosion. While selecting a collector with a plastic or aluminum impeller minimizes this, it is best not to use a single-stage collector to clean your floor.
  • Two-stage collectors are the next step up. The impeller sits on top of a collection barrel. Heavier chips fall to the bottom of the barrel, while cyclone action blows lighter dust into a filter bag, cleaning the exhaust air.
  • Two-stage cyclones are the best collectors. The impeller sits on top on a cone-shaped canister, which is attached to a trashcan. The impeller creates a pneumatic cyclone, which slows down larger particles and drops them into the barrel for collection. Smaller particles are trapped and filtered out from the exhaust.

 While one horsepower is enough for most machines, those that yield high amounts of wood dust or have long runs of collection hoses (more than 25 feet) will need more than that. Additionally, larger wood chips will require more horsepower to suck them in than smaller particles. It is important to buy the biggest, most powerful system you can afford within the constraints of energy cost and practical space. Note that most small shops – especially those in residences – may be limited to 1 ½ horsepower, even when using a two horsepower collector wired for 230 volts.

 Accordingly, depending on the number of machines you use and the setup of your shop, you may need to have multiple collectors, or a collector that can be quickly removed from its wall mounts and repositioned.

 Your ambient air cleaner will be bolted to the ceiling. As it will need to continue running after you leave the shop, it should be connected to a timer or have a timer built in. You should place the air cleaner opposite your air intake, to create circular airflow. The location of this cleaner should be accessible, so that the filters can be regularly cleaned or changed.

 Best Practices for Dust Collection:

The best possible option is an integrated system that handles both your downdraft wood dust collection and ambient air cleaning, depositing the wood dust in one central location. Similar to setting up a built-in dust collection system for a residential setting, this option will require the installation of custom ductwork; wiring, wall supports, and permanently-placed vacuum pumps.

 While this may seem excessive, the reality of any wood dust collection system is that you must empty out the wood dust that has been collected – usually more than once a day. Simplifying this process will save you time and increase your productivity. Such systems are rated up to five horsepower, meaning that noise protection may be needed. These systems may also require metal ductwork instead of flexible PVC for machine connections, meaning that proper duct clearance must be planned.

(Courtesy: Pixabay)

How to Dispose of Sawdust

Once you’ve implemented a system for collecting the wood dust, you then have to figure out what to do with it. Many jurisdictions will fine you for throwing away wood dust in the regular trash.

Fortunately, wood dust from untreated, unpainted, and unglued wood is easy to get rid of. Untreated wood dust can be burned as fire starter or a low-cost wood stove fuel. As commercial fire starters are made of wood dust mixed with paraffin, disposing of wood dust this way can be profitable. Additionally, untreated wood dust can be composted (you will need to do some research on correct compost blends first; walnut wood contains an herbicide that kills tomatoes, for example). Larger chips can be used as garden mulch. Mushrooms are grown in wood dust, so if you live near a mushroom farm, you may be able to strike a deal. Wood dust is also excellent for creating traction on ice in cold weather, and is less harsh on the environment than rock salt.

 The disposal of treated wood dust is a bit more complicated. It is best to contact your local waste disposal authority to learn about possible options for pickup. As treated sawdust contains chemicals that can become airborne when burned, it is wise to keep this type of sawdust separate from your untreated sawdust and dispose of it properly.

 Efficient and Eco-Friendly Wood Dust Removal Is Important

Proper removal of wood dust and shavings is important not only for the upkeep of your equipment, but also for protecting the health of your workers, your loved ones, and yourself. While proper wood dust removal requires some equipment investment and regular maintenance, it is worth it to ensure both the quality of your work and your team’s efficiency and safety.

Staff August 22, 2023
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