Health and Safety Considerations


General Health and Safety Practices

  • It is highly advisable to use a dust mask when sanding or using any power tools.  Dust from even common domestic woods may be harmful to your lungs over a long period of exposure. The use of a filtered dust vacuum system in addition to a mask is even better. 
  • Always wear eye protection when using any power tool that creates dust, chips or splinters. Dust or a wood chip in the eye will hurt and may cause damage, and oils in that wood may also be irritating.
  • Some woods, and particularly exotic (tropical) hardwoods are toxic.  Oils in these woods may cause allergic reactions and/or respiratory distress.  If you are sensitive to these oils, wear gloves  whenever handling them, and because inhaling their dust can be especially dangerous, always wear a good quality dust mask when sanding or using power tools on them.
  • Spalted woods may also be toxic.  Spalting is a mildew or fungal penetration into the wood which often produces attractive dark, lacey lines through out the wood. These woods are often beautiful to look at when turned into bowls and other objects but their fungi spores can be harmful to your throat, lungs and eyes.  Here, again, always wear a good quality dust mask when sanding or using power tools on spalted woods. 
  • Slivers, especially from oak and western red cedar can rapidly become infected.  Slivers should always be removed immediately and thoroughly.
  • Carve only when you are alert.  Carving when tired or after consuming alcohol, drugs and some medications can greatly increase the probability of an accident.
  • A good rule of thumb is that only the cutting edge moves; the workpiece remains fixed.  So, where possible use a hold down device to secure your workpiece on a stable bench or surface so that you are free to work on it without worry of it shifting. Also, by using a hold-down device, itís easier to keep your hands out of harms way and safe from the blade or a power carving head. Re-position the work to avoid carving awkwardly or dangerously and check clamps and fixings periodically.
  • Never put anything in front of a blade that you donít want cut.  This includes hands, fingers, legs and fine dining room tables.
  • Be mindful of your surroundings. Consider whether or not anything nearby or another person could be injured by your activities.
  • Wood can be surprisingly heavy, and toes surprisingly small and sensitive. Carve in footwear strong enough to protect the feet from falling clamps, tools or wood. Also, when lifting larger blocks of wood don't arch your back over the block to pick it up, squat down, hug it close, and use your leg muscles to do the lifting.
  • Normal woodworker's bench is usually far too low for carving over long periods of time. To avoid backache, try to raise the bench or bench top so that you can stand or sit with your back straight.
  • It is helpful to lay chisels and gouges on the bench with their cutting edge facing you so you can easily identify the size and shape you are looking for. When you do however, make sure that they are placed well back from where your hands are working and never with the handles up against a backstop or object which would stop them from easily rolling away if your hand inadvertently brushes a sharp edge.
  • Keep a First Aid kit handy whenever wood working. Slivers, nicks and small cuts are going to happen at some time to us all.  Be ready with at least a band-aid and disinfectant to keep the wound clean and infection free.
  • Use common sense at all times; one cannot foresee every possible situation, but most are avoidable.  It's uncanny how many people have a "Oh #%^!" moment just BEFORE an accident happens!

Using Hand Tools

  • A sharp knife or gouge is actually safer to use than a dull one.  This is true because a sharp blade needs less force applied to cut the wood and therefore is much easier to control.  Sharp blades cut smoothly instead of tearing and are less prone to skip or slide across the surface of the wood, which could easily result in injury. They are also less likely to suddenly split or break a chip off the wood and sending your blade flinging out into thin air, uncontrolled and still under force.  Now that is dangerous!
  • Wear a carverís glove when holding a carving by hand.  Good carving gloves are designed to be worn on either hand, so right or left handed, wear the glove on the hand holding the carving.  Better gloves are often made of Kevlar and come with gripping pads or may have a thin strand of stainless steel wire in the fabric which adds to the protection. Since these gloves are woven, a knife point or tiny gouge may poke through the weaving but wider gouges and long blades do not generally penetrate the material and this will save you from slashes and cuts.  Some carvers simply wear a good-quality leather glove. Any glove is better than no glove.
  • When doing a "paring" cut (pulling the sharp knife edge toward your thumb) a thumb thimble or a few wraps of tape around the thumb may provide some protection.
  • Wear a leather, Kevlar, or other heavy-material apron or pad if carving in your lap.
  • Hold your tools properly, gripping the handle in a firm but comfortable position.  Resting your thumb or knuckles on the workpiece will help stabilize the cut and assist in providing good control.  Also, if you can, guide the blade with your opposite thumb.  Your opposite thumb adds to the power and control of the cut. 
  • If you use a folding knife (pocket knife), chose one with a lock or a firm catch to prevent the blade from closing on your fingers.
  • If you accidentally drop a tool, let it go.  You may want to jump back to avoid it hitting you, but donít attempt to catch it, and donít use your foot to catch it either!  Just pray that it lands handle down to avoid damaging the blade and whatever it lands on.

Using Power Tools

  • When using any power tool always read and understand the manufacturer's manual and safety instructions before using the tool. Also, have all recommended safety gear in place before you proceed.
  • If the tool creates dust, splinter, and flying chips, etc., wear eye protection and a good quality dust mask.
  • If itís loud, wear ear protection. 
  • It' a good idea to always start any variable speed tool at low speed when the tool is turned on. Never use a die grinder or excessively high speed ďinstant onĒ tool. If the cutting head were to break apart or come loose it becomes a dangerous projectile.
  • A dust collection system should be used anytime you are using a tool that creates dust in an enclosed area.
  • When power carving, always use a hold down device.  It is not wise to hold your project in one hand and the power tool in the other. 
  • If chainsaw carving, in addition to eye and ear protection, use a good quality safety chap such as a double Kevlar fabric.  They may be funny looking but they might just save a nasty gash in your leg.  Also, wear a shoe with heavy leather uppers and steel toe caps.

Final Words

None of this is intended to frighten you, but safety is important and needs to be taken seriously.  Always practice safety in what you do and be sure to read and follow any manufacturerís instructions.  Wood carving has inherent dangers simply because of the materials and tools used, but like most other hobbies will reward you with a lifetime of enjoyable and accident free carving by following simple guidelines and a little common sense.

Keep sharp, and happy carving!