CHAPTER ONE * SAFETY
When my son Andrew was five years old, he loved hanging around the shop with me. He
watched the curls come off the wood as I planed a board and wanted to try it himself. I showed
him how the plane blade was adjusted, demonstrated how sharp the blade was by shaving hair off
my arm, and explained how the plane straightened a crooked board edge. I was reluctant to let him
handle the tool because of the sharp blade, but his enthusiasm and excitement convinced me to
give him a chance. I told him to keep both hands on top of the plane and to put the plane down as
soon as he was finished, figuring he couldn't cut himself if both hands were away from the blade.
Over the next several days he spent hours using every plane in my shop, churning out curls,
rounding corners, and straightening boards at a prodigious rate. From planes he moved on to saws.
This experience taught me that even very young children can be trusted to use real tools. Fifteen
years of woodworking with kids has confirmed this initial experience.
BEFORE KIDS ARRIVE: SETTING UP
Safe woodworking starts with proper setup. This includes a child-sized workbench, a vice, eye
protection, appropriate tools, and a separate pounding area. After setup is complete and the
children arrive, I give a quick tour of the shop and then explain how to carry tools and use the vice
and saw. I'll show older kids how to use the drills, too. Once children know and understand safe
procedures, the trick is to keep reminding them in a non-threatening manner until understanding
is transformed into habit.
Each child should have a proper-height workbench with enough space to work. One summer
I saw a boat-building area for children at a maritime festival. Boat building with kids is a great idea,
and the kids were having a good time, but the workbench was too high and there were too many
children for the allotted space. I could hardly watch. One child had to reach so high to use a drill
that her face was nearly the same level as the drill bit. Other children were using saws and hammers
almost on top of each other. A lower table and more workspace would have made the event a great
deal safer. Workbench dimensions and options are in the Appendix, page 182.
At that same woodworking festival, I watched children cut dowels by holding the dowel in one
hand and a saw in the other. I could see this was frustrating because the dowel moved with each
stroke of the saw. It's also risky because little fingers were close to the moving saw blade. Putting the
wood in a vice would have made cutting safer by allowing children to keep both hands on the saw
handle, away from the saw teeth, and by keeping the wood steady. A vice also makes sawing easier
and less frustrating. Details of the vice and how to use it start on page 16.
A small, sharp, fine-tooth saw is essential. See Saws, pages 20-23. Choose a saw 12-14" long
with 12-14 teeth per inch. Avoid big saws, saws with less than 12 teeth per inch, and aggressive
cutting "tool box saws." These saws will aggressively cut fingers as well as wood and make cuts
harder to start. Smaller keyhole saws with a hacksaw blade are great for an introductory saw or for
cutting dowels and other small wood.
Children should wear eye protection. Safety glasses should have adjustable straps and lenses that
are curved back to cover the side of the eye. The straps allow the safety glasses to be tightened so
they will fit small heads properly and won't fall off. Extra-small safety glasses to fit children can be
found at safety supply stores. Another source for eye protection is the large school supply catalogs.
Many have the more traditional goggles. These work well, too. Figure 1 shows several choices. I tell
kids that goggles will take a little time to get used to but that soon they won't think about them.
Safety glasses or goggles provide eye protection.
Most children will wear goggles without complaint. I tell them my safety glasses have saved my
eyes many times from globs of oil, wood splinters, metal shavings and sawdust. The rule is, "You
must wear safety glasses in the shop." No exceptions. If exceptions are made, it is easy to become
mired in endless judgment calls about whether a child should be wearing goggles. Out of ten kids,
maybe one or two will complain. If this happens, make sure the goggles aren't too tight or defective
in some way. Have them try another pair or a different style. If they still complain, have a safe place
they can "take a break" with their goggles off for a minute or two. Usually they will soon be back in
shop with their goggles on.
Safe Pounding Area
Establish a separate hammering area removed from the workbench. Besides being aggravating to
anyone nearby, hammering carries the possibility of flying pieces of wood or nails. A child wielding
a hammer is usually not paying much attention to anything else. A large, flat, out-of-the-way
stump makes a good solid surface for pounding. This separate pounding area will also protect other
children from flying objects and the distraction of a neighbor pounding nails. One child at a time
at the pounding block.
Hitting fingers with a hammer is another way children get hurt. Although it hurts, there is no
lasting damage. Show children how to tap the nail to start it, then move their hand away, far away,
before hitting the nail harder.
In spite of my best intentions, screws sometimes end up near the pounding block and children
will try to pound them in with a hammer. This is not a good idea. Screws are designed to twist in
and consequently require incredible amounts of force to drive with a hammer. They are also made
from a harder steel so they tend to break rather than bend like a nail. This combination of harder
steel and harder pounding can result in broken screws zinging around the room. Try to keep screws
separate from nails and away from the pounding block. A mini lesson pointing out the difference
between screws and nails will enlist a child's cooperation.
Electrical Protection: Ground Fault Interrupters (GFIs)
In my preoccupation with safety, I have visions of a child using the wire cutters we use for
cutting popsicle sticks to cut, either by accident or curiosity, a glue gun cord. To prevent this
remote possibility I tell everyone not to use the wire cutters, or scissors, or any other tool at the
glue-gun station. Then I tether the wire cutters to a table so it can't possibly reach the glue guns.
Lastly, to provide fail-safe protection, I plug the glue guns into ground fault interrupter (GFI)
protected outlets. GFIs are special electrical plugs commonly found in bathrooms, which turn the
electricity off in case of a short or malfunction. They are inexpensive and easy to have installed.
AFTER KIDS ARRIVE
How to Carry Tools
The first danger comes from carrying tools. It is easy for a child to poke herself or someone
else. In fifteen years of woodworking with children this has never happened in my class, but it
could have. Unless children have been shown otherwise, a child carrying a tool will often aim the
point straight ahead or toward his own face. Points of saws, drills, screwdrivers, chisels, or any other
tool should be aimed down, away from your face and body, away from your friend's face and body,
toward the floor. Saws should be carried parallel to the leg. Children should not run while carrying
tools, or in a shop at all, for that matter. Demonstrate the correct way to hold tools and then be
vigilant. Repeat safety advice. "Use it (the tool) or put it down," is a good rule.
Figure 2 shows what not to do. Experienced woodworkers often use a saw by placing the wood
on a low bench and holding it with their knee or one hand. The thumb of the hand holding the
wood guides the saw and the other hand moves the saw back and forth. Young children want to do
the same thing. While it's a good method for an experienced person, it is dangerous for a young
beginner because it's difficult to hold the wood still, guide the saw, and start the saw cut all at the
same time. Because beginners push down too hard, the saw can jump out of the cut and land on a
thumb or finger. This can happen even to an experienced carpenter.
Beginners should put the wood in a vice (so it won't move) and keep both hands on the saw
handle, away from sharp saw teeth. Later, after children have gained
experience sawing wood in a vice, they can try the other way
but they should clamp the wood to hold it still and wear a
leather glove to protect the hand guiding the saw.
This illustration shows what children should NOT do. An experienced woodworker holds the wood with one hand and guides the saw with his thumb. For beginners, especially kids, this risks the saw jumping out of the cut onto the thumb. I have kids use a vice to hold the wood and keep both hands on the saw handle. Later, after kids have gained experience sawing wood in a vice they can try the other way, using a leather glove to protect their thumb.
Woodworking requires children to remember many new things. It is unrealistic to expect they
will remember everything related to safety the first time. Reminders are necessary. I couch these
reminders in terms of safety, not in terms of breaking a rule: "I'm afraid if you run in the shop
you'll get hurt." "If you're goofing around, the saw might accidentally cut your friend." "If we don't
sweep up this sawdust, someone might slip." Children see these rules make sense. A big part of
being a woodworking teacher is internalizing these rules (posting them on the wall won't help) and
dishing them out at appropriate times. If you've set things up right and done careful demonstrations,
kids will respond. Here are my rules:
• Two hands on saw handle |
• Use it or put it down
• No open toe shoes; in other words, no sandals or flip flops
• Clean up after each work period or more frequently if necessary
• No fooling around
• No running
• Wear goggles
• Long hair should be tied up (good habit for future power tool users)
• Put the wood in a vice before sawing or drilling
Figure 3. Billy (standing) and Parker help during clean up time.
Today, with childhood asthma on the increase, and with the knowledge that severe allergic
reactions to airborne sawdust have occurred in adults, I'd feel remiss if I didn't mention allergic
reaction to wood. I don't know of any scientific research pertaining specifically to children and
exposure to sawdust. I assume information about adults is also valid with children, probably to a
greater extent. Before I scare everyone, it seems that given the small amount of sawdust children
produce and the short time they are exposed to it, the risk is no more, and probably much less,
than for other airborne particles children might be exposed to. Nevertheless, for a child with a
chemical sensitivity or with asthma, reactions to wood dust are conceivable. The following
information is also important for the person preparing materials, whose exposure is considerably
more than for children.
When wood is sawn or sanded, especially with power tools, minute particles of wood dust go
into the air and can be inhaled. Long-term exposure to these particles can cause respiratory
problems. To keep from breathing wood dust, professional woodworkers are required to have dust
collection systems which suck sawdust from stationary tools and filter the air. These systems help
tremendously, but it's impossible to collect all the airborne sawdust, especially from tools like the
circular saw, router, and hand sander, which put far more sawdust in the air than a child sanding.
To protect against this localized sawdust, woodworkers wear, or should wear, a properly fitting dust
mask. On construction sites where there is no dust collection system, dust masks (respirators are
better) are important, especially when cutting chemically treated woods which contain poisons, and
plywood or particle board which contain toxic glues. It is only prudent to take as many
precautions as possible. If you don't have a dust collection system, work outside and wear a dust
mask. Certainly for children, treated wood should be avoided and cutting plywood should be kept
to a minimum because of toxic glues.
When children start using power sanders and other power tools (as they do in some middle
school shop classes) a dust collection system should be in place and students should wear a dust
In the short term, wood dust particles can cause mild reactions or hypersensitive reactions. Mild
reactions (also called irritant reactions) are like hives, itching, or welts. Although I've never
encountered a child with a mild reaction, I have a friend for whom fir is an irritant. Soon after
coming into a room where fir has been sawn or sanded, her eyes and arms begin to itch. If she
sticks around, welts appear on her arms. Her reaction subsides soon after she leaves the area where
fir is being worked with. Many other woods cause similar reactions, so be on the lookout for hives,
welts and extreme itching.
Just as a very few people are hypersensitive to chemicals, peanuts, or bee stings, a person can be
hypersensitive to a particular wood. These reactions are extremely rare. If it is known a child is
hypersensitive to wood dust of any kind, I would be very hesitant to have them in woodworking
As a teacher (or parent), prepare as you would for a child hypersensitive to bee stings by being
aware of the possibilities, keeping the phone and emergency telephone numbers handy, and taking
first aid training. Avoid using tropical hardwoods like cocobolo, ebony, and iroko, which cause
more reactions than domestic woods.
A young child with asthma might be more sensitive to wood dust than someone who doesn't
have asthma. Consult parents. Perhaps an extra small dust mask could be used. Another option is a
sanding box. This is a shallow box, with a wire screen top, hooked to a shop-vac. If sanding is done
over the box most of the sawdust goes into the box and then to the shop-vac instead of going into
the surrounding air. Put the shop-vac outside to reduce noise.
Woodworking does have the potential to be dangerous. Knowledgeable supervision, appropriate
tools, and good habits make it safe. Children quickly see the connection between unsafe use of
tools and injury. They work hard to follow rules. Children love woodworking and it is amazing to
watch how safety-conscious, interested, and motivated a child can be. Use the proper setup, show
them how to safely use tools, remind them when they forget, help them when they need it, and
watch the creations materialize.