Woodworking Blind Part 1: Safety First

This series has been a long time coming. I’m often asked how I’m able to undertake projects like those here with no sight. This particular series will discuss woodworking primarily, but many aspects will apply to metal and other materials.

Many question the safety aspect first and foremost which I will admit is baffling to me as it is my safety at risk, not theirs, and I have every right to judge my own competence in regards to the risks I take. A part of my hope is that the series will encourage others to take up similar hobbies and in turn, give the health and safety brigade the proverbial finger.

Others consider more practical limitations. In truth, most limitations can be overcome with the right tools and modified approaches, and safety requires common sense and awareness just as it does if you’re sighted. I decided to include some general information, techniques, lessons learned and anecdotes below and hope to expand this into a series going forward.

So, Safety First

Let’s first discuss safety. Though my jibe above does accurately portray my feelings on the subject, I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to downplay its importance. It is essential that newcomers and old-timers alike give due consideration to safety at all times. For many, the idea of a blind person taking control of a power saw (or even a manual one), a drill, a router or any other tool is alarming. But it needn’t be so, once you understand that for us, workshop safety involves the same precautions and approaches that anyone else must take. We are not stupid, and because our vision is impaired or doesn’t function at all it doesn’t mean we lack common sense. If anything our awareness increases and with it our concentration. Believe me when I say we’re well aware that chopping off a digit or two will make our lives considerably more difficult, and we certainly don’t need that.

Fear Will Get You Hurt

I’m often asked if I ‘fear’ tools. The short answer is “No”. I don’t fear tools, I respect them. That is key.

The longer answer is that tools are inanimate objects. They do not think for themselves or operate without human intervention. A saw will only cut when and where you direct it to do so. A drill will only drill where the point of the bit is placed; unless it slips, in which case it was improperly placed, incorrectly guided or unsupported. A router will only rout where it is directed, at the speed that the machine or workpiece is moved, and at the machine speed and depth that you set. The same goes for any other power tool.

The action of a tool and the consequences that arise from its use is entirely due to the actions of the operator.

Fearing a tool will result in impaired concentration, impaired judgement and impaired decision making which will ultimately lead to an accident. It is vital that you become familiar with a tool before switching on the power. Figure out what every button, every adjustment screw and every external component does.

Prevention, education and adaption

Perform several ‘dry runs’. Practise pulling the chop saw forwards, bring it down and pushing it back toward the fence for example.

Become familiar with how it feels to stand in front of, or to the side of a table saw and familiarise yourself with the position you should be in when you push a workpiece towards the blade. Become familiar with the feel of a push stick or push block, and learn to orient yourself to the tool’s inbuilt guide fence. Learn where the tool’s control buttons are and learn to reach for them reflexively.

Far too many modern table saws (and many bench-top tools) locate their power controls beneath the table and lack a large emergency stop button that is easy to hit in a moment of crisis. Either install an inline emergency stop button in a memorable and easily accessed location or become so familiar with your tools controls that you can stop the tool with a knee if the worst should happen.

Learn the physics of how a tool operates. An angle grinder is a fantastic example. It’s arguably one of the most dangerous tools you can own and the danger increases exponentially depending on the accessories you use and your application of the tool. Some people for example use the angle grinder to carve wood. While this can be done with great care, it is vital to know how the tool will react when different areas of its blade will make contact with the workpiece.

Other tools might not cut you, but they’ll burn you with remarkable ease. The tip of a soldering iron, the end of a heat gun and the tip of a hot glue gun and the glue it produces are all extremely hot, usually a minimum of 250° Celsius or so. While you can brush a wet finger across the top of a soldering iron for a fraction of a second with no burn, it is not a best practice and should not be used as a consistent means of locating iron. The same goes for the glue gun or heat gun, or even a common household steam iron that is used to apply veneers and edging or pull out dents in wood.

Learn the limits of your attachments, cutters and accessories. For example, never use a router bit to cut deeper than the diameter of the bit in a single pass. Repeated shallow cuts may take longer, but cause less stress to the bit and it is less likely to snap or shatter as a result. Always make sure blades and cutters are installed in the correct orientation and that you feed the machine or workpiece in the right direction. Feeding from the wrong direction or installing a saw blade incorrectly will result in a rough cut at best, and a kickback or a shattered blade or cutter at worse. The latter may send the machine out of control, with an accident very likely the result.

Ensure that your tool has its safety features in place. A riving knife is a piece of flat metal installed behind the blade of a table saw that prevents kickback when the workpiece contacts the teeth at the rear of the blade. This kickback can fling a workpiece towards the front of the table saw at alarming speed; much faster than a human can get out of the way. More often than not the workpiece will embed itself in a workshop wall or ricochet around the workshop such is the speed that it travels when ejected by the blade.

A riving knife also holds the blade guard which is essential. If a cut should go awry, a blade guard can prevent your hand making contact with the top of the spinning blade. The only time a blade guard should be removed is when cutting dados (grooves) in the workpiece, and in those scenarios, extreme care must be taken, even though the blade does not protrude above the work surface. Blade guards can also help to prevent kickback, as the rising workpiece will hit the back of the blade guard and its journey forth from the saw will be impeded if not halted altogether.

Feather boards are another accessory which not only improve accuracy but also safety. They attach to the mitre slot on a table saw, planer, router table et al and have extended flexible fingers which keep the workpiece firmly held down against the table, and apply sideways pressure to keep the workpiece against the guide fence. They must be installed in front of the blade or cutter or the workpiece can twist or be grabbed by the glade with a possible kickback. But they can help keep your hands well out of the way as they support the piece while you use a push stick to push it into the cut. They’re a brilliant idea and given that every saw and probably most router tables and planers now come with a push stick, I am surprised feather boards aren’t a standard inclusion.

Looks Can Kill

Considering the clothing you wear is vital to workshop safety. Loose sleeves, ties and baggy shirts can catch in blades or arbours. Long hair can wrap around an arbour at frightening speed, pulling the tool towards your face or pulling your head into the tool as it goes. Gloves, however, should be used with caution as they can easily snag blades, especially in situations where your hands are building or holding the workpiece in close proximity to the cutter.

Get yourself some PPE and wear it. I am a particularly bad example of this. But eye protection, face and neck guards and even body protection if you feel it necessary don’t just protect you from the dust and other fragments flying off your workpiece. They can save you from all manner of accidents from a slipped blade to a kickback and even a shattered router bit. Router bits are spinning at considerable speed, and if one should snap it will not only make the machine itself difficult to control but the separated piece of the bit, or the fragments if you’re unlucky, all continue to spin in the air and will likely ricochet around you for a time. PPE is no substitute for due care and attention, but it can be the difference between a near miss and a nasty accident.

I once heard of an experienced woodworker who caught his shirt in an angle grinder using a toothed blade. The teeth snagged his shirt, ripping the machine from his grip. The blade climbed up his chest, flicked up over his shoulder and cut a neat groove from the left side of his throat, around the back of his neck and across to a point below his right ear. Hundreds of stitches and many hours of surgery was required. Thankfully he survived, but it’s a stark reminder of just how quickly a tool can bite if complacency allows your respect for the tool to slip. But the harsh reality is he only had himself to blame.

Cheap Can End Up Expensive

Don’t buy cheap tools. I once needed a tiny detail sander to sand the finish from the curves of a guitar. I wanted to do this by machine to save time, so purchased a miniature sanding disc set for the Dremel. It was an unbranded tool and I should have known better, but it appeared fit for purpose when it arrived so I fitted it into the Dremel and began sanding. A few minutes later the shaft, spinning at nearly 20,000 RPM, bent at a 90-degree angle.

This created an effect similar to how the vibration motor in a smartphone or game controller works, with an imbalanced mass spinning on a motor shaft causing the vibration that you feel. However, this was a large object spinning at an angle on the end of a powerful tool. The shock was so sudden that the tool very nearly flew out of my hand. I am thankful that I had lightning reflexes that morning and was quick enough to hit the off switch before the tool failed.

There was no accident in this case, though I later examined the failed shaft which was made from an extremely soft metal, not the hardened tool steel as advertised. It went straight in the bin.

When I was starting out I needed some drill bits, so bought a set from a well-known, well-respected drill bit supplier in the UK. They were an own-brand item but appeared to be of decent quality. Or at least I thought so until a 3 mm bit shattered and ripped into the pad of my left index finger. A trip to A&E and over a week attempting to touch type with a bandaged finger followed. When I later examined the other 3 mm drill bits in the set, they had hairline cracks running down their length that had been missed in quality control. I now only buy branded drill bits, usually cobalt bits as they are much stronger and can drill a wider range of materials including stainless steel.

Have No Fear

Have Only Respect

You should not fear your tools. You should, however, respect them. A saw can cut you badly in a fraction of a second. Tools like routers, planers, jointers and drills can do far worse. But they won’t do so out of animosity for their amusement. They will only do so because you weren’t concentrating, because you were rushing because you were using a tool for an inappropriate task, because the tool was badly maintained or because you simply used the tool incorrectly. With correctly set up and well-maintained tools, familiarity, correct and careful operation and total concentration (free from distraction), you can be as safe as any other user regardless of whether you have sight. Indeed these are the basic safety principles that any worker should follow when operating machinery or using tools of any kind.

Learn From Others

My father began teaching me the basics of woodworking from a young age. Like most hobbyist woodworkers I had limited (and supervised) interaction with blades until my early teenage years, besides a tenon saw. The tenon saw is one of the safest handsaws you can use as the supporting bar across the top of the blade prevents if flexing and jumping like a standard handsaw (which is moderately flexible) can if used incorrectly. I, however, spent a great deal of time observing him as he worked, taking every opportunity to learn about the process of setting up and using a tool and the safety measures he took. When I became seriously interested in taking up the hobby, I used the internet to research. Youtube in particular is a wealth of information, though not all of the practices showcased there should be followed.

It is however a great resource for learning best safety practices and learning vicariously through other’s mistakes. A simple search for ‘power tool accident’, workplace accidents, workshop fails and any variation of will bring you a huge number of results posted to educate or amuse others. Those posted for comedic effect are usually more cringeworthy than funny, but they can also be educational.

Learn from these experiences. Learn what happened, why it happened and how the accident could have been prevented. When you approach your tools you’ll be more conscious of your safety as a result.

One video that stuck in my mind was a guy demonstrating a method for cutting perfect circles from wood using a hole saw. A hole saw is a cylindrical saw that is mounted in a drill via an arbour, which is usually fitted with a drill bit in its centre to guide the saw into the workpiece and prevent it slipping. Hole saws are intended to produce large circular holes with the circular offcuts usually discarded. These offcuts have a hole in their centre from the guide bit.

In this particular video, however, the user opted to remove the central guide bit to create a perfect circle without the central hole. He then installed the hole saw in a drill, placed it on a workpiece and pulled the trigger. The saw teeth bit, caught and jumped, and a combination of the fast-spinning saw, his poor control of the drill and his reflexes sent him running for the first aid kit with a hand injury.

This was pure stupidity. It is foolish to use a hole saw freehand without the guide bit, even if your skill with a drill is impeccable. They can be used without a guide bit in a drill press, but only then when the workpiece is securely clamped to the work table. This is however a great example of when complacency, lack of research and the misuse of a tool combine to cause an accident that was completely avoidable.

Looking Forward

The next instalment will cover measuring and marking, and discuss the tools that are available or can be built to make woodworking a more inclusive hobby. Future instalments will detail the use of specific tools and any adaptions that can be made to them, as well as tips and techniques I’ve picked up along the way. I hope also to produce a series covering electronics, including soldering technique and the use of measuring instruments that by their graphical nature pose challenges that are not entirely avoidable but shouldn’t discourage anybody from pursuing their interest. Some of the content in that series will likely crossover with this one and vice versa, including the article you’re presently reading. As always, I welcome suggestions and feedback.

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