Workshop Mishaps: Issue 26

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This article is from Issue 26 of Woodcraft Magazine.

The Story 

Close encounter of a gritty kind

I had almost finished work on my new chopsaw station. As I bolted the saw down and checked its alignment to the infeed and outfeed tables, I discovered that my saw was a hair low. Needing to make some thin shims to elevate the base, I decided to use my belt/disc sander to thickness a few small scraps.

While pressing the would-be shims against the high-speed disc, the spinning grit snagged one of the small parts. Like magic, the piece disappeared from my grip, leaving my sanding hand with nothing between it and the sandpaper. In the instant that it took for me to jerk away from the machine I had sanded the end of my middle finger down to the bone.

The Victim

Barry Finley was first introduced to woodworking in the late 1960s at the School for the Blind in St. Augustine, Florida. (He isn’t blind, but his vision is poor.) Barry’s a recreational woodworker who enjoys spending time in his shop and improving his skills. Barry jokes that his only special woodworking abilities are making sawdust and keeping all of his digits firmly attached.

Case Analysis

Mistakes happen. Barry’s measurement error could happen to anyone, even if his sight is 20/20. Unfortunately, that first mistake led to a nasty second one that could have been easily avoided. Sanders are notorious knuckle biters and fingertip trimmers. Attempting to handhold a small piece against a coarse belt or disc is a ticket to the emergency room. Barry was lucky that his story ended with the injury to just one finger. The sander could have easily snagged one finger and then pulled his whole hand between the disc and table.

Shop-Smart Strategies

You never want to be in a position where you’re holding a small piece of stock that close to any kind of sanding or cutting tool. In hindsight, Barry knows that he should have started with a longer piece of stock and planed it down with his thickness planner. From there, he could have easily—and safely—cut the shims to size on his chopsaw.

Here are a few additional tips that can help you stay in the 10-finger club:

• Accept that machine-sanding small parts takes more time. When you don’t have enough wood material to keep your hands safely away from the abrasive, stop and figure out a backup plan before you flip the ON switch. 

• Using a marker, paint, or tape, map out the machine tool danger zones. If a procedure forces you to work within “no hands land,” find a safer solution.

• Buy (or make) a boatload of pushsticks. Pushers are replaceable. Fingers aren’t.

• Adhere small pieces to be sanded to scrap blocks with double-faced tape, keeping your hands on the block and safely out of harm’s way.

• Invest in a few extra T-bolts, knobs, and toggle clamps to ensure that you have enough hardware to devise hold-downs for a safer way to tackle a tricky task.

• Hit the books. There are hundreds of finger- and part-saving jigs that you can quickly build from shop scraps. When you get that funny feeling that the next cut might end in a 911 call, search online for simple jigs, or reach for a good book such as Sandor Nagyszalanczy’s Complete Illustrated Guide to Jigs & Fixtures from Taunton Press (Woodcraft #147467, $39.95).


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