Fire Safety for the Home Shop

The destruction seen here resulted from an overload in an electrical panel while the shop owner, Ellis Walentine of, was at a family outing.

Keep your woodworking investment out of harm's way.

You arrive at your house and find fire trucks out front. Smoke billows from your attached garage workshop as firefighters pull hoses inside. They extinguish the flames, but the destruction is done. And while no one was hurt and your house was spared, your shop ends up a complete loss.

Unfortunately, when you Google “woodshop fires” you find this story is not uncommon. A poorly maintained and unprotected woodworking shop can be the perfect storm of fire hazards, containing combustible materials, flammable liquids, and a sizeable load of electrical wiring and motors. That said, there’s much you can do to create a fire-safe environment.

Confronting the hazards

While a shop fire can occur for any number of reasons, I’ve listed the usual suspects from the most to the least common to help you create and prioritize a safety action plan. I’ve also included an illustration of fire safety workshop options (right). Use it to decide which measures and products serve your needs best.

Things electrical 

Woodworking machines, light fixtures, and battery charging stations all rely on electricity, which, when coupled with faulty or old wiring, bad connections, or an overloaded circuit, can present a fire hazard. Because of the electrical needs of a woodworking shop, be sure that each circuit exceeds the amperage needs of the tool or tools plugged into it. Keep in mind that a circuit must be able to handle the power surge that occurs when you start up a tool. If a circuit regularly blows, it’s underpowered. It’s also true that an underpowered tool has to work harder and can overheat. In some cases, the motor burns out; in others, you fry the insulation around the wires. Not good.

Look at your tool motor’s nameplate to find its amperage requirement. Tack on another 25% to cover the startup surge. If you plan to run two or more tools on the same circuit, figure their needs, including their startup surges. If needed, bring in an electrician to supply your shop with safe, adequate power and wiring.

Another electrical hazard lies in the improper use or condition of extension cords. When possible, choose shorter cords to reduce the loss of voltage and avoid heat buildup, and thicker, lower gauge cords (10 or 12) that offer less resistance and greater current capacity. Avoid relying on one cord to supply power to several heavy power users at the same time. Also, check the plugs and cord insulation for any cracking or melting and exposed wires. Here, either repair the problem or replace the item.

Flammable liquids 

All oil-based liquids and solvents should be stored in a fire-safe metal cabinet. Quality commercial units come in several sizes, from wall-hung to freestanding models. These feature locking doors and a pan-like bottom shelf that catches spills or leaks. They also contain vapors, preventing them from reaching an ignition source outside of the cabinet.

When spraying an oil- or lacquer-based finish, provide ample ventilation and never spray near a running power tool or the open flame of a gas hot water heater, wood stove, or other heat source. If applying an oil-based finish or stain with a brush or rag, clean the brush immediately after using it and properly dispose of any oily rags, which can spontaneously combust. Here, hang and dry oily rags outside or contain them in a self-closing oily rag disposal can, a good addition to any shop.

Heating concerns 

Ways to heat a shop abound, but those that exclude an open flame tend to be safer, such as in-floor heating, forced-air heating from a remote furnace, and baseboard electric or hot water heating. Some shop owners like to burn scraps in wood stoves to save on fuel. However, these have highly heated surfaces, produce sparks and embers, and can also have flue and chimney fires. Users beware.

Like wood stoves, some portable heaters can raise the risk of fire if not used properly and closely monitored. Kerosene heaters, which have highly heated surfaces, an exposed flame, and a fuel tank can pose a risk, as well as portable electric heaters with glowing elements. Avoid using them as other choices, such as an oil-filled electrical heater, may prove safer.  As with trash receptacles, keep in-use space heaters safely away from combustibles, power tools, and cords.

Combustible clutter

Shop owners ask for trouble when they fail to promptly clean up and properly dispose of flammable debris, including wood scraps, sawdust, and paper. In addition to sweeping and picking up wood scraps at the end of a woodworking day, employ a dust collector and shop vacuum to help contain the chips and dust created by power-tool operations. Use the shop vacuum’s attachments to poke into niche areas in and around machine cabinets. Why the fuss? It’s because sparks from a faulty switch or heat buildup within a sawdust-caked motor where the ventilation has been choked off can ignite surrounding combustible material. Sparks from a bench grinder can also touch off a fire in a sawdust-choked shop.

Proper housekeeping also means regularly emptying dust-collecting canisters and debris bags. Fires have started inside collection containers when a nail or screw strikes the impeller and sparks. Chips and sawdust containing an oily finish or flammable liquid have also spontaneously combusted inside such canisters. For this reason, watch what you collect, and avoid contaminated material.

Also, rely on a lidded metal can (not plastic) or fire-rated trash receptacle with a self-closing lid to properly contain paper, scraps, and sawdust that you sweep up. Should a fire start in one of these, the lack of oxygen quickly snuffs it out.  Locate receptacles away from stored flammable liquids or a heat source, and empty them before trash accumulation prevents the lids from fully closing. 

One last thing: ban smoking in the shop!

Insure Your Investment

Over time you may have accumulated thousands of dollars in tools, lumber, storage units, jigs, and accessories. And that’s saying nothing about the building itself. Should you lose it all by fire, the loss could be devastating, particularly if you failed to insure your investment. For the hobbyist, your homeowner’s insurance policy can likely be expanded to cover your shop. For the full-time woodworker whose shop is a dedicated business place, you’ll need a separate policy.

In either case, document everything of value. Note the brands, model numbers, and prices, and keep receipts of purchases. Make a photo or video record of your tools and shop. Store these at a separate location and share your shop’s value (and records) with your agent to make sure you’re covered for the replacement of all losses. Update the coverage as your investment grows.

Equipping a Fire-Safe Shop

In addition to safe practices, outfit your shop with products designed to offer protection. You can find this representative roundup locally and/or online.

Streamlight Survivor Flashlight. Equip your shop with a stand-alone, rechargeable flashlight designed to cut through smoke. Lighting modes range from intense to flashing. $58.99,

Safeco Fire-Safe Push-Top Receptacle. Discard flammable shop debris in this steel container. Its snug, spring-loaded top deprives flames inside of oxygen. Model #SAF9893, 21 gal., $137.00,

Kidde Class A-B-C Fire Extinguisher. Use a multipurpose dry-chemical fire extinguisher for a quick response to a small incipient fire involving ordinary combustibles, flammable liquids, and energized electrical equipment. Model #21005766, single use, 17 lbs., $44.50,

Emergency Lighting Unit. Add this hardwired and battery powered fixture for continuous lighting when a breaker blows or a more serious power loss occurs, and to locate an exit. Model#695EAW, with battery backup, $16.99,

USI Carbon Monoxide and Natural Gas Alarm. Get double protection against the “silent killer” CO and explosive natural gas (methane) with this 120V plug-in battery backup combination alarm.  Model #MCND401., $44.23

USI Electric Heat Detector and Alarm. This hardwired device with battery backup monitors the room’s temperature and sounds a warning when extreme heat is detected. It interconnects to alarms in the home and is not set off by dust. Model #USI-2430, with battery backup, $26.47,

Justrite Compac Sure-Grip EX Flammable Liquid Safety Cabinet. Store oil-based finishes and solvents in this lockable metal cabinet to prevent a flash fire in your shop. Model #JR-891200, 12 gal., $397.96,

USI IoPhic® Smoke & Fire Alarms. These combined alarms with Universal Sensing Technology protect against and respond quickly to slow, smoldering and fast, flaming fires. Model #MDS300 battery operated or #MDS107 hardwired.

Kidde Stored-Pressure Water Extinguisher. Employ this sprayer to rapidly put out an incipient fire involving ordinary combustible materials, such as wood scraps, sawdust, and paper. Model #FAS-A240-E, $119.95,

Justrite Oily Waste Can. Dispose of oily rags and related waste in this self-closing steel container, to avoid a spontaneous-combustion fire.  Model #WC138646RD, 6 gal., $54.95,

Sprinklers. Protect your shop 24 hours a day with a heat-activated ceiling sprinkler system using pendant-style sprinkler heads and your home’s water supply. Sprinkler heads start at $10. System cost varies, depending on who does the installation and the size of the job.

Suppressing fire

If you encounter a raging, out-of-control fire, exit the shop immediately and dial 911. For an incipient (small) fire, you may be able to suppress the flames with an extinguisher. An A-B-C extinguisher takes care of an “A” ordinary combustible (wood/sawdust) fire, a “B” flammable liquids fire, or a “C” energized electrical fire. Its downside is that it’s messy, dispensing a cloud of white powder throughout the space. For this reason, opt for an additional 21⁄2-gallon pressurized water extinguisher for small wood, sawdust, or trash fires. It leaves little mess but must be stored in a heated area.

Since a fire can ignite when you’re not around, consider installing a heat-activated sprinkler system in the shop. It provides 24/7 suppression and can be tied to your domestic water supply such as a sink or hose outlet. PVC pipe and sprinkler heads are simple to assemble. Secure the system to the ceiling, locating the heads over hazard areas such as lumber and finish storage locations. Only the sprinkler heads in the trouble area will activate. That said, if your shop is unheated and subject to freezing temperatures, a sprinkler system may not work. 

Added protection

Smoke, heat, and gas detectors can save the day and alert you in time to act. For the broadest possible alarm system, interconnect your shop detectors with those in the home.  Also, consider equipping your shop with emergency lights should the power go off during a fire and a rugged high-intensity flashlight to see your way through thick smoke.  

How To Use A Fire Extinguisher

People in a panic have trouble locating a fire extinguisher’s pin and pulling it. Some forget that there is a pin and fail to activate the sprayer. Follow these simple steps for suppression success.

1. Pull the squeeze handle pin in order to activate the discharge hose.

2. With the discharge hose aimed at the base of the flames, squeeze the handle firmly.

3. Spray in a back-and-forth motion, holding the squeeze handle until the fire is extinguished. (For flammable liquids, apply the agent gradually, being careful not to spread the liquid.)

About Our Author

Chief John Salka is a 33-year FDNY veteran battalion chief and a nationally recognized instructor and lecturer. He has authored two books: First In, Last Out – Leadership Lessons from the New York Fire Department and The Engine Company. Currently, John operates a fire prevention training and consulting company and can be reached at (914) 755-6866 or

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