Workshop Mishaps: Small parts, big problems

The story

A few months ago, I started building four mantel clocks as Christmas presents. Each one has a tiny door as well as small moldings at the top and bottom of the case. I figured that working on this scale would be a welcome break from my usual shop projects of deck furniture and planters. But frankly, I found that petite parts can present bigger control problems than I ever experienced with parts for a large project.
What really made the point was when I tried profiling a 6"-long molding with a piloted bit at my router table. Halfway through the machining, I found myself wondering how I might let go of the short piece with my right hand and grab it with my left. At that moment, the bit grabbed the wood and shot it across the shop. The piece whacked my thumb as it flew past, but, fortunately, there was no blood. My ego was the biggest casualty. As for the remaining small parts, they’re on hold until I discover smarter ways to machine them.

Case analysis

As Fritz Dequarvain of Seattle found out, machining small pieces (less than 4" wide and 12" long) at the router can pose significant control and safety challenges. It’s difficult to get a firm grip on such pieces without putting your fingers dangerously close to the cutter. But ways around the problem exist. Had Fritz worked with longer and wider stock and then ripped and crosscut the routed parts to finished length he would have been much better off. A wider board would provide plenty of surface to place pushpads for a firm grip.

Shop-smart strategies

Here are some other routing rules of thumb that will lead to smoother sailing for everything but the routed workpiece:

  • Avoid machining pieces shorter than 12" long whenever possible.
  • Depend on a wooden handscrew clamp to firmly hold small-scale pieces. Even if the bit nicks the wood jaw, there’s no harm done.
  • Reduce the bit’s tendency to grab the wood by using a router table fence with a small opening (or even a zero-clearance insert). Even when using bearing-guided bits, a fence can help you guide the workpiece and limit the amount of the bit’s cutting edge that’s exposed.
  • Employ safety devices such as pushpads and featherboards to improve workpiece guidance, and keep your fingers away from cutting edges. And while you’re at it, wear safety glasses or goggles along with hearing protection.
  • Make cuts in small increments to reduce the risk of tear-out and to prevent the bit from catching the wood and launching it. n
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