Woodworking is a fun, fulfilling hobby for a lot of people, but it can also be a dangerous one. Anytime you’re working with blades spinning at thousands of revolutions per minute, there’s a risk of serious injury. I’ve had my own workshop-related emergency room visit: three stitches after getting hit by a piece of wood kicked out of my miter saw.
According to the most recent available data, more than 26,000 people went to US hospitals for table saw-related injuries in 2017, the Consumer Product Safety Commission says. And that’s not counting injuries treated at home or caused by other tools. The solution to safer woodworking combines protective equipment like push blocks, safety features built into the tools themselves, and the mindset you have when performing your cuts.
Seriously: what you’re thinking about in the shop can be just as important as wearing safety glasses and ear protection. A common piece of advice from experienced woodworkers is to visualize your cut before making it. This can be hard to do, however, particularly for newer woodworkers. Without experience, it can be difficult to know what to visualize and plan for. After all, how can you visualize the unexpected?
While the specifics vary from tool to tool, there are a few general principles to keep in mind while working that will help you deal with emergency situations as they come up—without losing a finger.
Picture (and even practice) what a successful cut looks like
Before turning on a tool, plan out what a perfect, safe cut looks like. One important thing to keep in mind is that there are tool and technique choices for every cut you want to make, says Jon Goplerud, shop captain at the Massachusetts makerspace Lowell Makes. “Everything you do in woodworking, you can do in several different ways,” he says. “Decide what the safest choice is for this particular cut.” So are you better off trying to make that bevel on a router table or on your table saw? Should you resaw that thick board into two thinner boards on your table saw or your band saw? This decision comes down to considering the tools you have available, what each one is best at, and, importantly, your skill and comfort level with a given tool.
Once you’ve selected the right tool, make a plan for exactly how the ideal cut will go. If you’re routing or otherwise moving the tool along the wood, make a plan for how to secure the board to your workbench, and make sure that clamps aren’t in the way of the tool’s path. Decide how you’re going to clear the finished piece from the blade, and what will happen with any offcuts. If you’re cutting more than one piece, know before you get halfway through the cut which hand will remove the finished board and which hand will grab the new one.
The goal of all this visualization is to avoid thinking or making decisions when you’re halfway through a cut. You want to already know what the next step is, so there’s no hesitation or uncertainty. Deciding what to do next is a distraction from the critical task of not touching the spinning blade, and distractions are one of the fastest ways to get injured.
Anytime I’m doing a new kind of cut, I also practice my visualization with the saw turned off. The first time I jointed a board with a level on the table saw, for example, I ran the level and board over the table saw several times just to get a sense for how it felt to move two pieces at the same time. I do the same anytime I use a new sled or jig. Practice reduces the risk of surprises.
Know where the danger zones are
“Every machine has certain specific things that can go wrong,” says Goplerud. “Knowing those things and keeping conscious of that will vastly reduce the risk of what you’re doing.” This starts with understanding each machine you’re working with, he adds. If you’re brand-new to a machine, review the manual, read books, watch some videos, and, if possible, get someone more experienced to walk you through its safe operation.
The most obvious danger with any power tool is touching its moving parts. I rarely let my hands get closer than about 4 inches from a whirling saw blade, for example. If I have to get closer, I use a push stick, push block, or even a scrap of wood to perform that task instead. And keep your focus on the danger. “The key to safe operation of any power tool is to keep your eyes on the cutter,” says Bron Zeage, director of the Secret Underground Laboratory Recovery and Salvage, a furniture and light repair and restoration company in Louisiana.
Another common cause of injury is kickback. Anytime a blade is spinning, it can catch the wood and hurl it at dangerous speeds. Table saws, planers, jointers, routers, circular saws, and miter saws can all kick back. All woodworkers need to understand how to minimize the risk of kickback, how to keep the wood from flying if there is kickback, and, as a last resort, where to stand to reduce your chances of getting hit by flying wood if it does happen.
On a table saw, for instance, kickback occurs most often when the board gets pinched between the blade and the fence, twists slightly, and is thrown toward the user. This is why you never want to stand directly behind the board you’re cutting. If you’re off to the side, you’re less likely to get hit. More important, Golerud adds, is to make sure you’re using properly milled boards. Boards that are twisted or warped are much more likely to bind on the blade.
Also always use a push block that keeps downward pressure on the wood. That way, if kickback does happen, the push block will catch it and keep it from becoming a projectile. Push blocks serve the same purpose on a router table as well. On a miter saw, where the board doesn’t move, the hold-down clamps perform this function.
Have a plan to power off
Sometimes things go wrong and your cut gets messed up. Maybe you’ve managed to catch a kickback with your push block, but you’re still stuck with a partially cut board on an 88-tooth blade spinning at 3,000 rpm. Maybe the board hangs up, you can’t push it any farther, and if you let go, it’ll launch across the room. Sometimes, you just have to kill the power and abandon the cut.
Always know how to turn off your machine in a hurry.
One of my favorite features on my table saw, the Dewalt jobsite table saw, is the fact that I can turn it off with my thigh, leaving both hands free to keep the wood from getting out of control. As soon as I see or hear something wrong, I can slide forward an inch, bump the off switch, and get out of danger. Not all table saws or tools can be turned off with a leg, though. Always know which hand can safely let go of what you’re doing and turn off the tool. When using my palm router, for example, I always hold it so my left hand is the one that turns it off. I simply trust my right hand more to control the tool by itself. That way, I never have to think about how to cut the power when the router starts skipping off of the wood.
Pay attention to balance and footwork
One of my major fears is losing my balance and falling onto the blade. As a result, I think a great deal about how I’m standing and where my weight distribution is. I always try to stand so that if I do fall down unexpectedly, I won’t fall forward. With few exceptions, I stand in a staggered stance, with my left foot forward and my knees bent. When pushing wood through a tool, I never put my weight on my hands. If I am doing a cut that requires me to reach—which I try very hard to avoid in my practice runs—I typically move around the tool to the left or right, rather than leaning over it.
This brings me to my second point: footwork. Some tools, like a jointer, might require you to move. Visualize and practice the steps that you’ll take. And for Zeage, safety starts at the floor. “Whether it’s oil, grease, or sawdust, the floor has to be kept clean and clear,” he says. Always, always, always, make sure to pick up any trip hazards like cords, hoses, and offcuts you decided to let fall. Even if I’m not planning to step around a tool, I still want the path to be clear, just in case an emergency pops up and that’s my best escape route.
Create a process that becomes muscle memory
For every tool, you want to develop a standard workflow. The more consistency you can build into how you use each tool, the more that process becomes automatic and instinctual. This allows you to make fewer mistakes, because your body knows how to go through the motions. A consistent procedure also lets me notice the small mistakes that can lead to catastrophe.
For instance, I always keep my push stick on the right side of my table saw, on the other side of the fence. I generally use a push block, but sometimes need to add a stick to keep myself from violating my 4-inch rule with my free hand. If I put it somewhere else, something feels wrong. So I stop my machine, fix my process, and then start up again. The same is true if I bring in the new wood with the wrong hand. It feels unnatural, so I stop and examine what’s wrong with my workflow. Sometimes a certain kind of cut requires a procedural change, which is OK. But that should be a deliberate choice you make each time you break your routine.
The one time I needed stitches from woodworking came from not following my typical process. I was cutting a scrap piece that didn’t need to be measured, so I didn’t feel like I needed to carefully align and secure it. This allowed me to move faster than normal, and I lowered the blade on my miter saw before it had fully come up to speed. At the same time, I wasn’t holding the board as securely as I typically do, because it didn’t matter exactly where the cut was. Those two mistakes caused the blade to grab the wood and throw it back at me, slicing my finger.
Know when it’s time to call it quits
In my woodworking groups, there’s a semi-regular debate about the balance between being afraid of your tools and respecting them. For Goplerud, fear is when your gut is telling you that you haven’t figured out the proper way to use the machine. “If you still have fear, then you’re not ready,” he says. Personally, I don’t want to be afraid when making a cut, but I always want to keep the danger present in my mind. Any time I find myself getting comfortable, complacent, or moving too fast, I stop what I’m doing and remind myself that the tool I’m using will take off a finger or four without even slowing down.
And if something doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts and shut the operation down. “Sometimes you just have to say, ‘You know what, today’s not going to work out,’” Goplerud says. “You have to have a clear head.”