Recently we did a series of episodes on dust collection, discussing everything from filtration through mustache cultivation to industrial sounding words like “cyclones” and “pipe”. We spent four episodes on it, and how those long winter weekends flew by as you gathered the family in front of the computer screen with cups of hot coco and excited giggles of anticipation.
But I’ll be the first one to admit, this stuff all gets a little confusing. Dust collection is a lot like professional wrestling. (Stick with me on this…) Everybody wants to show off their muscle, scream a lot, and maybe throw a folding chair or two. But it’s mostly a lot of hype. I grew up thinking Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan were both good guys who always teamed up to fight the evil forces of Jake the Snake Roberts and the Junkyard Dog. But then the Hulkster fought the Giant in WrestleMania III and the next think I knew Hogan was wearing a black bandana and Andre was the retarded giant in The Princess Bride. My whole world was turned upside down!
What were we talking about? Oh, yah… dust collection. You see, I started woodworking with a dust collection system that included a broom and an air gun on my compressor. That kept the chips from piling up around my ankles and the fine dust was collected at the end of the day in a tissue when I blew my nose.
From there I upgraded state of the art system that included a shop vac and a series of 2” tubes with blast gates to hook up my machines. Fine dust? Who cared, it was harmless as long as you didn’t breath. Next thing I know I’m told I need to go bigger, and bigger, and louder and bigger. One group is screaming about cubic feet per minute, the other shouts back about micron filtration. It’s enough to make me turn that air gun on myself and end it all.
The “chippies” are on the one extreme. They say you don’t need any dust collection as long as you can keep your head above the sawdust pile. Their ideal system is a snow shovel to clear the woodchip drifts out of the way once a year.
On the other extreme are the “dusties”. These are the guys who believe the tiniest spec of dust will kill you faster than an anthrax scratch-n-sniff sticker. Their ideal system includes an F-5 tornado encased in a giant steel cone with ducts that a child can crawl through hooked to every machine, and the dog just in case it sheds.
As the mad woodworking scientist who brought the wooden “Franken-cyclone” to life (Episode #31), I take great pride in my dust collection prowess. I’ve studied the subject from every angle: upside down, right side up, backwards and the other way too. I have tried everything, spent a small fortune and a good part of my woodworking career trying to achieve the perfect solution. Besides the broom and the shop vac system mentioned above, I’ve tried a series of four shop vacs, a trash can cyclone, a single stage dust collector (Harbor Freight), TWO single stage collectors, a homemade cyclone, and a state of the art, five horse, super sucking machine. I’ve used vacuum hoses, plastic pipe, four inch PVC and six inch wooden ductwork. I’ve had furnace filters, Hepa filters, bag filters and five feet tall cartridge filters. You name it, I’ve bought it, tore the shop up installing it, and ripped it back out to try something else. I currently have TWO full sized, ultra efficient cyclones powered by a total of eight horses. I have an ambient filtration unit that cleans all of the air in the shop once every two or three seconds. And, you know what? My shop is still dusty.
How is it that I, owner of what I think is the best possible equipment a small shop could ever hope for, have dusty floors? Simple- you have to turn the stuff on.
The fact is, it doesn’t matter if you have a cheap shop vac or a $2,000 cyclone. It’s useless if you don’t use it. Now, don’t get me wrong. My collector runs quite a lot. But how many times do we find ourselves making just one quick cut here, boring one quick hole there, without bothering to turn the thing on? It happens all the time, and the dust builds up. Then, you go to rip a couple of boards and you see all the dust already there and you think “what’s the point”, you may as well just work with the collector off until you get a chance to vacuum this mess up anyway…
Whether you’re into dust collection to save your lungs, or to save your broom, it’s not really about the equipment as much as it’s about the way you work. If you have a routine that includes opening the blast gate, turning on the system, making the cut, turning off the system and closing the blast gate, you’re golden. But if you don’t discipline yourself to follow each of those steps every time, you’re wasting your dust collection dollars.
Just as you must develop the habit of donning safety gear before using a machine, operating the dust collection system must be second nature. Otherwise you should just save your money and buy a good broom. Sound like a hassle? It is… at first. But why’d you go and spend all that money if you’re still snorting dust and sweeping up chips? They say it takes forty days to develop a habit. If you’re a weekend woodworker, you may need a year to get in your forty days. But, in time, using your dust collection system will become as natural to you as a triple-suflex-body-slam was to Randy “Macho Man” Savage.
And now, take a sentimental journey with me to my childhood… ‘cause “Hulkamania is runnin’ wild!”
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