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How to Deal With Dust In Your Workshop

How to Deal With Dust In Your Workshop

16 minute read

Dust is a serious issue in any wood shop. There's a few ways to deal with it. Whatever you do, decide as soon as possible, because you're not just dealing with a messy floor. Your very lungs are at stake. 

OK. So, dust collectors are made for large-scale dust collection from stationary machines, handling larger particles and higher volumes of debris, whereas dust extractors are more portable, designed for direct tool attachment or for shop cleanup.

Choosing between them depends on the specific needs of your shop.

Get one. Or the other. Either way, get a good one.

We constantly hear from woodworkers who wish they had taken the issue of dust extraction more seriously from the beginning, before they outfitted their shop. Don't be that guy.

Let's get into it.

Dust Collector:

  • Primary Function: A dust collector is designed to collect dust from multiple machines in a woodworking shop. It typically serves larger, stationary machines like table saws, jointers, and planers. (For the record, jointers and planers generate more dust than any other machine.)
  • Design: Dust collectors usually have a larger capacity and are designed to handle high volumes of dust and larger debris. They often consist of a large central unit with a powerful motor and fan, and are connected to various machines through a network of ducts.
  • Application: Ideal for continuous and high-volume dust collection over extended periods. They are more suited for collecting sawdust and chips directly from woodworking machines during operation.
  • Pressure/Volume: Dust collectors are typically considered High-Volume, Low-Pressure systems. They are designed to handle a large volume of air at relatively low pressure.
    This makes them ideal for capturing and filtering out large particles and high volumes of dust from the air over a wide area or from multiple machines at once, such as in woodworking shops or manufacturing facilities.

Dust Extractor:

  • Primary Function: A dust extractor is designed to be more portable and is often used for cleaning up dust and debris from the floor or for direct attachment to power tools for localized dust collection. It's more focused on capturing finer dust particles that can be harmful to health if inhaled.
  • Design: Dust extractors are generally more compact and portable, equipped with a filtration system designed to capture finer dust particles. They often feature a HEPA filter to ensure that even the smallest dust particles are captured.
  • Application: Ideal for use with handheld power tools such as sanders, circular saws, or any tool that generates fine dust. They are also used for general cleanup around the shop.
  • Pressure/Volume: Dust extractors are generally Low-Volume, High-Pressure systems. They are designed to provide stronger suction at a higher pressure, but deal with a lower volume of air.
    This makes them suitable for direct attachment to power tools to extract dust and debris at the source, especially where precision suction is needed, such as with handheld power tools during drilling, cutting, or sanding operations.

The main difference lies in their application and capacity: dust collectors are better suited for large-scale dust collection from stationary machines, handling larger particles and higher volumes of debris, whereas dust extractors are more portable, designed for direct tool attachment or cleanup, focusing on finer particles.

Choosing between them depends on the specific needs of your woodworking shop, such as the size of the shop, the type of work being done, and volume of debris.

And, to be clear, for really fine particles, you need an air filter

Air Filter

Dust collectors and air filters (or air cleaners) serve complementary roles in managing air quality in woodworking shops, but they do not replace each other. Each has a specific function in controlling dust and particulate matter. Understanding the difference between the two and how they work together is key to creating a safe and clean working environment.

While dust collectors are effective at capturing larger particles, they will not capture the finest dust particles that remain suspended in the air for hours. These fine particles are the most harmful to respiratory health if inhaled.

Think about it. When you're sanding, for example, you'll probably wear a mask. (At least, we hope you will:)

When you're done, you'll probably take your mask off. Most people do. 

But really fine particles, the kind you don't see, those stay in the air for hours, and when you breathe them in, they go deep into your lungs and can cause the most damage.

Let's face it: if you get a little sawdust in your mouth, you're a lot more likely to swallow it than inhale it. But microscopic airborne particles? Well. We've all heard how that story ends.

  • Primary Function: Designed to clean the air throughout the entire shop by capturing airborne particles, including the fine dust that dust collectors may miss.
  • How They Work: Air cleaners typically use a fan to circulate air through a series of filters that trap fine particles before returning the cleaned air to the room.
  • Placement: These units can be mounted on the ceiling or placed on the floor and are used in addition to, not as a replacement for, dust collectors.
  • Integrated Approach: For optimal air quality, both systems should be used in tandem. A dust collector removes the majority of particles at the source, significantly reducing the amount of dust that becomes airborne. An air cleaner then filters the remaining airborne particles from the workshop environment.
  • Health and Safety: The combination of both systems helps to significantly reduce the inhalation of harmful dust particles, contributing to a safer and more comfortable working environment.

Dust collectors / extractors and air filters each play a crucial role in dust management and air quality control in woodworking shops. Dust collectors capture larger particles at the source, while air filters remove finer particles from the air, improving overall air quality. They do not replace each other but rather work together to provide a comprehensive solution to dust and particle management.

For the best protection against dust and to ensure a healthy working environment, it's recommended to use both systems in conjunction.

So Which One Do I Need?

The simplest system, and the one most hobbyists start with, is a shop vac hooked directly to your machine. That's a dust EXTRACTOR. Most hobbyist machines. jobsite table saws, router tables, etc., all come with 2" air ports to which you can connect the hose of a typical shop vac.

It works, for the most part. For entry-level machines, that port on your power tool is going to be the weak spot in your system. There will be leakage of sawdust that doesn't make it to the port. And then you'll just use the vac to clean up the machine and the floor below. 

It's not ideal. You'll find yourself dragging the vac from one machine to the next, and/or tripping over it. But it works. 

The next step up is to connect a pre-filter, called a dust separator, which will separate the larger particles out from the system before the sawdust reaches your vacuum cannister. The larger chips and dust particles then fall into a bucket below, and only the finest particles continue to the shop vac. This will vastly extend the life of your vacuum filter.

Definitely an improvement, but now you've got two things you're dragging around your workshop and tripping over.

Also, if you're taking the vac to job sites, it's not only cumbersome, but it looks, well, messy. 

For a professional look, we recommend the Festool CleanTec HEPA Dust Extractor with the CT Cyclone add-on. Compact yet powerful; you'll never go back to a shop vac again.

Festool Dust Extractorw Cyclone

If portability is not a concern, the next upgrade for a dust extraction system is fixed ductwork. 

Installing Ducts

Ducts are a must for a dust collector, and a nice-to-have for a dust extractor that doesn't travel. 

Jet 3hp Cyclone Dust Collecto Kit

The big mamas definitely need ductwork

Installing ductwork for a dust collector in a woodworking shop effectively involves planning and understanding airflow dynamics to ensure efficient dust collection and a clean working environment. Here are key steps and best practices for installing ductwork for a dust collector:

  1. Plan Your Layout:
    Map Your Workshop: Sketch the layout of your workshop, including all stationary tools that will be connected to the dust collector. Consider the most direct routes for ducting to each tool to minimize the length and bends in the ductwork.
    Central Placement: Position the dust collector centrally if possible, to reduce the length of duct runs and improve efficiency.
  2. Choose the Right Duct Material:
    Metal vs. PVC: Metal ductwork (galvanized steel or aluminum) is often recommended due to its durability and less static electricity buildup compared to PVC. However, PVC is also commonly used due to its ease of installation and lower cost. If using PVC, consider grounding it to reduce static electricity buildup.
    Smaller dust extractors typically use 2.5" PVC ducts, while larger dust collectors will use 4"-6" metal ducts.
  3. Determine Duct Size:
    Airflow Requirements: The size of the ductwork should be based on the airflow requirements of your dust collector and the machines it will serve. Generally, larger ducts (e.g., 6-inch diameter) are recommended for main lines, with branches reducing in size as they reach individual tools.
    CFM Calculations: Calculate the cubic feet per minute (CFM) required for each machine and ensure the dust collector and ductwork can meet these requirements.
  4. Minimize Bends and Length:
    Straight Runs: Use as many straight runs as possible. Each bend or elbow in the ductwork can significantly reduce airflow efficiency.
    Bend Radius: When turns are necessary, use wide-radius elbows rather than sharp turns to minimize airflow resistance.
  5. Install Blast Gates:
    Control Airflow: Install blast gates at each machine connection to control airflow and ensure that suction is concentrated where it's needed. Close gates for machines not in use to maximize dust collection efficiency at the active tool.
  6. Ensure Proper Sealing:
    Leak Prevention: Ensure all connections, seams, and joints are properly sealed to prevent air leaks. Use metal foil tape or duct sealant for metal ducts. For PVC, ensure connections are snug, and consider using PVC cement for airtight seals.
  7. Test and Adjust:
    System Check: Once installed, test the system for any leaks or inefficiencies. Use an anemometer to measure airflow at various points in the system and adjust as necessary.
  8. Safety Considerations:
    Fire Hazards: Keep in mind the potential for fire hazards. Ensure the system is grounded if you opt for PVC to prevent static buildup, which can ignite sawdust.
    Professional Advice: For complex systems or if you're unsure, seek advice from a professional HVAC contractor or a dust collection system specialist to ensure your system is safe and efficient.

Remember, the goal is to create a dust collection system that efficiently captures and removes dust at the source, improving air quality and reducing cleanup time in your woodworking shop. Proper planning, installation, and maintenance of your ductwork are crucial steps toward achieving this goal.

Install Air Filter

Don't forget to add an air filter. The best ones will trap 99% of particles down to 5 microns (human hair averages 50 microns) and use a timer to stay on up to 9 hours after you leave the shop.

Hang them from the ceiling or place them on a cabinet at the jobsite. Your lungs will thank you. 

Powermatic PM1200 Air Filter

Powermatic Air Filtration System, 1/4HP 1PH 115V, with remote control; comes with two carry handles for portability.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a HEPA Filter?

HEPA filters, which stand for High-Efficiency Particulate Air filters, are designed to remove at least 99.97% of airborne particles measuring 0.3 microns (µm) in diameter from the air that passes through them. The 0.3-micron size is used in testing HEPA filters because it represents the Most Penetrating Particle Size (MPPS), which is the hardest size for a filter to capture.
Particles that are larger or smaller than 0.3 microns are actually filtered out with even higher efficiency due to the way air flows and particles behave at different sizes. This makes HEPA filters highly effective for capturing a wide range of particulates, including pollen, mold spores, dust mite debris, tobacco smoke, and bacteria.

What is MERV?

In the context of woodworking and air filtration, MERV stands for Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value. The MERV rating system evaluates the efficiency of air filters based on their ability to capture airborne particles of varying sizes. This rating is crucial in environments where air quality is a concern, such as woodworking shops, because it helps in selecting the right air filtration system to capture fine sawdust and other particulates.

The MERV rating scale ranges from 1 to 16:

  • MERV 1-4 filters capture large particles and are typically used in residential settings for basic air filtration.
  • MERV 5-8 filters are better at capturing small particles and are suitable for residential and commercial buildings.
  • MERV 9-12 filters are even more efficient at capturing smaller particles and are often used in hospitals and healthier residential settings.
  • MERV 13-16 filters are the most efficient at capturing very small particles, including bacteria and virus carriers. These filters are used in superior commercial buildings, hospitals, and places where air quality needs to be closely controlled.

For wood shops, using filters with a higher MERV rating (e.g., MERV 9-12) is beneficial because they can more effectively capture fine sawdust particles, which are a common byproduct of woodworking. This helps in maintaining cleaner air, reducing the risk of respiratory problems, and ensuring a safer working environment.

Can static electricity build up in PVC ducts?

Yes, static electricity can build up in PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) ducts. This buildup occurs due to the friction generated when particles and debris move through the ductwork. The movement of these particles against the PVC material can create a static charge on the surface of the ducts. This static accumulation is a concern in dust collection systems used in woodworking and other environments where airborne particles are present. The buildup of static electricity poses safety hazards, such as the potential for igniting flammable dust or fumes, and can also lead to dust adhesion inside the ducts, reducing the efficiency of the dust collection system. To mitigate these risks, it's often recommended to ground the PVC ducts to safely dissipate the static charge.

If my woodshop has a HEPA air filtration system, do I still need to wear a mask?

While a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filtration system significantly improves air quality in a woodshop by capturing at least 99.97% of particles down to 0.3 microns in size, including sawdust and other fine particulates, the decision to wear a mask depends on several factors:

  1. Intensity of Dust Production: During operations that produce a large amount of dust quickly, such as sanding, sawing, or routing, the air filtration system will not capture all particulates immediately. In these cases, wearing a mask will provide protection from inhaling dust that has not yet been filtered out.
  2. Type of Work Being Done: Certain tasks may generate more harmful types of dust, such as from treated lumber, cedar, or materials that release more toxic particles. In such scenarios, wearing a mask will offer extra protection against these more dangerous substances.
  3. Efficiency and Placement of the Filtration System: The effectiveness of a HEPA filtration system also depends on its placement and capacity relative to the size of the workspace and the volume of air it can clean. If the system is not adequately capturing dust from all areas of the shop, personal protective equipment (PPE) is advisable.
  4. Personal Health Concerns: Individuals with respiratory issues, allergies, or sensitivities to dust may benefit from wearing a mask at all times, even if a high-quality air filtration system is in place, as some level of particulates might still be present in the air.
  5. Regulatory and Safety Guidelines: Depending on local regulations and workplace safety guidelines, wearing a mask may be required as part of standard operating procedures in woodshops, regardless of the presence of air filtration systems.

In summary, while a HEPA air filtration system greatly reduces airborne particles and improves overall air quality in a woodshop, wearing a mask can provide additional personal protection, especially during tasks that generate high levels of dust, for individuals with specific health concerns, or when working with particularly hazardous materials. It's essential to assess the specific conditions and risks in your woodshop and follow any applicable safety guidelines and regulations.

How often should I clean or replace the filters in my woodshop's air filtration or dust collection system?

The frequency at which you should clean or replace filters in your woodshop's air filtration or dust collection system depends on several factors, including the type of system, the volume of work being done, the types of materials being worked with, and the manufacturer's recommendations. Here are some general guidelines:

For Air Filtration Systems:

  • Pre-Filters: These are designed to capture larger particles and can usually be cleaned more frequently, often monthly, depending on usage. They can often be vacuumed or washed and reused.
  • Primary HEPA Filters: These capture finer particles and typically need to be replaced less frequently than pre-filters, possibly every 6 to 12 months, based on the manufacturer's guidelines and usage patterns. If your system has a gauge, it can help indicate when airflow is reduced, signaling a need for filter maintenance or replacement.

For Dust Collection / Extraction Systems:

  • Bag Filters or Canisters: These should be checked periodically for clogging or damage. For heavy use, checking monthly is advisable. Some systems have a gauge or indicator to help determine when performance is impacted by filter conditions.
  • Pleated Filters: These require inspection for dust buildup and may need cleaning every 3 to 6 months with compressed air or according to the manufacturer's instructions. Replacement might be necessary every 1 to 3 years, depending on usage and conditions.

General Tips:

  • Monitor Performance: A decrease in suction power or an increase in visible dust in the air can indicate that the filters are clogged and need cleaning or replacing.
  • Follow Manufacturer’s Recommendations: Always refer to the maintenance guidelines provided by the manufacturer for specific advice on cleaning and replacement intervals.
  • Consider Usage: If you work in your shop more frequently or work with materials that produce a lot of dust (e.g., MDF, hardwoods), you may need to clean or replace your filters more often.
  • Visual Inspection: Regularly inspect filters for signs of wear or damage, such as holes or tears, which would necessitate replacement to maintain effective dust collection and air filtration.

Maintaining clean and efficient filters is crucial for ensuring the health and safety of the workshop environment, as well as the longevity and performance of your air filtration and dust collection systems.

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