Practicing Hand Tool Safety: A General Guide for Woodworking

Hand tools, like most sharp, pokey, metal things can cause some significant bodily damage if used incorrectly. To stay safe, you should prepare and practice a number of basic habits. These habits will become preventative measures which will give you the best chance at avoiding missing fingers and huge splinters. Below is the general categories that most of your safety work will fall into:

  • Always use good hand tools when working.
  • Spend time taking care of your tools.
  • Only utilize the right tools for the job.
  • Make sure that you handle tools properly.
  • Wear a belt or apron while working.
  • Wear various kinds of protective gear.
  • Be careful to avoid excessive force.
  • Bring along a buddy.

Used improperly, hand tools can be dangerous. However, if used properly, hand tools bring wood to life and make a great hobby. Let’s dive into each point to give some context why they will keep you safe.

Use Quality Hand Tools

Let’s start from the ground up: only buy quality.

To be fair just because a tool is brand new or is from a great brand doesn’t mean that it’s not dangerous. Dropping a hammer on your foot is going to hurt no matter how much you paid for it. And that razor sharp plane doesn’t care that you passed up on the crappy version. That being said, quality tools are important.

Simplest way to do this? Reviews. Find out what brands make quality tools and where they’re sold. Amazon is probably your best bet if you are just starting out. That way you can get public opinion on pros and cons before committing. In general, you want tools that won’t dull, bend, break, or are difficult to use. Unless you have experience, complicated tools that need to be setup or maintained with an expert eye are probably not your friends.

If you want to try to find used tools, make sure to give them a good once over before purchase. Watch out for tools that look like they’ve gone through excessive use or are damaged. Unless you are looking to repair or restore, avoid using tools that are deteriorating.

Finally, no matter how good the tool is, be ready to either repair or replace it. You don’t want to use broken tools on the job as they could result in an injury and are much less efficient. A broken or damaged tool will only slow you down. Dull saws don’t cut well.

This leads us too…

Take Care of Your Tools

Always take care of your tools. I don’t want to say like babies but if the shoe fits…

Make sure that they’re properly stored. Don’t leave tools lying out. Take the time to clean your work area. Tool boxes and pegboards are great. It doesn’t have to be pretty but organization will help you find your tools later. This will keep you from tripping over tools and losing things.

When storing always find a dry space away from excessive moisture. It’s not recommended that you use cardboard boxes for long-term storage. Cardboard can wick up moisture which will get to your tools. Instead, use plastic or metal containers that can properly protect them. When organizing or displaying nothing beats a pegboard. I love them. Everything has a place.

Lastly, keep your tools clean and sharp. Make sure to remove any debris built up during use. In most cases, a rag and some oil is plenty. This will keep the metal from corroding and will lubricate moving parts. As for sharpening, a dull blade is much more difficult to use. This will force you to compensate with too much force. You greatly increase the likelihood of injury if you do not regularly sharpen your chisels, planes, and saws. Here are a few links to articles that will help you.

Use the Right Tool for the Job

Choosing the wrong tool can mean you can’t get the job done or worse.

If you’re trying out an unfamiliar project or hand tool, make sure to do your research. Don’t try to use any tools that aren’t meant for the job. I know that a heavy wrench will work as a hammer in a pinch but you’re more likely to break a tool or hurt yourself. If you have to, head down to the hardware store and get what you need.

While I’m sure it will fall on deaf ears, if you haven’t read or checked the instructions, you can always take a peak at them. Trying to use a chisel when your instructions are telling use to use a plane can have some consequences. If you substitute tools be ready for a different result.

Use and Handle Tools Properly

Having the right tools is just part of the issue here. Using your tools properly is another.

The internet is a wonderful thing. Whenever you’re going try out a new tool, consider watching or reading tutorials to see how to use it. These usually contain tips, tricks, and warnings that are great for the beginner.

Generally, you want to make sure you hold the tool properly and avoid awkward positions. Use your body the way it was meant to be used.  Awkward positions can be harmful. This is especially true for heavy tools. I have thrown out my back before and it is a terrible experience.

Use a Belt or Apron

When you’re using hand tools, you’re going to need a place to put them.

Consider purchasing an apron or tool belt to store them. With the right set up, you can hold multiple tools and other supplies for easy access. This will keep them from underfoot, or more importantly, from under knee.

When looking for a belt or apron, consider what you’ll need to store. Generally you will want something with small pockets for nails, glue, pencils etc. There are also good options which hold small tools like screwdrivers, chisel, and spokeshaves. The larger tools, drills, hammers, and planes will likely need specialized belts. My suggestion is to start a project and when you find yourself saying, “man I wish this could go in a pocket,” then find a tool belt that does so.

Aprons, on the other hand, provide more body coverage and will give you and your clothes some protection from flying debris. Belts, being smaller, are good if you want more freedom, but don’t give the same protection. If you’re worried about injuries or getting your clothes dirty, consider opting for an apron.

Use Protective Gear

Besides wearing an apron or belt, there are a few more basic safety gear all shops should have.

Let’s start with your eyesight. If you don’t already have a pair, you should go pick up some safety goggles/glasses. A face shield is also a good addition and will provide further protection. Face shields are usually used when there is significant kick back of material and dust. While the face shield is not always necessary, you should get in the habit of wearing safety glasses. I call this one out specifically because its easy to live without a finger or two. Its hard to live without your eyes.

Here is a quick list of other safety gear you should grab:

  1. Tight fitting gloves
    1. Make sure you still have some dexterity after putting them on.
  2. Ear plugs
    1. If you have compressors or power tools these are a must
  3. Close toed shoes
  4. Long sleeved pants and shirts

Avoid Excessive Force

Be careful when you’re applying force to any project.

Not only can you break whatever you’re working with, but you might also harm yourself in the process. Whether it’s accidentally jabbing yourself or breaking off a part of your project, too much force can be dangerous. Gloves won’t save you from everything.

If something looks like it could crack or break, go gently. It would be better if you applied pressure slowly than to accidentally harm yourself. Take your time. Apply only as much pressure/force as is needed. This ties back into keeping up your tools and using them correctly. Keep them sharp and make sure you know what your doing. If it doesn’t feel right just stop.

Have a Buddy

Two heads — or in this case four hands — are better than one. Two. Whatever.

As anyone who has worked a job will tell you, two people can do significantly more than double the work of one. If the project is big or you just need some help, it’s better to ask than to throw out your back. They don’t need to be carpentry experts. They just need to be there.

However, if you know someone who also has an interest in carpentry, consider asking them to work with you. Having invested help makes the job more fun.

Side Note: Always make sure you keep your phone on you. There are many stories of people falling or injuring themselves, but survived because they were able to call for help.

Tool Specific Info:

Hammers

The hammer’s “cheek” is not suitable to strike objects. If there is a weak spot in your hammer the cheek is a big culprit. The face of a hammer’s head is designed to deliver blows without cracking or chipping, while the cheek isn’t. I’ve seen these fail when I used the hammer incorrectly and the result is usually spectacular and dangerous.

Chisels

Before you use a chisel, you want to make sure that it’s sharp enough.

Dull chisels can result in unintended accidents. Moreover, they don’t cut as well as properly sharpened chisels. So, instead of shaping your wood with a sub-par tool, opt for something that will keep you safe. The ideal chisel should be able to cut like a razor.

Also, be mindful of your work pieces. To keep them steady, projects should be clamped down so they wont slip. I’ve had wood slide right off a slick table when trying to carve a face design.

Hand Saws

When utilizing a hand saw, you need to make sure that you practice good form.

To prevent accidents and be efficient, use long, full-length strokes.Start the cut with a log back pull. This starts the cut without biting and will allow you to follow your mark.

Screwdrivers

When working with electricity be super careful with screwdrivers. While this is a woodworking site, I figure you might be a handy individual and if this saves your life then I don’t care if its out of place. Since the metal in the screwdriver can act as a conductor, make sure you are very careful. Even if your screwdriver is insulated, 60Hz 120V is a very dangerous form of electricity. Get help if you are unsure of yourself and always have someone there who can shutoff the power.

Conclusion

Now that we’ve hit the high points, take a walk through your shop. Make a list of the issues you see. Start with the most drastic offenders and work your way down. Safety gear and tool maintenance should be your top priorities. While you’re at it, organization is a logical addition.

Try and fix a few things each time before you start working. A good way to do this is to plan out your work in your head. Anything that you’re going to use that day, give it a quick once over. Is it sharp, oiled, and in its place? When in doubt, take a little time and clean.

Double check how your tools are stored and make sure they don’t start to rust. Moreover, practice using your tools properly. Consider looking up tutorials and making sure that your hand tools are in good shape. Treat them with respect and they’ll treat you well. Be careful with them and you can avoid getting injured.

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