Wood Dust, Hand Tools & Workshop Location

I received a really good question from one of the viewers of the podcast who was interested in setting up a [hand tool] workshop inside of the main living space of his home, similar to how my shop is set up (as opposed to in a basement, garage or separate building). His main question, or should I say concern, was about dust getting from the shop into the HVAC system and recirculating throughout the rest of the house. It’s a valid concern and one that is certainly worth some thought. However, I don’t think there is much to be concerned about in this regard when it comes to woodworking by hand, with one exception, and here’s why.

When it comes to working by hand, I really don’t find dust in the HVAC system to be a problem. Dust on the shoes being tracked through the house is actually more of a problem :). In my house, I have no HVAC registers in my shop. This is because the room was an addition put on some time after the main house was built, and they never extended the duct-work into the addition. So the closest HVAC register to my shop is 2 rooms away. Even if there is a register in the room though, I wouldn’t be too concerned with dust getting into the registers because they only blow air out. So the simple act of the unit turning on will cause anything that might get into a register to be expelled back into the same room. The one exception would be having an air return intake in the shop. This would likely be a problem, so I’d avoid putting the shop in rooms with an air return intake.

For the most part, I do not find dust in the house to be much of an issue with hand tools. Most of the debris that is generated from hand tools is large shavings and chips. These are too big and heavy to get into an HVAC system and are very visible and easily picked up. I do track an occasional shaving out of the shop and into the family room if it gets stuck to my shoe, but these are easily picked up. The dust that is generated in my shop is mainly from tools like hand saws, rasps and scrapers (the fine shaving from scrapers easily turn to dust). However, this dust is made up of very large particles that are fairly heavy (relatively speaking) compared to say the dust generated by a power sander or a table saw. The combination of the larger, heavier particles with the non-projectile nature of hand tools means that pretty much all of the dust generated with my hand tools falls to the ground instead of remaining airborne. In fact, the time when I generate the most airborne dust is when I sweep up.

With power tools, however, there is much more to be concerned about. The dust from most power tools is much finer. In addition, the nature of power tools is to propel the dust into the air and all over the place. When I used to work with power tools, there wasn’t anything in my shop that wasn’t covered with a thick layer of dust, including the walls, even within a couple of days of cleaning everything in the shop. I also couldn’t work in there without blowing my nose and expelling lots of sawdust. This was even with a dust collector and air cleaner. I don’t have either of these problems in my hand tool shop; no thick layer of dust covering everything, and no dust boogers – and that’s without any kind of dust collection or air cleaner.

So for the most part, I wouldn’t worry about wood dust getting into the HVAC system and circulating throughout the house from a hand tool shop, as long as there are no air returns in the shop space. My main strategy for keeping shop mess out of the rest of the house is to keep the space where I’m standing swept and sweep off my shoes before leaving the shop. While I’m not a broom nazi who sweeps up every little spec as soon as it hits the floor, I try not to walk all over the dust and shavings if I can help it. I’ll simply use a push broom to move the dust and shaving from where I’m working into a pile near the trash can, until I’m ready to clean it all up. I may do this several times in an evening of work just to keep my immediate area generally clear, but I don’t generally pick everything up and put it in the trash can until I run out of room to work. I find simply pushing the shavings and dust away from my immediate working area really helps to minimize the amount of debris that sticks to the bottom of my shoes. When I need to walk out of the shop into the rest of the house, I’ll take my bench brush and brush off the soles of my shoes to remove any stuck on dust and chips so that they stay in the shop.

So while I may have to be a little tidier than I would if my shop was in the garage or in a basement, to me it’s worth the effort. I get to work in a comfortable, climate controlled space, that my family can wander into and out of as they wish. For me, having the shop in an interior room of the house makes it an inviting space rather than a cold/hot, damp, dark, dungeon-esque space that really doesn’t beg you to enter. If you have the space and means to set up a nice, inviting, hand tool shop inside the house, I highly recommend it. You won’t regret it.

Chalk up another victory for hand tools :)!


4 thoughts on “Wood Dust, Hand Tools & Workshop Location

  1. Bob,

    I agree that there should be little concern that a in-house, handtool-only shop would generate dust that could get into the HVAC system and be spread throughout the house. But what about finishing? Just about any finish has volatiles that can spread through the house, even from a shop not connected to the HVAC system.


    • Finishes are absolutely a concern, but they would be a concern in a basement or garage as well. The answer is adequate ventilation. In the warmer months, on nice days, finishing can be done outside. On nastier days, I open the window. A small window fan can help pull fumes out as well. But mostly I don’t use anything particularly nasty to finish my projects. The strongest fume producing solvents or finishes that I use in my shop are alcohol (for shellac) and turpentine (for thinning oils & varnishes).

      I don’t find the odor from shellac particularly strong or offensive, and the fumes from the alcohol are harmless, disipate quickly and don’t really spread through the house. I just keep a window open when using shellac. Turpentine fumes are much heavier and tend to hang around longer, so I try to either use oils without thinning, use the turpentine outside, or put a window fan in to pull the fumes out. This seems to do the trick, though on rare occasions a waft of turpentine may find its way into the house. Still, while the odor isn’t all that pleasant, turpentine fumes are pretty harmless as long as you aren’t closed in a sealed room with them.

      The rest of the finishes I typically use are natural oils & oil/varnish blends that don’t contain harsh solvents or driers (e.g. tried & true), long oil varnishes (e.g. spar) and water based milk paints. None of these finishes really contain nasty volatiles or are particularly bad smelling, so working near an open window is typically all that is necessary.

      I don’t use laquer of any kind and I don’t spray, so I don’t have those concerns.

  2. With my new, fairly mobile, spring pole lathe, I find myself treadling out on the porch quite a bit. And easy cleanup–sweep the shavings and chips into the flower bed for instant mulch. The weather has been great for it, but once winter comes, I’ll be back in the basement. If I had the space for a spare bedroom with a nice window, I think that would be ideal–provided I could safely cover the baseboards up so they didn’t gather plane shavings and mortise chips.

  3. Agreed on all points. My shop is very similar to yours. It has vents with no returns and I never see wood dust in the filter. My biggest problem is hammer/mallet noise waking the children in the next room. 😦

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