Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | May 1, 2011

Toxic Woods

One thing, I do not mind doing is preaching about safety… safety with power tools, safety in holding your work, safety with chainsaws, safety, safety, safety.  Well now, having said that, I recently came to the realization that I have been pretty sloppy with safety in one particular area.

True Confessions

I have not seemed to mind running into my saw room (a small room next to my studio where I cut, grind and, in general make dust) and quickly make a quick cut on the band saw or do some quick hogging with my electric carver’s chainsaw without a mask or glasses.  Whenever, I do serious cutting, I always put on a mask, run my dust collector and wear safety glasses.  It’s those quick cuts where I have been sloppy.

Not long ago, I developed a rash on my neck that itched, stung and became pretty inflamed over a period of a couple of weeks.  I am a guy that stuff like that just does not happen to so I was perplexed about what was going on… not to mention the discomfort of it all.  I tried all sorts of things to make it go away but nothing seemed to help.  FINALLY, it occurred to me that it might be an allergic reaction to a wood that I was using.  I am also a guy that will often rub my neck.  Hmmmm… must be a connection!

So two things occurred to me… my quicky cuts and dust making, and my handling wood and then rubbing my, warm, pores wide open, neck.  Not to mention the breathing of dust from the quicky cut process.  An even worse confession of mine is that some of those quicky cuts are not so quick.

With my new found realization, I began being careful about rubbing or scratching my skin while handling or just after handling wood without first washing my hands and wiping off my neck.  Guess what?… the rash disappeared.  Last fall, I wrote of using desert cedar to carve with and I do love that stuff.  But, I suspect it was the Western Juniper that was the culprit.  No hard proof though.  I still love the wood and I still carve it a lot but I am now careful to employ all the safety precautions possible.

What Woods are Toxic?

I did a lot of research into what woods are toxic… and it won’t surprise you to find out that Western Juniper is one of them.  I may have been living under a rock but I was equally surprised to find out that walnut has toxic properties.  One of the hidden dangers of woodcarving is the fact that many carving woods have toxic properties that can cause allergic, toxic, infectious, or respiratory reactions.  Note, in the previous sentence I include the word “infectious.”  With my neck, until it cleared up, the only thing that would bring me any relief was triple antibiotic.

I believe that it is vitally important for wood carvers to be aware of what woods are toxic and rather than try to provide a list here (it is long), I would like to refer you to the wonderful web site of Wood Data Base.  These folks have put a lot of work into this site and the information is incredible.  Specifically, there are two articles on the site that I would like to call your attention to.  And, with respect to the site there are two terms used that I would like to define:

An irritant will cause a reaction shortly after using it and each time you use it; and a sensitizer will have a latency period of weeks or months before a reaction appears and you may have to work with it more than once for a reaction. Once you are sensitized to that wood you are sensitized for life and each reaction will likely get worse.

Two Important Wood Database Articles

Wood Allergies and Toxicity


Wood Dust Safety,

While I am certain that the cause of my problem was rubbing my neck while handling an oily wood, I also believe a more prevalent cause of problems for most folks comes from wood dust while cutting, sawing, sanding, etc.   I now hang my mask on the door handle to my saw room to ensure that I will use it.


Basswood is hands down the woodcarver’s most common choice of carving material.  With thousands of carvers using Basswood, there, to the best of my knowledge and research, has been no reported cases of toxicity.  However, dust of any kind of wood can be hazardous to breathe in any quantity or for any period of time.  So, please employ the same safety precautions as any other wood when doing anything to Basswood that makes dust.

Suggested Safety Precautions

When making dust, always wear a quality dust mask or respirator;

Wear eye and ear protection;

Utilize an air filtration system if inside;

When handling oily woods such as junipers and exotic woods always wash your hands before touching your skin or food.  You may even want to consider wearing gloves;

After any task that causes dust, wipe off your face and any other exposed skin with a damp towel, especially if you are warm and have open pores.

If you become aware that you are particularly sensitive to a specific wood, either do not use it or employ every safety precaution imaginable.

Thanks for joining me.

Stay sharp!

Please visit my web site at


  1. What a great article! This is something I’m sure we’re all guilty of and something not many of us think about as we’re using wood all the time. I have the same problem trying to use goggle on site whenever i’m cutting.
    Thanks for the link to the wood database.

    • Thanks Alviti! I only regret that I was not more cautious when I was younger. Best regards,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: