Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | September 30, 2011

Health and Safety Considerations Associated with Wood Carving and Woods

In this post, I want to mention a few things about the exciting topic (NOT!) of health and safety issues to be aware of with woodcarving.

General Health

1.    Many exotic (tropical) hardwoods are toxic.  I have known a few folks who found themselves allergic to oils in these woods.  One knife maker I knew used exotic woods for handles and always had a severe rash.  He was surprised to find that it was from the woods he used for knife handles.

When using power tools on exotic woods always wear a good quality dust mask as, dust from exotic woods can be a threat to one’s throat and lungs.

2.    Slivers from oak and western red cedar, both very common, can rapidly cause an infection at the point of penetration.  Slivers should always be removed immediately and thoroughly.

3.    Woods that have begun to develop spalting may also be toxic to some degree.  Spalting is caused by a mildew or fungus in the wood and can cause harm to ones throat, lungs and possibly, eyes.  Here, again, always wear a good quality dust mask when using power tools on spalted woods.  Spalting is evident by those little black lines lacing through wood.  Spalted woods are often beautiful when turned into bowls and other objects.  It is the dust that is harmful.  I have never heard of harm arising from handling spalted wood.

4.    It is highly advisable to use a dust mask with any power carving and to use a vacuum dust system.  Dust from even domestic common woods may be harmful over a long period of exposure.

6.    Always wear eye protection when using any power tool that creates dust, chips, splinters or the like.  Obviously a foreign object in the eye will hurt and cause damage but the oils in the dust of even the most common woods can be damaging to the eye.

Insects in Carving Wood

When we find a piece of carving wood in the wild, it will not be unusual to find that bugs of some sort have set up residence.  We never want to introduce bug infested wood to our wood storage, our shops, or our homes.  I know of two effective ways of eliminating the bugs.  (1) Place the wood in a large plastic garbage bag.  Place an uncapped can of Raid or similar product inside the bag.  Tightly close the end so fumes will not escape.  Once the bag is closed tightly, locate the Raid inside the bag and discharge an appropriate amount of its contents.  Leave the bag closed for at least 3 full days before removing the contents. When opening, avert your face so that you do not breathe the fumes and allow the air to vent out of the bag before removing the wood.  (2) Although not as effective and a bit more complicated than the Raid approach; place the wood in a large plastic bag and place the opening of the bag over the exhaust pipe of your car.  Start the car and let it run long enough to fill the bag from the exhaust and tie it off tightly trapping the fumes inside.  Keep the bag tightly closed for at least 3 full days.  You may need to repeat the process.

Obviously, a great deal of caution needs to be exercised with both of these methods.  Never do either of these inside your home or garage or around children or pets.  One could easily argue that it is simply a better idea to stay away from any wood where there is evidence of bugs in it.  The flip side of that coin is that many intriguing and unusual woods are found in the wild and probably have a bug or two in them.

I once bought a nice cypress knee* from a commercial dealer and had it shipped to me.  I sat it on my shelf of wood stock and soon noticed a little pile of what appeared to be sawdust.  In looking closely at the knee, I found a small, dark, pin-sized hole that was home to some little critter determined to build a home inside.  I had him quickly evicted and saved the knee.

The above information should be considered information only is not intended to alarm the beginner carver.  I have been around for a long time and never had a problem with any of this.

*Cypress trees grow in the bayous of the southeast US and growths from the roots rise above the water and ground forming what are called “knees.”  These knees are soft and lend themselves to good carving.  Their shapes are always interesting looking and evoke creativity.  Removing the knees does not hurt the tree and new knees quickly re-form.  There are several carving suppliers that offer cypress knees for sale.  A picture of a typical cypress knee appears below.

Safety Issues with Carving

This discussion will have three parts; general safety, hand tools, and power tools.

I. Safety in General

1.    Carve only when you are alert.  Carving when tired or after consuming alcohol can greatly increase the probability of an accident;

2.    Where practical, use a hold-down device.  A hold-down device is a vice, clamp, carver’s screw, belt or a myriad of other things used to hold your carving firmly down to a bench or table.  By using a hold-down device, you can easily keep your hands out of harms way and safe from the blade or a power carving head;

3.    Don’t put anything in front of your blade that you do not want to cut.  This includes hands, legs and fine dining room tables;

4.    Be mindful of your surroundings.  Consider whether or not someone else could be injured by your activities;

5.    One cannot foresee every possible situation, so please use common sense with everything you do.

II. Safety When Using Hand Tools

1.    A sharp knife is much safer to use than a dull knife.  Mothers of young carvers are probably cringing as they read this.  Actually, a sharp knife is easier to control and takes less pressure to cut wood.  A sharp knife will also “catch” the wood upon “touch down” and will not be prone to skipping or sliding on the surface of the wood, which could more easily result in injury;

2.    I cannot stress enough: Wear a carver’s glove.  Carving gloves are interchangeable and may be worn on either hand.  So, whether one is left handed or right handed, a carver’s glove should be worn on the hand holding the carving.  Better gloves come with a micro strand of stainless steel wire in the center of the thread which adds to the protection provided.  This is my glove of choice but the fabric is a poly material and, as such, can be a bit slippery requiring a more firm grasp which can become tiring.  Since these gloves are woven, a knife point and very small gouges can find their way through the weaving.  However, wider gouges and the lengths of blades generally do not penetrate the material.

Other gloves, typically without wire, have gripping material similar to rug-pad material affixed to the glove to prevent slipping.  Any glove is better than no glove.  Some carvers that I know simply wear a good-quality leather glove.  I think it is safe to say that virtually every seasoned carver has been saved from serious injury at least once because they were wearing a glove;

3.    Wear a leather, Kevlar, or other heavy-material apron or pad if carving in your lap;

4.    Hold your tools properly.  When holding a knife, hold it firmly in your primary hand by the handle.  Your primary hand and a firm grip will assist in providing good control.  Unless sharpening a spear or making a hot dog roasting stick, guide the blade with your opposite thumb.  Your opposite thumb is the power.  The operative word in this paragraph is “control;”

5.    If you use a folding knife (pocket knife) to whittle, it is wise to have a lock or a firm catch to prevent the blade from closing on your finger(s);

6.    If you accidentally drop a tool, let it go.  You may want to jump back to avoid it hitting your foot, but do not attempt to catch it!  Then pray that it lands handle down to avoid a gash on the blade.

III. Safety When Using Power Tools

1.    When using any power tool that creates dust, flying chips, etc., wear eye protection and a good quality dust mask;

2.    If your power tool is loud, wear ear protection.  I have a bit of hearing loss simply because I have hundreds of hours with chainsaws, lawn mowers and other noisy tools with no ear protection.  I was a slow learner;

3.    Never use a die grinder with any kind of cutting head without also using a rheostat.  Die grinders are generally “instant on” at high rpms and if the cutting head were to either break apart or come loose from the grinder, one could find a hole in themselves about the size of a 50mm howitzer shell;

4.    When using any power tool make sure the speed control, if any, is at its lowest point when the tool is turned on;

5.    A dust collection system should be used anytime you are using a tool that creates dust in any enclosed area;

6.    When power carving, always use a hold down device.  It is not wise to hold your project in one hand and the power tool in the other.  The sole exception may be drilling a hole and even then only if it is a small hole;

7.    If chainsaw carving, use a good quality safety chap such as a double Kevlar fabric.  They may be funny looking but they might just save a nasty gash in your leg.  Also, wear a shoe with heavy leather uppers.

None of this is intended to frighten you.  Safety is important to your success as a carver.  In the many years that I have been carving, my injuries have been minimal and only occurred simply because I was not paying proper attention to what I was doing.  As item 5 in Section I, above, states: “One cannot foresee every possible situation so please use common sense with everything you do.”

It is important to mention that woodcarving is inherently dangerous simply because of the tools used.  Be sure to always employ safety and follow all manufacturer’s instructions and safety notations.

Keep sharp, and happy carving!

Please visit my web site at

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: