A clean shop is a safer and more efficient work environment, as well as a healthier place for your lungs. Smaller woodworking shops deal with the additional challenge of limited space. So how can you ensure you can have an efficient dust collection system without braking the bank?
While some vendors and magazines may push you to build a central dust collection system, the truth is that this is a must-have only for bigger shops. A good setup can be affordable and keep a clean shop even if your working space is as big as a 2-car garage. First you need to capture most os the dust at the source by mixing the right type of stationary dust collector and portable shop vac, along with simple accessories such as a good cyclone separators and tool-triggered switches. Then you will need a good air filter for the majority of the tiny particles that still get airborne. And, last, you will need good PPE such as a dust mask or a respirator if you grow a beard. If you want the finer details on each item, keep on reading below.
Dust Collection at the Source
The heart of any effective dust collection system is to capture as much dust possible at its source, and then not reintroduce it later in your shop - by filtering it and keeping it inside a sealed container. Capturing the bulk of the dust you produce right at the source means you leave less of it airborne. Airborne dust always ends on top of a project, inside your lungs, or simply on top of your tools. A dirty shop makes you waste precious time, which is equally important whether you do woodworking in your (little) spare time as a hobby or if you do it professionally and need to be productive at all times.
Most woodshops cannot afford neither the space nor the money needed for a central dust collection, or even a bigger stationary dust collector. However, that is no excuse for not having a clean shop. You can buy a quality shop vacuum and accessorize it to make a great ally on capturing dust from all your tools. The trick is to keep an open mind and connect it to one tool at a time.
If you plan on connecting your shop vac to a planer of a router table, it is essential to have a chip separator. These machines produce a lot of larger wood shavings and chips, which can fill up a shop vac very fast. A shop-vac with a 2-1⁄2 inch hose can handle almost anything you throw at it: larger wood chips and shavings, stationary and benchtop machines, and general shop cleanup. This hose dimension also reduces clogs in general.
The chip separator is very important because it trips heavier dust and wood shavings and chips in a separate container, so only the finer dust arrives to the shop vac itself. This way you can empty this separate container as you need, without overloading the shop vac filter/vacuum bag, saving you money and ensuring maximum air flow.
Another important accessory that is worth its weight in gold is a tool-triggered switch, which will turn on your vacuum at the moment you trigger the tool, and turn off the vacuum a few seconds after you turn off the tool, which will clear the hose/piping of the sawdust and chips.
Coarse sawdust, such as from a table saw or a track saw, is better captured by a smaller-diameter hose. Straight piping also works better than corrugated hose, since the sawdust is less likely to plug up on the inside, however short runs of corrugated hose offer much more flexibility in a small shop, especially when dealing with mobile tools.
Finer dust from sanding moves easily and does not require a powerful shop vac - a 1-1⁄4-inch hose is already enough. Shop vacs with such hoses cost less and are more compact too, an important factor for smaller shops.
I also recommend you to get a cyclone separator for gathering the bulk of the fine dust before it reaches your shop vac filter. This way you will ensure maximum airflow, which is a more important feature to collect dust than “vacuum” itself.
Finally, you should change your factory filter and get a HEPA filter replacement. They have a smaller mesh to filter the finer dust - the ones that end up clogging up your lungs. By reducing the amount of airborne dust, you place less stress on your shop air cleaner and your dust mask, which makes them last longer and save you money too. You can find HEPA filter replacements in your vacuum manufacturer website.
(Trash Can Lid) Chip Separator < Thien Baffle < Pentz Cyclone
These are three different methods to separate the bulk of the wood shavings, chips, and dust before these reach your shop vac and clog it up. If you don’t use at least one of them, then you will constantly have to deal with a full shop vac, expensive replacement bags, and reduced air suction.
The first method is the chip separator, which is that weird trash can lid. As I mentioned in the item above, it is useful for machines that produce a lot of bigger chips and shavings, such as a jointer, a planer or a router table. It is a must in any wood shop that has any of thee machines.
One of these other two methods should be used in tandem with the chip deparator for efficient dust collection. There are many online discussions about this, and the super short cliffnotes version of the entire debate is that a Pentz Cyclone is marginally better than a Thien Separator. I will talk about them both and you will be able to draw your own conclusions.
The Thien Baffle was invented by J. Phil Thien. He has a small shop and he developed over 50 iterations of his design, where he uses a baffle in addition to the usual chip separation design. His design is simple and saves a lot of vertical space in comparison to a cyclone.
As for the Pentz Cyclone, this was invented by a man named Bill Pentz. He had a conventional, tiny, store-bought cyclone and ended up in the hospital with allergic reactions and a pneumonia. His shop looked clean, however it had tons of airborne micro dust in the air, which ended up intoxicating him. Being a specialist in air filtration in his day job, Pentz came out of his retirement and developed his own cyclone. It is the best cyclone available in the market… And you need at least 32 by 48 inches of floor space in your shop. Not to mention its 96-inch height. While this is the most effective solution available, it demands a lot of space too. While you can buy other smaller cyclones, most of them lack filtering, airflow, and offer poorer dust separation.
Personally I chose the Thien Baffle design, which I can DIY to fit my personal needs and the space I have available in my shop. While Bill Pentz has made his design freely available in his website, his design demands more space, more volume, and a 3.5 HP motor to power the entire system. That is overkill for my amount of woodworking, and certainly forbidden in my tiny shop.
Dust Ports are just as important
A quality dust port adapter will stimulate you to always use your dust/collection system. The multitude of dust port sizes and shapes, especially for the smaller tools and the lack of hose diameter standards means each dust-collection port has its own, unique dimension.
Whether you buy something or make your own port adapters, make sure you have a very simple way to use your dust-collection and it will become a no-brainer to unplug the previous machine and plug the next one into your dust collection system. This is the most efficient way you can ensure your shop always stays as clean as possible, without even cleaning it in the first place.
A good ambient air cleaner ensures that airborne dust gets trapped in its filters, instead of landing on workpieces, power tools, or even intoxicating your lungs. Ideally you want to hang one of these units in a way that creates a circular motion, where the air flows throughout your entire shop. If you also place it near the tools that make the most unfiltered amounts of dust, you ensure better performance and less dust circulating in the air.
Dust Masks and Respirators
Even the best of the dust collection systems will not capture 100% of the dust, therefore Personal Protection Equipment is essential. The best masks have separate inhale and exhale valves, and here’s why. Exhaling always releases moisture, which contaminates the filter and makes the mask drop its effectiveness much faster. This will also help avoid that annoying fog in your safety glasses. Also, avoid disposable masks - these do not seal properly around your mouth and nose. You should prefer masks with a rubberized face gasket. Folks with beards should consider a helmet respirator, which blow filtered air inside a visor and is powered by batteries.
And remember: if all else fails, you can always use a broom to catch that dust in the morning after!
DIY Solutions for Dust Collecting
Dust Collector Adapter
Shops make dust — on your clothes, on your carpets, and in your lungs. It’s not just a nuisance either, it’s a health hazard. That’s why I recommend that every woodworker set up some system to control it.
Here’s a tip on how to rig up an ordinary shop vacuum to just about any dust-generating machine. It uses common home-center materials, and it’s a cinch to attach the hose — it just slips in. And in my shop, convenience means I’ll actually use it.
The key is a plastic pipe adapter designed to fit a metal sink drain, which is the same diameter (1-1⁄4 in.) as most shop vacuum pipes. It has a plastic gasket and a threaded nut that make a good connection to the vacuum pipe. You can then attach any combination of plastic pipe fittings that works on your machine.
Precision Dust Control
Cut down on sanding dust with this tip.
Screw a radiator hose clamp to a 1x3 board, and clamp the board to your workbench. Insert your shop vacuum nozzle, and you have an “extra hand” to hold the vacuum precisely where you’re kicking up dust!
Sanding Vacuum Box
With all the electric sanders used in our shops—vibrating, belt and random orbital—we’re making an enormous dust storm.
I nailed together this vacuum box to give my lungs and eyes a break! Make the top and bottom from two pieces of 1⁄4-in. plywood (12 x 18 in.) and the sides and ends from 3⁄4-in. x 3-in. pine or scrap wood.
Drill a grid of holes in the top with a 5⁄16-in. bit. In the center of one side, make a port for your vacuum nozzle. A PVC expansion adapter works well, or cut a hole that accepts your nozzle in a tight pressure fit. Hook up the vacuum and you’re ready for healthier sanding.
No need to get dust all over your shop or work area when you’re using a finishing sander. Put the whole business — sander, the piece you’re sanding, and one hand — in a large, clear plastic bag. Tape the bag around your arm, or use a rubber band.