A fire in your woodworking shop is one of the last things you want to happen. A fire that begins in your shop can destroy not only your shop but also your home. More frightening is the potential for catastrophic loss of life and injuries as a result of wood shop blazes.This article will provide tips on things you can to do to protect your shop, home, and more importantly, you and those you love from fire and explosion hazards.
Causes of Wood Shop Fires and Explosions
Fire requires three things in order to ignite: an ignition source, fuel, and an oxidizer like the oxygen present in your shop’s air. Woodworking shops are naturally susceptible to fires and explosions as they contain those requirements.
Woodworking shops are full of potential fuel for fires like wood and wood products, sawdust, and flammable materials such as paints, oil finishes, adhesives, and solvents.
Sawdust is especially responsible for increasing the risk of a fire or explosion because it will catch fire and burn more easily than solid wood. Tools like saws, routers, and sanders generate large amounts of sawdust.
If sawdust is not captured and contained effectively, it remains in the air or builds up on tools, cabinets, parts of the shop itself like exposed rafters or wall framing, as well as on the floor. Because it is so fine, sawdust can often catch fire or even explode just from a discharge of static electricity! Watch this video to see how dangerous a dust explosion can be.
Wood shops also contain a number of ignition sources such as sparks generated by sharpening metal tools with grinders, potentially faulty electrical wiring or frayed extension cords, sparks generated by motors, and cigarette smoking. Lightning is also a culprit in igniting some shop fires.
Steps to Prevent a Fire or Explosion in Your Shop
Here are some things you can do to reduce the risk of a fire happening at your woodworking shop.
Install Smoke Detectors
- Smoke detectors don’t prevent fires but can alert you to one before it gets out of hand. Don’t dismiss smoke detectors in your workshop because you’re afraid you’ll have to deal with lots of false alarms caused by dust. You can minimize those false alarms by using a photoelectric type of smoke detector, which isn’t as sensitive to small amounts of dust.
Install the detectors away from corners and, as much as possible, away from areas of the shop where you cut and sand wood. When possible, have an electrician to install hard-wired detectors with battery backups.
Prevent Dust Build Up
- Use shop vacuums for smaller tools and dust collectors for larger tools to capture sawdust, wood chips, and shavings as they are generated. Effective dust management begins at the source. Because even small tools like handheld random orbital sanders generate large volumes of dust, you should use a shop vacuum or dust collector whenever you are cutting, sanding, turning, or routing wood.
It can be difficult to collect all the dust and chips generated by some tools like lathes and miter saws. However, you can use dust collection hoods for these tools to surround the back of the tool and capture dust that’s exhausted or thrown behind it. The only time when it is not necessary to use a dust collector of some sort is when you working with hand tools like chisels or hand planes.
- Use air filtration units to filter finer dust from the air. Air filtration units, like the Powermatic PM1200 pictured below, are designed to filter dust-filled air and exchange it with cleaner air several times per hour depending on the size of the unit and your shop. These tools will assist in not only preventing fires but also help to protect your lungs from microscopic dust, which can cause cancer and other health issues.
- Clean your shop on a regular basis. Don’t forget to vacuum the tops of exposed rafters, cabinets, and other shop fixtures. Sweep the floor every day before leaving the shop. Empty vacuums and dust collectors regularly and clean or replace air filtration unit filters as recommended by the manufacturer or sooner if necessary to maintain adequate air flow.
- Don’t use an air compressor or leaf blower to blow dust when cleaning the shop. This can result in an extremely dangerous dust cloud that can explode with terrifying consequences.
Store Flammables Properly
- Make sure you store flammables such as adhesives, solvents like denatured alcohol, mineral spirits, lacquer thinners, oil-based stains, finishes, and paints in proper containers. Keep the containers closed to prevent sparks from igniting the contents or from fumes building up in the shop.
- Use a UL Listed flammable liquids storage cabinet to store flammable and combustible liquids. While pricey, these metal cabinets will retard the ignition and spread of fire. They have leak-proof bases to stop any spills from escaping the cabinet. You can also lock them to prevent children or others from accessing the liquids. If a flammable liquids storage cabinet is out of your budget, consider at least using a metal storage cabinet with a lock to hold your flammables.
Properly Dispose of Rags, Saw Dust, and Other Waste
- Rags that have been used for staining or that have been wet with solvents or oil-based products can spontaneously combust. Use a metal oily waste can to store such rags until they can be properly disposed of. If you don’t have an oily waste can hang them outside or spread them flat in a safe spot away from your shop, house, and vehicles. Do not throw them in a pile or ball them up, as they are more likely to catch fire.
- Dispose of sawdust from dust collectors and vacuums regularly by bagging it and putting the bags in a metal trash can until trash pickup day. If you are saving shavings or other wood waste for use as animal bedding or composting, store it outside away from buildings and vehicles.
- Recycle cardboard and other packing materials promptly. Don’t hang onto boxes or other packing materials as they will be fuel for a potential fire and can be an escape hazard should a fire break out while you are in the shop.
Use Properly Constructed Spray Rooms or Spray Booths
- Use spray booths to provide ventilation when using spray finishes like lacquer. According to Grinnell Mutual, spray rooms or booths should be located at least 3 feet from surrounding walls, structural members, and all combustible materials. Click here to read other requirements the insurer outlines for refinishing/spray areas of woodworking shops.
Don’t Smoke in the Woodworking Shop
- Cigarettes, cigars, and pipes should not be used in the workshop. All it takes is one hot ash, a forgotten cigarette laid aside, or a carelessly discard butt to start a fire and burn down your shop. Take smoke breaks outside.
Fix Faulty Electrical Circuits and Extension Cords
- Use a licensed electrician to install, update, or repair electrical panels, circuits, outlets, switches, and light fixtures. It is absolutely crucial that any undersized or malfunctioning electrical circuits or devices be repaired immediately. This is something you should not attempt on your own unless you are properly trained. Be sure to obtain any required permits and inspections required in your area. See my article about using 240V electrical outlets in your shop here.
- Use appropriately sized extension cords, inspect them often, and replace damaged ones immediately. It is better to avoid the use of extension cords if at all possible. They present trip hazards as well as fire hazards, especially if not properly maintained.However, it’s not always possible to avoid using of extension cords. Therefore, make sure those you use have the appropriate capacity or amperage rating, have ground plugs, and are designed for frequent and rugged use environments.
Don’t Use Wood Stoves in the Workshop
- Use a heating source that does not involve open flames. While it seems counter-intuitive or even heresy not to use a wood-burning stove to heat your shop while recycling the wood scraps you generate, wood stoves are responsible for being an ignition source for many home and shop fires. Instead of using them, consider using a heat pump, electric heat, or a mini-split ductless heating system.
Be Prepared to Respond to a Fire
You need to be prepared in case a fire should, unfortunately, occur in your woodshop while you are present. Here are a few tips to help you know how to respond should a blaze break out.
- Put your safety and survival first! Don’t worry about trying to remove your tools or projects if you smell smoke or see flames.Your first priority is to quickly and safely leave the building. If your shop is attached to your house or other structure, be sure to alert others so they can also escape.
- Have a phone available to call 911. The fire department and other first responders can’t help you if you can’t call them. Therefore, either have a fully charged cell phone while you’re in the workshop or install a landline phone in the shop, especially if you don’t have a strong cell phone signal where you woodwork.
- Keep a clear path to doors and windows before you need to escape. Don’t block escape paths from the shop by blocking windows and doors. Avoid having trip hazards on the floor.
- Have an escape path figured out before you use your shop each day. Take a quick look around and identify any potential trip hazards, blocked windows or doors, and determine two ways to exit the shop in an emergency. Don’t forget to plan a way you can get to or alert others in the house or shop.
- Have fire extinguishers on hand to deal with small fires. Don’t take chances with trying to fight a fire that may soon be raging out of control. However, if a fire is very small you may be able to contain it with a properly rated fire extinguisher. Class ABC dry chemical fire extinguishers are general-purpose units rated for wood, paper, cloth, flammable liquids, and electrical fires.
- CALL 911!
Your safety and that of those around you are the most important things to keep in mind when you woodwork. Having a safe environment in which to partake in your hobby and being prepared to deal with potential fire emergencies is paramount.
Featured photo: Maxim Petrichuk © 123RF.com