Dust collection made simple

A few years back, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) named wood dust a known carcinogen. That was a big wake-up call for the whole woodworking industry, which answered with a host of practical new products for keeping workshops clean and airways healthy. In an upcoming article in Woodcraft magazine, I offer up a practical approach for dust collection in small workshops. Here are the broad strokes.

Let’s start at the start. In days past, wood dust was simply considered a nuisance, which it definitely is. It doesn’t take long for workshops to pile up with chips and fine dust to migrate from basements and attached garages into living spaces, coating everything in a furry layer.

Allergy sufferers have always known fine dust was the enemy, especially when added to springtime pollen. But we all lived with it, and if folks had dust collectors at all, they were the type with porous cloth bags, which grab the big chips and save you some sweeping, but blast out the most dangerous dust at head height.

By the way, the problem with the finest dust is that it hangs longest in the air, penetrates deepest into lungs and airways, and is the hardest for the body to get rid of.

But that was then. Once the CDC and NIOSH spoke up, people got serious about wood dust. The good news is that new products and new approaches make it easier than ever to bust dust for good.

The secret is collecting it at the source, as it is made, and then having filters that won’t let it escape. You can start with a powerful shop vac. Install a HEPA filter in it and attach the hose to all the portable tools in your shop. You’ll be shocked at how dust-free your random-orbit sander will be with a vac pulling the dust through those holes in the sanding disks. And your sandpaper will last twice or three times longer without all that dust clogging it!

Step two is a true dust collector. If you try attaching a shop vac to big chip producers like a tablesaw or planer, you’ll find it lacks the volume and velocity to pull the chips and dust through the small hose. As for which dust collector to buy, there are amazing cyclone collectors out there, but even the compact ones are over $1,000. For most of us, the practical choice is a single-stage dust collector, like the one pictured here. Those have better filters now too, called cartridge filters. They are pleated, which vastly increases surface area, so you can have finer filtration without hurting airflow and effectiveness.

Pleated cartridge filters are available for almost every old dust collector out there, and available as standard equipment on new ones. Manufacturers like Jet and Grizzly offer them for their collectors, and aftermarket companies like Damn Filters and Wynn Environmental offer retrofits in all sizes.

The tradeoff with fine filters is clogging, which will kill airflow. But there are a number of solutions. For dust collectors, there are internal flappers inside the filter, which knock off the dust caked inside. Better yet, you can blow from the outside in with compressed air.

Shop vacs tends to clog too, but there again, there are solutions. Some fancy vacs have a self-cleaning function, but those work only so-so in my experience. You can buy and use paper bags inside as a pre-filter, but those are pricey throwaway items.

My favorite solution is Oneida’s Dust Deputy, which can be attached to any vac and separates out almost all the dust before it can even reach the vac and its fine filter. Plus the Dust Deputy’s bucket is easer to dump into the trash.

Check out these pics for more of the story, plus some handy accessories that make life easier.

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A two-pronged approach will grab 90% of the dust in your shop. If you have big machines, you need a 1-1/2-hp+ dust collector to grab the big piles of chips they produce. For small portable tools like sanders, a shop vac is perfect. I’ll tell you what that weird white bucket thing is in a moment.
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Connect that shop vac to everything you can. I made this router-table fence with a dust box behind the fence, with a big hole that accepts a handy adaptor on the end of the hose.
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I even attach my shop vac to my miter saw. It is less than perfect, but much better than nothing.
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The great thing about a big dust collector is that it can take multiple hoses, with blast gates that direct the airflow to where it is needed.
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For machines like my planer and bandsaw, I use a long stretch hose and another handy adaptor to quick-connect as needed.
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The other hose is dedicated to my tablesaw, which I use all the time. It’s old so I had to add a dust port to the back. I also put a big plywood box on the side to cover the big hole in the cabinet, and raised the floor inside to bring it up to the level of the port. It collects dust like a mo-fo now.
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The clogging problem. All shop vac filters clog, but especially the fine HEPA filters you should be using. No worries: There is a killer solution.
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This mini-cyclone from Oneida separates out 99% of the dust before it reaches the filter, and its bucket is super-easy to dump. It comes with attachment kit that lets it roll with any vac.
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For your big dust collector, you definitely need a pleated cartridge filter. These are available on new collectors and as retrofits.
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These fine filters clog too, but a blast of compressed air blows off the dust caked inside. You can also rotate the handles up top, which rotates a set of internal flappers for the same purpose.
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And here is a remote dust collector switch from iVac. I love it. It lets me turn on the vac with a handy remote, so I can stay at the tablesaw or any other machine without pausing to walk over and bend down to turn the collector on and off.
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Choosing and installing replacement windows

Normally I like to do every last thing I can on my house. It saves money, and I just love the work. However, for the big job of replacing all the windows on my house, plus adding all new siding, I hired out the work to a trusted local contractor. But if you read on, you’ll find out how to choose the right materials and how to keep your contractor honest. You might even learn how to tackle the job yourself.

In an earlier blog, I installed a window in my garage, to give me a nice view and some natural light in my workshop space. So it bothered me a little to just watch the work this time! But it was a wise choice. My contractor has better ladders, more workers, and more know-how, and I just have too much work at the moment. That said, watching it happen, I realize that this is a job a lot of people could do.

In the milder climate of the Pacific Northwest, where I live, a lot of houses were built with just a single skin of exterior-grade plywood. No house wrap, and no siding. That’s the deal on the 1979 fixer-upper we bought in 2015. So adding windows is a little bit different than it is on a house with plywood sheathing plus siding. But not much.

Modern windows have a simple nailing flange all around the outside. You just sit the window in the rough opening, make sure it is level, and nail or screw that flange to the exterior walls. Done. In my case, we could simply nail that flange onto the plywood exterior, wrap everything with house wrap, nail trim boards around the windows, and then nail on our siding of choice, bumping it up against that trim.

For a house with existing siding, you would just need to work around that, cutting it back or removing some of it, or just pulling off the trim boards and replacing them afterward.

The problem on houses like mine is that those window flanges are nailed right onto the studs, and then the T1-11 exterior plywood goes on and covers them up. That meant we had to cut off a strip of that plywood around each window to access those flanges and remove the windows.

A word about choosing windows. We were getting rid of the worst possible windows, made of aluminum, another cheap signature of the era of disco and polyester. Terrible looks and terrible energy efficiency. The usual choice these days is vinyl windows, which used to be considered cheap but have gotten way better of late, with most offering the Energy Star rating. That said I went with Marvin’s Integrity windows, for a variety of good reasons. Made of a special type of fiberglass, they offer the best longterm value on the market.

Building experts agree that Marvin’s fiberglass is super-energy efficient and super durable, meaning it won’t warp or crack like vinyl sometimes does. Also, it expands and contracts very little, just like the glass inside the frames, meaning the seals all around that glass will not fail. And last, its mitered corners are crisp and clean-looking, unlike those melty miters on vinyl windows. Last the Marvin Integrity windows are available in a range of colors, applied in a thick fiberglass layer that promises a lifetime of service.

You could go even higher end, choosing windows clad with wood on the inside, but I’ve got plenty of wood inside my house, and I like the clean looks of the fiberglass interior.

Whichever windows you choose, the KEY to a good installation is making sure the windows are level and square, so they will operate smoothly, and then making sure the window is flashed correctly. Flashing is the overlapping layers of metal, plastic, or rubberized material that go all around the window, under your siding, to catch any water that gets under there, and send it down over the house wrap instead of letting it inside the window frame to cause rot and damage.

Anyway, check out the following pics to see the whole process. Next up will be applying the window trim and all the siding. I’ll do a whole blog to explain our choices on that.

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The first step is to pull out all the interior trim so you can measure the rough openings and buy the right-size windows. We have a lot of wide windows, so we went with sideways sliders.
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Next you need to get access to the nailing flanges on the outside of the windows. On my house, which just has a single layer of painted plywood on it, that meant removing a strip of that plywood all around. On a house with siding, you might need to remove the trim boards around the windows, or some of the siding.
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Once the guys could get at the flanges, they pulled all the nails and the windows came right out.
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To make a level surface for attaching the new windows, we had to nail on strips all around to fill those gaps we created.
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This is when the flashing happens, one of the most CRITICAL steps. It starts at the rough window sill, where an adhesive rubberized material is applied.
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Then, overlapping that bottom piece, the side pieces go on. The idea is the same as it is with shingles: You overlap them so they shed water as it drips down.
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Where he had to cut the material to get it into the inside corners, the contractor applied extra little adhesive pieces to cover the tiny gap.
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Now the new windows could slide right in! That extra flashing at the top will get overlapped by the house wrap, which will cover all the walls later and complete the water-shedding envelope. Trim and siding will come after that.
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Once the windows were shimmed level in their opening, and we made sure they slid and closed easily (a good check for squareness), the guys just drove screws through the flanges and the window was locked in place for life.
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Marvin even supplies little adhesive corners to cover the gaps where the nailing flanges fold outward and create a tiny gap. As I said, the house wrap is coming up next, which will cover all the edges of the window and ensure that water sheds downward not inward.

The joy of a good dovetail jig

Like a lot of woodworkers, I’ve cut dovetails all sorts of ways, slowly by hand with a saw and chisel and a bit quicker by machine with an angled saw blade and a dado set. Till now I’ve thought of dovetail jigs as a compromise: offering quick but clunky-looking results, due to a big fat router bit making the cuts. Also, I had heard they have steep learning curves with lots of fussing. Turns out I was wrong on both counts.

I just finished a big review of dovetail jigs for the next issue of Fine Woodworking magazine, and I’m here to say that the best are really amazing. I can’t give away the winners, but I can show you how these things work, and basically why they are so awesome.

Next week, I’ll show you a cool project you can build with your new dovetail jig, or any dovetail method for that matter.

So as most of you know, there are two basic kinds of dovetails, through-dovetails and half-blind dovetails (used often for drawer fronts, as you can only see the dovetails on one side of the joint). These jigs can cut both in a variety of ways. And thanks to skinnier router bits and variable spacing, the joints they make look very close to hand-cut. In fact, only the purists will know the difference.

What you get in return though is a much faster, more foolproof process. If you’ve ever struggled to make this demanding joint, or been too intimidated to try, a dovetail jig is for you. Here’s how they work, and some of the many advantages.

It starts with how easy they are to set up and use. For a start, they all use a template with fingers on it to guide a bushing that attaches to the bottom of your router base, like this:

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The bushing rides the template fingers and the bit sticks through the bushing to reach down to the wood below.

Let’s say you are going to cut through-dovetails. You always cut these one part at a time on a dovetail jig, first the tails with a dovetail-shaped bit and then the pins board with a straight bit. Both boards attach to the jig vertically.

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On this Leigh jig, the fingers slide and lock in any position, meaning you can vary the spacing of the tails for a hand-cut look. Plus you’ll notice the spaces between the tails are pretty skinny, not really clunky at all.
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Then you just load the other board in the jig and flip the template over to cut perfect pins. Most of these jigs have awesome guidelines built in to help you nail the setup on the first try. 
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Using the tapered fingers on the other side of the template, and a straight bit in the router, you cut the pins, fast and foolproof.
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Imagine getting a fit like this, on stacks of parts. You can go nuts with dovetails!

Half-blind dovetails are different. What’s cool here is that you load both sides of the joint in the jig at once and cut everything in one pass, with a single bit and a single setup.

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The Porter-Cable jig has a deep groove on the template that you just line up with the junction between the two boards. Then you are ready to cut.
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Note how the two boards are offset so you can cut both at once, but then the tabs (tails) on one will line up with the little pockets (spaces between the pins) on the other. Check it out…
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This is how the two parts of the joint fit together.
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A few taps with a rubber mallet…
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… perfection in minutes.

This is just a small taste of what these jigs can do. For the whole story, plus great jigs for every budget, pick up the July/August issue of Fine Woodworking, on newsstands in early June.