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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