Dealing with Fine Woodshop Dust: Personal Respiratory Protection
posted on August 15, 2013 by Rockler

Personal Respiratory Protection

You've installed a dust collection system that keeps the large dust particles and shavings out of your way and also does a good job with the fine dust that makes it into the system, installed and air filtration system to continually purify the air in your shop, and you supplement your dust control system with a portable fine dust collector. Do you still need personal respiratory protection? Most experts say yes. Below, we will take a look at the final step in protecting respiratory system from fine wood dust, including:

  • Why Respiratory Protection Devices are Important
  • Disposable Masks
  • Re-usable Cloth Masks
  • Power Air Respirators

Why Respiratory Protection Devices are Important

The shop air filtration measures discussed on the last page of the article are important steps toward protecting your health from the hazard of fine dust exposure. Unfortunately, no amount of preventative dust control will bring the levels of dust in your shop down to a consistently safe level during periods when you are generating large quantities of fine dust.

One reason is that the level of safe exposure to woodworking dust is just too low. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), for example, recommends that the presence of fine dust particles in wood shop air should average no more than 1mg/cubic meter over a 10 hour shop session. Spread out over a garage-sized shop, 1 mg/cubic meter adds up to less than 1/8 teaspoon of dust for the entire volume of air in the shop!

Many common woodworking operations, like sanding, operating a chop saw, or using a router can overwhelm all of your dust collection measures and leave you breathing dangerous levels of fine wood dust. To keep your respiratory system safe during periods of heavy dust generation, you'll need to round off your fine dust control regimen with an effective respiratory protection device. There are a wide range of respiratory devices available, each of which has its advantages and woodworking situation in which it works best. Here are a few option to consider:

Disposable Masks

Disposable masks or "dust masks" are  among the most economical and convenient forms of personal respiratory protection. Disposable masks are best suited to short term exposure to fine dust, and less effective and comfortable in long sessions in a dusty shop. A good disposable mask will filter fine dust particles, but because they are generally molded to fit the contours of an "average" face, even the best disposable masks tend to be less comfortable over the long haul and, in general, provide less of the all important air seal between your face and the mask, which is what prevents fine dust particles from circumventing the mask's filter material and passing directly into the lungs.

Not all dust masks are created alike. It's important to use a mask that is designed to actually filter fine dust, such as the MXV Dust Mask. It features a three layer design that pre-filters course particles, traps fine particles in the interior filter, and provides comfortable inner surface designed designed to prevent fatigue over longer periods of use.

Washable Cloth Masks


Recently, washable cloth masks have been gaining popularity among woodworkers. Reusable cloth masks are a little more expensive than disposable masks, but offer a few features that many woodworkers believe are worth the extra initial expense. Most importantly, they're reusable - a quick hand washing and they are returned to their original filtering performance and comfort. You can't suddenly discover that you've "run out" of cloth masks, as often happens with the disposable variety. Cloth masks are more pliable than disposable masks, and tend to fit more comfortably for longer periods than many disposable masks. They work great for projects that generate a small to moderate amount of dust - like wood turning or carving - but also keep you working in one spot for relatively long periods of time.


Rockler offers a range of personal respiratory protection devices, from disposable masks to professional quality power air respirators

Power Air Respirators

Power respirators use a battery-powered fan to supply a continuous stream of pre-filtered air to the interior of the mask. They're more of an investment than either disposable masks or reusable cloth masks, but they are also generally considered a giant step forward in comfort. The fresh stream of air helps keep the user cool during strenuous work, and because the mask relies on positive air pressure inside the mask rather than a tight seal to keep the interior of the mask free of contaminated air, the power respirator can be designed to provide a fairly loose, comfortable fit.

Power respirators range in price and performance from less expensive models that resemble a standard respirator mask to more advanced systems that include other features such as a face shield and ear protection. Power respirators are the "ultimate" in personal respiratory protection, and the best choice for situations where a high level of protection and comfort are desirable. If your work often has you spending long periods in front of a stationary disc or belt sander, for example, an investment in this level of personal respiratory protection is not something you are likely to regret.

Bringing it All Together

In this article, we've focused on presenting a well rounded approach to  protecting yourself and your shop from wood dust and debris. If you're a hobbyist or weekend woodworker with a small one person shop, you have certain advantages: In most cases, you'll only need to collect dust from one tool at a time. You have less people contributing to the dust problem in your shop and probably use the shop for less time each day than a commercial shop normally would. And, most importantly, you get to decide how much dust gets produced, when it's time to stop and clean up.

Still, if you are just beginning to think about getting your dust situation under control, it can seem like quite a project.  If the dust collection system of your dreams isn't in the picture right now, consider making a start that you can build upon in the future. Supplying yourself with adequate personal dust protection and contenting yourself with a portable dust collector that you can build into a more permanent set-up in the future would be a reasonable departure point. When should you get started? When you consider the risks involved in letting your shops dust problems go, the only logical time start getting tough on dust is right now.

posted on August 15, 2013 by Rockler
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What People are Saying:

I have been ordering from Rockler for almost 20 years and have found their products to be very inexpensive and of high quality. Shipping is fast even when an item is back ordered. The best prices I have found anywhere."

- Orval - 08/07/2012

What People are Saying:

I have been ordering from Rockler for almost 20 years and have found their products to be very inexpensive and of high quality. Shipping is fast even when an item is back ordered. The best prices I have found anywhere."

- Orval - 08/07/2012
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