Video: Which Dust Mask Should Woodworkers Wear
What type of dust mask should a woodworker wear? If you're protecting yourself from dust you should always try to capture the dust at the source with a shop vacuum or dust collection system, but you should also protect yourself by covering your nose and mouth with a good dust respirator. Whether you go with a disposable dust mask, re-usable mask, or a powered dust respirator, any of these options will help you protect your long-term health in the shop. Just pick one, then do the right thing and get in the habit of using it — whenever you’re making sawdust.
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Which Dust Mask Should Woodworkers Wear - Video Transcript
Speaker 1: Whether we're cutting, routing, or sanding, wood dust is a constant byproduct of woodworking. Now, the truth is you can't make things out of wood without making some dust too, and it's more than just a mess to clean up. Wood dust particles under a hundred microns or about a tenth of a millimeter is smaller than we can even see with the naked eye, and they continue to float in the air long after we're finished sanding and machining, and they're actually the most dangerous to our respiratory systems.
At the least, they make us cough or sneeze, but they can also cause allergies, make asthma worse, or even lead to sinus, nose, and lung cancer. What's the best defense? Well, whenever possible, capture dust right at the source with a dust extractor, a shop vacuum, or a dedicated dust collection system, but we all need a second line of defense too, and that's by covering our noses and mouths with a good dust respirator. It's not hard to pick a respirator, but there are a couple of different categories, so let's take a look at the most common one first.
These white disposable dust masks. You can find them at any hardware store or home center, and there's really only a couple of things to keep in mind. First, count the straps. If there's just one strap, or if you're shopping for these at a dollar store or pharmacy, these are not suitable for wood dust so just don't buy them. The single strap doesn't pull the mask tightly enough against your nose, cheeks, or chin, and there's just one thin layer of filter material here. The package probably won't even have a disclaimer to tell you how effective these are to use. These are nuisance masks at best, and they won't protect you for very long against anything.
What you want to look for instead are two strap masks like these. That's a telltale sign of a true dust respirator, and the two straps pull the mask securely in place on your face. These two strap respirators will have multiple layers of filtration including an outer pre-filter layer that traps the coarser dust, and an electrostatic or carbon filter layer on the inside for trapping the finer dust and odors. In this soft seal brand respirator sold by Rockler even has a silicone gasket that goes all the way around the rim to create a double seal in a more comfortable fit.
Some respirators will have an exhalation valve in the middle, and others won't. When you wear safety glasses or prescription glasses, you'll appreciate having this valve which keeps moist air from creeping up and fogging your lenses. Now, the other thing you need to pay attention to are the numbers printed on the mask. First will be an N, P, or R, followed by the numbers 95, 99 or a hundred.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health or NIOSH has created the simple system to help us know what the level of filter efficiency is. 95 stands for 95% efficiency at trapping particles down to three tenths of a micron. 99 stands for 99%, and a hundred stands for 99.97%, but any of these three numbers offer excellent protection against wood dust regardless of the letters in front of the numbers.
Aside from the white disposable respirators, there's a second category of reusable respirators too. Now, this style of mask is soft and flexible, it's usually made out of neoprene rubber or silicone, and it's going to have one or two pleated filters on it, and possibly an exhalation valve. Here's a newer style of reusable respirator. It's made out of soft mesh, and it has a wide hook and loop neck strap to make it easier to put on. Now, the advantage to both of these masks is the filters are replaceable when they get dirty. Just pop out the old ones and install new, and you don't have to replace the whole mask. Depending upon the respirator, you might be able to install other cartridge style filters like this to protect you against other harmful vapors, mists, gases or chemicals, so one respirator with the right filters installed could serve all of your shop needs. Here's a third category of dust respirator. This is a powered air purifying respirator. Now, if you have facial hair like I do, particularly if you have a thick beard, it can compromise the seal around other dust respirators like this because they can't make full contact with your face, but these give those of us with beards the protection we need. They go on like a hard hat and cover your entire head, and a fabric face seal with an elastic band fits behind your jaw and against your face and neck.
Up here an electric motor draws air through these two filters, and down inside the helmet, and that creates positive air pressure to keep the dusty air out. This one has an impact rated safety shield, so it can take the place of your safety glasses for some tasks. So whether you go with the disposable, reusable or powered dust respirator, any of these options will help you protect your long-term health in the shop. Just pick one, and then do the right thing, and get in the habit of wearing it whenever you're making sawdust.