SAFETY and a few words about hand tools

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Blog entry by Jack McKee posted 02-20-2017 09:59 PM 1659 reads 1 time favorited 4 comments Add to Favorites Watch

SAFETY and a few words about hand tools

When I first thought about teaching woodworking to kids I wondered, “would it be safe?”. At the time I couldn’t find any written information other than wear safety glasses and “be safe”. After I had been teaching for a while I found the first question parents always asked was, “is woodworking safe for my child?”. The article below is the chapter on safety from my book Woodshop for Kids with a few minor changes. This was written with the intention of helping any interested person set up woodworking safely for young children. A lot of the information will be familiar to woodworkers.

When my son Andrew was five years old, he loved hanging around the shop with me. He watched the curls come off the wood as I planed a board and wanted to try it himself. I showed him how the plane blade was adjusted, demonstrated how sharp the blade was by shaving hair off my arm, and explained how the plane straightened a crooked board edge. I was reluctant to let him handle the tool because of the sharp blade, but his enthusiasm and excitement convinced me to give him a chance. I told him to keep both hands on top of the plane and to put the plane down as soon as he was finished, figuring he couldn’t cut himself if both hands were away from the blade. Over the next several days he spent hours using every plane in my shop, churning out curls, rounding corners, and straightening boards at a prodigious rate. From planes he moved on to saws. This experience taught me that even very young children can be trusted to use real tools. Twenty years of woodworking with kids has confirmed this initial experience.

Safe woodworking starts with proper setup. This includes a child-sized workbench, a vise, eye protection, appropriate tools, and a separate pounding area. After setup is complete and the children arrive, I give a quick tour of the shop and then explain how to carry tools and use the vise and saw. I’ll show older kids how to use the drills, too. Once children know and understand safe procedures, the trick is to keep reminding them in a non-threatening manner until understanding is transformed into habit.

Each child should have a proper-height workbench with enough space to work. One summer
 I saw a boat-building area for children at a maritime festival. Boat building with kids is a great idea, and the kids were having a good time, but the workbench was too high and there were too many children for the allotted space. I could hardly watch. One child had to reach so high to use a drill that her face was nearly the same level as the drill bit. Other children were using saws and hammers almost on top of each other. A lower table and more workspace would have made the event a great deal safer. For kindergarteners a workbench should be about 24”. As kids get older a little higher is better.

Woodworking Vise
At that same woodworking festival, I watched children cut dowels by holding the dowel in one hand and a saw in the other. I could see this was frustrating because the dowel moved with each stroke of the saw. It’s also risky because little fingers were close to the moving saw blade. Putting the wood in a vise would have made cutting safer by allowing children to keep both hands on the saw handle, away from the saw teeth, and by keeping the wood steady. A vise also makes sawing easier and less frustrating.

A small, sharp, fine-tooth saw is essential. Choose a saw 12-14” long with 12-14 teeth per inch. Avoid big saws, saws with less than 12 teeth per inch, and aggressive cutting “tool box saws.” These saws will aggressively cut fingers as well as wood and make cuts harder to start. Smaller keyhole saws with a hacksaw blade are great for an introductory saw or for cutting dowels and other small wood.

Eye Protection
Children should wear eye protection. Safety glasses should have adjustable straps and lenses that are curved back to cover the side of the eye. The straps allow the safety glasses to be tightened so they will fit small heads properly and won’t fall off. Extra-small safety glasses to fit children can be found at safety supply stores. Another source for eye protection is the large school supply catalogs. Many have the more traditional goggles. These work well, too. The picture below shows several choices. I tell kids that goggles will take a little time to get used to but that soon they won’t think about them.
Most children will wear goggles without complaint. I tell them my safety glasses have saved my eyes many times from globs of oil, wood splinters, metal shavings and sawdust. The rule is, “You must wear safety glasses in the shop.” No exceptions. If exceptions are made, it is easy to become mired in endless judgment calls about whether a child should be wearing goggles. Out of ten kids, maybe one or two will complain. If this happens, make sure the goggles aren’t too tight or defective in some way. Have them try another pair or a different style. If they still complain, have a safe place they can “take a break” with their goggles off for a minute or two. Usually they will soon be back in shop with their goggles on.

Safe Pounding Area
Establish a separate hammering area removed from the workbench. Besides being aggravating to anyone nearby, hammering carries the possibility of flying pieces of wood or nails. A child wielding a hammer is usually not paying much attention to anything else. A large, flat, out-of-the-way stump makes a good solid surface for pounding. This separate pounding area will also protect other children from flying objects and the distraction of a neighbor pounding nails. One child at a time at the pounding block.

Hitting fingers with a hammer is another way children get hurt. Although it hurts, there is no lasting damage. Show children how to tap the nail to start it, then move their hand away, far away, before hitting the nail harder.
In spite of my best intentions, screws sometimes end up near the pounding block and children will try to pound them in with a hammer. This is not a good idea. Screws are designed to twist in and consequently require incredible amounts of force to drive with a hammer. They are also made from a harder steel so they tend to break rather than bend like a nail. This combination of harder steel and harder pounding can result in broken screws zinging around the room. Try to keep screws separate from nails and away from the pounding block. A mini lesson pointing out the difference between screws and nails will enlist a child’s cooperation.

Electrical Protection: Ground Fault Interrupters (GFIs)
In my preoccupation with safety, I have visions of a child using the wire cutters we use for cutting popsicle sticks to cut, either by accident or curiosity, a glue gun cord. To prevent this remote possibility I tell everyone not to use the wire cutters, or scissors, or any other tool at the glue-gun station. Then I tether the wire cutters to a table so it can’t possibly reach the glue guns. Lastly, to provide fail-safe protection, I plug the glue guns into ground fault interrupter (GFI) protected outlets. GFIs are special electrical plugs commonly found in bathrooms, which turn the electricity off in case of a short or malfunction. They are inexpensive and easy to have installed.

AFTER KIDS ARRIVE: How to Carry Tools
The first danger comes from carrying tools. It is easy for a child to poke herself or someone else. In twenty years of woodworking with children this has never happened in my class, but it could have. Unless children have been shown otherwise, a child carrying a tool will often aim the point straight ahead or toward his own face. Points of saws, drills, screwdrivers, chisels, or any other tool should be aimed down, away from your face and body, away from your friend’s face and body, toward the floor. Saws should be carried parallel to the leg. Children should not run while carrying tools, or in a shop at all, for that matter. Demonstrate the correct way to hold tools and then be vigilant. Repeat safety advice. “Use it (the tool) or put it down,” is a good rule.

Saw/Vise Demonstration
The picture above shows what NOT to do. Experienced woodworkers often use a saw by placing the wood on a low bench and holding it with their knee or one hand. The thumb of the hand holding the wood guides the saw and the other hand moves the saw back and forth. Young children want to do the same thing. While it’s a good method for an experienced person, it is dangerous for a young beginner because it’s difficult to hold the wood still, guide the saw, and start the saw cut all at the same time. Because beginners push down too hard, the saw can jump out of the cut and land on a thumb or finger. This can happen even to an experienced carpenter.
Beginners should put the wood in a vise (so it won’t move) and keep both hands on the saw handle, away from sharp saw teeth. Later, after children have gained experience sawing wood in a vise, they can try the other way but they should clamp the wood to hold it still and wear a leather glove to protect the hand guiding the saw.

Woodworking requires children to remember many new things. It is unrealistic to expect they will remember everything related to safety the first time. Reminders are necessary. I couch these reminders in terms of safety, not in terms of breaking a rule: “I’m afraid if you run in the shop you’ll get hurt.” “If you’re goofing around, the saw might accidentally cut your friend.” “If we don’t sweep up this sawdust, someone might slip.” Children see these rules make sense. A big part of being a woodworking teacher is internalizing these rules (posting them on the wall won’t help) and dishing them out at appropriate times. If you’ve set things up right and done careful demonstrations, kids will respond. Here are my rules:
• Two hands on saw handle
• Use it or put it down
• No open toe shoes; in other words, no sandals or flip flops
• Clean up after each work period or more frequently if necessary
• No fooling around
• No running
• Wear goggles
• Long hair should be tied up (good habit for future power tool users)
• Put the wood in a vise before sawing or drilling

Airborne Sawdust
Today, with childhood asthma on the increase, and with the knowledge that severe allergic reactions to airborne sawdust have occurred in adults, I’d feel remiss if I didn’t mention allergic reaction to wood. I don’t know of any scientific research pertaining specifically to children and exposure to sawdust. I assume information about adults is also valid with children, probably to a greater extent. Before I scare everyone, it seems that given the small amount of sawdust children produce and the short time they are exposed to it, the risk is no more, and probably much less, than for other airborne particles children might be exposed to. Nevertheless, for a child with a chemical sensitivity or with asthma, reactions to wood dust are conceivable. The following information is also important for the person preparing materials, whose exposure is considerably more than for children.

When wood is sawn or sanded, especially with power tools, minute particles of wood dust go into the air and can be inhaled. Long-term exposure to these particles can cause respiratory problems. To keep from breathing wood dust, professional woodworkers are required to have dust collection systems which suck sawdust from stationary tools and filter the air. These systems help tremendously, but it’s impossible to collect all the airborne sawdust, especially from tools like the circular saw, router, and hand sander, which put far more sawdust in the air than a child sanding.
To protect against this localized sawdust, woodworkers wear, or should wear, a properly fitting dust mask. On construction sites where there is no dust collection system, dust masks (respirators are better) are important, especially when cutting chemically treated woods which contain poisons, and plywood or particle board which contain toxic glues. It is only prudent to take as many precautions as possible. If you don’t have a dust collection system, work outside and wear a dust mask. Certainly for children, treated wood should be avoided and I seldom used plywood because of the glues.

When children start using power sanders and other power tools (as they do in some middle school shop classes) a dust collection system should be in place and students should wear a dust mask. In the short term, wood dust particles can cause mild reactions or hypersensitive reactions. Mild reactions (also called irritant reactions) are like hives, itching, or welts. Although I’ve never encountered a child with a mild reaction, I have a friend for whom fir is an irritant. Soon after coming into a room where fir has been sawn or sanded, her eyes and arms begin to itch. If she sticks around, welts appear on her arms. Her reaction subsides soon after she leaves the area where fir is being worked with. Many other woods cause similar reactions, so be on the lookout for hives, welts and extreme itching.
Just as a very few people are hypersensitive to chemicals, peanuts, or bee stings, a person can be hypersensitive to a particular wood. These reactions are extremely rare. If it is known a child is hypersensitive to wood dust of any kind, I would be very hesitant to have them in woodworking class.

As a teacher (or parent), prepare as you would for a child hypersensitive to bee stings by being aware of the possibilities, keeping the phone and emergency telephone numbers handy, and taking first aid training. Avoid using tropical hardwoods like cocobolo, ebony, and iroko, which cause more reactions than domestic woods.
A young child with asthma might be more sensitive to wood dust than someone who doesn’t have asthma. Consult parents. Perhaps an extra small dust mask could be used. Another option is a sanding box. This is a shallow box, with a wire screen top, hooked to a shop-vac. If sanding is done over the box most of the sawdust goes into the box and then to the shop-vac instead of going into the surrounding air. Put the shop-vac outside to reduce noise.
Woodworking does have the potential to be dangerous. Knowledgeable supervision, appropriate tools, and good habits make it safe. Children quickly see the connection between unsafe use of tools and injury. They work hard to follow rules. Children love woodworking and it is amazing to watch how safety-conscious, interested, and motivated a child can be. Use the proper setup, show them how to safely use tools, remind them when they forget, help them when they need it, and watch the creations materialize.

A Few Words About Hand Tools
Hand tools are perfect for preschool and elementary school age kids. They are safe if used properly, user-friendly, easy to find, and, when compared to power tools, inexpensive. They are quiet (sort of) and allow kids to exchange ideas as they work. Useful hand-tool skills can be acquired quickly and used throughout a lifetime. Nevertheless, people ask about using power tools with kids.

I can’t imagine anyone would think of letting young children use high speed cutting tools like a table saw, circular saw, or router. Would you give them the keys to the car? But what about a battery drill or hand orbital sander? My advice is to help kids develop competence with hand tools before attempting any power tool.

My first experience with the hand tool/power tool issure was with kindergarteners. I had a group of 4 kids and we were taking a VCR apart. The kids were having a good time helping each other using tools and learning there were different kinds of screws. I made sure to have two of each kind of screwdriver (slotted, philips, big, little, medium) so they wouldn’t have to fight over who go which tool. Then I thought why not let them use my little 6 volt battery drill? Big mistake. It changed everything. All of a sudden the issue was not which screw or thing should be removed but who go to use the drill. I had basically taken a great activity where kids were interested and having fun and changed it into an activity where kids were arguing and unhappy.

I made this to help kids learn there are different kinds of screws

For projects young children will be doing there is no reason to use power tools. The purpose of using a power tool is to do repetitive jobs faster. If you have lots of holes to drill, screws to put in, or boards to sand, power tools are definitely handy. For a few holes or screws or boards, they aren’t much help, not worth the added danger and hassle. Using hand tools and learning they can be dangerous is laying the ground work for the safe use of power tools. Even battery drills can be quite powerful. It’s quite easy to drill a hole in your hand (I’ve done it more than once) or twist a wrist or finger, or get hair caught in the chuck. Young children are usually not strong enough to keep the bit from spinning inside the screw head. Both the screw and the bit get chewed up. Hand tools can be a sort of test, too. One time I walk into a class for high school kids that had been taught by another person. I told the kids we would be using hand tools for the first couple classes. This allowed me a chance to get to know whether I could trust them with power tools. Did they listen to and follow directions? If they don’t follow directions about hand tools what are the chances they will listen when the stakes are higher?

The orbital sander is noisy and produces a lot of airborne sawdust. For small jobs, hand sanding is easier.
When kids are in middle school you can consider the battery drill and orbital sanders. But in my opinion, there should be a good reason or a real advantage for using them. Here are two examples:
Several adults, including myself, helped 24 kids build six boats. We let kids use battery drills because there were hundreds of holes to drill. We dealt with the increased danger issue by having one adult supervising each boat (four kids). We didn’t use the orbital sanders because there was plenty of labor; that is, there was no good reason for using it. If we had introduced sanders, there would have been one kid working and three standing around talking about who was to do the work. Even though there was quite a bit of sanding, with four kids hand sanding, the work was finished quickly and everyone was part of it.

I helped set up a project where 8th graders constructed a set of Builder Boards for the local women’s care shelter. I had the kids use hand orbital sanders for sanding. There was an incredible amount of sanding and lots of other jobs too, so we had to think about efficiency. A dust collection system was in place, so we didn’t have to worry about breathing sawdust.

-- Jack,

4 comments so far

View DLC's profile


44 posts in 2596 days

#1 posted 02-21-2017 12:24 PM

Jack, I really appreciate this great documentation on your experience doing woodworking with kids. I’m looking for ways to approach having my own kids in the shop, as well as ways to involve my son’s local outdoor troop. So, thanks very much for this great information.

-- Daniel, Durham, NC

View a1Jim's profile


118155 posts in 4553 days

#2 posted 02-21-2017 01:13 PM

Hi Jack Welcome to LJs
This is a wonderful blog teaching children woodworking is a whole different thing than teaching older teens or adults ,you have a good grasp on many if the basis that could easily be skipped over if you hadn’t given a lot of thought to the whole subject involving the many differences when teaching children and their needs. Excellent blog very well done.


View sras's profile


5765 posts in 4105 days

#3 posted 02-22-2017 05:44 PM

Excellent summary – Thanks for sharing.

What age range do you work with?

-- Steve - Impatience is Expensive

View Jack McKee's profile

Jack McKee

27 posts in 1439 days

#4 posted 02-22-2017 06:36 PM

At the Montessori school I set up a “shop” class for 4-6 year olds. For the parks I had two classes 6-8, and 8-12.
I have done some boat building, builder board construction and log building with middle schoolers which I will post about later. You know, I think the most important things kids learn from woodworking, is the idea that they can make things. I often saw kids I had in preschool a few years later in my summer class and they often forgot the details of how to use a saw or vice but they still had the,”I can build it attitude.”

-- Jack,

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