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I do my woodworking in a small basement, with medium-poor air circulation. I will probably end up buying an air filter (I'm looking at the Jet AFS-500) anyway, since it seems like a good idea for the dust my dust extraction misses.

I see that that many of these systems allow the installation of active-charcoal filters, and I'm wondering if using such a filter will allow me to safely apply finishes in my basement workshop (brush or wipe, not spray)? Are there any common finishing products which produce fumes that would not be handled by such a filter?

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"All" (like "always" or "never") is generally a bad wording, since unless the question is "Do all people have to die?", the answer must obviously be "no". There are very few absolutes in nature.

But in general, yes, a coal filter will absorb fumes like solvents / paint thinner and other organic substances (like the ones that escape from PU coatings, or alcohols). It will not catch all, but a reasonably high proportion (upwards of 99.9%).

However, in order to be reasonably safe, you should wear a mask in addition to the air filter, as it will take some time and a few revolutions of the air volume in your shop for the filter to pick up the fumes, and you still inhale them while swinging your brush.

The air filter (or dust collection, likewise) is good at making the air breathable for when you come back after lunch or the next morning, but it's not sufficient while you are working and inhaling hazardous particles or chemicals as they're being generated and you're bent over with your nose close to the source. It's better than nothing, of course, but all by itself not sufficient.

When I say "mask", I mean something that looks like this. There exist different filters for these, and different normatives. "SL" is not optimal (designed for aerosols, but will also catch some gas) but should do ("S" will not do!) but preferrably you want "A1" or "A2" which are suitable for organic gases with a "normal" boiling point and only differ in price and how many sigmas of absorption you get (price is not that much of a factor, so I'd go "A2" in any case). There's filters that combine A2 with E1 (acidic gases) and some combos that catch anorganic gases on top. I don't use these (you don't have chlorine gas in your shop, do you!).
For woodworking dust, generally "P1" should be enough, "P2" catches stuff that you normally only get when soldering or laser-cutting... but alas, I'll also use the better one just in case.
There's filters that combine P and A, but I'm wary of these. Wouldn't want to wear out the coal filter while brathing "only " dust... but of course they're comfortable, one thing catches all.

Do note that coal filters have a considerably limited life time, after which they will cease to absorb chemicals. Be absolutely positively sure to read the instructions and comply with them (that is, change filter after a said time), or your "safety" equipment will eventually stop working without you being aware, leaving you a false sense of safety.

  • Good point about the "all" wording, I edited the question. The use case here is together with a mask, but when I leave the project to dry (cure?), I'd like the vapors to leave faster than the room's normal ventilation would provide. From your answer it sounds like it would be a good solution. – Spacemoose Feb 18 '16 at 13:18
  • Might want to clarify that you should wear a respirator vs a "mask" which I usually associate with a dust mask – Steven Feb 18 '16 at 21:28
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    Specifically, a respirator with an organic vapor cartridge. – Jason C Feb 18 '16 at 23:02
  • Yes, as you've mentioned, the "first pass" efficacy of filters can vary substantially by design/brand. For example one might be like 76% after one pass through, then 94% after the second pass, while another might 95% after the first pass, and yet a third 60% after pass number one... sometimes it's difficult or to find these "first pass" only ratings. – NOTjust -- user4304 Mar 5 '18 at 18:28
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Are active charcoal air filters effective against finishing fumes?

I'm wondering if using such a filter will allow me to safely apply finishes in my basement workshop (brush or wipe, not spray)?

These are actually two very different questions.

The first is probably best answered no (some effect but without data to go on you can't rely on them). The second is obviously highly dependent on all the many variables.

The main variable is actually you, since individual responses to VOCs vary a great deal — some people can work around varnish all day without apparent ill effect, some people the spirit vapours makes them feel sick in a very short time. In addition there is the type of finish or finishes (so different solvents or solvent mixtures), the amount of ventilation in the basement (total air exchange) and last but not least, the length and frequency of exposure.

Assuming no protection, if an average person doesn't finish too frequently in their basement and for not too long a period each time in general they shouldn't have much to worry about from using varnish or shellac, but bear in mind that wiping varnish is much higher in spirits than regular varnish so the solvent vapours will be consequently higher (possibly double or triple).

Elsewhere in the house
Last thing to bear in mind is how the air from the basement vents into the rest of the house, since the basement obviously doesn't exist in isolation. If you have central air then there's a possibility that some significant portion of the VOCs will end up in other rooms, or all rooms, of the house.

Very low levels at low frequency are usually nothing to worry about, but again people's responses vary. Obviously any babies or children must be considered, ideally their exposures should be as close to zero as possible.


If you want to be completely safe when using finishes to protect yourself from VOCs then you should wear a respirator with the appropriate solvent-rated cartridge fitted. Note these can have a surprisingly small usage window once the seal is broken and continue to degrade even when you are not finishing, consequently some users store theirs in ziplock baggies between uses to protect them from air and extend their life.

If you want to work largely unprotected you should read up on some of the relevant numbers in MSDS safety documents, in particular PELs (Permitted Exposure Levels) and TWAs (Time-Weighted Averages). A starting point here.


No-VOC finishes
There are some finishes to consider that have no VOCs and they would of course be the safest options. This would be principally BLO but also tung oil and walnut oil, as well as a soap finish.

Wax may seem to be no-VOC options but paste waxes are made soft with the addition of some spirits so they do give off a little solvent vapour, but it is very little and usually nothing to concern yourself with.

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