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I have recently discovered carving as a very relaxing and pleasant hobby. From small branches of wood I whittle hair-sticks with interesting shapes (the kind of object you use to put long hair up) with small knives and use sandpaper (by hand) of various grits to even out the shape, make the surface smoother and shinier. I like to do the sanding outside, but I do it in my living room sometimes.

I was never concerned about the safety of using sandpaper (at least manually) until I stumbled upon the subject somewhere on the web. Virtually everybody recommends using dust masks when sanding wood, but it seems that people generally refer to using power tools on large-ish things like pieces of furniture..?

I am generally very (and sometimes over-)concerned about my health. On the one hand the amount of dust generated by finishing hair sticks seems very much insignificant compared to what kinds or techniques of woodworking are commonly assumed, but on the other what do I know, really! I have been uneasy working on the sticks since I read all the horror stories.

So my question is, should I still wear a dust mask - or are my lungs damaged more by walking by a busy street for five minutes?

  • I'm going to assume that you settle on "yes" (to the "do I need to be concerned" aspect), and show you a nifty device, that goes on the bench top. It's probably adequate to protect you and more comfy than a mask. And no, I don't work for Grizzly :) http://www.grizzly.com/products/Benchtop-Dual-Fan-Dust-Filter/G9955?utm_campaign=zPage – user1457 May 14 '16 at 15:15
  • It depends a great deal on whether you are woking with a specific wood that you are "sensitized" to - if so, you need to take extreme precautions (the normal one being to stop working with that wood at all) as it's pretty much a severe allergic reaction. Certain tropical woods are far more prone to having these concerns... – Ecnerwal Mar 27 '17 at 15:19
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It's a question of degree.

Extensive sanding, especially by machine, puts a lot of fine wood dust into the air for extended periods. Even with dust collection, in that environment a dust mask is a very good idea.

If you're doing small amounts of sanding by hand, the exposure is much less and the body is more able to deal with it it. You might still want to consider an inexpensive mask as cheap insurance, but I wouldn't consider it necessary.

I happen to already have a decent cartridge-style respirator, but for what you describe I probably wouldn't bother with it... even thjough, since I have it on hand, it does sometimes get used for lower-hazard tasks.

One caution: some woods are more toxic than others, and some can cause serious allergic-style reactions in some people. Sanding is one of the stronger local skin exposures, so if you are going to react to something this may be when it happens. More of a risk with "exotic" tropical woods, and unlikely to be serious unless your system is already compromised, but something to be aware of. If in doubt, stop for a while and wash off.

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Your risk is probably very small here, but I do want to suggest caution. Within reason there are no downsides to taking precautions to protect yourself from dust, and there might be ill effects if you don't. No need to go overboard, but wearing a simple dust mask when sanding wouldn't do any harm. It's a first line of defence to keep from inhaling the dust.

The thing about wood dusts generally is that they can be irritants, and at worst the irritant effect can build over time, and unfortunately you don't know ahead of time what species might have negative effects for you since it varies from person to person and how sensitive you might be..... nobody knows if they're allergic to something until they're allergic to it!

Virtually everybody recommends using dust masks when sanding wood, but it seems that people generally refer to using power tools on large-ish things like pieces of furniture..?

You probably know this already from your reading but there is some good reasoning behind this. It's partially about the far greater amounts of dust generated by power sanding of course but powered sanding* generates quantities of the finest dusts and it is these that are the most damaging, e.g. because they can be inhaled deepest into the lungs.

So my question is, should I still wear a dust mask - or are my lungs damaged more by walking by a busy street for five minutes?

Possibly yes and possibly yes :-) It depends on the wood and how much of the dust you inhale, and on the street in question. But most of all it depends on you, everyone's response to irritants is different.

*Power-tool processes in general are capable of creating much finer dusts than hand-tool processes.

  • Virtually everyone recommends a mask, but virtually no one uses a mask when sanding small sticks. – Ast Pace May 13 '16 at 22:36
  • "Power-tool processes in general are capable of creating much finer dusts than hand-tool processes." - That's interesting. I've never heard that before. Do you have a reference? – Jambo Mar 27 '17 at 11:14
  • @Jambo It's widely understood that this is the case, sorry don't have a reference I can quickly point to but a quick Google search will confirm. – Graphus Apr 5 '17 at 7:28
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You probably need airflow and a mask.

I recently did 30 seconds of light sanding in my closed garage, while wearing a dust mask. 1 hour later I opened my garage and saw beams of sun light shining through and there was dust floating everywhere.

Now I keep the main garage door open and a fan at the other end, and I can see a lot of dust floating outside. Even when doing very small amounts of sanding.

It not be a big deal for most, but since I am extra sensitive, I need to take all the precautions.

Prior to this I had been sensitised to dust, and even coming in the garage a day after sanding gave me a bought of allergies, so I'm guess, the fine particles linger for at least a day after being produced.

  • I think your answer would be better as "You might need airflow and a mask if you are particularly sensitive". For hand-sanding small sticks, most people won't. – Martin Bonner Mar 27 '17 at 9:49
  • I think my answer stands regardless of sensitivity. My point was that even 30 sec resulted in floating particles 1 hour later. The point on sensitivity was just to highlight that the smaller dust particles probably float for a lot longer. Sensitive or not, I wouldn't want to be breathing that in as I am health concerned like the OP. – Dimithri Perera Mar 27 '17 at 21:39
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Any answer you get is going to be based largely on belief and gut feeling rather than hard fact. This is because people's environment and bodies differ greatly; the effects, if any, are usually seen in the very long term; and the most damaging dust is completely invisible. It's hard to know what the truth really is. I doubt anyone can truthfully tell you if you are going to have problems or not.

That said, I think if you are concerned and want to do something to reduce dust inhalation your best bet by far is to stop sanding inside.

Most living rooms have little ventilation and lots of soft furnishings so any dust you make is gonna stick around for you to breathe in long after you are finished. If you vacuum clean then the finest and most harmful dust will not be caught by the bag and will just be recirculated into the air unless maybe you have a vacuum cleaner for allergy sufferers. For this reason I think a mask will be very ineffective.

Since this is a hobby for you and its purpose is to be enjoyable I would remove all health concerns by making a nice area for you to do your sanding outside. It is my understanding that dust is harmless outside as it is quickly carried away by even the lightest breeze and when it gets wet it will fall to the ground and rot.

If you don't want to do that but still want reduce your risk (if there is any) then I'd recommend a proper mask with a silicone seal and replaceable filters for ultra-fine dust. It also has to fit your face well. I'm not convinced the disposable/semi-disposable ones seal to your face well enough to do anything.

You should also ensure your living room is well ventilated. Consider putting a fan in an open window to keep the air moving.

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