Eco-Woodworking Tips

Here is a collection of miscellaneous tips to help you be a more eco-conscious woodworker:

Dust control

Controlling the dust in your shop not only improves the quality of the air you breath but also makes it easier to collect sawdust for mulch and other eco-pursuits. Poor dust collection can lead to health problems that range from allergies, eye, throat, and skin irritation to blood problems and in extreme cases, nasal cancer. Fine dust is the biggest culprit because it’s more likely to escape into the air and get into your body.  The type of wood also matters. Hardwoods are generally regarded as more hazardous to our health than softwoods, although western red cedar is a notable exception. Dust from this softwood is one of the most hazardous known.

A growing number of woodworkers have come to realize the benefits of investing in an effective woodshop dust collection system. In addition to health and safety benefits, a dust collection system can improve product quality (no dust in the finish), reduce maintenance costs by keeping machinery cleaner, and enhance the morale of people working in the shop. And the sawdust can be put to good use as mulch and animal bedding. Companies that generate and collect large amounts of sawdust can also sell it to power-generator plants, steam-generator plants and particleboard plants. Some companies even have systems in place to form the sawdust into briquettes that can be burned in a wood furnace. Now, that’s recycling…

There are many resources out there to assist one in designing a dust collection system. A handy reference booklet on designing a dust collection system is Dust Collection Basics by Woodstock International. Another good reference book is Woodshop Dust Control by Sandor Nagyszalanczy.

Natural lighting

Using natural sunlight to light a woodshop is an eco-woodworking tactic that conserves electricity and lowers your utility bills. (Did you know that electric lighting consumes about one fourth of all energy generated in the U.S.?)  Natural light also creates a working environment that can contribute to good health, comfort and productivity. Many studies have demonstrated that natural light has positive psychological effects on people. Another benefit of natural light is that, compared to fluorescent lights, it better approximates the lighting in our homes. This helps when finishing or photographing furniture which is typically destined for a home environment.

There are a number of ways to improve the quality and quantity of natural light in a woodshop. If you have the opportunity to build a shop from scratch, consider orienting the building so as to maximize the daily sun exposure or “solar gain”.  The optimum position is true south although you can vary the orientation plus or minus 20 degrees of true south with acceptable results. Of course, if you do most of your woodworking early or late in the day, a more easterly or westerly orientation respectively would work well.

Using lots of windows is obviously a key aspect of maximizing the sunlight in your shop. But the challenge is to admit as much light as possible without causing excessive winter heat loss or summer heat gain or glare. Fortunately, there are now many new types of high-performance window glazing on the market that make it possible to use a lot more glass while minimizing heat loss, heat gain and glare. There is even glazing with a high UV value that will block nearly all furniture-fading ultraviolet rays.

If you want to get more natural light into areas that are away from windows, there are several techniques that can help. One is to bounce natural light off the ceiling by locating windows close to the ceiling or using louvers or blinds to direct the light.  Another technique is to use a “light shelf” to ricochet light off the ceiling and back into the room. This shelf is covered with a highly reflective coating that faces upward. It may be mounted inside or outside although outside usually works best. Skylights can also be used to get sunlight into the more interior portions of a building.

Know your Woods

Knowing your woods helps you to select the best woods for a specific application and perhaps prevent having to use pressure treated or other non eco-friendly materials. For example, cypress, northern white cedar and western red cedar are naturally resistant to water and insects. Such woods can be left untreated or minimally treated and still provide many years of service and beauty. And, unlike the pressure-treated wood alternative, they won’t leach toxic chemicals into the soil and ground water. Black locust is another wood that is naturally rot resistant. In years past, it was often used for fence posts, railroad ties, insulators, and other outdoor applications where rot resistance and durability were important.

Improving your wood IQ can help you select woods for projects that are eco-friendly alternatives to endangered rain-forest and old-growth lumber species. These include certified well-managed woods, domestic second growth, and responsibly managed tropical plantation woods. For example, second growth hardwoods such as oak, ash, maple, and alder are often viable substitutes for tropical rainforest woods such as mahogany, teak, and Brazilian cherry. And plantation-grown pine can be an alternative to using old-growth hemlock and Douglas fir.