Breathing Clean Air While Woodworking – Your 101 Guide

Breathing clean air in a wood-shop is a top priority. If it's not, you should make it  one. There is two kinds of dust in woodshop. There is sawdust that you can see while doing jobs like using a table saw. But there is also the kind that you cannot see with the naked eye, but it's there in the air and you are breathing it.

Long term exposure to dust and fumes cannot be a good thing and this is one of the serious health hazards a woodworker is subjected to. Just like you have safety guards on your tools and safety gear you can wear, there also needs to be a mechanism to give you clean air to breathe. We have mentioned good ventilation as the first measure when you want to clear the air of toxic fumes. We will explain why this is so later on in the post.

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A good ventilation system also helps with the sawdust but what you really need is a dust collection system as well as a respiratory filter unit.

A dust collection system can catch a lot of the larger coarser dust that is created during jobs like drilling, using a table saw and sanding.

But this does not prevent you from inhaling the finer dust that can be suspended in the air.

Certain jobs like wood turning can throw up massive clouds of dust. Even sanding can do the same specially if you are using a power sander like a belt or an orbital sander.

The best and perhaps the only way to keep the finer sawdust out of your lungs is to use a respiratory system. These come in several shapes and sizes. The simplest one is regular cloth mask that you can buy cheaply. But these are to be avoided. By a slightly better quality.

So how do you tell a cheap mask from a better one? Avoid the masks that come with just one strap at the back and with no reading as to their finishing ability.

The air filter and capability of the mask is depicted by a reading which is usually an alphabetical letter followed by a number, for example, N95.

Usually for sawdust any mask with a rating of 95 and above is good regardless of the letter before it. What do the number and the letters on an air mask mean…?

The number 95 means that the filter can remove 95% of the particulate in the air. This number goes up to 100 which means it will filter out 99.97% of particle contaminants provided they are 0.3 µm in diameter or larger.

The alphabet before the number shows whether the mask is resistant to oil-bases fumes in the air. The letter N means not resistant, R means somewhat water resistant (resistant for 8 hours, or according to the product specification) and P means oilproof.

Sawdust particles are typically 30 to 600 µm in size. They are clearly large enough to be caught and filtered out by any these masks and respirators. However, the fumes that come off the solvent based woodworking finish can be as small as .001 µm. So even a respirator rated at P100 you will not be able to filter out these fumes completely. That is why the number one recommendation for getting clean air to breathe while working with chemical fumes is good ventilation, As well as isolating that work in a smaller area. Confining the fumes to the small area makes it easier to blow them out using a simple exhaust.

Different respirators for fumes and sawdust.

Working with fumes.

Working with fumes is tricky if you want complete filtration. Sometimes the chemical solvents you are using will have the information on the label about what kind of a respirator unit and filter you should use with it.

Working with sawdust and working with fumes that come from solvents, paints and woodworking finishes require different kinds of respirators. As we have already mentioned N95 is an adequate rating for working with sawdust. It is also somewhat effective with certain kinds of fumes but it is a particulate filter, also because of the N rating which means “not resistant” to oil.

Similarly, R means “somewhat resistant”, which means that the filter will be effective against oil in the air but only for 8 hours or so. After that it’s ability to filter will deteriorate. Read the document that comes with it for specific instructions.

P rating means “resistant” to oil but like all other filters even these have a life and will have to be replaced.

Using Specially Treated Activated Charcoal Cartridges In A Respirator

If you are working with chemical fumes you need respirators that come with attachable filter pads. You can choose filter pads are chemical filters that are capable of filtering out chemical fumes from the air. They are used in conjunction with a pre-filter which is particulate filter, with a rating of P100.

P100 masks are also known as high efficiency filters and as mentioned before are capable of blocking 99.97% of all particulate matter when properly worn, and are resistant to oil in the air. So while working with the chemical filters they are effective in removing the larger droplets of the chemical from the air.

The advantage of using a respirator with attachable cartridges is that you can use a chemical cartridge meant specially for removing fumes and gases from the air. These cartridges mostly contain specially treated activated charcoal which has a strong property to absorb gases.

You should set up a replacement schedule for the filters and cartridges for your respirator. You will probably be able to tell when it’s time to change because you will start smelling the fumes, but it’s better to read the instructions and replace the filters before they start failing. You can also record your experience as to how long they last before they start failing, and set up your own filter replacement schedule.

All manufacturers for respirator filter cartridges use the same colour coding for their gas and fumes filtering capability. View the chart below.

Filter color codes

In a nutshell, the highest rated P100 particulate filter with a respirator with attached chemical cartridges, together with a good ventilation system will give you more than adequate protection in your wood shop from paint, finish and solvent fumes.

Using Respirators

Half Face Respirators.

One step ahead of the facemasks are the half face respirators. They are used for two main reasons. They are a better fit and can provide a better seal against the face, not allowing the contaminated air to creep in from the sides. Secondly, they are re-usable. There filter pads can be replaced when they get choked. They also come with the option of attaching cartridges that have different filtering abilities.

Overall, the filtering performance as well as the breathability of these respirators is a step above the regular cloth masks.

These respirators also come as a fullface shield. You have a clear see-through shield covering the front of your face and the entire unit is sealed around your forehead, back of the jaw and under the chin. I am attaching a few links below. As a full disclosure, these are affiliate links which means that while it will not cost you anything extra, we will receive a small advertises fee as compensation. However, these products are not listed for the sake of advertisement but as good faith recommendations that we believe will serve you a good purpose.


1) 3M Half Facepiece Reusable Respirator 6300/07026. This is a very good general purpose half face respirator. It is compatible with several filters and cartridges made by 3M as well as other companies. It is re-usable and can be used for filtering out particulate matter like saw dust as well as chemical fumes. It’s reasonably priced at $8.99.

2) 3M Particulate Respirator Mask 8511, N95. This is a pack for ten for face masks rated at N95. They are ideal for working with sawdust.

3) GVS SPR457 Elipse P100 Half Mask Respirator, Medium and Large. This is a good option when working with saw dust. It is a half face respirator, reusable with replaceable filter cartridges and offers a good comfortable fit.

4) 3M Half Facepiece Respirator Assembly 6291/07002(AAD), Medium, with 3M(TM) Particulate Filters 2091/07000(AAD), P100 – Another powerful particulate filter with a P100 rating by 3M.

5) 3M 62023HA1-C Professional Multi-Purpose Respirator, Medium. A highly rated respirator meant for both particulate AND use with chemical fumes.

Full Face Respirators

Full face respirators have the advantage of offering full face protection, not only against the fumes but also splatters of the finish or paint. They also get tend to provide better vision without obstruction and can be more comfortable to wear.

These are some full face respirators…

1) 3M 7162 Full-Facepiece Spray Paint Respirator – Organic Vapor. This is a full face respirator capable  of handling organic vapour and fumes. So it’s perfect for your wood finish and painting work.

2) 3M Full Facepiece Reusable Respirator 6900/54159. This is a multi-purpose full face respirator that you can use with many different filter cartridges deepening on the work you are doing. You can use particulate filters like P100 or the advanced chemically treated ones to filter out fumes and gases as well.

There is also a battery powered version of these fullface respirators. 

These are supposed to be the last word in dust and air filtration. I could only find two companies on Amazon that were selling this kind of a product. Both are well known brands and have been selling this product for a very long time.

These units have a set of fans at the back of the helmet that pull in filtered air and circulate it inside the shield. Since the face shield is sealed around your face the pumping of the air creates a slightly positive pressure inside. The result is that you can breathe easily. You do not have to physically pull in the air through the air filters with your lungs, which no matter how good they are, do offer some resistance. Also, any dust outside stays outside.

The battery pack to power this unit is a rechargeable unit that is either worn on the belt at the back or fits into the helmet itself.

These kind of battery powered full-face face shields offer the best protection whenever you are stirring up a lot of dust in your workplace. They are also the most expensive options when it comes to buying face-shields and respirators. But if your work requires it, there is really no better alternative. Keeping your lungs healthy is more important than the cost of these filtering units.

The first one is TREND AIR/PRO Airshield and Faceshield Dust Protector and the more expensive one and heavy duty one,  3M Versaflo Heavy Industry PAPR Kit TR-300-HIK

So while you don’t have to go for the motorised versions do try out and find a respirator that allows you to breathe clean and clear the air in your wood-shop.

A Simple And Effective Dust Collection System For Your Wood Shop

There are probably many ways of setting up a dust collection system in your wood shop. Some of them can get expensive, specially if you buy specialised equipment from the market. In this post we are going to detail a very basic and yet effective dust collection system that will work with most of your woodworking activities and tools.

You can easily assemble it yourself. We are also going to post a video showing you exactly how to build the system for yourself in your own shop.

The idea behind a dust collection system is to eliminate sawdust at the source while you are working with tools like a table saw, drilling table, sanding table et cetera. This leaves less work for your respirator and the ventilation system to make the air clean and breathable for you. It also means less amount of dust to clean up from the floor which is a hazard on its own because sawdust is slippery.

While you will not eliminate sawdust completely with a dust collection system, you will have a lot less dust around your wood shop .

The efficiency of dust collection depends also depends on the tool and how good the in-build system for dust collection is in that tool. All reasonably decent woodworking tools have a dust collection port which can be attached to a regular shop vacuum cleaner through a hose. But the internal system of the tool also determines how effectively the dust gets pulled.

The easiest way of setting up a dust collection is to use a shop Vac attached to a tools that has a dust collection outlet.

However, if you are looking to create an easy to use and efficient dust collection system, you will probably not want to drag the vacuum cleaner from one tool to another while using different tools.

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You can set up a basic and effective collection system using a Shop-vac and a few hoses. Using this system all the tools can simultaneously use the same vacuum cleaner without having the need for you to move it all around the wood shop. Watch the video below for a clear, concise and complete setup guide.

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