Some time ago, I wrote a series of blog posts on woodworking with children, and the March 2014 issue of WOOD Magazine features my article on working wood alongside children (see the “Unvarnished” column). Occasionally, though, people wonder whether the woodshop is too dangerous a place for children. I think that if your workshop is too dangerous for a child, it is too dangerous for anybody. In my experience, any child who is able to write his or her own name and/or color inside lines has the manual dexterity necessary to use most hand tools safely. As of today, my own children have a better safety record in the shop than I do, and I want to share my principles for shop safety with children.
First, ALWAYS model safe woodworking procedures. If you do not follow basic safety rules yourself, you have NO business supervising anybody else in the workshop—much less children. If you decide to invite children into your shop, take the opportunity to become a stickler for safety.
Second, match the child to the tool and the tool to the child. I have met 18-year-olds that I wouldn’t trust with a pair of scissors, much less a carving gouge. My second child, on the other hand, is very cautious and meticulous by nature. Although she is young, I trust her to use sharp tools. Know each child’s capabilities and limits. Furthermore, be sure that both tools and work surfaces are appropriate to smaller bodies. If a child must stand on something to reach a benchtop, be sure the stool or riser is totally stable and unlikely to slip out from under him or her. (The floor is sometimes the most dangerous part of a workshop.) Better yet, make your child a kid-sized bench–about 26-28” high is ideal.) Provide small-scale tools for small hands, such as small eggbeater drills, 8-10 oz. hammers, #2 and #3 smoothing planes, and 6”-8” braces. And remember, a dull edge tool is even more dangerous than a sharp one.
Third, explain and demonstrate safe handling techniques for all tools. I try to state safety rules positively: “always cut away from yourself” rather than “never cut toward yourself”; and “always put the workpiece in a clamp or vise” rather than “never hold a workpiece with only your off-hand.” I both explain and demonstrate the cutting power of each tool as I introduce it to my children. Thus, they know what “sharp” means, both from woodworking tools and from kitchen implements. In the workshop, I do not tolerate unsafe technique any more than I tolerate horseplay. If a child is too tired, too distracted, or or too frustrated to think clearly, he or she leaves the work area immediately—and the same goes for myself!
Forth, always supervise. Be willing to set aside your own work to watch your children work, especially when they are just learning how to use a tool. Stand behind him or her so that you do not distract the child—I think that hovering in the child’s field of vision can be nearly as dangerous as not watching the child at all. Allow the child to focus totally on what he or she is doing. Gently correct faulty technique verbally, but do not try to grab a sharp tool out of a child’s hand—if you do, both of you may get hurt! Do your best to just stand back and watch. Remember to secure all sharp tools when you are not present. My tool chest locks securely, and other sharp tools are stored on wall racks mounted up out of children’s reach. Nevertheless, children grow up. Don’t forget to tell your children when they are mature enough to work unsupervised.
Fifth, remember that some power tools can injure people without touching them. If you choose to use power tools—especially the table saw, band saw, or powered sander—while children are present, be sure to provide suitable protection for their eyes, ears, and respiratory systems. I prefer not to use power tools at all when my children are present, as their noise prevents me from listening to what my children are doing. My children do not currently use power tools, and they won’t use the band saw or table saw until they are ready to operate the biggest power tool I own: the family car.
Lastly, do not expose your children to the risks of ignorance. The first time I tried to cut a tenon on a piece of wood, I was 18 or 19 years old, and I ended up injuring my little brother while doing it because I had no idea what I was doing—thank heaven I was using a hand saw and not a table saw! If the first time a person picks up a sharp tool is at 10, 15, or 20 years old, that person is going to get somebody hurt. Be honest with your children (and yourself!) about the risks inherent in woodworking, and help them learn safe work habits early. I believe that my children need to know how to handle tools safely as soon as they are able to handle them at all.