Working Wood Safely with Children

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.

A small eggbeater drill with a twist bit is an excellent first tool for a child.

A small eggbeater drill with a twist bit is an excellent first tool for a child.

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.

This is the correct way to handle a carving gouge or paring chisel--both hands behind the cutting edge at all times!

This is the correct way to handle a carving gouge or paring chisel–both hands behind the cutting edge at all times!

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.

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15 Responses to Working Wood Safely with Children

  1. Bob Jones says:

    Congrats on the article publication.

  2. Steve Massie says:

    Nice write up and “Congratulation” Steve and I concur whole heartily with what you are saying, I practice the same principles you do with my 7 year old Grandson. Now the Boy’s Father on the other is another story and he carry’s a Gun for a living LOL.

    Steve

  3. As a Registered Nurse who has worked in the Emergency Room, thank you.

  4. Brian J. Stafford says:

    Wonderful post. May I re-post this on my blog?

  5. Jeremy says:

    Excellent Post. Much in line with what I practice with my kids (11 & 8) but picked up a couple of thins here

  6. Brian J. Stafford says:

    Reblogged this on Eyeball to Eyeball and commented:
    Here is a nice post by a fellow hand tool woodworker about safely introducing children to working wood with hand tools. I find his blog most informative and enjoyable. Read more of his posts at http://literaryworkshop.wordpress.com

  7. Andy says:

    Great read…..Working with kids is always a challenge so safety is paramount. We tend to underestimate the capabilities of young children but given the correct supervision with safety measures in place they can, and do, often achieve more than we expect.

  8. Norman Keedwell says:

    I started using woodworking tools at the age of 5 years old I am now 62 and still have all my fingers,I also started to use metal working tool in a Machine shop at the age of 8 years old if you take the time to show kids how to use the tool then there should be no problem. I was also taught that all tool are out to get you so treat them with respect

    • Thanks for your perspective, Norman. I’m so glad to hear from older people who got their training young. I have yet to hear from anybody who regretted getting that kind of early exposure to tools.

  9. Al says:

    Very nice article. I teach 7-12 grade at a special needs school. I sometimes forget the emotional difficulties mt students have. No accidents so far but my 7th graders can be trained how to use the band saw. I just haven’t done it yet. I’ll be on the lookout for other articles on tool safety with children.

  10. Ralph C says:

    A few simple rules: shoes are a must, no running, do not talk to someone using a machine, safety glasses, and hearing protection. Supervise closely while allowing them to learn.

    • In general, yes. But I don’t think safety glasses and hearing protection should be used indiscriminately. Of course they should be used when there’s a risk of injury to eyes and ears, but many woodworking operations (especially with hand tools) don’t pose those kinds of risks. I’m working on a separate blog post about this.

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