Sawdust happens. If you are a prop carpenter, or you do any sort of carpentry in your shop, you will produce sawdust. There’s been plenty written about maintaining the dust in your shop; that is, providing adequate ventilation in your shop, hooking your tools up to dust collectors, hanging dust filters above larger power tools, and wearing dust masks when necessary. That’s all important, but this post is about dealing with the dust that is left. Sawdust creates four hazards:
When you have a fine layer of sawdust on the ground, it reduces your traction. It is challenging enough to run a full sheet of plywood through a table saw. Don’t compound the struggle with slipping and sliding around on the floor. On lighter-colored floors, a thin layer of sawdust can be almost invisible and still cause slips and falls.
When you allow dust to hang around, everytime you drop a piece of wood or a prop, you will raise a cloud of dust. A lot of tools, especially routers and sanders, kick out a stream of air which will also blow sawdust into the air, and ultimately, into your lungs.
Ideally, your shop will be set up for seperate metal and wood areas. In reality, this is not always possible, especially with larger props which cannot be moved to the metal area, or props constructed with both wood and metal. Grinding throws out hot sparks which disappear quickly, but if they find a pile of easily-combustible sawdust, they may begin to smolder and even catch fire. More dangerous is welding around sawdust. I’ve seen plenty of small fires begin from the johnny balls that fly out of a welder and roll into a pile of dust.
All wood, even kiln dried, contains a minute percentage of moisture. When you turn the wood into dust, it allows the moisture to be released more easily. If you let even a thin layer of sawdust remain on your tools, the moisture will eventually begin to rust the metal parts. It makes no sense to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a tool with a precision-machined metal table only to let sawdust rust it away into a rough surface; especially when it takes about two seconds to brush the sawdust off.
This week (October 6-October 12, 2013) is Fire Prevention Week. It is a good time to remind ourselves to check that we are following all the proper fire prevention procedures, whether we work in theatre, an independent shop, or at home.
Fires happen. We should not pretend that they are a thing of the past, or that our laws and technology protect us. Every year, Patrick Hudson of OffstageJobs.com reminds us how many fires (that we hear of) happen in the entertainment industry; in 2012, there were at least 14. His posts do a good job of reminding us what the proper procedures are. And in case you think they can’t happen to you, he reminds us that the Iroquois Theatre thought the same (go read those articles now; I’ll wait). Despite its boast of being “fireproof” in a city with one of the strictest fire codes in the world, it caught fire in 1903 and killed 602 people. This was not the result of some grand failure, but rather a whole lot of little things that could have been avoided: exit doors were unmarked or blocked, lighting fixtures were in the path of the fire curtain, the scenery was not adequately flame-proofed, etc. Most of these were violations of existing fire code, rather than the lack of knowledge of how to prevent fires.
So while props people are typically not in charge of maintaining many of these things, as a member of the production team, we can still monitor them. If management or producers are pushing for unsafe practices (like covering the exit signs, or disabling the fire curtain), we can stand with the rest of the technicians so they do not need to fight the battle alone. We can keep our props out of stairwells and maintain clear egress paths through our storage areas. If we have prop fire extinguishers, keep them labelled well and far away from real fire extinguishers. Leave flammables in the flammables cabinet. If you are not aware of all the regulations and procedures to follow, Fire Prevention Week is a good time to brush up.
And if you work in your rental home or apartment (and even if you don’t), get renter’s insurance. My wife and I lived through a fire that destroyed our whole apartment building. It’s traumatizing enough without having to worry about all your stuff and where you’re going to live. You may not think you have enough stuff to make it worthwhile, but the value of all your little odds and ends adds up quick. Renter’s insurance is much more than just replacing your stuff; ours also sent movers to salvage and clean what they could while housing us in a temporary apartment. I only had to miss one day of work, which was important because I was freelancing at the time, and paid hourly. Anyone in the building without insurance had to scramble to find a place to sleep that same day, as well as take time off work to haul all their belongings out before they were damaged further or looted.
So take this week to double-check that you are doing all you can to prevent fires and are prepared to deal with one should it occur, both at work and at home. You’ll be glad you did.
1. There are two main types of table saws: contractor and cabinet. Contractor saws are lighter and cheaper, and often built to be portable. They are also usually less exacting and have less power. Cabinet saws have an enclosed “cabinet” base, making them quieter and easier to use dust collection on. Compared to contractor saws, they typically have a larger table size and are more precise, but can be far more expensive, and are definitely not portable. They also typically require a 220v outlet. Most permanent props shops use cabinet saws, as contractor saws are not sturdy enough on their own to handle full-size sheet goods. Some manufacturers are now making hybrid saws, which capture features from both. You can also find hobby saws in specialty shops, which are small and fit on a table top. They can be useful for small projects and model work (though a full-size machine can also do this work with the proper setup). Hobby table saws range from cheap and inaccurate toys, to highly precise machines packed into small bodies.
2. Watch for kickback. While a SawStop can prevent your fingers being cut off (a very expensive accident), the most common injuries on a table saw come from kickback, which is when the spinning blade catches the material and flings it back at you. Never stand directly behind the piece you are cutting, but rather, just to the side. And never, ever let go of the wood while it is in contact with the blade; even if kickback is in progress, you have more control if you keep hold of the board than if you panic and let go. A splitter, or “riving knife”, is the single most effective method for preventing kickback. Never force the wood through; the blade may be too dull, or it may be binding, either of which can cause kickback. Pay attention to the sound of the blade; if it is whining or sounds like it is slowing down, you’re getting close to a kickback.
3. Double-check your measurements. Always measure from the fence to the blade, especially when using a particular saw for the first time. The ruler which is attached to the fence rail may not be accurate or precise. Only when you are certain the ruler on the machine is accurate and precise should you use it for setting your fence.
4. Keep the wood in place. Your wood (or other material) needs to be held snugly against the rail and down against table. Use featherboards or other attachments to hold your wood if your fingers will get too close during a cut. Featherboards are especially useful on miter cuts. Push sticks and push shoes are also vital accessories for holding your material snug and keeping your fingers away from the blade.
5. Never wear gloves when cutting. If a bit of the glove, or even just a single loose thread, gets caught by the spinning blade, it can be pulled into the blade, which will catch more of the fabric and pull more of the glove into the blade. This creates a vicious chain reaction where your entire hand can be pulled into a spinning blade within a fraction of a second. Without gloves, the blade cuts through the skin or bones before being able to grab on and pull more in. On this same note, avoid rings, ties, necklaces, loose hair, apron strings in the front, &c. If you are wearing long sleeves, roll them up tightly before using the table saw.
6. With the correct jigs, you can do almost anything on the table saw. You can cross-cut, cut slots and channels, cut patterns, cut tapers, cut circles, taper long boards, make cove molding, and much more, and you can do it all safely. For tricky cuts or complex operations, it will actually take longer to set up the tool than to carry out the actual operation.
7. Maintain the top of your table. Rust will slowly damage the top, making it hard to push material through. It will also discolor your wood. Clean the top with metal cleaners, or even steel wool for stubborn rust spots. When clean, you should wax and polish it to prevent further rusting. Paste wax works well, particularly carnauba-based wax; anything made for cars will work as well. A freshly-waxed surface will also make your materials slide through the saw much more effortlessly.
8. Watch where your wood goes. Never start a cut until you know that the wood can go all the way through without falling off the edge or hitting an obstacle, and that you can reach it and keep hands on it at all times. Use stands, outfeed tables, or a friend when necessary. You may wish to “walk-through” a cut first, to check all this before you cut. Do not forget that the balance of the wood will change after it is cut into two pieces; where a full-size piece may rest comfortably on your table, the off-cut may tip off the side.
9. Use the right blade. Some blades are made for ripping, some for cross cutting, while more specialty blades exist for cutting veneers, laminates and plastics. For most props shops, you will be ripping and cross-cutting plywoods and soft woods throughout the day, and constantly changing the blade will be inefficient, so invest in a good combination blade that will work for the majority of your most common operations.
10. Set the correct blade height. Your blade should be high enough so the gullets of the teeth (the spaces between the teeth) are at or just below the top of the wood’s surface. This allows the blade to clear sawdust and introduce fresh air into the cut, while minimizing the amount of exposed blade to your fingers.
This past week, we learned that Gordon Billings, a UK props master, died from exposure to asbestos. Billings had suffered from shortness of breath and coughing for awhile, and passed away from lung cancer this past August. It was not until last week that the coroner issued his ruling that Billings’ death was due to asbestos exposure.
As a props master, Billings worked on films such as Empire of the Sun and TV series like The Sweeney. Part of his job was sweeping dust and debris from derelict buildings used as sets. Before his death, he had made a witness statement that he was not aware he was being exposed to asbestos.
As props people, we may be exposed to toxins, poisons and harmful chemicals on a daily basis. We may not even be aware of what we are exposing ourselves to. The harm from some of these chemicals may not manifest themselves for years, or even decades, after being exposed.
We may be smart about the particularly nasty chemicals; the ones that smell really bad and that have warnings all over their labels. But those chemicals that we only use once or twice a year may not cause as much harm as those which we subject ourselves to every day. Many harmful chemicals do not even have an odor, or give an indication that we are being exposed. As with Billings, you cannot tell whether you are breathing asbestos or whether you are just inhaling dust. The two-part polyurethanes we use in molding and casting have little to no odor, yet can be some of the more toxic chemicals you come into contact with in a props shop. Cleaners such as Simple Green or any of the “natural” cleaners which have “Orange” in the name can actually contain chemicals which cause reproductive problems, organ damage and even cancer, if you use them without gloves or adequate ventilation. The list goes on.
Protecting yourself from harmful exposure to chemicals is one area of safety where you cannot rely on assumptions or so-called “common sense”. Adequate protection can only come from gathering as much information about the products you use, and building the correct safety infrastructure to deal with them.
It is one of the great downfalls of our industry that this kind of information is not taught as consistently or in-depth as it needs to be. Even when the desire to have a safe workplace is there, the knowledge of what that means, or the funds to make that happen are often lacking. A visit from OSHA can certainly point out all the dangers in a shop space, but the fear is that the company will be hit with steep fines or even shut down. One of my dreams is to have some kind of funded organization that could audit shop spaces for their safety infrastructure without fear of being reported, and train employees in proper safety procedures. The larger companies can already do this, as can areas with strong union presences, but there still exists so many smaller theatres and ad hoc film production companies with practically no knowledge of safety. Colleges and universities also suffer greatly from a lack of proper precautions, and these are training the next generation of technicians and managers.
Until that happens, it is up to each of us to protect ourselves. Know what chemicals and hazards you are dealing with. You do not want to devote your entire life working like Gordon Billings, only to spend your last years on Earth suffering from health problems.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies