Tag Archives: wood

The Complete Illustrated Guide to Joinery

Review: The Complete Illustrated Guide to Joinery

The Complete Illustrated Guide to JoineryI got The Complete Illustrated Guide to Joinery a few years ago, but it’s such a great book I thought I’d give it a review here. Written by Gary Rogowski and published by Taunton Press, this is a beautiful book just to look at and hold. Page after page is filled with crisp color photography alongside clean and clear text. But look deeper and you’ll also find a wealth of information.

This book attempts to break down and categorize many common types of joinery. First, into the two basic systems of box joinery and frame joinery, and then into a number of subcategories, such as mortises, miter joints, lap joints, and dovetails. Each chapter defines and describes a number of related joints, along with numerous variations and deviations. It then steps through a number of methods to create each one. For many joints, this means it gives a method to build it out of either hand tools or power tools depending on which you prefer or what the situation calls for.

In addition to the photographs generously peppered throughout, Rogowski also intersperses a number of diagrams and illustrations to give further clarity to how these joints come together.

Though some of these joints may look fancy and complicated, the joints in this book are really the more common workhouse joints used to solve the majority of carpentry problems. You won’t find the extremely complex and decorated types of joints used in previous centuries, or any of the exotic joinery solutions of Japanese and Chinese carpenters. This book deals almost entirely with joints where two pieces of wood meet; it’s when three pieces of wood come together that joinery starts getting really interesting (this book does have a few such joints toward the back, so it is not completely devoid of them).

Still, I love this book. It’s the kind of book you can buy and learn a lot from, then let sit on your bookshelf looking pretty for a few years, then pick up again and realize you still have a lot to learn.

Is MDF really that bad for you?

I’ve run across shops and artisans who tend to avoid Medium Density Fiberboard, or MDF. MDF is an engineered lumber product made of sawdust bonded together with a urea-formaldehyde adhesive. When you work with MDF, the dust you release also contains this formaldehyde, which you may end up breathing. So is that really that bad? The short answer is “yes, with a but”, while the long answer is “no, with an if”. Like any other substance or material used in a props shop, the safety of using it is dependent on knowing the risks and possible hazards and taking the appropriate precautions. After all, people can safely work with plutonium if their shop is set up correctly and they wear the appropriate gear.

Let me start off by saying yes, you should avoid breathing MDF dust. Formaldehyde is suspected of being a carcinogen, and MDF has some of the highest concentration of urea-formaldehyde adhesives out of all the engineered wood products that use it. Other products which use UF adhesive include hardwood plywood and particle board. Some products, such as softwood plywood and oriented strand board, use phenol-formaldehyde resin which emits much lower concentrations of formaldehyde. Nonetheless, when working with these products, you should have appropriate dust collection at the source of dust creation, proper ventilation and air filtration, and wear an appropriate personal respirator (a NIOSH-approved dust mask for particulates) when sawing or sanding.

So if it’s unwise to work with MDF without proper safety precautions, why am I asking the question in the title of this post? Here’s what I’ve seen; some shops avoid or even downright ban the use of MDF because of what they’ve heard about UF adhesives. This is absurd for several reasons. First, all materials are “bad” to some extent. A better way to phrase that is to say that all materials require you to understand what the potential hazards are and how to minimize them. If you are barbecuing in a grill, you know there is a potential for things to catch fire, so you have a fire extinguisher close by. If you understand why MDF is potentially harmful, then you can figure out how to minimize those harms; if your shop is unable to minimize those harms, than its use should be avoided.

My second point is this: if a shop avoids MDF because the dust gets in the air and employees breath it, it implies a larger safety issue. While formaldehyde is a suspected carcinogen, sawdust itself is a known carcinogen. Let me repeat that: sawdust is a known carcinogen (see here). If you allow sawdust to fill the air of your shop, you are basically filling your shop with carcinogens. So a shop or person that avoids MDF because the dust gets in the air is still allowing the dust from other products to fill the air, which is just as harmful to breath as MDF dust.

If you work with lumber of any kind, the proper precautions include dust collection at the source, ventilation in the whole shop, and the use of a personal respirator. These are the exact same precautions you need for using MDF. Also, the proper safety protocol in a shop is to keep track of all substances which you may be exposed to and take the recommended precautions to minimize exposure.

Thus, avoiding MDF in a wood-shop implies that not only does one not know proper safety protocols, but that one is exposing workers to other potentially hazardous dust. So my question, “Is MDF really that bad for you?”, has the same answer as every other substance. If you know the potential harms and how to minimize them, then it is no more “bad” than any other hazardous and toxic material you work with to build props. In other words, the proper question isn’t whether MDF is “bad” (it is, but so is everything else you use), it’s whether your safety procedures are bad.