Safety Rules & Habits for Edged Handtools

The chisels, knives, and planes we sell are all hand-forged by ancient smiths. There may or may not be dwarvish ancestry in one or two cases, but without exception our blacksmiths make blades with unsurpassed crystalline structure that cut like Satan’s own scalping knife.

The Psychology of Steel

It’s important for those of use who use such sharp handtools to understand how they think. Allow me to put on my metallurgical psychologist’s hat for just a moment to expound. FYI this is a highly-polished brass skullcap engraved with runes of power and decorated with multiple rings of tiny silver bells suspended from stubby brass rods attached to the cap that tinkle prettily when I walk; Glitzier but more dignified than the aluminum-foil cap with projecting curly copper wires I wear daily to protect my mind from the brain-rays of alien used-car salesmen. But I digress.

High-quality blades are especially single-minded and simply live to cut wood. If you don’t believe me, just ask them. If you listen carefully you will hear the chirping and tapping sounds they make when they are happy. And the shavings and chips that fly from their milky silver edges will attest to the fun they are having. They love cutting wood best of all, but the problem is they will try their darndest to cut anything they can latch onto. It’s just their nature; something we must understand and deal with if we are to prevent the servant from becoming the bloody master in the blink of an eye.

Safety Priorities in the Real World

In my day job I am responsible for the overall planning and management of commercial construction projects in Japan on behalf of clients. In fact, Beloved Customers and Gentle Readers no doubt have products made by some of the these clients in your pocketses and use their services at home and work. My point is these are high-profile projects where schedule is always extremely important, so I am always under pressure to get projects completed quicker. No doubt you face the same pressures.

Not only does “haste makes waste,” but when dealing with sharp tools, haste can be relied on to produce leakage of copious quantities of sticky red stuff. Not that long ago, it was common, even acceptable, for serious injury and deaths to occur on construction projects, in factories and in workshops. Indeed, hundreds of deaths on a single major construction project were common throughout most of human history; This was just accepted as the cost of getting the job done.

When I was a young man working construction projects, most such injuries and even deaths were assumed to be the price the injured/deceased workman paid for failing to “pay attention,” or “not being careful.” Fortunately, attitudes have changed.

When I was still a schoolboy, my father (RIP), was a construction superintendent in Las Vegas undertaking a pre-cast concrete parking garage project. Due to a stupid and entirely-avoidable error at the pre-cast plant in Arizona, haunches on the RC columns failed and 5 floors collapsed like dominoes killing three workmen and disabling several others. This was not their fault anymore than it was my father’s, but men died, families were destroyed and he was made an emotional wreck for a year afterwards. No jobsite safety rules could have prevented or even mitigated this disaster.

More recently, I was peripherally involved in a project here in Tokyo where a combination of events, including a clear violation of well-established safety rules, resulted in a basement fire killing two workmen and three fire fighters. In this case, safety rules related to “hot-work” were in-place and compliance required by law, so that careful adherence should have prevented this tragic loss of life. It appears they were not followed, however. But the number of dead and injured could have been much higher if not for other safety rules and procedures that were followed.

Nowadays everyone says “Safety First.” Your humble servant finds this slogan irritating, however, because in the real world, safety is never first priority. If it was, no one would ever undertake any potentially dangerous work, no one would swim, drive cars, ride buses, bicycles, motorcycles, snowmobiles, or even walk outside, staircases and bathtubs would be banned, and we would all huddle in grass huts wearing helmets and full body armor. And no hot sauce!

No, in the real world we all set priorities, and except for our small children, safety is never number one. So how do we deal with safety risks? We put on our boots, boldly leave our homes, stride out into the world, analyze the risks we are aware of and find ways to either avoid them entirely or to mitigate their negative impacts. But we place getting the job done, and thereby feeding, clothing and housing our families, as first priority. At least that’s how responsible fathers live. Do you disagree?

What we must never allow to happen is the prioritizing of profits, schedule, hubris or stupidity over safety. Too much of that in politics. And as much as the conflicted lawyers may disagree, we must each take some responsibility for both our safety and of those we live and work alongside. Therefore, the wise man with aspirations to become an old wise man will study safety unceasingly throughout his entire life, and share the lessons he learns with others.

Since caveman days the first (or maybe second) reaction by the members of a tribe to seeing another injured member is “how did it happen??” When we hear of the serious injury or death of someone we know our DNA pushes us to learn from others misfortune. This is your humble servant’s best unworthy non-ghoulish effort (シ)。

First Real Injury © 2007 Sauer & Steiner

Safety Rules vs. Safely Habits

As a natural (and often irritating) extension of the conclusions mentioned in the previous paragraphs, everywhere we look nowadays there are rules with busybodies busily enforcing them and lawyers greedily profiting from them. They don’t call it the “nanny state” for nuttin.

Safety rules are helpful but don’t do us any real good unless we turn them into those unconscious actions commonly called habits. Like never using a toaster while taking a bath, or never pointing the barrel of a rifle at anyone anytime even by accident, or always putting on the car’s brakes before the vehicle crashes through the storefront, the potential consequences are just too severe to leave them as empty rules.

I don’t want to sound like a safety nazi, but as someone who has made one, perhaps even two stupid mistakes in his lifetime (difficult to believe, I know (ツ)), I would be derelict in my duty if I did not point out one rule and a few wise safety habits worth developing especially to those of our Beloved Customers that purchase our chisels and knives and want to continue to have more than just an emotional attachment to their fingers, hands, toes and feet.

The Big Safety Rule: Don’t Let Them Bite You

The most important cutting-tool safety rule you need to follow is this: Don’t let them bite you!

Sharp wide blades can sever a lot of nerves and tendons in the blink of an eye. A deep injury won’t even be painful if your blades are sharp, at least at first, but the damage may be impossible to repair fully and too often is life-changing, and never in a good way. So the application of this rule is to simply never give cutting tools an opportunity to do mischief.

OK, now that the big safety rule is on the table, let’s break it down into three basic safety habits.

Safety Habit Number One: Never Cut Towards Yourself or Anyone Else.

The first habit your humble servant begs Gentle Reader to embed deep into your soul is to never ever ever never cut towards yourself or anyone else.

An example. A universal mistake everyone, without exception, makes at least once is to hold down a piece of wood in the left hand while cutting it with a chisel or knife motivated by the right hand towards the hand holding down the wood. They slip, or the chisel or knife jumps out of the cut, or the chisel or knife is dull and they lose control, or they apply too much force, or don’t allow enough distance to slow the tool down after the cut should end, or pixies distract them, or Murphy springs into action somehow. Whatever the cause, in the next instant the wood quickly changes a pretty crimson color, and one hand feels strange.

So please, never ever ever never allow your hands to get in this situation. Assume I’ve now yelled this warning into your ears 50 times and wacked you with a wooden mallet with each cockroach-killing screech to make the lesson sink in. It’s that important.

Safety Habit Number Two: Reject All Distractions While You Have a Cutting Tool in Your Hand

Another common mistake everyone makes from time to time is to allow a distraction to affect them while holding a chisel, knife or axe. For instance, trying to juggle a can of beer and a chisel in the same hand at the same time may place one’s nose or eyeball at risk (alcohol is such an uplifting beverage); Or scrambling to answer a cell phone call without setting a super-sharp carving knife down first may result in the sudden appearance of an inconveniently leaking red nick in one’s neck that doesn’t quite compliment one’s intended fashion statement in hand-embroidered woodworking robes.

Case in point: Many moons ago, when I was a poor, self-employed student lacking my current elegant white beard and with much less dignity around the waist, I was cutting mortises for a custom door with a sharp chisel at my workbench setup on an apartment balcony, using the time-honored butt clamp, of course, when a yellow-jacket wasp (of which I have an uncontrollable phobia ever since a frantic encounter as a small child with a hornet’s nest in Grandma’s attic), landed on my leg. In a blind panic I swiped the wasp off my left thigh with my left hand, which by total coincidence was also holding the chisel. 40 years later I still have that big unsightly scar that ended my promising career as a bikini model before it really got started, tragically robbing the world of great beauty (ツ)。


Professional woodcarvers all know somebody with deep, crippling injuries to nerves and tendons in hands or legs from using carving tools improperly or while distracted. Not a few have lost whole hands. The wise ones wear kevlar or steel mesh gloves when they must secure work by hand while using chisels or knives. While I don’t condone it, professional woodcarvers must sometimes violate the rules just to get the job done. These safety gloves are good for preventing slicing cuts, and help to reduce the severity of injuries in all cases, but may not stop a knife or chisel from stabbing you if it is motivated, so please don’t violate the first rule just because you’re wearing fancy gloves.

The solution? Set your knives and chisels aside in a safe manner and location before you do anything other than cutting wood. In other words, have the self control and situational awareness to reject all distractions.

Oh yea, and please don’t drink and drive chisels, axes or adzes.

Safety Habit Number Three: Always Set Your Tools Aside in a Safe Place and So They Can’t Move

This final safety habit is related to number two above in that distractions often cause us to violate it. In this case the hazard is a chisel or knife falling from a work surface, at which point Murphy rolls up his sleeves, licks his eyeball with his long purple tongue, and painstakingly guides the tool cutting-edge first towards ankles, feet and toes. In Japan where work has traditionally been performed while sitting on the floor, a common problem is accidentally stepping-on or kicking a chisel. Of course, the chisel doesn’t appreciate such boorish behavior and bites back.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t wear thick leather steel-toed work boots in my workshop. I prefer flip-flops or crocs without the heavy and dreadfully unfashionable steel accessories. The problem is that flip-flops are not tough enough to prevent a 200gram atsunomi falling cutting-edge-first from a height of 70cm from severing a toe, so I am careful to not give Murphy the opportunity to place his bomb sight on my “little piggies.” I encourage you to always be aware of Murphy and bench kitties and never put yourself at their mercy.

The solution? Be careful of where and how you set your tools down and make good practices a cast-iron habit.

Don’t leave them hanging over the edge of your workbench, or balanced on top of other tools where a bump from a passing bench kitty or vibration from a hammer impact might knock them off. If you have several chisels or knives on your workbench at the same time, use a chisel box. Another effective solution is to make a tool rest by cutting some notches in a stick of wood, place it in a safe location on your work surface and rest the tool’s blades in those notches to keep them organized, to protect their cutting edges from dings, and most importantly, to prevent perfidious pixies and felonious felines from pushing or rolling tools off your workbench and Murphy from dive-bombing your wiggly pigglies. This is especially important if children have access to your workplace or you have curious kitties swanning around demanding snacks, ear-rubs and cushions.

How to Develop Good Safety Habits

Everything we have discussed so far is only hot air and electrons unless you manage to actually ingrain wise safety habits into your soul. I don’t know how it works for you, but the steps below work for me. Whatever it takes please develop good, engrained safety habits.

Step 1: When you have an accident (and you will), stop working and figure out how it happened, and what you could have done to avoid it. Hopefully it won’t be while waiting for X-ray results after an iron worker drops a bunch of steel decking cutoffs on you from 14 stories above (that lesson in gravity cost me a tendon in my hand, scars on back and shoulders, lost days at work (back when no compensation was provided for such incidents), and destroyed a perfectly good hardhat). On the plus side, I instantly discovered a hidden talent for creative curse words!

Step 2: Every time you find yourself in a similar situation, stop and consider if the same bloody thing could happen again, and what you should do differently. For instance, figuring out a clamping arrangement that keeps your left hand out of the path of travel of a bloodthirsty carving chisel is something worth taking a few seconds to do. Remember, prevention beats Prozac.

Step 3: Remember the pain and embarrassment of the original accident to help you make the process of thinking through potential ouchy incidents, and then using the solutions you developed automatic. In this way a good habit is born.

I can also share a personal superstition with you. Everyone nicks themselves occasionally when using sharp tools. I know I do. When this happens, I place a tiny smudge of the red stuff on the tool that bit me, and on any other cutting tools that have yet to nick me, and let it dry. I’m pretty sure this quashes their curiosity about how I taste in advance. At least I’m pretty sure that’s what I hear them murmuring when I’m wearing my brightly tinkling metallurgical psychologist’s hat (ツ)。

There is one thing I can promise Gentle Reader from personal experience: you will find a severed tendon or damaged nerves in a hand or foot to be more than just inconvenient. And if, like me, fashion is your life, scars may tragically preclude your picture from ever appearing in the Swimsuit Issue of Sports Illustrated. Such a loss!

Be careful. Keep safety a high priority. Develop good habits and make them automatic. And don’t let your tools bite you or anyone else, even if they beg with those big puppy-dog eyes.


YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. May all my chisels seek my blood if I lie.

12 thoughts on “Safety Rules & Habits for Edged Handtools

  1. Not a week will go buy that I don’t nick myself on a blade. I don’t why I am so careless, oh yes I do; I am impatient when I get an idea. Once I stuck a chisel straight into my index finger until it almost reached the bone. I wrapped in duct tape around it till I got to the chemist. Another time I took my sharpening to another level and sliced my finger, this time I never felt it but soon realised when I bled all over work. Did you know that blood stains the wood better than any stain I have ever come across? I think your readers will be ill after reading this.

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    1. I think many of us have similar experiences. Iron oxide affixes itself to wood very nicely. A common wood dye (and cloth dye) of millennia was iron dissolved in an acid. Nitric acid and chrome-free scrap iron such as old nails makes a wonderful and permanent wood stain. I think the iron in blood combined with the protein makes it a great stain too. But I don’t recommend using it too frequently! Stan

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      1. There was a time in switzerland, when people used oxblood to stain the wooden floor. I don’t like the idea to try it with human blood as well…

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  2. Safety habit 4 – proposed: rather than using a lot of body strength, e.g. when pushing a chisel, used a hammer or mallet. Even gentle taps are safer and more effective than bringing a lot of force or body weight into play. The often shown traditional method of paring with the operator’s shoulder helping to push the chisel, is in my opinion not as safe as tapping with a hammer. Paring just with hands and chisel should not involve much brute force. Paring is a delicate operation that only removes small amounts of material.

    Re. Habit 3: I have thick leather sleeves for my chisels – all custom-fit- to protect the entire length of the chisel blade from being damaged and from causing injury. Remnants of thick leather are cheap, fairly straightforward to sew, and can be reinforced if needed with rivets.

    Thanks for the posting. Habit 1 is clearly the most important one.

    Alfred

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    1. Thanks, Alfred. Good points. Chemicals used to tan some leathers can promote rust, so I always urge our Beloved Customers to be careful when selecting leather blade protectors.

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  3. ….and don’t work on a hung door while bracing it with yourself, use wedge, remove door, get someone else to do it ! Anything but find out the existing poorly made mortice for the lockset not only caused problems with the lock but also the stile thus resulting in a small amount of pressure enabling a chisel to be pushed straight through the wood into the other hand. Messy, only two stitches, stopped 2mm of tendons. Observation skills when young lead us into all sorts of bother. Blood also tends to give customers the heebie-jeebies.

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  4. The term, bloody mess, was probably more accurate as it did not respond to pressure as quickly as I would have liked ! The door remained unscathed of decoration however, unlike the floor, and the paving, and the bathroom basin… now if one were into horror movies. As you are all to well aware the ends of limbs seem to produce a disproportionate amount of claret. I think I spent longer cleaning up then getting patched up. I did manage to extend my wrist back on another occasion while working on the base of a kitchen cabinet right into the 2mm pilot drill bit chucked into my cordless behind me and punctured a vein , only needed a bandaid and I couldn’t have done that again if I tried. I think I would prefer that to kicking a chisel though , without workboots I can only see emergency as an option .

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  5. Great post! Btw, do you recommend steel mail or kevlar gloves? I’m thinking of whittling some spoons as Christmas presents, and can’t afford to injure my hands

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