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 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 hat 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. The bells make a very pleasant tinkling sound. Much glitzier but more dignified than the aluminum foil cap with projecting curly copper wires I use 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. You will hear the chirping and tapping sounds they make when they are happy, if you listen carefully. 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 if we are to prevent the servant from becoming the bloody master in the blink of the eye.

First Real Injury © 2007 Sauer & Steiner

Safety Rules vs. Safely Habits

Everywhere we look nowadays there are rules and busybodies busily enforcing them. They don’t call it the “nanny state” for nuttin. Safety rules can be helpful but don’t do us any real good unless we we eventually turn them into those unconscious actions commonly called habits. Like never pointing the barrel of a rifle at anyone anytime even by accident, or 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 nanny, but as someone who has made one, perhaps even two stupid mistakes in his lifetime, 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: 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 simply don’t give cutting tools an opportunity to do mischief.

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

OK, now that the big safety rule is on the table, let’s break it down into three basic safety habits. First, 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 with the left hand while cutting it with a chisel or knife motivated by the right hand towards the hand holding down the wood (in the case of right-handed people). 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. Whatever the cause, in the next instant the wood quickly changes a pretty crimson color, and the left 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 hit you with a wooden mallet with each cockroach-killing screech to make the lesson sink in. It’s that important.

Safety Habit 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 control us while holding a chisel or knife. For instance, trying to juggle a can of beer and a chisel at the same time may place your nose or eyeball at risk (alcohol is such an uplifting beverage); Or scrambling to answer a cell phone call without setting the chisel down first may result in the sudden appearance of an inconveniently leaking red nick in your neck that doesn’t quite compliment the fashion statement being made by your hand-embroidered woodworking robes.

Case in point: Many moons ago before my beard turned white I was cutting mortises using a sharp chisel at my workbench, 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, 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 with a 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.

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

This final safety habit is related to number three in that distraction often causes 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 skillfully guides the tool cutting-edge first towards ankles, feet and toes. In Japan were work has traditionally been performed while sitting on the floor, a common problem is accidentally kicking a chisel. Of course, the chisel doesn’t appreciate such boorish behavior and will bite 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. Problem is 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 both Murphy and pernicious pixies 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 strolling 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 from pushing or rolling tools off your workbench and Murphy from dive-bombing your wiggly pigglys. This is especially important if children have access to your workplace or you have a bench cat swanning around demanding snacks and ear-rubs.

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 is how it works for me. Perhaps it will help you develop good, automatic 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.

Step 2: Every time you find yourself in a similar situation, stop and think if it is possible the same bloody thing could possibly happen again, and what you need to do differently. For instance, figuring out a clamping arrangement that keeps your left hand out of the path of travel of a bloodthirsty paring chisel is something worth taking a few seconds to do.

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. This process may not work for you, but it does for many.

I can also share a bit of 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 think that’s what they tell me when I am wearing my metallurgical psychologist’s hat (ツ)。

There is one thing I can promise: 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. Develop good habits and make them automatic. Don’t let your tools bite you or anyone else, even if they beg with those big puppy-dog eyes.


YMHOS

11 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

      Liked by 1 person

  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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  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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