Is Knife Making Dangerous? (Hazards, Injuries, Safety)


The issue I see coming up more often now that we have lots of people giving knifemaking a try is the safety aspect of our endeavor. 

I want to begin by saying I’ve been a full-time maker for ten years now, but at one point, I was very close to quitting due to health concerns.

Knife-making has been my life and identity, and I was more or less just getting started in my career, but I would shutter when all the toxic dust and fumes I have been exposed to would cross my mind. 

Today I’d like to address some of the safety concerns the new maker needs to be informed of and should not have to learn the hard way. 

We all know that in knifemaking, the saying ‘Ignorance is bliss’ is so wrong. Things that established knifemakers have learned through experience or from others are relatively unknown to the new knifemaker. Ignorance is painful and most of the times crippling in this trade. And at times, it can be fatal.

Aside from dust inhalation, knifemaking should be treated like any other potentially dangerous activity: You can get comfortable, but don’t get complacent. Same as driving a car, using a firearm, or building a fire, you need to be respectful of the process and equipment involved.

It’s as safe as you are. At my job, I am very safety alert. I always wear the proper gloves, eyewear, hearing protection, respirator, etc.

But… One day last year, I took a dremel to smooth out a finger choil and got a bit of metal in my eye. I was hurrying and ignoring the standards of safety that I place upon myself. I removed a good-sized portion of metal from the iris of my eye. It was a lesson learned the hard way.

Now let’s dive right in! This is what I learned through years about safety and long-term exposure to the injuries, hazards, dust produced in knifemaking… 

CHEAT CODE – Simple practices that can greatly protect you from any potential harm:

  • Clean everything in the workplace frequently.
  • Have a respirator when grinding, and have a room air filter running to clean the air you breathe when not grinding.
  • Wear rubber gloves when handling resins and chemicals.
  • Wash hands and arms regularly, and shower at the end of the day’s work.
  • Blow your nose.
  • When picking materials, use the safer choices.

How to Stay Safe from Dust?

When knife-making, we get the dust on our body, our work clothes, our hair, and then we carry that dust home with us and end up breathing in small quantities of it. 

This was a significant area of concern for me; the absorption of toxins through the skin. Even with long sleeves and gloves, I found my arms and hands blackened with micarta and steel dust every day. I’m sure that I’m not alone in this.

On MOP, the materials themselves are not hazardous unless you have an allergy, but the MOP dust is fine enough to bypass the hairs in the lungs & settle in the little pockets in your lungs. 

This is bad enough because it is tough to remove this material (it can’t be coughed out), but on top of this, the dust microscopically is like shards of glass and can cause cysts. Major bad mojo!! This is part of the danger from asbestos & fiberglass.

The amount of toxic dust I was exposed to was scaring me, and I was terrified of developing a neurological disorder or cancer decades down

the road because I was endangered to toxic dust during my early knife-making

years.

Luckily, along with experience, over time I was more and more informed, and as I took safety measures, there was no more fear. 

Respirators 

This is a must-have item. Anytime we grind or sand, the dust gets put into the air around us. ALL dust is horrible news to your lungs. Most of the stuff we grind or sand produce dust that is toxic in one way or another. 

Most of the exotic woods we utilize and love contain chemical compounds that can seriously hurt you. These materials are produced by the tree as a defense mechanism versus things that would eat the tree. 

Breathing the dust brings those chemical compounds into your organs, where it can do crappy things to you. Several wood dust can even irritate your skin and introduce you to a good case of hives.

ALWAYS wear a GOOD respirator, not a paper mask & avoid exposure to epoxy acids and solvents, etc. Wear rubber gloves when using these. You want this or better to help keep your lungs in good shape. 


This one (affiliate link) was added to that list a few things I use.

Dust collection system 

After we decide this is something we want to do on a more permanent basis, this is another of those ‘must-have’ items. Aside from brining the airborne pollution out of your shop, it cuts down on another subject I haven’t yet talked about, and that is fire. 

A grinder that works duty grinding steel and wood inclines to collect the dust thrown off of it in every small nook and cranny. This is going to build up until one day you’ll be happily grinding steel, and you begin to smell smoke. 

Looking up, you’ll notice a blue haze, and only then will you realize that the grinder is on fire. Most of the times, it’s just a slow smolder, but it can easily flare into full-fledged flames. A piece of hot steel has found its way to a pile of built-up dust and has ignited it. 

I can’t begin to preach you how much it sucks to have to put this out while your eyes are hurting from the toxic smoke in the air. And it gets pretty interesting if it happens to begin on the floor. I’ve danced the firefighter’s jig many times before deciding I need to deal with this matter by keeping stuff a bit tidier around the grinder.

Ventilation 

Keeping the air moving through your shop helps to take out airborne compounds of waste compounds, and it’s always a solid idea to bring fresh air anyway.

A closed-up shop traps those nasty tiny particles, and every time you’re working, YOUR lungs are filtering them out of the atmosphere in our work space. Not a great scenario considering the things we use.

Why are Chemicals So Dangerous? 

Men seem to have a problematic way of jumping right into things without reading the ‘how to’ instructions first. We work with dangerous chemicals all too often in the knife shop. It is essential to fully read and understand the labels of chemicals we use there. 

Micarta & G-10 are some of the nastiest materials to use. Micarta releases Formaldehyde when you grind it.

The guidelines say you have to get over 4-500 degrees. I don’t believe it takes that much heat because I get a headache just cutting some and won’t use it anymore. G-10/Carbon fiber grinds into neat little fish hooks that once these get into your lungs, the only way to remove them is after you have assumed room temperature!

If you read the labels, it might shock you at just how much trouble a chemical can generate you if you’re not careful. Many chemicals are carcinogens. Meaning they are the cause of cancers. 

Also, many can cause other difficulties such as burns, irritations, and lung issues. If you’ve ever experienced a chemical burn, I assure you you’ll treat the offending chemical a lot differently tomorrow if you use it at all. That kind of wound is very painful, slow to heal, and highly inclined to severe infections. And it can change your life adversely and permanently.

ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS READ AND THOROUGHLY COMPREHEND WHAT A GIVEN CHEMICAL DOES, WHAT IT CAN DO TO YOU, AND HOW TO WORK WITH IT SAFELY. I cannot possibly stress this enough. It’s that critical.

Why Buffer is the Most Dangerous Machine In the Shop

Earlier in the week, I read about a tragedy. Some of you might have read this on Facebook. 

A fellow knifemaker has died in his shop. I didn’t know Mr. Barkely, but there is a connection with others that follow a similar path, and he was pretty obviously a brother of the blade. 

The report is that a knife he was working on caught on a buffer and was thrown into his chest, where it pierced his heart. He was found dead in his shop. Anyone who has taken classes with me knows I say the buffer is the most dangerous tool in the shop. 

This innocent-looking machine has caused more pain to knifemakers than all the other tools we use combined. At any time, it can grasp the piece your working on, rip it out of your gorilla grip, and send it leaping off walls, the floor, or into your body. This machine commands the highest respect, and rightly so. 

  • Be cautious when buffing around a knife’s guard, ricasso or any sharply angled or tight area of the item your working on. 
  • Never aim the blade’s edge or tip into the spinning buffer.  
  • Be particularly careful as you approach the blade’s tip because the closer you get to the end, the more likely the buffer will get hold of the edge and rip it out of your grasp.

I have known many who have been hurt using one. I have heard many stories of folks narrowly averting death after an accident with one. (i.e., suck in the leg and missed a femoral artery by 1/4″ etc.) 

But Mr. Barkley is the first confirmed case of a death I have seen. 

This is a tragic and awful accident, and my thoughts are with his family, but it is also a reminder to take great care in what we do. Always listen to the little voice in your head, don’t get complacent, keep the fear of the tool. 

It is healthy, but don’t let fear rule you. Be aware in the workplace, know the safe use of any tool you use, and don’t take stupid risks. Just BE SAFE!

Many of the tools we use and the equipment in our shops can easily kill or maim. It is not just a buffer. Read on.

How to Stay Safe with Other Machines

Grinders 

No knifemaker should be without at least one of these tools. They make the knifemaker’s career a good and productive one. But, they are a nasty piece of machinery too. Therefore, they warrant the utmost respect right behind the buffer. 

  • Always spend the money and purchase quality belts for your

grinder. You get what you give for in the field of grinding/sanding belts. 

Like many other makers, I’ve hopped on what I thought was a good chance on some cheap belts. They were cheap because they were inadequate and not suited for knifemaking. The belts would break most violently, seeming like someone just shot a .45 next to your head.

The broken belt can and does smack you half a dozen times before you can act. The abrasive on the belt effectively separates the flesh from you, causing a somewhat gross and excruciating abrasion wound.

The tool rest (affiliate link) is beneficial at times but be cautious of that gap between the rest and the belt. 

Your material can get sucked into that gap and wreck what you were working on. Your fingers can get stuck there, and you’ll get first-hand knowledge on what it’s like to be a part of grinding fodder. 

Band saws and other power saws


Never, ever get loose and let your fingers get close to these saws. Instead, use a push stick when items start getting close to that saw blade. You will be utterly surprised at how fast you can lose one or more fingers in this machine. 

Never try to free thing that is binding in the saw while the machine is running. If an issue develops while using the saw, the first thing is to get the power turned off to the equipment to approach the issue without risking your digits. 

  • Eye protection (affiliate link) is another ‘must-have’ item. Your sight is the most important of your senses. Grinding steel is a violent movement, and particles of hot steel get thrown every which way. 

Mom’s warning of “your gonna loose an eye out!” is a stark reality in the knife work place. Any time you’re taking material off of an object to shape it, pieces of the material you’re abrading get kicked off at a fair rate of speed. As fate would have it, often, it seems to go straight toward one’s eyes. 

Eyes only come in one pair per person. So get into the practice of using safety glasses and a full face shield and keep that habit.

Drill Press

Another innocent-looking beast that bites. Anytime you are drilling or working some light milling, it’s always a good idea to make sure you’ve got that item anchored safely with clamps, a drill vise, or something along that line. 

It’s crucial that the item you are drilling or milling be secured because it’s effortless for that rapidly spinning bit to seize your work and turn it into a whirling helicopter blade. This is NO FUN! You’ve just turned your knife into a lawnmower blade spinning at whatever RPM your working with. GET THE POWER TURNED OFF RIGHT AWAY

The very performance of drilling metal sends metal peelings and pieces flying off the work area, so if you are going to drill something, ensure you wear eye protection. The drill bit catches and usually spins these off, and they are nearly always highly sharp and gnarly.

Also, sometimes a drill bit will break somewhat catastrophically if you put too much stress on that feed arm while drilling hard material. This sends very hot pieces of shattered drill bit flying every which direction at a high enough velocity to create shrapnel wounds.

Put safety glasses on, or a full face shield, cause this is going to help keep those shards from embedding in your face or those precious eyes. Finally, it sucks digging shards of drill bit out your mug with a pair of tweezers and a razor blade. 

*Recommended drill press: BILT HARD 13 inch Floor Drill Press with Vise (affiliate link)

Conclusion

The simple truth is that the air we breathe in our countries, the food we eat at fast food places, the things we prefer to put in our bodies (drink/smoke/chemical), and the world around us are far more likely to shorten our lives than a knifemaking path that we safely chase. 

You statistically have more risk of getting killed at the ATM or walking down the lane than if you safely follow your knifemaking career (you should think safety in those places, too).

The biggest source of danger is YOU.

If you work with the tools when tired, angry, or frustrated, you’re asking to get hurt. Also, the idea of “I’ll just run in & touch this up real quick” has caused several of my injuries. When you get confident that you know what you’re doing, you can also get sloppy on the safety. 

Most knife makers live long, happy lives as long as they take a few precautions and don’t smoke on top of being around all of this stuff to start with.

Recommended reading:

7 Most Common Beginner Mistakes In Knifemaking
7 Practical Knifemaking Tips for All Beginners

Albert from Wyoming

Hi, Albert here... Forging World is the place where I share everything I've learned (and still learning) in my 20ish years of experience in forging. Hope you like the blog and #keepforging #keeplearning

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