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Busting dust in a basement shop

Tools with dust-collection ports make it easy to capture dust before it scatters across the shop or becomes airborne.
Put an end to dust migration from your shop to the house.

While basement woodworkers enjoy steady shop temperatures year-round and all the household amenities just a few steps away, they’ve probably had at least one spirited conversation with their spouses about keeping dust out of living spaces. If that sounds familiar, follow these simple strategies to keep the upstairs cleaner and your workspace tidier, while maintaining domestic tranquility.

First, reduce and capture dust

You can eliminate a lot of dust by adopting more hand-tool techniques. Planes, chisels, and scrapers create chips and shavings that clean up with a broom and dustpan, with zero chance of dust floating upstairs.

To capture dust from stationary and benchtop tools, connect a sufficiently sized dust collector outfitted with a filter that traps 1-micron particles with 99.9 percent or better efficiency. 

Handheld power tools, such as sanders, routers, and jigsaws, pose a bigger challenge. Whenever possible, choose a tool with a dust-collection port, top above, and hook it to a shop vacuum equipped with a HEPA filter. These filters cost about three times more than disposable ones, but last up to five times longer. And as long as your vacuum has a good seal between the motor and tub, almost no dust ends up in the air.

What the heck are HEPA and MERV?

You can find aftermarket high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters for shop vacuums at home centers and online. These filters remove 99.97 percent of particles down to .3 microns. Avoid filters labeled "HEPA-type" or "HEPA-style"—these do not provide the same level of filtration. The MERV (minimum-efficiency reporting value) system measures the efficiency of filters installed in the ductwork of heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems. Filters with higher MERV ratings capture smaller particles than those with lower MERV ratings. Filters up to MERV 12 are typically used in residential applications. 3M uses a proprietary microparticle performance rating (MPR) system for its Filtrete-brand filters. The MPR numbers translate approximately as MPR 600=MERV 8; MPR 1000=MERV 11; MPR 1500=MERV 12, MPR 1900=MERV 13. If living spaces become dusty quickly or if shop sessions aggravate someone's allergies, switching to a filter with a higher MERV rating may help. But have a professional evaluate your HVAC system first because a high-efficiency filter may reduce airflow and strain the blower motor.

Air cleaners are big draws

An air cleaner filters out airborne dust particles that escape up-close collection. When sanding, place the unit on the benchtop next to your work. Connect it to a timer and, to clean the air, let the unit run for 15 minutes after you leave the shop.

Ceiling air cleaner
An air cleaner serves as a secondary line of defense, capturing particles that escape other dust-collection methods.

Finally, when you stop for the day, take a few minutes to clean up before leaving. Sweep up chips with a broom and throw them in the trash; then vacuum up sawdust on the floor, especially around the door and paths to it.

Seal the exits

Even the best dust-collection system can't capture every speck of dust. To keep it from migrating to other parts of the house, plug any gaps where it could escape.

Start with the door that separates your shop from the rest of the house. Seal around the top and sides of the door with weatherstripping and install a sweep or threshold along the bottom. If you're installing a new door, choose an exterior-grade prehung door, photo below. It seals on all four edges.

White door with  mirror
An exterior door's weatherstripping creates a tight seal against dust. This full-view model lets the homeowntzer's kids see into the shop.

Play peekaboo with the gaps

To find small leaks where dust can escape, turn on the lights in the rooms on the other side of the walls and ceiling, cover any windows in the shop (or do this test at night), and then turn off the shop lights. Give your eyes a minute to adjust to the dark, then look for light showing around doors; above and below walls; in corners; and around pipes, wires, and ducts, photo below.Move to different spots in the shop, look around again and make note of the areas where you see light.

Light coming in from a hole in wall
Make gaps visible by looking for leaks of light around wall or ceiling penetrations, between floorboards, and around doors.

Caulk the cracks

After locating the gaps, fill them. Apply caulk in gaps narrower than 18 ", photo below. For wider areas, use bits from a batt of insulation, or an expanding foam spray. Around steam pipes, use fiberglass pipe insulation (different from the insulation used in walls or attics), available from heating contractors.

Caulking ceiling
Seal gaps where heating ducts, water pipes, or other items penetrate walls and ceilings shared with living spaces.

Foil dust's entry into ducts

A forced-air system that runs through your shop can send dust throughout the house, so check air ducts. Seal seams between metal duct sections with foil tape, photo below.  

Putting tin around duct work
Apply self-adhesive foil tape along joints in ductwork. Wipe the duct clean so the tape sticks, and smooth the edges to the metal.

If the cold-air returns consist of sheet metal nailed between floor joists, seal between the metal and wood with caulk, photo below. Also, apply a bead of caulk along the top outside edges of the same joists where they meet the subfloor.

Caulking ceiling
Caulk the seam where the sheet metal meets the bottom of the joist, and where the top edge of the joist meets the subfloor.

If the furnace itself lies within your shop space, wall it off to isolate it from dust. If possible, upgrade to a filter with a higher MERV rating to capture dust that gets into the ventilation system despite your best efforts. Water heaters or other appliances with pilot lights should also be walled off from your workshop.

Dress to egress

Dust inevitably clings to you and your clothes as you work. Follow the tips in the photo below to make a clean exit.

Cloths hanging on wall

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