Toxic Wood

Toxic Wood: How to Safely Refinish Furniture

Sarah Stahl
Sarah Stahl
Passion for transforming tired, old furniture into bold works of art. Sharing my learning with you.

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Toxic Wood

We speak often of refinishing safety and using your personal protective equipment and yet there are countless videos on social media of refinishers sanding without their respirator on.

We all know that we should avoid wood dust on the lungs, but do you know why?  That some types of wood used in furniture is surprisingly toxic! Toxic wood!

I have been guilty of just “sanding something quickly” without my PPE on, but I most definitely will stop after researching this topic.

Table of Contents

What the heck is Toxic Wood?

When we mention toxic woods we actually are discussing types of wood that when we work with it could be harmful to us.  Consider wood like any other plant, you can have plants which are considered beneficial and others which are toxic and lethal.  Knowing which woods are safe and which require extra precautions is just as important as understanding the refinishing chemicals which you work with.

Wood contain natural chemicals and oils within them that could cause allergic reactions or their dust can lead to a variety of health concerns.  While these chemicals and oils work wonders at defending trees against pests and fungus, they can wreak havoc on our lungs and skin.

Vintage Teak Coffee Table with a fresh coat of oil
Teak

Identifying Toxic Woods

The list of toxic wood is actually scarily long!  I will only focus on the types of woods which I commonly come into contact with.  For a very full and complete list visit mountain woodworker. Or consider purchasing Wood Identification and Use by Terry Porter, which not only contains an extensive list of toxic wood, but is a great book to help identify different types of wood.

Mahogany

 

Dust

Dermatitis, vomiting, headache, nosebleeds, asthma and nasal cancer

Pine

 

Dust

Dermatitis, Asthma

Walnut

 

Dust

Dermatitis, vomiting, headache, nosebleeds, asthma and nasal cancer

Oak

 

Dust

Dermatitis, nose and eye irritant and asthma

Teak

 

Dust

Dermatitis, Conjunctivitis, nose and eye irritant, nausea and oversensitivity to light

The list goes on and on.  I personally work regularly with Teak and was surprised to learn that it is considered highly toxic.  Which I suppose with hindsight, it makes sense.  After all it is a highly oily wood, and that oil is a natural pest deterrent.  This should also have some effect on us humans.

Not sure what type of wood you have?

Deeper look into common Symptoms

The list of symptoms I shared is long, but I wanted to dive deeper into a few which I was either not familiar with or curious how it would affect you over time.

Dermatitis

Is essentially inflammation of the skin.  (I had to look this one up).  Most likely to experience contact Dermatitis, which is when your skin comes into contact with an irritant or allergen.  Your skin can experience redness, itching, swelling or even a rash.

Asthma

Fine particle dust can enter your airways and irritate the lining of your respiratory system.  This can cause shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing and chest tightness. These symptoms may not appear immediately after expose and develop over time.  Furthermore, continued exposure can cause your respiratory system to become more sensitive over time.

Conjunctivitis

Also known commonly as pink eye!  I only knew this by it’s more common term. The symptoms of include redness in one or both eyes, itchiness, a gritty feeling in your eye, discharge which may prevent you from opening your eye. 

I’ve had this and it was not fun!  Though it was before I started refinishing furniture, so it was caused by another irritant than wood dust.

glossy walnut cocktail bar
Walnut Wood

Take proper safety precautions.

A few simple steps can help to ensure that you work safely and correctly protect yourself against any long term effects caused by wood dust. 

Use your Respirator!

I haven’t always been diligent myself on this.  Occasionally I think, “oh, I’ll just do a quick hand sand” but this is probably the worse thing I can do.  No respirator and no dust extractor as it is attached to my electric sander.  I am consciously working on working safe.

Sand in a highly Ventilated Area

My sanding area is in my atelier.  There is no special ventilation system, but I do use a vacuum on my electric sander for dust extraction. When possible, sand outdoors, or open your windows and doors to your working area.

If money allows it, consider investing in a dust extraction system.

Know what causes Wood Dust

I didn’t consider this at first, but many things cause fine dust particles to occur in the area. It’s not just sanding that will cause dust.  It could be also drilling or cutting wood.  So use that respirator when you are doing any of these tasks.

Protect your Skin.

As you saw from the list, wood dust does not only affect your lungs.  It also can affect your skin. So please wear protective gloves and clothing when creating dust and shower off immediately after you finish.  No point letting that dust sit on your skin, just hanging out.

Protect your Eyes.

Wear those safety goggles! 

If you think that you have wood dust in your eyes flush them out with water immediately. 

Upcycled cocktail cabinet in art deco style. Large drink cabinet in teak and mahogany woods
Teak and Mahogany

What about Veneer?

Remember, veneer is still wood.  It may be thin wood but it is wood.  Therefore, you should still take all safety precautions which you would take with solid wood.  The wood dust which you produce will be far less due to how little you should sand veneer. But this wood dust is still dangerous.

Veneer repaired on a piece which was primed for odour blocking
Teak

Check out these Tips on Sanding

Sanding Veneer Pin,

Final Thoughts

As furniture refinishers we tend to work for ourselves in our own personal business.  It is up to us to learn refinishing safety and ensure that we implement safety precautions in our workspaces.  There is no work safety committee around to enforce that we work safe.  It is down to us, to education ourselves and protect ourselves.

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