Storage Screwed; Trouble in DC (this just sucks!)

The post title is a tad dramatic perhaps, but accurate.

In recent weeks I have been working on organizing and cleaning my shop. One area that has long vexed me is how to store commonly used fasteners in such a way I can easily access them and assess stock, without the storage comprising open compartments that fill with wood dust over time.

I’ve tried a variety of approaches to storing screws, rivets, nails, etc., the most recent being a wall-mounted plastic bin with clear plastic trays that you pull out to get at various fasteners. It worked okay, at best, but squinting through the end of a little plastic tray turns out to be not the most clear method for knowing where a given fastener might be located, and how many you might have.

I’ve taken in recent years to moving away from the ‘tools on display’ mode of handing stuff on the wall, to storing tools in rolling cabinets. A cabinet drawer can be lined with material to keep corrosion at bay, and the tools in a cabinet are much better protected than otherwise, and contents don’t get caked with dust. Contents can easily be secured with a turn of a key. I still have hammers and saws hung on the wall, but eventually they will both be going into some form of cabinet storage.

As for cabinets, new ones that are decent are pricey, so I buy them used, partly as I try to avoid offshore (i.e., made in China) products by and large. I’ve found Kennedy tool cabinets to be a good choice so far, as a used Kennedy roller cabinet can generally be found in the $200~300 price zone. So far over the past 3 years or so I have acquired three roller cabinets, 2 of which are 29″ models, and 1 of which is a 34″ model.

Looking in Kennedy’s online tool catalog the other day I noticed a couple of things. One is that they have decreased their range of products somewhat. I guess the company was bought out in the past year or two by Cornwell Quality Tools Company, and as that company owns other brands with certain product overlaps to Kennedy, they have ‘rationalized’ Kennedy’s product line somewhat, reducing the scope of offerings. Hopefully these aren’t the first steps in rationalizing the company out of existence, as has happened elsewhere.

I also noticed while perusing their website that Kennedy makes a series of drop-in tray liners for their cabinets. I thought I’d obtain a couple and see how they work, in the hope of getting some semblance of control over fastener storage.

I chose a couple of trays for one of the 29″ cabs, this one residing at the infeed end of the jointer:

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I ordered the trays directly from Kennedy’s online store and they came a week or so later. I was impressed with the trays out of the box as they were considerably stouter than I had imagined they might be. They were both a perfect fit inside the cabinet.

The lower drawer has the liner with the deeper 4″ compartments and thereby stores larger fasteners:

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And the upper drawer has the smaller fasteners in shallow 2″ trays:

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I think this storage solution works very well for me, and I’d recommend the solution to anybody. The drawers keep the dust out, and simply pulling the drawer open makes everything perfectly accessible and it is obvious what you have and don’t have.

I plan to get a couple more of these insert trays in the near future so that I can similarly store my overflowing collection of larger fasteners, including bolts, washers. lag screws, cap screws, etc.. I think it will only be a matter of time before that 29″ Kennedy box is entirely devoted to fastener storage. Another used Kennedy box looks to be in my future as well, so I’m keeping my eye on Craigslist and other places.

Now, onto the problems I’m having with DC. By ‘DC’, I refer to my dust collection system. Not to say that the other, more well-known DC doesn’t have an extensive list of defects to address….

Dust collection is one of those things that is absolutely essential to a shop yet is entirely unglamorous if not generally forgotten about. Many shops, I dare say, entirely underwhelm in their choice of (marginal) dust collection equipment, and I’m even aware of some folks somehow trying to run modern machinery without dust collection.

There are certain kinds of machines, particularly of the old ‘arn variety, where you might be able to forgo a dust collector, and indeed many older machines have poor provisions for collecting dust anyhow. I’m thinking of classic machines here like jointers, where chips can fall out the bottom, or shapers even, where chips can just spray everywhere if that works for you.

Even planers can be run without collection, however anyone who runs a planer like that will attest to the startling volume of mess very quickly produced, so, unless your style is to take all your day’s shop footsteps in 6″ of chips, or spend half your day sweeping up, then dust collection is mandatory. And if wood dust is a health concern, then a focus on good dust collection is absolutely essential if you want to have powered stationary machines.

With several of the larger machines I have – jointer, planer, and shaper in particular -they won’t operate properly without a dust collection system drawing a certain CFM rate – the shavings will just jam up inside the works.

When I got my shop running – and I continue to use that term loosely – my first piece of bigger equipment was a 16″ Oliver jointer. I was able to run it without dust collection, however when I could at last obtain a planer, I knew I was also getting myself into dust collection as part of the bargain. I wrote a post nearly 10 years back about the system I obtained from a High School in the midwest, entitled Shop Vac Review. A later follow-up post detailed the relocation of the system to a corner of my space and some of the preliminaries in getting the parts together.

Later developments ensued with the system as I gradually configured the system for the shop, adding new parts as new machines came on the scene. This resulted in a post series entitled, far more appropriately than I realized at the time, “This Just Sucks“.

That turned into a 3-part series spanning a few years.

The most recent changes to that system formed a post from 2014 entitled Down a Dusty Road,  where I detailed upgrading from the bag house which came with the system from the high School, to a Oneida set up with dual 55 gallon collector drums, dual paper filters with removable catch bucket system. That filter set up set me back $1500.00, and the mods to the cyclone and cost of support stand were close to $1000. If you manage to wade through those posts in those three series you’ll be more or less up to date on the dust collection in my shop, save for extensions and additions I have made over the years as equipment has been added. Every time a new machine comes in, what comes along with it are several hundred in electrical components (conduit, boxes, receptacles, plugs, wire), and usually a bit more, $500~750, in additional dust collection components.

The new Hofmann long hole boring machine is a case in point. I’ve already done the electrical work and have it hooked up, but it has three chip collection ports requiring several meters of 120mm flex hose. Also needed are a couple of custom duct work pieces. It only takes a few bits and pieces and I’m soon staring at a $700 bill. You might call the electrical and DC parts the hidden cost of machinery.

I’ve made therefore a not inconsiderate investment in my dust collection system to date. Probably there is as much money in the dust collection components as there is in my SCM 24″ planer, or there is in the Hofmann mortiser.

I’d now I’d like to offer some new observations having lived with the system for a few more years now. Is is a dream set up? Am I completely satisfied or does it fall short in some areas?

Here’s a pic of the collection end of the set up, taken yesterday , with cyclone on stand over the two chip collection barrels, and the venting side with dual paper pleated filters:

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A closer look at the filter set up:

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You might observe in the above photo that on the side of the filter mounting bracket there is a gauge, which tells at a glance – if you bother to glance at it (ahem!) – whether the filters are allowing good air flow or are operating at less than optimal levels, that is, filter efficiency. The gauge is a $114 option from Oneida. I’ll get back to that gauge in a moment, but first let me describe how things go sometimes with the set up I have put into my shop.

I had an episode with the original bag house (the one that came with the cyclone) where the concealed collector bin filled up with chips while planing some stock, and the fill up continued right up the cyclone, and the rest of the chips went into the bag house before I noticed a problem. The clean up from that took many hours and was an unpleasant exercise to say the least. I felt afterwards that by upgrading the system to one having greater chip collecting capacity via a pair of 55-gallon drums, along with clear flex hose connecting the chip collection barrels to the cyclone base which would allow me, theoretically,  to spot chip overflow, would go a long way to reducing the odds of a similar over flow incident. The pair of filters replaced a 6′ x3′ pice of floor space, so it gave me a little more floor space, and the promise of improved air flow. Well, the set up I have hasn’t quite met that promise at all times, unfortunately.

Over time the clear flex hose sections above the two chip collection barrels have become permanently darkened, likely some combination of sunlight and loads of wear from the chips, and I can no longer simply tell at a glance whether the bins are getting full or not. I have to unclamp the lid from each barrel and inspect. It’s not a great inconvenience, but nevertheless is sometimes overlooked and I have made some lucky late catches – and sometimes I have been too late.

One might think it is a simple matter of replacing the flex hose however the stuff is not cheap and the shortest length I would be looking at – and having to store for years afterwards, is a 12.5′ length. And around $300. So, I’ve procrastinated on that. It’s doesn’t take much to become mentally preoccupied with a stack of wood to plane – for it is the planer which contributes the greatest pile of chips by far – and to thereby take one’s eye off of the situation – or underestimate – in regards to the immediate fullness of the chip barrels. And all it takes is to push one wide piece of softwood through taking a heavy pass and suddenly you got lots of chips.

Two adverse things have happened, more than once now, under the sudden heavy load of thick curled chips from milling a wide piece of softwood. Neither of these things are a good time for me.

The first is that the heavy load of chips can foul the impeller on the bottom of the motor, which in turn lays atop the cyclone some 13′ in the air.

The second is that the second barrel can fill up and an additional blink of an eye seems to be all it takes before the cyclone is full. The excess proceeds into the filters. Those are intended for fine dust, something I don’t produce much of. I’m a chip man it seems.

When the impeller is fouled there is a bad noise from way on up there telling you that all is not well with that end of the cyclone. Then I have to drag out a ladder, go up and down on that ladder several times and remove a bunch of the plywood collector enclosure, then a whole bunch of sound deadening material, then remove more than a dozen bolts fastening the exhaust duct – – all before I even get to the impeller. The impeller, once accessed, takes just a minute to clean, and then the re-assembly can begin. It’s a 3-hour world of dusty, uh, fun, and after a couple of go-rounds I am decidedly less excited by the prospect of having to deal with that sort of thing again. But it is hard to avoid every now and again having a surge in chips from the planer, and if that fouls the friggin’ impeller then really the problem is more with the impeller design, which shouldn’t be fouling on chips in any case. And if it is going to get fouled from time to time, then what you want is an impeller accessible without having to get on a ladder.

When the second barrel, and cyclone and exit ducts fill up with chips, however, the situation is considerably less enthralling. Pulling the drums out and emptying them is merely step one, followed by kneeling underneath the cyclone and jabbing a stick up inside it to dislodge chips, which of course then rain down upon your head as they come loose.

It’s unpleasant, but the worst is yet to come with the pleated filter units.

I was sold on the two stacked, wide-pleated, spunbond polyester cartridge filter units by the fact that the internal pleated paper arrangement has far more surface area that a fabric filter bag. More surface area equals better air flow –  who doesn’t like promises of efficiency? What it also equals is that when plugged with junk, the pleated filter media is a PITA to clean. The pleats trap chips and dust like nobody’s business, and getting it clean again involves jabbing a stick up inside, taking care not to damage any paper, to dislodge most of the packed in dust, followed by thumping my fist on the exterior of the filter and using compressed air to try and push more of the dust out.

I noticed yesterday that the filter efficiency gauge was way over to the high pressure side, needle almost bending, so I figured that one of the filter cartridges must be plugged. And sure enough it was. After cleaning it as well as I could and buttoning everything back up, I turned the collector on and swung my eyes over towards the gauge, expecting to see a reduction in pressure. Nope, no change whatsoever. Still maxed.

That either means I have to remove the cartridges entirely, and subject them to draconian level cleaning in the hope of better results, OR that the truth is perhaps that the filters can only be brought a certain distance back to good functioning, and what I really need, therefore, are new filter cartridges. Well, if that’s the case then it looks like I face a cost of maybe upwards of $1000 to replace the filters, based on what I could see listed on Oneida’s website.

If I ignore it maybe nothing bad happens, but the blower motor will always be working against more back pressure from the plugged filters, so working harder may mean a shorter lifespan for the motor. Funny enough, it is cheaper to replace the motor on top of the cyclone than it is to replace the filter media (!). Does that make any sense to anyone?

Is filter replacement just one of those ‘cost of doing business’ things? I’m not sure I’m down with it. It seems like a lot of money to me – and it would be a regular cost every few years or so. Alternatively I find less expensive cartridges somewhere, or I change to something else? And what is something else? Some kind of bag house? A system configured differently? Replace the whole show entirely?

Looking at Oneida’s site, they have some recommendations as far as cleaning and replacement: “With regular maintenance, our cartridge filters can easily last up to 5 years. Your filter should only be replaced if thorough cleanings do not help to restore your suction performance.” So, I guess I am getting close to the typical replacement time frame, but it still seems ridiculously expensive.

I haven’t come to a conclusion one way or another, but I will say that one of the other drawbacks to a cyclone is that it is a noisy thing. Dust collection is by far the loudest thing in my space. I would gladly relocate the whole thing outside if I could.

I was listening to the system in a neighbor’s shop, and was struck by how much quieter it is than my set up. It’s just a fan and impeller mounted down near the floor, and a 4-bag house. Simple.

More than anything, I would like to have dust collection which is quiet, and if it does need some servicing, that it be easy to work on and not take hours of time. Easy to clean. That it have wear components which are not prohibitively expensive to obtain. Some sort of system whereby when the collector bins get full there is an alarm or the system shuts down.

I drool over an Alko dust collection unit, but the quote I got for a unit with comparable extractive power to what I have now was north of $20,000. Dust collection is important – a shop can’t really operate without it -but is it ‘$20,000 important’ in a one-man shop? Maybe if I won the lottery, but otherwise, maybe not. Then one can also reflect on what it is worth to have a dust collection system that works really well and makes for cleaner air to breathe – what’s that worth, long term? For many woodworkers, clean shop air is the only way they can do woodwork. My situation is not like that, but I’ve seen enough woodworkers develop sensitivities to wood dust that it seems prudent to have a better system than I might think I need or with which I tend to think I could get by.

Dust collection, like the functioning of one’s intestinal tract, can pretty much be ignored/taken for granted when all is working as it should, until the day that there is a problem, and when that day comes the whole show pretty much goes down. So, mundane though it may be, a good dust collection system is one of the most important parts of a well-functioning set up. I’m just wondering what the best way forward might be considering where things stand now.