Accidents in American Woodworking

Mountaineers have a publication not many outside the community know about called “Accidents in American Mountaineering” which is an annual journal detailing the accidents that happened that year with full forensic breakdowns of how things went so seriously awry. It can be a harrowing read, but mostly it’s instructive. If you spend any time on the mountain, I heartily suggest familiarizing yourself with it even if you don’t ever want to become a professional guide.
I believe that woodworkers need something similar.
I think I might have mentioned this in passing back in November that I’d had a lathe accident, but I didn’t really want to talk about it beyond acknowledging that it happened and you fine folks didn’t press me on it. My hand finally has full mobility again and my fingernails are almost 100%, so I’m ready to talk about it now.
If I cannot be a good example, let me at least be a fair warning.
Note: I’m an experienced woodworker in full possession of all my phalanges. I have and I use all the appropriate PPEs while working at any machine, and have a fantastic safety record. All of which made me drop my guard. Being experienced and and using protective equipment can sometimes make you feel invincible… until suddenly you aren’t.
So… our new house has a level above the garage, which means stairs. And above those stairs is… nothing. No railing. Our home inspector dinged the house on it and I blew it off because I could build a railing in my sleep. Also, I knew I had a dozen or so beautiful white oak spindles that I picked up years ago and never did anything with.
Packrats love it when our hoarding tendencies are self-reinforcing.
The finish on the spindles was old and degraded, so I’d refinishing them. To sand the spindles, I chucked them into my wood lathe so they could spin against the sandpaper. It’s a process I’ve done hundreds of times on things I was turning, so… easy peasy.
Important note: I was wearing gloves because I’d been at it all day and the strips of sandpaper (cut up 1″ sanding belts) were chewing up my hands. Wearing gloves at the lathe is something I see a lot of people do and I’d like to persuade you to stop doing it.
Why? Because all was well until a splinter or maybe a nubbin of the old finish or… something caught the strip of sandpaper and spooled it around the spinning spindle. That would have been fine if I could let go like I normally would, but the tip of my glove finger caught in the grit of the sandpaper and was spooled with it, dragging along with my index finger and my thumb. I distinctly remember shouting “NO!” but lathes are not so easily dissuaded.
I broke the first and second digit of my right index finger and lost the fingernail. I was lucky I didn’t do any ligament damage. I also smashed the hell out of my right thumb to the point it was numb for over two months. As previously mentioned, I have only recently gotten full use and feeling back in those fingers. I couldn’t hold a pencil properly for four months.
This didn’t cause the shoulder injury that has been nagging me all year, but it sure as hell didn’t help. Probably worse than the pain was the shame. The shear, utter, unadulterated, undiluted, shame. I was doing something in a way that I knew I shouldn’t be doing it, and it bit me this time. Shame will hopefully keep me from repeating that mistake again. It’s cold comfort, but I think shame as much as pain is why mistakes survived are such effective learning tools for the survivors.


I will never again wear gloves near a lathe and neither should you. I damn well knew better.
Only last week was I finally willing to turn something, a hammer handle for my newly-acquired English Pattern bookbinder’s hammer (pictured). I only did that sine Covid 19 concerns kept me from just running out to buy something off the rack.
Anyway, I’m on the mend both in the hand and in the shoulder thanks to some lovely people who have recently turned their attentions from orthopaedics to pandemics and I wish them godspeed as I do all of you.
I’ve been spending some time in the shop recently, getting the new place set up for continuing on with this project.
Stay home if you can. If you can’t stay home, at least stay safe.

More to come soon.

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