About One Half of an Inch

I’ve been avoiding writing this blog post for about five months. It hasn’t been an active avoidance, but rather something unconscious about not writing down what happened. I knew I had a bit of a deadline for getting this out and now that Safety Week is upon us, I have to put this all together.

I’m sure some people have noticed that I haven’t blogged much since last Thanksgiving, and that is directly correlated to a reduced amount of time in the shop. What many of you might not know is that the reduced amount of time in the shop is the result of a serious accident I had the Sunday after Thanksgiving. I’m hoping that this post will be a catharsis for me and give you both a warning and possibly a new way to look at things.

First, the Story:
That Sunday I was working on a Christmas gift. I had some long grain miters that I had cut (a long time ago) on the table saw that just weren’t coming together tight enough for my liking. I decided I would kick the fence of my jointer out to 45 degrees and make a light pass to clean up (and hopefully fix) the joint. As I was pushing one piece through the cut, I felt a tug on my left hand and that arm was thrown back across my body. Before sensing anything else, I had enough time to think to myself “Wow, I just had the closest call ever.” Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, as I came to realize upon looking at my left hand and seeing blood oozing out of what used to be the tip of my pinky finger. The details of the next couple of hours aren’t important except to say that the jointer had taken the fingernail and distal phalanx of my left pinky finger. Thankfully (as odd as it may seem to say that at this point) the pad of my finger survived mostly intact, so the hand surgeon was able to fold that up to close the wound, saving some of the finger’s length. Don’t worry – I don’t have any gory pictures to show you; I didn’t even look at it until the stitches had been in for over a week. After a bunch of healing and physical therapy, I’m left with this:

Things really aren’t that bad. In the grand scheme of things, if you were forced to lose part of one of your hands – you would choose to lose the tip of your pinky finger on your off hand. My biggest issues came not from having a shorter pinky, but rather from unlearning the work-arounds I had adapted while I was bandaged up.

Now, the Moral:
It would be easy to simply state “Use push sticks or pads at the jointer.” While this is true, it something we’ve all heard a million times and consciously ignore from time to time. Instead I want to bring your attention to the mindset that put me in this situation. When working with the jointer, I’ve always used push pads when jointing the faces of a board. While some have suggested that might not be necessary, I’ve yet to see anyone suggest it isn’t safe.  When jointing the edges of boards, I tend to use just my hands to hold & guide the piece over the tool, which I think is also common practice.

This is where the world got a little gray (before it got really red): If you are working on a 45 degree bevel, are you working on the face or the edge? In my mind, I was working on the edge of a board, which lead to my relaxed workholding, which lead to my accident. I really think that is the lesson to be learned from my ordeal – when you are working out of square, whether it be on curves or non-orthogonal angles, take a moment to think about how that change in orientation could affect the safety of your task.

10 thoughts on “About One Half of an Inch”

  1. Thanks for sharing the lesson, Steve. I’m glad that it hasn’t affected your ability to use your hands too much. Keep the respect of the Jointer. Hopefully the fear continues to dissipate and your shop time returns.

  2. Sorry to read of your accident. Wishing you all the best with whatever healing remains–physical and mental.

  3. I know this was a really shocking ordeal for you, Steven, and I hope that writing about it will help you. All of us can relate to close calls and your situation would have rattled even the toughest among us.

  4. I bought my jointer 2nd hand on ebay. When I picked it up I asked the guy why he was selling it. Did he just not find the time to do woodworking any more ? His answer was something along the lines of he was tired of losing blood to it. I thought that was kind of odd & didn’t press. I’m pretty good when working with it, but I will definitely be more aware of where my hands are after reading this.

  5. I can only think of one time that I ever came in contact with a turning blade was on my table saw and I had already shut it off. I pulled my hand back from holding a piece after shutting it off and my finger touched the blade as it was slowing down, no damage but boy does it make me think all the time. Thanks for sharing your experience, I believe it will make us all think a little. Some times I feel more secure not using push blocks and such but they do keep your soft parts away from the blades.

  6. The only time I’ve drawn blood with a stationary tool was at my jointer. About 10 years ago I was trying to “joint” the 4″ sides of a coaster holder I had made as a Christmas present. Four inches is WAY too short to run across a jointer. It flipped into the jointer and I shaved some meat off the end of my left thumb. No stitches because it was all gone, but it hurt like hell and I learned a real lesson. Now, anything like that I need to do I do with hand tools. At that point I didn’t even own any real hand tools.

  7. While I have not lost a finger to a jointer (or “buzzer” as these machines are traditionally called here in Australia) I did lose my right index finger to a radial arm saw about 25 years ago.
    At the time it doesn’t hurt, as the shick hits and the adrenalin kicks in – but the pain comes along not long afterwards. Accidents are never planned, they catch us off guard – and always have something to teach us.
    Fortunately, they were able to wire the finger bones back together and rejoin the nerves through micro surgery, and 12 months later transplant a piece of nerve casing from my forearm into the finger. Over the next 12 months the nerve grew back down through the casing. It took over 2 years to establish a new sense of “normal” for my finger. While these days I have compromised feeling in that finger and in the forearm, I have enough feeling to still be able to effectivley use my finger for all fine woodworking purposes. Incidentally, that finger now is the thickness of a sawblade shorter than it’s left-hand opposite. The doctor said it was just as well I had just had the TCT blade sharpenned! It was a very clean cut.
    After accidents like ours, I understand the feelings you probably have as you fire up those machines again. We can’t respect our machines enough, though being afraid of them is just as dangerous as being too cocky. There is a fine balance here to re-establish in your relationship with your jointer (and any other machines you may have). This may also take some time. All good relationships require some ongoing work and occaisional renewal, don’t they?
    … All the best with that abbreviated pinky, and with your jointer – one of the most valuable machines a woodworker can own.

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