In this guide, we will look at dust collection as a system. We’ll then discuss each individual component of the system and how it can help or hurt overall performance. Then, we’ll talk about what to consider as you work to achieve the best design for your specific individual needs.
I honestly think this guide to dust collection systems is one of the most important guides I have written so far. I know it sounds crazy to be so excited about dust collectors, but I’m passionate about sharing this information with you. My goal is to help you build better guitars. And I can tell you from hard-won experience: it’s a lot easier to do that when you’re healthy!
After twenty years in my previous space, I set up a new workshop. I came face to face with how critical dust collection is and know how often it gets overlooked. My new workshop project challenged me to use what I have learned in the past—both successes and failures—and to commit to making it a much healthier place. This led me to make dust collection a priority.
Table Of Contents
I also spent months researching, talking to different manufacturers, reading articles, and doing a lot of honest introspection to make sure I settled on the best possible system for my new space. It took me a while to realize what components were necessary, then a lot of deep thinking to finally design and implement the optimal setup for my new shop.
Dust Collection & Your Health
When I first started out as a luthier, the topics of dust collection and dust collectors were not even on my radar. I was focused on being the best luthier I could be and trying diligently to make my first few guitars as good as they possibly could be. I wish I knew more about the effects of dust on my health and focused more on keeping my workshop clean.
It’s funny how, after many years of experience, the things I came to regard as important are things I didn’t even give a second thought to as a beginner. Dust collection is one of those things.
Before I get into the specifics of what I have learned about setting up a dust collector system and choosing the best dust collectors, tubing, gates, fittings, etc., I think it is vitally important to take a moment to look deeper at why this is such a big deal.
The choices we make in this area can literally be life or death, not only for us but for the people around us, including the other members of our family if we have a home workshop.
The Dangers of Wood Dust
When we do woodworking, we produce different sizes of wood chips and dust particles, both of which we can collect with our dust collectors. However, studies have shown that the fine dust, which in many cases we can’t even see, is the most damaging to our bodies. Known as “inhalable dust,” it’s made up of microscopic particles that contain a very high percentage of silica, the main component of wood fibers. Silica is basically glass. You don’t want it to embed itself deep in your respiratory system.
According to Bill Pentz of Cyclone and Dust Collection Research, “Most small shop workers get more fine dust exposure in a few hours woodworking than large facility workers get in months of full-time work and we frequently work more toxic woods, so have higher more dangerous toxic chemical exposures.” That is undoubtedly true for luthiers and the woods we work with.
When I first read that Bill Pentz quote, I was shocked. I always told myself that I really don’t make that many guitars and I don’t use that much wood so I’m not at risk, but it looks like I was very wrong.
This quote from a study on Cyclone and Dust Collection Research’s website really drives the point home: The “insurance data on large facility woodworkers showed … almost all lose about 1% of their respiratory capacity per year of work, and woodworkers have shorter life spans.”
If that’s not a wakeup call, I don’t know what is!
But you’re in the right place, lets get our dust collection systems right. Make it our first priority to ensure our health and the health of those nearest and dearest to us.
Dust Collection Fundamentals
If you are a member of my online luthier school and have taken any of my luthier courses, you will already know that I am big on what I call “systematic thinking.” I experienced a quantum leap in the quality of my guitars once I had the epiphany that the guitar is an integrated system. No one part functions independently. All components work together as a whole.
In other words, I advocate for a holistic approach to guitar design.
We’ll be more effective if we apply the same approach to dust collection. Think of it as a “dust collection system,” not just a dust collector.
First, let’s look at the system requirements and why each component is essential.
Main dust collection system requirements:
It Must Capture All Types of Dust
There are two main types of dust: large chips and fine dust. Our system will need to be well thought-out to capture both types effectively.
It must be easy to clean
The system should be easy enough to clean and maintain that you’ll do so regularly to maintain efficiency and optimal performance.
How many tools will need to run at once?
Consider the size of your workshop
Suction will decrease as it is piped longer distances. Shop size and layout is also important because sometimes there just isn’t space for a large setup even if the numbers call for one and you have to get creative with what you have to get the job done (I had to do this in my current shop).
Your Other Unique Needs
Types Of Dust Collectors
The process of selecting the best dust collector for your workshop starts with understanding the different types of dust collectors, how they work, and the unique properties of each. There are several types of dust collectors, but I will break them down into two main categories for simplicity: Single Stage and Two Stage.
1 – The Single-Stage Dust Collector
The single-stage dust collector like the Shop Fox 1hp for example, is the most common style. This type will merely suck the dust directly into the collection bags. The weave of the bags will allow for the air to escape and trap most of the dust inside. Unfortunately, many of the bags filter poorly and lose efficiency quickly.
However, single stage dust collectors that use pleated filters tend to perform better. Pleated filters are much more efficient in removing the more dangerous fine dust. They’re easier to keep clean and tend to operate more efficiently.
Another shortfall of many single-stage dust collectors (I learned this the hard way): it draws woodchips and anything else directly into the spinning metal impeller before it goes into the dust bag. This can damage the impeller if you accidentally suck up something large and hard, like a screw or drill bit.
Secondly, if the impeller is steel, it could create a spark if it gets hit with another metal object, potentially starting a fire inside the collector.
Because the two-stage dust collector is designed to minimize many of the problems associated with the single-stage, it’s worth consideration.
2 – The Two-Stage Dust collector
The two-stage dust collector like the Oneida mini Gorilla for example, uses a primary stage to separate the larger dust from the finer dust with minimal loss of suction. One of the most common ways of accomplishing this (and also my favorite ) is by employing cyclonic separation. As the air swirls inside the enclosure, dust particles and wood chips slam against the walls of the container and drop down so only a the fine dust can pass through to the second stage.
This first stage also keeps wood chips (and of course anything else that accidentally gets sucked up) from hitting the spinning impeller, thus reducing the chance of damaging it or causing potential sparks.
The second stage can be a bag filter as mentioned above, but most two-stage systems use a pleated filter design. Far less dust will even reach the second stage of a two-stage dust collector so you can use a finer micro filter since it won’t get clogged as fast as it would in a single-stage system.
Some pleated canister filters will also have a paddle inside of them that will allow you to knock off any dust build-up on the inner surface. Using the paddle regularly will allow you to maintain proper airflow and filtration with the turn of a handle and without the hassle of disassembling it.
Choosing The Best Dust Collector
How Much Dust Collector Power Do you REALLY Need?
For obvious reasons, I prefer the two-stage dust collectors, but you have to start where you are. I personally couldn’t afford a two-stage system at first, so I used the single stage for quite a while. Was it perfect? No way! But it helped with the dust and also helped me get real-world experience. When I finally was able to purchase a two-stage system, I was much better equipped to make more educated choices.
More Efficiency VS More Horse Power
One way to determine how much power you need is to run specific calculations (i.e., CFM and static pressure loss) for each machine you use. Although there’s an excellent resource you can check out here, it’s not how I recommend approaching this particular problem.
Just like building a handmade guitar, I feel like the best results come when you take a balanced approach of looking at the numbers and weighing them carefully against your own experience and intuition.
When I started looking for a dust collector for my one-man woodworking luthier shop, I started out thinking about it from this perspective: “I’m a pro luthier. I need pro-level stuff—the more power, the better…220v..3Hp…bring it on baby!”
However, after a lot of soul searching, I realized that maybe I didn’t need as much power as I thought (not to mention all of the online resources).
In the next section I’ll explain why I feel right about that statement…
Dust Collection System Design
Up to that point, I had used a single-stage Grizzly dust collector for over 15 years. It was hooked up to 5 different machines. I had 3-micron bags on it—and although I don’t have any hard data to support this—I can confidently tell you that they did not filter that fine.
They were always a clogged-up mess and would spread very fine dust every ware. I dreaded the nightmare of changing out the bigger lower bag. It was always a mess.
My old system had very long hose runs made of flexible ribbed plastic and quite a few elbows and other fittings (more on those soon). It had ineffective connections to low-quality plastic blast gates which clogged over time, and stopped sealing correctly.
I estimated that because of all the system flaws and issues at each machine, I was probably working with less than half the CFM (cubic feet per meter, or airflow) my dust collector itself was rated.
That’s a great illustration of how the system all works together to produce the end result. In this case, the system worked as a whole to negatively impact the outcome and limited what the more powerful dust collector could do for me.
Additionally, I’m just a one-man shop and never run more than one machine at a time. Even with less than half the suction, my tools were just fine. Even my drum sander stayed clean!
If I had understood this better and used the systematic approach I am showing you, I could have used a dust collector half the size with some improvements to the duct materials and blast gates and got the same level performance. AND probably been a lot healthier, too.
To boil it all down:
Your dust collection performance is not just the amount of CFM or power it has, it’s a net result of the system.
I had this epiphany right after I finished talking to the guys over at one of my favorite dust collector companies and had settled on a huge machine that was several thousand dollars. Thankfully I hadn’t bought it yet because once I came to my senses, I realized that my tiny machine room would have been overcrowded.
Also, I discovered my electrical panel didn’t have enough room for an additional 220v circuit to power the big machines. I would have to have the entire panel replaced and upgraded. Never forget to think about the whole system!
I ended up going with a much smaller dust collector (Rockler Dust Right Wall Mount – see below) this time around which felt a little risky, but I can tell you now that it turned out great and all my theories about better system design ended up being spot on. My little 3/4 hp collector has more suction at the machines than my older more powerful system had. The amazing thing is that when I called Rockler and told them about my project of building my new guitar shop and that I decided to use their dust collector, they wanted to get involved and sent me the dust collector for free which was awesome! I did purchase all the other parts of the system myself though.
After the wake up call I experienced regarding the real and present dangers of wood dust, I felt it was of utmost importance to include a canister filter to get the particles down to one micron. I did this by adding the Dust Right canister filter (pictured below) that is part of the Dust right system. The trick is keeping it clean to maintain efficiency and maximum airflow or CFM (Cubic Feet Per Minute) which is why I love the handle that turns a flapper inside to knock off the dust from inside the filter with ease.
As I mentioned above, I really like the two stage dust collection system design. In order to create a first stage, I added the 4″ Oneida Super Dust Deputy Cyclone Separator (Pictured Below) which has performed like a dream so far. It removes 90% of the dust and wood chips and I didn’t notice any drop in CFM. Having this cyclone separator as the first stage keeps the dust collector filter clean while making it easier to empty the wood chips and dust as well.
Optomizing Your Dust Collection System
Hoses, Pipes, Fittings and Blast Gates
Once you decide on the best dust collector for your needs, there are still a few more very important choices to help you get the most out of your dust collection system. The type of material and hose or duct design you use can have a significant impact on the performance and safety of your system, so we will look at the options for that next.
Metal ducts will give you the best performance and the least amount of suction or Static Pressure (SP) Loss per foot—a loss of only .07 SP per foot for a 4” diameter round duct.
If you’re running your ducts long distances, you’ll need to invest in metal (or at least PVC) to make sure you retain as much suction as possible at the machine.
Metal ducts are also much easier to ground electrically, reducing the risk of static charge build-up, which can be a fire hazard.
That said, they are more expensive and much harder to install than some of the other types.
A Flexible Hose will result in an SP loss per foot three times more than the metal pipe according to this resource here. Plastic and flexible hoses also present a potential for static charge build-up which can be a fire hazard, so you’ll need to buy a grounding kit (get one here).
The good thing about the plastic flexible dust collection hoses is that they are cheaper and easier to install than the other types.
Regardless of what material or duct style you use, it is best to design your system and the placement of your tools to make your runs as short as possible to minimize suction loss and costs.
PVC Sewer Pipe
The PVC option can be great for many applications. They carry suction much better than the flexible hoses, cost less than the metal ducts, fit together easily too. But there are two main challenges with the PVC dust collection systems:
1 – Even though they have a 4” diameter, they can sometimes be challenging to connect properly to the 4” dust collection fittings. If this is the case, you may need a special fitting like this one here.
2 – The second drawback is static electricity, which can build up in the PVC pipes. There are solutions to grounding it (like this here), but it does take some extra work.
If your guitar or woodworking shop is really large, CFM performance is you main goal, so think about the metal option if you can. The PVC dust-collection option is pretty darn good if you’re looking for a way to get performance similar to metal ducts while keeping the cost lower for any size workshop. Lastly, the flexible plastic is cheap and easy to install, but does cost some CFM performance – however, if you have a really small workshop (like me) this won’t have much of an impact because the hoses won’t need to be very long.
For my new workshop it made the most sense to just use one piece of flexible hose to attach directly to each machine as I use them.
Dust Collection Fittings and Gates
Elbows and 45s – When it comes to designing your system for best performance, a good rule of thumb is to try to make as few turns as possible in your main trunk and branch lines. Every 90-degree fitting will result in a loss of equivalent to adding 6’ of duct. And every 45-degree fitting will result in the equivalent loss of adding 3’ of duct. Use as few of these as possible. Putting lots of thought, and maybe some creativity, into your shop layout and system design can pay off in higher performance.
Blast Gates – I learned the hard way that if you buy the cheapest plastic ones, they eventually get clogged with fine dust inside. Because of their design, there is no way to clean them. The result is that they slowly lose their ability to close all the way and gradually lose suction. I broke some of mine trying to find ways to clean those little slots inside.
If you can, I recommend going for a higher quality metal blast gates if possible. I did get quite a few years out of the plastic ones, so if they are all you can afford right now, then go for it! Don’t let that stop you. Just remember we are trying to protect your health, so use what you can and upgrade later.
Since my machine room is so small, I decided to not use any blast gates and simply plug my flexible hose directly into each machine. For this I used the Rockler Dust Right Quick Connect fittings which were easy to install and have been simple to use.
My New Dust Collection System
Below are all the parts of the new system I designed and have been using here in my new workshop. It’s perfect for my small tool room, has plenty of power, filters down to one micron, and best of all – the overall cost was well under $1,000.
That’s pretty cheap for a two stage system with cyclone separator!
Here’s the full list of components for my current dust collection system in my small machine room:
- Dust Collector: Dust Right Wall Mount 3/4 hp 650 CFM
- 1 Micron Filter: Dust Right Canister Filter
- Cyclone Seperator: Oneida Super Dust Deputy 4″
- Fittings: Dust Right Quick Connect System 4″
- Hose & Handle: Dust Right Quick Change Handle and Hose 4″
Below you can see it all set up in the machine room of my workshop. To connect to each machine, I simply plug the hose in using the quick connect fittings and hose handle. Because of the cyclone separator, almost all of the wood dust and chips get taken out before they reach the dust collector filter and bag, keeping things running efficiently and clean, pretty cool!
Final thoughts & Recommendations
When I was starting out, I was barely surviving as a luthier. Being able to design and build the ultimate two-stage dust collection system was impossible at first. What I am hoping you can take from this guide is how to create your best system using all that we covered above.
But I know that we live in the real world with limitations and obstacles. I totally get it! I’ve been there. That doesn’t mean that you can’t get that perfect system one day, it just means you might have to find creative ways to build what you can now and improve on it as you have opportunity and resources to do so.
Rather than saying “I can’t get something like that, I don’t have the money,” I encourage you to let yourself dream big, make a master plan, and visualize it there in your workshop. Then step back and look for the first baby step you can take right now to move in that direction.
I have found working in stages gives you time to grow and get real experience. You’ll learn what you personally like, what works, and what doesn’t.
When you start with that big dream in mind, you have something to work toward. Who knows? Over time you might discover that, like me, you didn’t need everything you thought you did. You might find a better way.
So, start where you are. Keep the safety and health of you and your loved ones your first priority. Protect yourself the best way you can. And always keep inching closer to the big goal one day at a time. You’ll be amazed at how fast you get there and what you learn along the way.