Waste not, want not: Practical uses for shop waste
Nancy Hiller shares a few ideas for what to do with all of the chips and dust created by a pro shop.
If you’re a professional woodworker, one thing’s for sure: you make a lot of chips. And dust. And scraps of wood that are too small to use (and perhaps too-small-to-use scraps of plywood, too). Most of us have methods for reusing or disposing of this stuff, but it never hurts to share ideas, especially when you discover one that’s beyond anything you would ever have thought of yourself.
Most woodworkers probably already know that jointer and planer chips can make good animal bedding. However, some species of wood (such as cherry and walnut, and probably some exotics too) are not compatible with some species of animal. Consult your veterinarian before subjecting your pets or livestock to potentially injurious material.
The same chips make nice, springy garden paths. Over the course of a few years, the chips will be worked deep into the soil, loosening it and making for excellent tilth.
Planer and jointer chips also make a reasonably good mulch, the main caveat being that you’ll have to add nitrogen. You can do this with store-bought fertilizer. If you have a shop cat, he or she may have added some nitrogenous matter, which may also help keep deer, rabbits, and other sometimes-undesirable garden visitors at bay. (The jury’s out as to whether kiln-dried walnut chips will adversely affect the growth of other species, so it would be prudent to avoid using walnut unless you have input from a professional landscaper. While alive, walnut trees secrete juglone, which discourages the growth of many other plants.) Use your head, though; if you live in an area prone to drought and fire, DO NOT spread shavings or chips around, because they’re extremely flammable when dry.
Short pieces of solid hardwood lumber make primo kindling for those with fireplaces or woodstoves. I know—it hurts to see a piece of quartersawn oak or figured maple be turned to ash instead of a chair or stair-rail post, but it takes the chill off a sub-zero evening mid-winter (and honestly, how many years have you been storing that 2” x 2” by 24” stick in your garage?). Shorts of solid wood are also in high demand by makers of jewelry boxes and frames. If you aren’t acquainted with any people in those categories, look up your local branch of 4-H.
Small pieces of plywood bring us into more difficult waters. I have found eager takers among teachers of high-school art classes, but most of my small plywood waste goes to the landfill. You should never burn plywood, because the adhesive (and finish, if it’s prefinished) produces toxic fumes and carcinogens.
But the real payoff on this matter concerns dangerously fine dust—the stuff that’s so fine it constitutes a serious health hazard. I recently heard from a ceramic artist I know in Bloomington, Ruth Conway. I had given her a small bag of fine dust a couple of years ago, and now she was ready for more. She mixes it with clay for firing pots in her wood-fired kiln.
I collect this dust in the canister of the shop vac I use for sanding, and also in the filter cartridge of my Oneida two-stage dust collector. Ruth mixes the dust with clay to form “wadding”; three little wads of this mixture go on the bottom of each mug, garlic pot, or saucer when she fills her kiln. They allow the fire, and its heat, to pass beneath the object for complete firing. At the end of the process she simply knocks the wads loose. I was happy to learn that this stuff can have a second life (beyond the compost heap).
If you’re not acquainted with any potters who fire with wood, look up your local potters’ guild.
Nancy Hiller is a professional cabinetmaker who has operated NR Hiller Design, Inc. since 1995. Her most recent books are English Arts & Crafts Furniture and Making Things Work, both available at Nancy’s website.
More on FineWoodworking.com:
- Loose-pin butt hinges: a little play may be better than none by Nancy R. Hiller
- Business Insurance Is Non-Negotiable–Nancy Hiller’s livelihood is almost entirely dependent on her shop, and while insurance premiums are expensive she can’t afford to not pay them
- Nancy Hiller’s Reality Check(list) – If you’re thinking of turning your passion into a profession you should take a deep look at what is involved in running a legitimate business.