Thursday, November 10, 2005

Don't Argue With Power Tools

I think maybe the hospital I live near should build a tunnel from my basement to the ER. It's only about two blocks anyway, and I've walked over there four times in the last two weeks. The first three times were to visit my friend Alex, who got hit by a car. This latest time, though, was all me. Nothing quite so serious, but nonetheless not an experience I hope ever to repeat.


I was in my basement on Sunday, working on building a bench for my new planer. I've been buying a lot of tools lately, and it's starting to get a bit crowded down there, so I figured I'd work on some storage. So I was running a 2x4 through the table saw to cut it down to size.


I'm not entirely sure what happened next. My memory is a bit hazy for those few seconds. But I think I was concentrating on keeping one of my hands away from the blade, and didn't pay quite enough attention to the other. What I do remember pretty clearly is jumping away from the saw, yelling loudly, and clutching my thumb.


Before I go too much further, let me say that I did not sever any digits. I gave myself a really nasty cut across the pad of my thumb, but I didn't slice anything completely off. I'd say it's about a five or six on a scale of one to ten, where one is a paper cut, and ten is the aforementioned digit removal. The nurse at the ER (where I spent the next four hours) gave me an "A+", though. :p


Here's a picture of the rather nifty bandage they gave me.



They had to put it on with a special tool - it was sort of a cage that stretched a tubular piece of gauze out, and they fed it up and down, creating layers. Very clever, I thought.


If you want to see what it looks like underneath the bandage, well, what's wrong with you?!? :) But click here and check it out if you must. Warning to those with a weak stomach: it's gross. Warning to those with a highly developed photoaesthetic sense: the picture is poorly taken.


Anyway, it looks like I'll heal up in a few weeks. Right now, I can't feel the tip of my thumb, but I'm hoping that will come back. In the meantime, it hasn't interfered with my typing too much, and that's the important thing, since it's how I earn my bread.


The weirdest thing about the whole experience has been observing the mental and physical effects. I've never really hurt myself seriously before, so it was odd to feel myself going through the typical reactions. First was physical shock - I was disoriented and sweating for a few minutes right after. And then of course there was disbelief ("there's no way I just turned my thumb into a tiny pile of hamburger!"), anger (as I was walking to the ER I was super pissed that I'd been so stupid), depression (not the real kind, but I was a little down about it for a bit), etc.


All in all I'd say I was dumb but lucky. Which beats dumb and unlucky or even smart and unlucky. In the future I'm hoping to be smart and lucky. I also hope to return to amateur carpentry (sans the amateur surgery), but one thing I'm not sure about yet is whether this whole incident has dampened my enthusiasm to the point where I'll just find something else to do any time it's time to turn on the power tools. But if I do go back to it (as I intend to), I know this: I'm going to incorporate the piece of wood that I was cutting into the final product. Preferably with the bloodstain showing. Just something from my own twisted sense of revenge I guess. Or stubbornness.


So, woodworkers: be careful out there. Pay attention, build or buy whatever jig you need to make the cut safely, and think before you act.


Oh, and if you see my parents, don't tell them. :)


  1. ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow!


  2. Oddly, it has hardly hurt at all since I got home from the ER. Part of that is probably the (hopefully temporary) nerve damage working in my favor. But at any rate, most days I don't even take any Advil.

    Still, I recommended *not* doing this. ;p

  3. Yikes. Glad you weren't hurt more seriously, Craig. Good thing it was your left thumb, or pressing the space bar would be more annoying (or are you an ambidextrous space-bar-pusher? :-)

    I've been lucky so far with my own carpentry hobbies, but it probably has a *lot* to do with a close call of my own.

    I've never forgotten about the time I went to cut a ~1" off the end of a 2x4 with my compound mitre saw. Since I was trying to just finish something up and rushing, I didn't don my safety glasses like usual. I was probably thinking "Heck, I can be done w/this cut by the time I walk waaay over there, get my glasses, put them on, and then walk waaay back over here." Mind you, "waay over there" was probably all of 8 steps.

    Needless to say, when the saw blade made the final cut through the bottom edge of the board, that 1" chunk ricocheted off the cutting surface at a zillion miles an hour headed for my face. Lucky for me it whizzed by my temple and didn't hit me in the eye.

    I've never forgotten that, so I'm pretty paranoid about safety goggles for my eyes and homemade jigs that keep my hands further away from saw blades.

  4. Yeah, the thought has crossed my mind that it's going to be a *lot* easier in the future to "find" the time to do things carefully.

    I already *always* wear safety glasses, hearing protection, and a dust mask, so that's a start.

  5. "Be sure to read, understand and follow ALL the safety rules that come with your power tools. Knowing how to use your power tools properly will greatly reduce the risk of personal injury"


    Make a push stick.

  6. I *do* always read the manuals. :)

    I had a push stick. It broke the last time I used the saw, and I didn't bother to make a new one this time. "I'm just going to run a few pieces," I thought. Probably would have taken me five minutes to whip up a new one. :p

  7. I was watching 'Ask This Old House' the other night and I noticed one of the guys was missing a finger. Happens even to the best of them. You are lucky indeed.

    Having had truck run over my foot, I can relate to the 'fuzzy memory' and the 'effect analysis'. (Technically- I was also driving the truck- but that's a whole other story...)

    Don't worry. I won't tell our parents. :)

  8. It's a heck of a way to convince your wife to allow you to upgrade you saw....

    Watch the video at this site:

    Good luck with your recovery

  9. Yeah, I'd heard of SawStop before I got cut. I can honestly say I thought of it once or twice since then, too. :p

  10. Doh! Hey's me! :)

    I'm so glad you're ok. The optimist in me believes it could be worse...or, worse yet, you could've done what my co-worker did and almost cut his pinky finger off with a miter saw. The contraption they had him wear had all these wires coming from the wrist to support each finger and he had to go in for occupational therapy so they could make his hand black and blue trying to break up internal scar tissue. Ouch.

    Anyway, I knew your birthday was coming up soon so I thought I'd try to google you and the word birthday. Not only did I find your birth date, but I also stumbled on your blog. cool!

  11. My dad did exactly the same thing once when I was a kid (I think it was even the same thumb). He calmly walked into the kitchen, winced a bit, and then casually mentioned that he needed to go to the hospital. D'oh.

  12. Just thinking about how terrifying and terrible that accident might have been for you, makes me squirm. I hope you're fine now.

  13. Thanks. It'll be a few more weeks before the thumb is back to normal, but it's healing.

  14. Dude, I did the same thing (same thumb even!) about 2 months ago, except my thumb is now about 1/4" shorter. I don't know how it happened either. The ER doc put the cap of skin back on, but it didn't take because I packed it in ice.

    (FYI: never put a severed digit directly in a bag with ice! Wrap the digit in guaze, put it in a ziptop back, put THAT bag in a bag of ice, and transport. Putting the digit directly on ice, even for a short period of time, apparently results in frostbite-like results. The 4th year med student assisting the ER doc didn't even know this until recently!)

    The plastic surgeon made feel a bit less stupid. He related the story of the shop teacher, doing the same SAFETY demonstration on a radial arm saw that he had given for 20+ years, managed cut off his digits...

  15. D'oh! Sorry to hear about your accident. They told me the same thing about the ice when I was at the ER, too. It's knowledge I hope never to have to use. :p

  16. Craig, Add me to the list of "same thing, same thumb". It happened yesterday morning; I was cutting some

    1 1/4 oak strips for shelf edging, had the push stick in my right hand,and for some reason reached over with the left to get a piece that was backing up on the outfeed table out of the way. Honestly don't remember the events after that. Hospital, surgeon, stiches and pain!! The first thing I will do when I get the courage to face the saw again will be to pu the blade guard/splitter back on. Hope you are recovering well.ER

  17. Ed - that sucks! It's entirely possible that I cut myself by reaching over as well, although I think I just shifted my thumb and ran it into the blade.

    At any rate, you'll be happy to hear that last weekend I felt brave enough to fire up the table saw again. It was really scary, though. But then again I suppose it should be.

    Amusingly, my friends and relatives had a good time giving me joke gifts for Christmas: Batman band-aids, a new push shoe (which is actually really nice) and a "cut proof glove".

    Hope you heal quickly. I still can't feel the tip of my thumb, and my scar is really annoying sometimes, but I've got 99% functionality back.

  18. I feel your pain...
    Last wednesday, late afternoon, I was looking for something to knock off before leaving a renovation site... I had a 6 inch piece of 2 x 4 that needed a notch cut into it, easily done with a chisel had I not left it at home... so instead I picked an angle grinder with a 4 inch demolition blade (wood) to do the job... I thought it could be dangerous but somehow decided to go for it... no vise around so I held the piece of wood in my left hand and the grinder in my right... at some point the blade skidded on the wood and went to work on my left hand and then my thigh. Luckily I had the blade guard in the safest position so the tool did bounce off my thigh... The damage: 7 stitches to the thigh and near amputation of my left thumb (cut through two extensor ligaments, nerves and completely through the metacarpal) Horrible, scary wound, but my mind worked fine as I immediately grabbed a clean towel and applied pressure until the ambulance arrived... almost fainted though... did go through shock... I'm getting reconstructive surgery this coming wednesday but somehow still have feeling in my thumb and can actually bend it inwards.
    I was incredibly lucky. I have no workers comp, no insurance and will be without income until I heal. But I was LUCKY. Could have been much worse.
    I'm always very careful around tools except for that one time. It only takes one act of foolishness to cause severe injury guys. Be careful out there.
    Hopefully the flashbacks will stick around for a long time so that I remain careful 100% of the time.

    Be safe. Nothing is urgent enough to justify any kind of injury.

  19. Two and a half years later, I have a small but noticeable scar, and probably 75% feeling. And a *vastly* improved attitude towards shop safety.

    That said, I did bruise the living hell out of one of my hands about a year ago when my planer kicked back. So continued caution is still called for.

    Sorry to hear about your injury, but glad that it wasn't any worse.

  20. Hey Craig,
    what "cut-proof" glove did you end up getting?
    I almost cut my thumb entirely off about a month ago with a "chop-saw" / power compound miter saw. I'm still wearing a cast and am looking forward to several months of physical therapy -- not!

    It cut through the top tendon and bone. It remained attached only by the bottom tendon. I'm recovering - slowly.
    I am feeling unable to resume using that type of tool ever again but might feel more inclined to try if I could acquire that type of glove. Please help.

    Does anybody know of a "safer" type of miter saw? The Saw-Stop is only available for table-saws.

  21. The cut-proof glove I got was given to me as a present - mostly as a joke. I believe it's the sort used in food preparation. I don't think it's a good idea to use during power tool operation.

    Frankly, I think blade-to-hand accidents are pretty much always caused by improper operation. It certainly was in my case. There's pretty much no reason to have your fingers within three inches of the blade. Certainly, a "cut-proof glove" isn't going to do it.

    I definitely understand the feeling of being apprehensive about the tool. The first time I came back to the table saw after my accident, I was terrified. I still fear it, which I think is a good thing.

    As far as a safer type of saw, I have a few recommendations:

    1) Learn to use your tools more safely. Use jigs or fixtures any time you think it would make the operation safer. Yes, it's slower. It's not as slow as six months of PT.
    2) Get a bandsaw. Properly tuned, they can do many operations as well as a miter saw, and I find them to be much safer to operate, especially given that they can't kick back (kickback is actually a bigger source of injury than blade contact), although they still require caution.
    3) Get a SawStop. You can do almost anything on a table saw that you can do with a miter saw, and you can generally do it more accurately.
    4) Check out this awesome-looking tool:

    It's basically a Japanese pull saw with a sliding table. Check out the demonstration videos - looks like it does a fantastic job, and since it's human-powered, it's probably quite a bit safer than a miter saw. Although you still need to keep your digits away from the blade.

  22. Hope you're doing ok now. I wanted to find someone with a similar injury to me - my dog bit the end of my thumb off! He's only a little terrier - I was trying to stop him being attacked by my other dog and my hand got in the way when I was trying to separate them. Unfortunately, they couldn't find the end at the time, so the wound just healed over without it being sewn on. I still have half my nail - it's just a diddy thumb now, about 3cm shorter than the other one but looks fairly passable.

    It feels weird though - there's a hard ridge over the pad that aches a bit sometimes, and although it's all joined up, it feels like there's a hole. Still, it's only 2 and a half months since I did it, so who knows!

    Can't crack eggs. do up buttons or necklaces very easily now. Still, I can now manipulate the hand brake on my car, so some function is coming back. Have to use a different method to put on a bra too.

    Still got the dog. He was only defending himself - rehoused the other one.