Luckier Than I Deserve

Time and chance happen to all woodworkers — sometimes to tragic ends, sometimes to the good, and, sometimes, just to the bizarre.

Round-Over Router BitOne such bizarre event happened to me many years ago when I was working in my father and uncle’s woodworking shop. In addition to custom cabinetry, we did a fair amount of production woodworking — pattern-routed items like round picture frames, fish filleting boards and other items that would now be cut on a CNC router. Not so then. Instead, we had a huge (six feet tall, eight feet front to back, and easily five feet across) 20hp over-head automated router that had a pneumatic infeed table and a couple of hard rubber drive rollers that propelled awkward-looking patterns. This setup was state-of-the-art at the time, but if you were to look at it now and compared it to today’s CNC systems, it would be evocative of the steam era of auto transportation, compared to today’s Lamborghinis.

One afternoon, I was working my way through an interminable stack of red oak blanks, routing a full 1-1/2″ roundover on a circular plate holder. That is a mighty big router bit and a monstrous cut — but this machine could handle both with ease. Or, at least, that is what I thought.

Late one afternoon, having already processed a couple hundred blanks, I placed an oak panel on the vacuum-activated pattern and then stepped on the foot switch, which made the table slide into place and the floating router head drop down to engage the cut. Except that, this time, when the head came down, that huge router bit — along with the chuck and the #2 Morse taper that was supposed to hold them all into the machine — literally flew out of the head at 20,000 rpm, bounced off the concrete block wall behind the router, flew back over my shoulder (missing my head — “protected” by a flimsy little plastic face shield — by just inches) and landed in the middle of the floor, about 30 feet away, spinning like a top on the point of the taper while sending sparks flying.

Other shop workers, as you might expect, were jumping around and hollering at the top of their lungs. It was an odd scene, to be sure. It happened so fast that I really had no chance to even get frightened. In fact, it wasn’t until I told my wife about it that evening (and her eyes got big as she told me that I would have to quit my job … which didn’t happen) that I even got at all worked up about it.

There is no real moral to this story. In the previous several years, nothing like that event had ever occurred with that monstrous Italian-made machine. And in the remaining four or five years that I worked at the shop, it never happened again.

But, even more than 20 years later, I still think of it from time to time. As I said, time and chance happen to us all.

Rob Johnstone
Editor in Chief

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About Rob Johnstone

Rob Johnstone has been part of Woodworker's Journal's since 1997, becoming editor of the print magazine in 1998 and editor in chief in 2007. He began woodworking at age 13 in his family-owned cabinet shop and, as an adult, trained to become an accomplished luthier. He eventually opened his own cabinetry and custom fine woodworking business. Rob has brought many of the most well-known authors in woodworking to the Journal's pages and introduced Woodworker's Journal Online Survey. When, in his free time, Rob isn't woodworking, he enjoys hunting for sharp-tailed grouse with his bird dog, playing music and/or listening to his son's rock band and cooking on his high-tech stove.

3 thoughts on “Luckier Than I Deserve

  1. Thanks for sharing that experience Rob. Possibly close to death and wasn’t aware. Two incidents for me. One: Building cedar fence in back yard about 20 years ago. Had been driving galvanized nails for hours when one flipped upon impact from hammer head and stuck between lens and body of inexpensive pair or SAFETY GOGGLES. WOW! Still have for war story time in garage. TWO: Cutting legs shorter on wooden bar stool. Electrical breaker trips. Go into house to RESET – come back into garage just as table saw decides it’s time to fire the leg at me as I walk into the garage from inside house. FORGOT TO SHUT OFF TABLESAW before resetting the breaker. No damage – hit my leg and fell to floor.

  2. Good grief! That’s enough to make you get in the car and leave. Many years ago when I made a lot of money, (haha) I thought I’d buy my dad a radial arm saw. I also thought I’d show him how great of a tool it was for “ripping” through a piece of wood. Knowing very little about the tool myself, I rotated the head, set the height and started feeding a piece of 1X6 under the blade. Did you know that a 4′ piece of 1X6 can penetrate a 5/8″ sheet of plywood AND still have enough energy to break a window nearly 50′ away? It freaked my dad out (and me) so much, the saw sat idle for years. Luckily no one was standing in the line of fire.

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