There’s a clear view of Puget Sound outside Chuck Bell’s home in Gig Harbor, Washington. And keeping things clear is important to Chuck: that’s why he invented the Downdrafter, a dust collection system specifically designed for a sliding compound miter saw. Unlike most stationary systems, the Downdrafter slides up and down a track attached to the back of the workstation or bench and can be angled to match any mitered cut.
Chuck launched his product just last October, but its genesis started around 10 years ago, Chuck, a pharmacist by profession, took up the hobby of woodworking. Nothing on a professional level, mind you, but he took some higher level classes at Mark Adams School of Woodworking in Franklin, Indiana, and had a lot of fun building projects for his house and a few close friends. And like so many others working in a basement shop, he often grappled with the problem of dust in a small confined space.
“I had a good old DeWalt 12″ chop saw,” recalled Chuck, “It didn’t slide, and a Craftsman radial arm saw. Both put out a lot of dust and I got so tired of inhaling the stuff and getting it in my eyes. I decided to play around with putting some kind of lid behind them to capture the dust.”
But the dust put out by the two older saws was nothing, when Chuck replaced them both with a 12″ DeWalt compound sliding miter saw.
“It’s got such a big blade,” Chuck explained, “and really throws the dust everywhere. As you cut, the dust comes off on the same plane as the boards and it overshoots the dust control system. It’s only during the tail end of the cut, the last 10 percent, where dust is efficiently collected.”
Just for his own use, Chuck went back to work on a dust solution. His shop’s current system was based on vacuum pipes hanging from the ceiling, and he worked around two key principles: the hood needed to be as close as possible to the blade; and it had to be large enough to accommodate the arm that sticks out 12 to 14″ behind the blade. This phase culminated with a large fixed hood — 38″ across and 16″ deep. Though it captured and blocked the dust temporarily, it didn’t really remove it. The whole approach was fighting against a pretty firm law of nature: gravity.
Then two years ago, Chuck relocated his family and workshop to take a new job in Washington state. As he re-established his shop (in the basement again, but a larger space), he decided to reconfigure the dust control pipes for his CSMS to go downward behind the workstation.
“I worked out how I could have the hood pull the dust downward, and how it should turn and always be in the right position at the right time. Then I built a crude working model out of plywood and scraps. It couldn’t turn yet, but I added a track system to the back of the workstation that allowed the hood to travel perpendicular to the saw. It worked pretty good.”
Knowing that airflow was the key and that he didn’t know enough calculus to deal with the required Bernoulli airflow equations, he turned to his daughter and son-in-law, both engineers.
“Our original portal for gathering the dust was 4″ wide,” Chuck recalled, “And we found that if we increased that to 6-1/2 inches, it would enhance the volume of airflow out of the hood and into the dust portal. The hood worked with the narrow portal or airflow chamber like a venturi tube [this narrowing caused the air flow to accelerate].”
At that point, Chuck’s son, a business owner, began encouraging his father to patent and ultimately market the invention. Chuck knew there was a need for the product and a little research showed that there was nothing else out there that even came close. He visited all the tool outlets with a notebook and measured 37 different makes and models. Things moved quickly from there. Chuck applied for the patent and found a plastics company in the area to help him develop specification and work out the design. At the same time, he found a another company to develop the metal track that would carry the system.
“We decided to make it out of HIPS (high impact polystyrene) plastic rather than the ABS you find on most dust systems. HIPS is a more flexible and less rigid plastic, that’s light enough to move around, but tough enough to take a good bump. Which means if you turn the saw for a bevel cut, and hit the hood, it won’t knock your saw out of alignment. The metal track had to be both practical and cost effective. The manufacturers were terrific about developing prototypes, and once we worked out the size of the production runs, we came up with a product that woodworkers could afford and that I could afford to sell.”
In late October of last year, the Downdrafter went public with its first ad in Woodworker’s Journal. It generated a lot of inquiries, which unfortunately coincided with a breakdown in Chuck’ business plan. A fulfillment house in Baltimore was supposed to handle all orders and shipping, but it wasn’t working. So, with orders coming in, on the day after Christmas Chuck flew to Baltimore and arranged to have the inventory shipped back to Washington state. That was the point that he realized how fortunate he’d been in marketing to woodworkers.
“They are a great community to work with.” Chuck explained. “I told those who placed orders what had happened. They understood and just asked me to get it to them as soon as I could. From the fulfillment house, I actually had an order and the money, but didn’t know whom it was from. I finally convinced the credit card company to get a message to him. And when he called back, I explained the deal and he was fine with that and just asked me to ship it out to him.”
For now, Downdrafter is being sold directly by Chuck’s company CRB Systems. But he’s put together a wholesale price structure and is looking for dealers. To promote the product he’s continued to advertise in woodworking magazines and will offer free shipping for a limited time. Though Chuck continues at his day job, it’s a full-time business between him and his wife Bobbi.
“Everybody loves their compound sliding miter saw, but they hate the dust. ” Chuck declared, ” And we’re off to a good start selling units off the web site It’s been quite a ride, but it’s been worth it. On the patent application, you have a statement on why you’re doing this and it can’t be just to make money. And truth is, the Downdrafter moves dust away from lungs and eyes and that’s good for the health and welfare of woodworkers.”
Not content to rest on his laurels, Chuck is already working on his next invention … a design for regular miter and radial arm saws. Some woodworkers are already using the Downdrafter for their miter saws, but the $299 unit costs as much as their saw. The new system will cost considerably less with a shorter track. He’s also thinking about relocating the business back to the Midwest this summer — perhaps to Tennessee.
“It makes business sense,” Chuck explained. “Most of my customers are east of the Mississippi, but it also makes family sense … since my wife is homesick for the seasons.”