Toxic Tendencies


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Greg Derr working with a rotary tool at his bench wearing eye and respiratory protection.
The mask prevents the inhalation of fine metal dust particles.

Working on firearms at any time has its risks. We in the craft typically think of an accidental discharge or damage from a faulty cartridge or action. But for those who work in a full custom shop, there are hidden dangers from chips, dust and chemicals we’re exposed to each day.

Years ago while working in the shop I noticed the glittering of steel dust in the late afternoon sun coming through my window. It shocked me for a bit. I took a lot for granted for a number of years until I had children. I guess when I started thinking of my kids I started to think of my mortality. I had a few older friends in the trade pass from cancer and it caused me to examine my safety practices and risks of exposure to toxins in my shop.

I always wore eye protection since chips tend to fly while milling and turning, and some springs under tension can pop free. But I didn’t think too much about the dust and fumes in my shop. I guess because the ’smith I trained under didn’t, I never thought it was necessary. But in retrospect — I was wrong. When I took a closer look at my shop I could see dust covered almost everything. Dust from grinding, dust from spray coatings, dust from blasting — all stuff I was breathing, all stuff I should have been protecting myself from.
That was 20 years ago.

Greg Derr at the Bridgeport mill working on a 1911 frame with a full-face shield to
protect himself against hot flying metal chips and coolant oils.

Fighting Dust

Today I use a variety of masks and gloves and a large exhaust system to prevent airborne exposure to dust and fumes. If you use a bench grinder or rotary tool this creates dust particles, which tend to stay airborne for a while. Steel, aluminum and wood dust can be hazardous to lungs and eyes.

I started asking others smiths what precautions they were taking. I was surprised most did very little beyond eye protection and an apron. I did find a few who had suffered some infections from wood dust and one from ivory dust.

My first step was to evaluate my workspace. I wanted to minimize the areas of exposure. I moved my welding area to near the area I use for spray coatings. This area got a large industrial exhaust fan and hood. It’s also close to my Bridgeport mill, which is equipped with a misting system for cooling.

The bench grinding area got partitions to enclose the grinders on three sides. I also installed a dedicated shop vacuum for clean up. For work in this area I use a 3M-dust mask, covering the nose and mouth and having removable fine particle filters. I also have two glass or aluminum oxide blasting cabinets. One for stainless, the other for carbon steel, and each has a dedicated vacuum and filter system. No matter how much vacuum you may use, they still leak a fine dust. I tend to get my face close to the window while working so I mask up there too.

My surface grinder was next. I hand pump coolant to help keep the dust down, but a mask is a must for the cooling vapors as they cook-off the hot work.

Nicholas Derr of Derr Precision uses a dust mask while blasting a 1911 slide with aluminum oxide beads.
Most blasting cabinets have small dust leaks.


Cleaning solvents are not only flammable but can cause respiratory issues if not used in a vented area. We use both a cleaning tank with a cover and aerosol cans to clean and degrease. I switched to mineral spirits for the cleaning tank long ago since it was less flammable and could clean everything without damage. I’m looking at water-based cleaners for the future.

Disposable latex gloves to prevent skin exposure, breathing masks and a fan are used in this area. We also texture synthetic frames with a hot iron and a small fan moves fumes away.

Scott Kolar of SK Grips said he was lucky over 20 years ago when he started making single action revolver grips in his basement. Right off, old timers warned him about the risks of some exotic wood dusts as well as horn and ivory. Some woods like cocobolo and snake wood give off toxic oils when sanded, and ebony dust is super fine. In his shop he has a centralized dust collection system as well as facemasks.

The next time you begin to clean a gun, think about the solvents, splatter and toxic products like lead you’re dealing with and suit-up appropriately. Wearing disposable gloves and eye protection is a must, and at least a small fan to blow fumes away is in order.

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