Over the years, as I have gotten a bit older and a bit wiser, I have become much more conscious of the importance of wearing proper PPE while woodworking. I was far too lackadaisical with wearing proper eye protection, hearing protection, and a good woodworking dust mask in the past.
It took a few years (ahem…decades) to finally make it a habit. Now, when I head out to the shop, the very first thing I do every single time is put on my dust mask, safety glasses, and hearing protection, even if I’m only making a few cuts or finishing up an Etsy order that will only take a few minutes.
Getting to the point where I was comfortable wearing this safety equipment meant finding equipment that I didn’t mind wearing. Rather than going with the cheap set of safety glasses that came with my router and were constantly scratched, I went out and bought a decent pair that had anti-scratch and anti-fog lenses. The difference in fit and clarity over the cheap glasses means I’ll often find myself wearing them into the house and only later realize I still have them on.
The same goes with hearing protection (3M worktunes are awesome!) and a dust mask.
What to Look for with a Dust Mask
There are a number of different options when it comes to woodworking dust masks. From style to fit to the materials they filter out.
Here are a few things to look for when choosing a new dust mask.
Single Use or Replaceable Filters
Are the masks single-use, or do they accept replaceable filters or cartridges? I use both types in the shop, although 98% of the time, I’m reaching for the reusable masks.
Single-use masks can be great, though, if you’ll be working in an extremely dusty environment that might quickly clog up the filters on a reusable mask. They are also handy to keep around if you have visitors to the shop and want to offer them a mask as well.
Cartridge or Filter
On masks that have replaceable filters they typically come in three different styles.
- Internal Filter
- External Filter
- External Cartridge
Like the RZ-style masks, masks with internal filters have a filter insert that fits inside the mask. The outside of the mask is typically a cloth-like material that can be washed, with the inner filter being replaceable.
The pros of this style are that the masks are usually very lightweight and comfortable for long sessions in the shop. On the downside, the filter capabilities won’t be adequate if you’ll be working with finishes or solvents that require a respirator-style mask.
External filter or cartridge style masks offer a lot more flexibility in that many can accept a range of filter styles based on your exact needs in the shop. If your only exposure is dust, then filter-style inserts will be plenty. They can then be switched out for cartridges for working with finishes or solvents.
Most woodworking face masks in this category also have rubber or silicon seals which make for a better fit and less leakage. Not as big of deal when working with dust but this can create issues if you’re working with more noxious fumes.
This guide on which mask to choose based on your potential applications is a good place to start when determining which mask, or masks, you’ll need.
All N95 level masks will provide adequate protection against airborne dust from woodworking. If you are finishing or spraying your pieces, a step up to a multi-purpose respirator will be necessary.
I keep a respirator-style mask on hand in the shop for situations where I need extra protection. It is pretty bulky, though, and less comfortable to wear for long periods, so when I’m only exposed to wood dust, I go with the RZ mask most of the time.
If you’re looking at disposable masks for woodworking, I recommend picking one with a discharge valve. Discharge valves release air when you breathe out and help prevent moisture from building up inside the mask or releasing upward and fogging your glasses.
There are plenty of settings, medical and otherwise, where you wouldn’t want to use this type of mask but for woodworking, where the exposure is purely through breathing air in, these are a good option.
Finding the Right Fit with a Woodworking Dust Mask
Dust masks aren’t necessarily a one size fits all type of item and it has taken me a bit of time, and trial and error, to find a mask that fits well and I can stand wearing for hours in the shop.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a great way to try out different masks without just buying a few to see which ones fit and which don’t.
Luckily, most woodworking dust masks are fairly inexpensive so the up front cost isn’t huge.
If you are primarily using the mask around dust then the fit with cloth masks should be adequate. If you’ll be exposed to finishes or spraying then masks with a silicon seal will be vital for ensuring full safety while wearing the mask.
The Best Woodworking Dust Masks
After trying out reusable masks and the 3M respirator I think I finally found “the one” with the RZ mask.
RZ masks come with replaceable active carbon filters and the mask is made from a breathable mesh. This combination makes for a comfortable fit for long days in the shop with solid filtering capabilities.
The mask also has two exhaust valves so many safety glasses rarely fog and the mask stays cool even during warm days in the shop.
I have found that I can wear this mask for hours without even really noticing it and that is about the highest praise I can offer for a woodworking dust mask.
The mask is held in place by a wide strap that wraps around the back of the head and latches with a large velcro area. This makes the mask easy to lower (hello shop coffee!) and put back on without messing with straps under my hearing protection or hat.
The RZ mask comes in a number of different colors and sizes so there is an option for almost everyone.
The 3M reusable respirator offers a lot of versatility in a face mask. The replaceable filters can be changed between N95 style lightweight filters when working around wood dust or cartridges for finishes or spraying.
The rubber seal around the mask creates a tight fit, so I never worry about breathing in harmful fumes when wearing this mask. I used this mask for a few years in the shop, and it always did a great job.
My one complaint was the rubber mask enclosure would result in moisture build up within the mask. The seal was also tight, which is good for keeping fumes out, but it could get old after a while during those long days in the shop.
I always like to keep a set of disposable masks around the shop and these fit the bill perfectly. They are relatively inexpensive, lightweight, and include a release valve which makes them a lot more comfortable to wear over a longer period of time.
If you’re using masks with reusable filters or cartridges then I’m sure you’ve run into a situation, like me, where you’ve forgotten to order a new set of filters and need a quick fallback. These masks are also great if you have visitors in the shop and aren’t quite comfortable with sharing your reusable masks!
While this option doesn’t fit very well into the “affordable” category it can be a good option for those looking for full face protection and a respirator in one. This is a great option for woodturners especially as it can be a pain to wear both a mask and face shield during a long day on the lathe.
Final Thoughts on the Best Woodworking Dust Mask
Safety in the shop should always be a high priority and these woodworking dust masks are all a great option toward reaching that goal. It can take time to find the right mask but once you do it will be a game changer when to comes to wearing it consistently.