(Written in May, 1998)

by Jim Heaphy

Those of you who have read my column for a number of years may recall that dust control is a subject I cover from time to time. Let's face it - installing a solid surface countertop often creates an enormous amount of dust in a customer's home, and making an effort to reduce and control this dust is a major element of customer satisfaction.

The first thing to do is to inform the customers frankly that lots of dust will be generated, and then describe the steps that you will take to minimize its impact on their home. This is definitely a case where honesty is the best policy. I have heard several complaints about installers who did not discuss this with their customers, made no attempt to minimize dust, and then shrugged their shoulders and said "tough luck" when the customers were upset about the mess. This sort of attitude is guaranteed to generate bitter customer complaints. Hanging drop cloths strategically, and sweeping and vacuuming frequently during the course of the installation are the basics. A thorough and comprehensive cleanup after the installation is complete is also an essential requirement.

In addition, tool manufacturers have made enormous strides in recent years in designing and marketing power tools that incorporate effective dust collection. Far more power tools today can collect dust effectively than was the case ten years or even five years ago. I'll briefly describe a few that I've mentioned in previous columns, and then describe some newer entries on the market in greater detail.

Almost every day, I use my Bosch 1370 DEVS 6" random orbit sander. I've been using this model for about five years. I would not think of taking this sander into a customer's home and turning it on without first attaching a vacuum hose. When attached to a vacuum cleaner, well over 95% of the dust that this tool creates goes into the vacuum cleaner, rather than being dispersed into the room air. Similar models are available from companies such as Fein and Porter-Cable.

Last year, I wrote about a tool that was new to me at that time, DeWalt's DW621 router with integral dust extraction. My first impression was positive, and I have now been using this router for over a year. It has many nice features and is an outstanding tool. When attached to a vacuum hose, it will reduce dust spewed around the work area significantly when making a cut all the way through a sheet of solid surface material, as, for example, when making a sink cutout. The integral dust collection is less effective when doing edge trimming, though. For edge trimming, DeWalt has now introduced the DW6913, an adjustable edge guide with provisions for dust collection, which fits all DeWalt routers.

Solid surface manufacturers recommend against using jig saws for finish cuts in solid surface materials. However, there is little doubt that a jig saw is a useful tool that an installer can use for cutting plywood and other wood products, or for rough cutting pieces of solid surface material prior to finish routing operations. For many years, I used a reliable old Bosch 1581 VS jig saw that served me quite well. Sometimes, I held a vacuum hose next to the blade with my left hand as I cut with my right hand, but this is a a little awkward and somewhat ineffective. Recently, though, the Bosch jig saw motor burned out on me quite suddenly, and I was off to my favorite builder's hardware to shop for a replacement.

I would have purchased another Bosch jig saw if they had one with dust collection in stock, but they didn't. Instead, I bought a Milwaukee 6266 jig saw, which features a built in manifold for vacuum assisted dust collection. I would describe this tool as moderately effective in collecting dust. It does a good job of preventing excessive dust build-up around the blade. To improve dust pickup, this jig saw features a transparent plastic blade cover. However, this cover gets dusty itself, which interferes a bit with the visibility of the blade while cutting. If I need to make an especially accurate cut, I will remove the blade cover, and sacrifice some of the efficiency of dust collection for improved visibility. If accuracy is not critical, I will leave the blade cover in place to pick up more of the dust.

About four years ago, I purchased a little Makita 9030 belt sander, which uses an 1-1/4" wide sanding belt. I love the versatility of this tool, and use it often, but it does not provide for vacuum dust collection. Recently, I learned that Makita has upgraded this tool to the Makita 9031, which does allow for connection of a vacuum hose, and also features speed adjustment. I am sure that this improved Makita belt sander is a fine tool. However, I also saw another new compact belt sander on the market recently, the Bosch 1278VS, and decided to purchase one. This tool features a shorter, broader sanding belt with a tiny 3/8" diameter idler roller at the front. This allows the sander to work in very tight quarters. This idler roller is subjected to heavy loads and high temperatures due to sanding friction. Bosch uses rollers manufactured by DuPont out of their high-performance Vespel polyimide composition containing 40% graphite, which can stand this abuse. I have been very pleased with the performance of this variable speed belt sander, including its dust collection capabilities when used attached to a vacuum cleaner.

I also purchased a Porter-Cable 9444 profile sander recently, which is another fairly new tool that allows for dust collection in some circumstances. Unfortunately, the dust collection feature works only when sanding flat surfaces using diamond-shaped hook and loop paper on a special dust pick-up pad. The sander also comes with seventeen assorted profile pads, allowing sanding of a variety of convex and concave surfaces using adhesive paper. It works well for sanding the curved portion of coved back splashes, for example, but does not pick up dust when used in this application.

When using any of these tools with solid surface materials, it is important to connect it to a good quality vacuum cleaner that filters very fine dust effectively. I use the Porter-Cable 7810, which is a tool-triggered unit. It has an electrical outlet for your power tool - plug it in, and the vacuum starts and stops when the power tool is turned on and off. Porter-Cable claims 99.85% filtration efficiency, and I can verify that it is quite effective in capturing almost all solid surface dust. The filter must be cleaned regularly, though, or the suction declines significantly.

From time to time, my wife spends a day on a jobsite with me. Recently, she saw me use most of the tools I've discussed here, and she observed that there seemed to be less than 10% as much dust scattered around the work area as there would have been just two years ago. These new tools go a long way toward solving the problem of solid surface dust in customer's homes, and what could be better for customer satisfaction?