Wood allergies in the workshop

Manage your symptoms without abandoning the shop

By Matthew Pioro


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Bruce Chamberlin looked ready for a chemical attack. He was dressed in polyester coveralls, tuque, face mask, scarf, turtleneck and heavy-duty vinyl gloves, and his sleeves and ankles were duct-taped. Without this protection, he wouldn’t have been able to finish the cherry and Brazilian rosewood cradle for his grandson.

Three years ago, Chamberlin discovered he was allergic to Brazilian rosewood while working in his garage shop in Saskatoon. Where the tropical wood’s dust came in contact with Chamberlin’s skin, he got a rash. His doctor sent him to a dermatologist, who prescribed strong antihistamines, steroid cream and something else pretty drastic.

“The doctor said to stay away from the rosewood,” Chamberlin recalls. “But I said, ‘I can’t do that.’” So, after some time to recuperate, Chamberlin was back in his garage, decked out in the protective clothing.

Chamberlin’s reaction to rosewood was quite strong, but a more common allergic reaction among woodworkers is contact dermatitis–or a rash–on the hands. Dr. Mark Greenwald, an allergy specialist in Toronto, says woodworkers must manage this reaction: “The main thing is preventing allergic reactions rather than treating them.”

Prevention for skin allergies includes wearing protective gloves and moisturizing. Greenwald recommends creams without perfumes and other chemicals, such as those available through Allergy Canada. In the case of woodworkers with respiratory allergies, using respirators, dust collection and air purification is a must.

“You should be proactive,” Greenwald says. “You may have only a little irritation in the beginning, but once it’s established, it becomes more difficult to get rid of.”

Chamberlin did finally complete the cradle for his grandson, but not until a month after the birth. Happily, the woodworking granddad still putters in his shop, just with materials that are easy on his skin.

For more information, visit www.allergycanada.com.

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