FAQs: dangerous tools in the library

I’ve been asked how my library (that I left in late 2013) handled dangerous tools such as soldering irons in our library makerspace. Here is how I’ve answered these questions:

As a small library we were often able to accommodate fairly dangerous activities safely that larger libraries might worry about, including soldering. We do have a liability release form, which we adapted from existing makerspace forms (one is here, adapt as you like but vet with your legal counsel).

What about kids and dangerous tools?
We never had more than five kids soldering at one time and often had two adults overseeing them. But sometimes adults were not closely supervising individuals, but let me explain how this worked:

We held several soldering workshops in which people of all ages (but mostly kids) learned to solder LED pins, printed circuit board kits such as the Octolively, and robot kits. We followed the “learn one, do one, teach one” model, in which each person “certified” to use the soldering tools on their own had to learn from us, demonstrate good skills and safety in a later interaction, then teach someone else how to do the task safely and well. At that point we used our best judgement to allow people to use the tools in a traditional makerspace manner–i.e. whenever they wanted to. Still, if the solderers were kids that we were concerned about being distracted, we would keep a close eye on them as they worked with the tools.

Our rules were:

1. MOST IMPORTANT: Always treat the soldering iron as if it is hot. At 475 degrees you’ll burn anything you touch, so it’s critical, even if you JUST saw someone taking the iron out of its box and plugging it in, to treat it as if it is at full temp. No waving it around. Always return the iron to its stand immediately.
2. Keep the mat under your work. We bought mats that one can iron clothes on, to prevent an accidental “set down” of an iron from melting or burning the table. (Before that we’d had one kid get distracted and set the iron on the cardboard she had under her  project. Since we were watching closely, it barely touched the cardboard before we told her to pick it up, but this made us aware that even with supervision, accidents happen.)
3. Use the helping hands. These are little metal stands that have clips on them to hold whatever you’re soldering.
4. Keep your grip far back on the solder. (i.e. don’t hold it so close to the part that’s being melted that heat travels up and burns your fingers, causing you to drop everything in alarm–this never happened)

5. Learn to fix your own mistakes, but make sure you tell someone when you’ve made one. (We helped extra with mistakes because it seems like it is easier to do stupid stuff with the soldering iron when frustrated.)

Did you have any incidents or problems?
The slight charring of cardboard is the only incident we ever had, and it happened only once. That said, these were good, responsible kids (and adults) who listened to directions, took our authority seriously, and WANTED to be able to continue using the tools. We told them that if there were an incident, it was likely the tools would go away forever. So, keep that in mind. I’ve had other batches of kids (and adults) who I’d never trust with soldering irons unless we were one on one. And even then, I’d worry. USE YOUR JUDGEMENT–KNOW YOUR PATRONS.

soldering hands

Did you hire expert teachers?
I was the “expert” and had never soldered before in my life. I learned via the fabulous Ladyada, Limor Fried, practiced a few times, then taught. No problem. I had another volunteer “teacher” in exactly the same position. She and I did great, and I think it made a great impression on the girls and women in the audience that we had just learned and were already pretty good, and we were female. I now teach classes on this and have taught a hundred or so librarians to solder! (if your library system wants a program on makerspaces, I’d be happy to consider it–I’ve done it for several systems so far)

Anyway, we did have expert volunteers for other stuff, such as robotics, and circuit bending, but usually I learned it, then taught it. For me, there are a lot of power/pedagogical reasons to be just ahead of the kids when teaching, and letting them surpass you is great. As I noted before, often the kids took over some of the teaching (part of our learn one, do one, teach one model) and our best soldering & 3D printing teacher was actually just shy of his 12th birthday.

Should I be concerned about kids using dangerous tools? What age limits should we consider?
Yes, you should be very concerned about kids using soldering irons. We had kids age 11+. Again, these were calm, responsible kids. I knew them, at least by name–I was not the teen librarian. I would have a great deal of concern about a rowdy group, one that “shows off” a lot when in groups, or kids I didn’t know at all to be fairly laid back. If you have kind of wild kids, I would highly suggest getting a 1:1 ratio of volunteers to eagle eye every move during the initial training period. And give kids plenty of elbow room so they don’t burn someone whilst gesticulating with soldering iron in hand!

Younger kids also soldered during our maker faire type of event, but only with their parents right there.

Where did you use soldering irons, and what about the fumes?
We soldered in both a small classroom and in the library proper. I was not concerned about the fumes, because we had good ventilation naturally circulating, but if you are concerned, see my post on 3D printing and air quality here.

I feel like the very limited time that people will be soldering, the large scale of most libraries, and the frankly small level of fumes being spewed out by the solder probably make this a non-issue for libraries. Now, if you’re doing intensive work over hours and/or have a small space with poor ventilation, that may be another story.I am not an expert on this, and your mileage may vary.

What other dangerous tools could people use?
Exacto knives are particularly terrifying, moreso than soldering irons, because people don’t respect their danger.
Dremel tool, hammer, scissors, paper guillotine (honestly, we never let this out in the makerspace area!), PVC pipe ratchet cutter, boiling water, oven and stove, knives, garlic crushers…
books, ideas, pen (being mightier than sword) and so on.

Any further questions? Check out my other FAQs, email me, or comment here. I also do workshops on all these tools and makerspaces in general.

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