Woodworking power tools – such as saws, routers, and planers – create an obscene amount of dust and debris. Woodworkers will often use shop vacuums or specialized portable dust extractors to help manage this, but filters clog quickly, bags fill up fast, and canisters require frequent emptying.
A clogged filter or filled bag can also lead to loss of suction power.
What does a Cyclone Add-on Do?
Working with wood produces fine dust particles, coarse medium-sized particles, and large debris such as chips and shavings. Cyclone add-ons separate and collect a large proportion of medium and large-sized dust and debris, preserving the suction power and performance of the attached vacuum or extractor.
Cyclones are not 100% efficient, so eventually filter maintenance or a fresh bag would still be needed.
Higher-end shop dust collectors come with 2-stage filtering built-in, and the cyclones typically work in the same manner as those that you add to portable vacuums.
How do Cyclones Work?
Generally, all cyclone separators feature an indirect path from hose intake to hose outlet. That is, airflow and particle travel is not a short distance from inlet to outlet. Airflow starts at the inlet and follows along a downwards helical path until it reaches the bottom of the conical section. The vertical upwards return flow towards the vacuum outlet starts at the center of the cyclone near the bottom.
The heaviest debris – wood chips, shavings, and such – quickly fall to the bottom of the separator. These larger particles collide with the cyclone walls, lose speed, and gravity helps pull them down towards the collection container.
Lighter and medium-sized particles continue on the helical airflow path along the walls of the cyclone or separator. At the bottom of the cyclone the conical section helps to further separate medium-sized particles from the airflow.
Some lighter particles will remain in the helical airflow, some will be separated with the medium-sized particles. The smaller radius of the taper means a greater wall-hugging force that keeps the smaller particles away form the center.
At the bottom of the cyclone taper, a portion of the lighter particles will drop to the collection container but some will be drawn up towards the vacuum source.
Usually it is only some of the finest particles that carry through to the dust collector or shop vacuum. But if the intake rate is too quick, more dust will make it to the vacuum.
Cyclone separators might lead to a slight reduction in vacuum power, but even if by a noticeable amount this is outweighed by the benefits. The amount of reduction would certainly be less than the drop that would be caused by a quickly-clogged filter or collection bag.
Cyclone Separators vs. Lid Separators
A lid separator, which is often placed on top of a 5-gallon bucket, garbage container, or other vessel, is better than no separator, but well-designed cyclone separators are generally better.
Both filter larger debris, but cyclone separators sometimes do a better job of separating finer and medium-sized woodworking dust particles.
In theory cyclones are better, but because both types of products have their benefits and trade-offs it’s unfair to say that one is better than the other in practice.