The World of Blind Builders

In A Splintered History of Wood: Belt Sanders,Blind Woodworkers, and Baseball Bats, Spike Carlsen devotes almost 400pages to the subject of wood: where it comes from, its properties, how it’smade, and what cultures have done with wood throughout history. You may thinkthis sounds like a terribly mundane and mind-numbing topic…and you’d probablybe right. Nevertheless, as the title suggests, there is something fascinatingwithin the pages of this book—descriptions of blind woodworkers and theircraft.
Peoplewho are blind should be able to pursue whichever career path they desire. Iwill admit that, at first, I was skeptical of the concept of blind woodworkers.(And not just because of my fear of power tools!) Creating objects (desks,tables, bookcases, etc.) out of wood is a dangerous job, no matter how muchvision one has, but it seems especially hazardous for people who cannot see thetools they are using. I’m sure I’m not the only blind or sighted person to havethis thought.
Carlsen’sinsightful, refreshingly non-condescending account of blind woodworkers totallychanged my perspective.
Blindwoodworkers face many of the same challenges as their sighted counterparts,such as “safety, accuracy, interpreting plans and instructions, patience,and customer satisfaction” (p. 57). When a woodworker lost his finger, itwasn’t because he was blind, but because he did something without thinkingthrough it.
Onecraftsman described his main challenges. He says that figuring out what theclient wants the finished product to look like is difficult. He used to havesight, so he understands three-dimensional space, but someone who has alwaysbeen blind would find that very challenging as well. Most blind people dealwith misconceptions on a daily basis. Another woodworker recounts his manytrips to the hardware store in which employees thought he was lost or inept.
Asyou can imagine, accurate measuring is a huge obstacle for blind woodworkers. Oneman Carlsen interviewed uses a ruler with braille markings. However, this isthe only device he uses that was specifically made for someone who is blind.Everything else he and the other woodworkers use are tools sighted woodworkersuse as well. One man utilizes aluminum measuring blocks that are precisely 1-,2-, or 3- inches long, or even smaller if necessary. Another man uses a woodenstick with indentations at every inch. A click ruler also audibly clicks everysixteenth of an inch. To these guys, it’s all about what works. Being able toimprovise is very important.
Asfar as the wood itself goes, one craftsman can tell what type of wood he isusing by its smell when he cuts into it or by the feel of the grain. All thesenses are incorporated into this enterprise. In addition to smelling the wood,the woodworkers can feel the vibrations and listen for changes in sound whenusing machinery. These changes may indicate a kickback or other problem thatcould be dangerous or cause a mistake.
Stayinginformed about new techniques, technologies, styles, and tools of the trade canbe difficult without access to current literature on the subject. This isespecially true for people who are blind. Magazines and other materials aboutwoodworking are not accessible to people who are blind. Or, they were untilLarry Martin changed that. He took popular woodworking magazines and audiodescribed their content, including pictures and diagrams. This venture, whichbecame Woodworking for the Blind, Inc., now has over 50 CDs of woodworkinginformation and an online community for blind woodworkers to share their ideas,strategies, tips, successes, and lessons learned.
SpikeCarlsen does a tremendous job of illuminating the lives and work of blindwoodworkers without building them up as heroes or marveling at how amazing andunbelievable they are. Woodworkers who are blind use all the tools at theirdisposal to create beautiful pieces – yes, it is dangerous, but no more so thanfor sighted woodworkers, and yes, they make mistakes, but they make no morethan sighted woodworkers. These people use ingenuity and their ample talents,vision or not.

Stan Greenwood
A humble human, who is always found working on something or drinking coffee. A perfect introvert who talks barely anything but shares a lot through his blog posts at FredForum.

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