Fred’s Head from APH, a Blindness Blog

Fred’s Head, offered by the American Printing House for the Blind, contains tips, techniques, tutorials, in-depth articles, and resources for and by blind or visually impaired people. Our blog is named after the legendary Fred Gissoni, renowned for answering a seemingly infinite variety of questions on every aspect of blindness.

(See the end of this page for subscribing via email, RSS, browsing articles by subject, blog archive, APH resources, writing for Fred's Head, and disclaimers.)


Tuesday, November 06, 2012

The World of Blind Builders

In A Splintered History of Wood: Belt Sanders, Blind Woodworkers, and Baseball Bats, Spike Carlsen devotes almost 400 pages to the subject of wood: where it comes from, its properties, how it's made, and what cultures have done with wood throughout history. You may think this sounds like a terribly mundane and mind-numbing topic...and you'd probably be right. Nevertheless, as the title suggests, there is something fascinating within the pages of this book—descriptions of blind woodworkers and their craft.

People who are blind should be able to pursue whichever career path they desire. I will 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 much vision one has, but it seems especially hazardous for people who cannot see the tools they are using. I'm sure I'm not the only blind or sighted person to have this thought.

Carlsen's insightful, refreshingly non-condescending account of blind woodworkers totally changed my perspective.

Blind woodworkers 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, it wasn't because he was blind, but because he did something without thinking through it.

One craftsman described his main challenges. He says that figuring out what the client wants the finished product to look like is difficult. He used to have sight, so he understands three-dimensional space, but someone who has always been blind would find that very challenging as well. Most blind people deal with misconceptions on a daily basis. Another woodworker recounts his many trips to the hardware store in which employees thought he was lost or inept.

As you can imagine, accurate measuring is a huge obstacle for blind woodworkers. One man Carlsen interviewed uses a ruler with braille markings. However, this is the only device he uses that was specifically made for someone who is blind. Everything else he and the other woodworkers use are tools sighted woodworkers use 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 wooden stick with indentations at every inch. A click ruler also audibly clicks every sixteenth of an inch. To these guys, it's all about what works. Being able to improvise is very important.

As far as the wood itself goes, one craftsman can tell what type of wood he is using by its smell when he cuts into it or by the feel of the grain. All the senses are incorporated into this enterprise. In addition to smelling the wood, the woodworkers can feel the vibrations and listen for changes in sound when using machinery. These changes may indicate a kickback or other problem that could be dangerous or cause a mistake.

Staying informed about new techniques, technologies, styles, and tools of the trade can be difficult without access to current literature on the subject. This is especially true for people who are blind. Magazines and other materials about woodworking are not accessible to people who are blind. Or, they were until Larry Martin changed that. He took popular woodworking magazines and audio described their content, including pictures and diagrams. This venture, which became Woodworking for the Blind, Inc., now has over 50 CDs of woodworking information and an online community for blind woodworkers to share their ideas, strategies, tips, successes, and lessons learned.

Spike Carlsen does a tremendous job of illuminating the lives and work of blind woodworkers without building them up as heroes or marveling at how amazing and unbelievable they are. Woodworkers who are blind use all the tools at their disposal to create beautiful pieces – yes, it is dangerous, but no more so than for sighted woodworkers, and yes, they make mistakes, but they make no more than sighted woodworkers. These people use ingenuity and their ample talents, vision or not.

Subscribe to receive posts via email

* indicates required

Browse Articles by Subject

Follow us on Twitter


Write for us

Your input and support in the evolution of Fred's Head are invaluable! Contact us about contributing original writing or for suggestions for updating existing articles. Email us at


The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) makes every attempt to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the data contained in the Fred's Head articles; however, APH makes no warranty, guarantee, or promise, expressed or implied, concerning the content or accuracy of the information provided in Fred's Head. APH does not endorse any technique, product, device, service, organization, or other information presented in Fred's Head, other than products and services directly offered by APH.

The products produced by the American Printing House for the Blind are instructional/teaching materials and are intended to be used by trained professionals, parents, and other adults with children who are blind and visually impaired. These materials are not intended as toys for use by children in unstructured play or in an unsupervised environment.

The information and techniques contained in Fred's Head are provided without legal consideration (free-of-charge) and are not warranted by APH to be safe or effective. All users of this service assume the risk of any injury or damage that may result from the use of the information provided.

Information in Fred's Head is not intended as a substitute for professional advice or treatment. Consult your physician before utilizing information regarding your health that may be presented on this site. Consult other professionals as appropriate for legal, financial, and related advice.

Fred's Head articles may contain links to other websites. APH is not responsible for the content of these sites.

Fred's Head articles created by APH staff are (C) copyright American Printing House for the Blind, Inc. You must request permission from APH to reprint these articles. Email to request permission.

Any submissions to Fred's Head should be free of copyright restrictions and should be the intellectual property of the submitter. By submitting information to Fred's Head, you are granting APH permission to publish this information.

Fair Use Notice: This website may contain copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright holder(s). This site is operated on the assumption that using this information constitutes 'fair use' of said copyrighted material as provided for in Section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law.

Opinions appearing in Fred's Head records are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Printing House for the Blind.