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.

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