Woodworking for the Blind

No Vision Required

No Vision Required Being blind doesn’t keep these woodworkers from building and carving By Kathleen Ryan Using knives and power tools in the dark might seem like a dangerously bad idea. However, more and more sight-impaired people are toppling that stereotype and turning to woodcarving and woodworking as hobbies and therapy. We spoke to several of them about what it is like to work without sight, along with the whys and hows of their craft. Their candid responses surprise, enlighten, and inspire.

Braille Art: Bob Kennedy “People who drop by my house are pretty freaked out when they hear power tools running in the shop without any lights on,” said 58-year-old Bob Kennedy. “If you need lights, I’ll turn them on for you. Otherwise, I have no need for them.” Bob is among the one percent of the population born with glaucoma and has been totally blind for the past 46 years. Everything he has learned about working with woodoccurred after he went blind. 185 An accomplished woodworker, wood turner, and cabinetmaker, Bob uses all kinds of power tools; he even uses a chainsaw to cut firewood for his home. Bob also loves to hand-carve wood Bob Kennedy can recognize through touch. You can follow it from start to finish and see the shape taking place with your hands,” he explained. Like many carvers, Bob feels that his greatest artistic challenge is proportion. “I have a problem sometimes getting the dimensions to fit right. For example, I may have a nose that is way too large for the face. My fireplace has benefited greatly from these mistakes,” he said with a chuckle. He also admits to a bad carving habit that has led to injuries. “I tend to lay with Swiss-made steel tools. Said the Chapel Hill, N.C., resident, “You don’t have to see in order to pick out details or to appreciate a blockof wood becoming something special.” Working with wood is like Braille art to Bob. “Carving lets you take a block of wood and shape it into something you love. a finger tip on top of the chisel or gouge as I push it,” he said. “I know resistance is enough to tell me when I’m going too deep, but for me it’s like watching what I’m doing. A few times I’ve ‘blinded’ myself by slicing up the tip of my finger—nothing that’s ever required stitches, but definitely some patching. I know I should wear gloves, but I just can’t seem to carve with my fingers covered up.” Many of Bob’s ideas and inspiration come from touch. “Sometimes if I just put a hand on something, an idea will hit me and I’ll think, this is something I’d like to try to carve. Other times I’ll just pick up a knife and whittle a while until something looks like it’s trying to come out of the wood. Then, I’ll spend the rest of the time helping it get out.”

Four More Senses: Ray Wright “I love the feel of wood. Its natural qualities are so soothing and relaxing,” said Ray Wright, a 50-year-old Sandy, Utah, resident. Ray was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at age 22. His vision steadily deteriorated until he became completely blind 11 years ago. On a whim, Ray took an elective woodworking class offered at the Center for the Blind in Salt Lake City and loved it. He has since tackled all types of carving and woodworking projects using power tools and a full array of carving knives and gouges. “I choose tools that have knobs and switches I can feel, as opposed to equipment with digital readouts and flat-screen touch pads. I also use a Braille ruler, a Braille yardstick, and a talking tape measure,” he said. “My favorite measuring tool is called a Click Rule—a threaded rod inserted into a tube and held in place by a thumb screw.” Ray has an excellent safety record, which he attributes to extreme caution, protective gear, and following the safety guidelines in every owner’s manual. “I think most injuries happen when the woodworker becomes lazy and forgets to practice safety each and every time they use their equipment,” he said. For Ray, one of the greatest drawbacks to being a blind woodworker is not being able to see the different types of wood. “When I get some wood, I immediately put a Braille tag on it so I will know what type it is when I’m ready to use it,” he explained. “And whenever possible, I get a sighted person to describe that particular piece of wood to me—whether it’s light or dark and the type of figure and grain pattern and I add that description to the Braille note.” Even without a description, Ray’s nose often knows. “Each species of wood has its own characteristics and scents. For example, sassafras smells like root beer, tulip has a great floral fragrance, and padauk has a sort of cinnamon smell to it,” he said. To other blind folks flirting with the idea of working with wood, Ray said, “Don’t be afraid. Sight is only one of five senses. Use your other four. Focus on what you have, not on what you don’t have.” Ray Wright built this music box, 5" by 7", from English oak recycled from an old wine vat. Ray cut the claddagh on the top with a fret saw, and then used a knife to embellish the hands, heart, and crown.

Armando carves a variety of soft woods, but said butternut is his favorite, “because it is easy to carve and, if captured properly, the grain can produce effects such as feathers, curly hair, and veins.” His subjects are often animals, including Armando carved this cat from basswood. penguins, elephants, dogs, cats, and pigs. For woodworking projects, Armando uses hardwoods to create everything from toys to poster beds. His fully equipped woodshop includes all the basic woodworking tools, along with The Right Tools: levels that beep, talking tape measures, and Braille Armando yardsticks. Armando has also created a host of devices, Del Gobbo jigs, and drill guides to help him complete the many steps a sighted craftsman may take for granted. Some ▲ “I do what I do because it’s who I am,” said 65-year old Armando Del Gobbo of Kingston, Ont. “I try to transform trees or chunks of wood into beautiful pieces.” Armando spent his childhood watching his father and uncles make furniture and tools on the family farm. When he was 13 years old he contracted an infection that damaged his optic nerves and left him blind. Two years later he signed up for woodworking at the Ontario School for the Blind; he eventually learned to carve as well. “I was fortunate to find a carving teacher willing to take me on,” Armando recalled. “He had never taught a blind person before, so we learned together.” of Armando’s safety techniques are now being taught in schools and have been adopted by manufacturers; for example, he was one of the first to suggest that Lee Valley incorporate a knee shut-off switch for a saw and a foot switch for a drill press. “My biggest challenge when working on a project is getting a good mental picture,” said Armando. “I can’t follow patterns, I can’t use pictures to tell me what I should aim for, and it is very difficult to try and get someone to describe a project and then formulate a clear picture in my own mind. As a result, I use all my own ideas and make up my own patterns.” hunting knife with a two-inch blade and a very sharp ▲ PHOTO
Louis Scrivani point, Armando said, “It has a comfortable wooden “I have a few challenges, handle which fits nicely in my hand,” he said. “I use but so does everyone Describing his carving tool of choice, a Swedish Positive Attitude: else involved in a stroke much the same as you would when using a potato peeler. Pulling the knife toward my thumb gives me much better control. The knife glides over woodworking,” said my thumb without touching it. Before I developed this technique though, I would wrap my thumb up in strips of leather to protect it.” “Armando’s safetytechniques are nowbeing taught in schoolsand have been adoptedby manufacturers.” 47-year-old Louis Scrivani of Oradell, N.J. Born with normal vision, Louis enjoyedwoodworking classes in high school and worked with his father, who was also a woodworker. Then, at age 24, Louis was hit by a truck. “I kept all my body parts intact, but my eyesight was totally gone,” he said. After the accident his father tried to get Louis involved in woodworking again, but he was discouraged and gave the art up completely until he married 23 years later. “My wife, Eileen, who is also blind and an avid knitter, told me that I needed to get a hobby and keep busy,” said Louis. “So I started

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(Continued from page 80) “I have a few with something challenges, I already knew— woodworking.” but so does Louis made everyone else simple bird houses and boxes until he involved in felt comfortable using a hand saw woodworking.”and hammer. He graduated to —Louis Scrivani power tools, and now he builds chests, small tables, and anything else he feels like making. “I was doing this when I was sighted, so it was an easier transition than not seeing at all and trying to do it,” he said. Louis also dabbles in chip carving. “I am still practicing on cutting exact chips every time,” he said. “Once I master consistent chips, I would like to add geometric shapes and other forms to projects I have made, be it be a spice box, a frame, or a cabinet.” Louis and the other woodworkers mentioned here belong to an online support group called Woodworking for the Blind. “It’s really cool,” said Louis. “Just talking to other people in the same situation with the same problems helps a lot. You end up saying to yourself, ‘OK, it’s rough sometimes, but you’re not alone.’ So you go and plane some wood or make a box, and you’re back to normal again.” Louis Scrivani made this chest, 13" by 21", from tiger maple. He donated it to raise money for the National Federation of the Blind. 1937 1938 Larry Martin founded Woodworking for the Blind, Inc. Woodworking for the Blind About six years ago, Larry Martin, a sighted woodworker, talked a blind woodworker through a whirligig project. “I was immediately struck by the difficulty I experienced in conveying how the circular motion of the whirligig’s propeller converted to the up and down motion of the figure chopping wood,” recalled Larry, age 71. “I never realized how much information a sighted person gets from even a quick glance at a photo or illustration. I discovered how important it was to take my time in first describing a photo to set up the general scene, and then describing the specifics.” After that experience, Larry gathered up all the woodworking magazines he had on hand and began reading, describing, and recording articles and illustrations in a way that blind woodworkers could better understand. Today, Woodworking for the Blind, the web-based not-for-profit corporation Larry founded, offers more than 150 woodworking articles in MP3 format, covering techniques, design, building instructions, tips, tool reviews, shop methods, finishing advice, woodworker profiles, and other features designed to enhance woodworking skills. Larry occasionally issues recordings of woodworking books, and the organization also offers a Yahoo forum where members can share information, solve problems, ask questions, and get answers. “Reading the articles is the easy part. Describing the illustrations is the challenging part,” Larry said. “It takes me about two-plus hours of working at the microphone and computer to produce one hour of recorded material. Then it takes another 15 hours to burn CDs and fix up the envelopes.” The organization serves about 80 members, several of whom help Larry keep things running. “A number of members have taken on major responsibilities now,” he said. “Two members act as webmasters and a handful take the lead in responding to questions from other members.” Woodworking for the Blind also challenges its members with woodworking contests and allows them to post project photos on the web. For more information, visit http://ww4b.org. woodcarvingillustrated.com 2292 Woodcarving Illustrated | spring 2013 ad page www.woodcarvingillustrated.com