Blind woodworker's story

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A blind cabinetmaker tells the story of his education and career in woodworking. (From WOODWEB's Cabinetmaking Forum) January 21, 2003

(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From John Cook:
As I am totally blind and happen to be a woodworker and an avid computer user, I thought it would be interesting to search for information about blind people involved in woodworking. My search did not yield much more than the article about the Craftsman TV advertisement featuring a blind man. Therefore, I decided to share my story about the evolution of my working with wood, as most people, woodworkers in particular, think that being blind and involved with woodworking is “amazing”.

Actually, it isn’t that difficult or amazing, but the hardest thing to deal with is the amount of time it takes to accomplish any particular task. It took me years to overcome the anxiety created by this issue. I do not mean to imply that it is no longer a problem, but now I focus more on the feeling of pride in what I have accomplished, regardless of the amount of time it has taken. Anyone who has lost their vision or is experiencing a gradual loss and is currently engaged in woodworking should not give up, for with a burning passion for your work and by learning some new techniques, you can do it. I don’t want to give the impression that that just anyone can decide that he or she can work with wood, along with being blind. As all true woodworkers know, producing a quality project requires certain levels of talent and desire in this area. Another thing I should mention is that woodworking covers a large spectrum of talents, such as the procedures requiring freehand cutting. I chose to avoid those and specialize in case work. This is not to say that freehand work cannot be done by someone who is blind. If that were the type of work I wished to do, I’m confident that a way would be devised to accomplish it.

When I was just a little fellow staring right at Dad’s knees, I was his right hand man and number one helper. Dad was a carpenter. At this time I had vision, and although it wasn’t 20/20, it was good enough for me to get around and watch and learn from Dad. One of my greatest concerns is that there isn’t enough of this same father/son scenario going on today. I believe that is the best way for the true art and appreciation of fine woodworking to be passed along from one generation to another. I suppose one of the most memorable lessons that I learned from Dad is that if you just do the job right the first time, you will have a successful project and one you can be rightfully proud of. Now, at the ripe old age of 57, one of the greatest rewards of being a father is receiving that phone call from your son telling you “thanks for all the knowledge about remodeling - I just put it to good use”. My call has come!

As odd as it may seem, I really didn’t get into serious woodworking until the loss of all my sight. As you can imagine, after the loss of your vision, the psychological challenges are as difficult as the physical. Perhaps we all would respond in various ways. I had a need to prove to myself and others that I was still equal, in spite of many who thought otherwise. Prior to knowing that total blindness was imminent, my desire and dream was a career in architecture and structural engineering, so I had a natural tendency to use woodworking to fulfill that need.

In 1970 I bought an old house that had a small back porch, which was the only place in the house to put a clothes washer and dryer. The little porch was actually in the corner of the house and therefore two of the walls were screen and in need of replacing. At this time, I was doing well to pay the mortgage and other bills, let alone paying someone to restore that porch. So with very little eyesight left, little more than the light of day and a few dollars, off to the local hardware store I went, where I selected the few basic tools I needed to embark upon such a remodeling job. It took a few minutes for me to convince the elder gentleman that I indeed did know what to do with this hand saw, wood chisel, folding rule and claw hammer. After all, while learning my carpentry skills from dear ole Dad, these were almost all the tools he used to build that little house I grew up in. The most valuable tool of my very few was the one that Dad had handed down to me - lots of determination and belief in my own ability.

After acquiring several 2x4s, tarpaper, a number of sticks of the old 5 or 6-inch shiplap siding and a storm door, the ratty little porch was soon transformed. I was so proud of those two new walls, yet somehow I couldn’t really believe I had done it all alone. That did it - I was now infected with the woodworker's craving - “What’s next”? There was the garage that needed all the help it could get. On the wall that was in need of the least work, I hung my trusted and highly treasured three basic tools when they were not in use. It didn’t take long before I needed a cabinet in the kitchen. Oh my! How will I cut a sheet of plywood with a handsaw? While being so anxious to get started on the cabinet, I almost forgot that it would be very beneficial to first have a workbench in the old garage. Once I had collected a few used 2x4’s and several feet of 4x4 post for the legs, using the three basic tools mentioned above, I cut dados in the legs to receive the 2x4 frame members, then secured all of the joints with 12 penny nails and placed an old door on top of the frame. It wasn’t the greatest, but now I was ready to become a cabinetmaker. After much deliberation, I decided to buy a circular saw. At this point, I asked a friend who was somewhat of a woodworker (and could see) to assist with the cut out of the cabinet. That cabinet served its purpose, crude as it was compared to what I do now.

I found that constructing a cabinet took much more accuracy and careful attention to detail. This as well required a lot of patience and determination, and over the years, that has become my driving force - the more difficult it is, the more determined I become.

Because I was so intrigued with building cabinets, I got to know a local cabinetmaker. For a while I would hire him to cut out cabinets of various kinds, and then assemble them in my garage, then get someone to help do the finishing. I would barrage him with questions about how he did this and that. Sometimes I would get a direct answer, but more often than not, I was told “Oh! You can’t do that without sight." That is all I needed to hear; the desire grew stronger and stronger to do all of the work with no help. When he said that there was no way could I use the skill saw, I thought of clamping a straight edge across a sheet of plywood and pushing the saw along the piece. There we are - a piece cut. After this, I realized that using a table saw would be somewhat easier and safer. So after securing a small loan, I acquired a new department store brand 12 inch table saw, even though my wife thought I was nuts.

The question I most often hear is "How do you do it?" Or, more succinctly, how do you measure? The answer is so memorable! Remember the little back porch? I had a kind neighbor who was considerably older than I and was a man of the building trades, himself. Jim was a brick mason working for Dow Chemical, and was quite amazed with my efforts in repairing the porch. As he watched me advance into cabinet making, he also became concerned with my inability to make precise measurements without going to so much trouble. Late one evening Jim came shuffling into my garage, and with his usual greeting of “Hi, neighbor,” he added “I have a little something here for you to try. See what you think.” He handed me several steel blocks, measuring 2 inches by 2 inches by various thicknesses of fractions of an inch, such as 1/4, 1/2 and more. My immediate response was "This will work great!" Then Jim says “Now try this” and slides into my hands a stick of maple lumber, 48” long and 2” wide and 3/4 thick, and all along one edge he had cut with a radial arm saw kerfs precisely every inch, double kerfed at each foot for quick reference, allowing me to slip the desired kerf over my saw blade and add the necessary fraction block at the end of the stick, then clamp a stop block against the two of them. Voila! As exact a measurement as you could want. Must I not forget, Jim is also the one who introduced to me the locking tape measure. He laid the solid foundation for my future as a cabinetmaker, and 33 years later, this is how I still do it. Along the way, I have worked to enhance these measuring techniques and have developed numerous jigs and/or patterns that can be used with running routers or jig saw, etc. After years of practice, my ability to feel minute inconsistencies enables me to see things with my fingers that you may not see with your eyes. However, for a perfectionist, it will drive you nuts.

Let's go back to the question "How do you do it?" Think about it - most of the tools we use in cabinetmaking are of the kind I call "fixed guide machines," such as the table saw, shaper, chop saw, plainer, jointer, drum sander and router bits with bearings. In my shop, you will not find a band saw, scroll saw or lathe, as these are what I consider freehand machines that require following a pencil mark, which of course does me little good. Throughout my career, I managed to avoid work that required any freehand cutting. It has been quite a challenge, but I have had to define my limits and try to be content with what I am comfortable doing, and not think about that which I feel unsafe. Once I had an employee who devised a rather ingenious jig for the band saw that was used for cutting the arches for cathedral raised panel doors, but I could just never get comfortable using it.

Another question I hear quite often is "How do you keep from cutting your fingers off?!" The best answer I've come up with is “Don’t stick them in a running saw or tool.” As I always say, “You are not a journeyman until you can show me a nub.” Yes, I qualify. But think about this: when I lost a finger, it was for the same reason any other woodworker lost one of his/hers - I did something dumb, something I knew very well not to do. In my case it had nothing to do with not seeing, but instead doing something stupid, such as back cutting with a molding head cutter on the table saw. I was doing a remodeling job in a large conference room of a state office building, which required a 6 inch chair rail designed with 1/2 inch flutes spaced evenly across the width. There was only one 12 inch long scrap left, with three of the four corners already used for test cutting, and the only way to do a test cut for proper spacing was to attempt to back cut it and jerk it back before getting run all the way through. Before starting the saw, I stood right there and said to myself “you know not to do this,” but did it anyway. This just illustrates the fact that those of us with some physical disability are no different from anyone else. Severing a finger can be quite painful, but not nearly as painful as the devastation of one's pride.

By the time 1974 arrived, my cabinet making skills were sufficient enough for me to hang out my shingle, hence Cook’s Custom Cabinets was born. The early days of my business revealed that potential customers were so uncertain about my ability that they would not give the job to me, but to someone else. I will never forget the time a woman called me, described a simple little cabinet, and agreed after I quoted her a price. She gave me her phone number and address and said “call when it is ready.” Upon delivery, she sees me with a white cane in hand, looks sternly at my driver and says “that is not what I wanted,” while gazing back in my direction with an awful frown. You may find it hard to believe, but unfortunately this sentiment is more common than I would ever have imagined until I experienced it firsthand.

With my burning desire to continue building cabinets, I knew I would have to come up with something more creative than relying on the general private sector. At the time, I was heavily involved with issues pertaining to blindness, especially legislation in which my role was lobbyist, which gave me some leverage through the contacts I had cultivated. After learning about a particular law that allowed state agencies to purchase certain products produced by blind persons without going through the standard purchasing procedure, I got together with a couple of my legislative gurus and rewrote the law to specifically include custom cabinets, then went before the appropriate legislative committees, explaining how this inclusion would be beneficial for all state agencies. The bill passed both houses of the legislature, with no dissenting votes, and the Governor signed it. Now I had a market without discrimination, or so I thought.

99.9 percent of my business came from the rehab agency for the blind, which was responsible for constructing and establishing all of the physical locations of vending facilities managed by blind persons, and located in most governmental buildings. However, other state agencies were, in most cases, reluctant to hire me. This was much like what I faced in the private sector, but at the time this didn’t really matter, because my own agency kept me quite busy. The cabinets that were required were all of the commercial type, all exterior surfaces covered with plastic laminate, and in many instances, the interior would be laminated also. As soon as the agency was convinced that I was both capable and committed to keeping up with the demand, they wanted to begin a statewide remodeling program of all of about 100 older facilities. Because of purchasing procedures in prior years being such a boondoggle, many facilities had been neglected and were in great need of restoration.

Before embarking on this long-term project I offered several suggestions, such as a standard dimension, modular system that would enhance production, and requested time to build a new shop large enough to accommodate this volume of work, as the old garage had been expanded to its limits and was certainly not large enough for this level of production. In order to keep my home and shop together, which was a great convenience, as I could be found working in the shop at all hours of the day and night, relocating was a must. After finding a home out in the countryside with a vacant lot next door on which a shop could be built, construction began.

Once the new building was ready, I had 2240 square feet of workspace in which I carefully designed a semi-production environment to suit our needs. Although this was not actually enough space, it was certainly better than the 800 feet I was using before.

Once the restoration program was well under way, I found myself involved in as much general contracting activity as cabinetmaking. Advisers insisted that I get a General Contractors License from the state, so as to acquire all the necessary insurance to fully protect myself. The licensing agency was somewhat reluctant to provide to me the necessary materials to be studied prior to the exam. After all, here I am again creating a first. So on the next scheduled day for testing, I was there with my talking calculator in hand and someone to read and write for me, and again I was asked “are you sure you want to do this?” As if I should be afraid. After scoring a 94 on their test, that skepticism vanished.

As time passed, it was necessary to have one or two employees, and along with my working 18 to 20 hours per day, 7 days a week, I was able to keep up with demand. It was a wonderful time for me; I was making good money and loving what I did every minute.

Then I became caught up in the notion that bigger is better and built an addition to the shop that was about 5000 square feet, and filled it with the necessary machinery and 13 employees. We were producing five complete sets of kitchen and bath cabinets per day for new homes. Perhaps it was the number of employees. Should I have hired one more or let one go? I was having such a good time and learning a lot, but I learned the hard way - bigger was not better. After all, I was a cabinetmaker, not a shrewd businessman who looks at all the economic factors and such before making a move. There was a sharp downturn in the local home building industry, and the health of my kitchen shop manager was declining. I did not become aware of this in time, which led to my demise in the kitchen business. As if this mistake were not enough, in about 1987, unbeknownst to me, I was stepping on the toes of a particular group of organized businessmen, regarding my obtaining state construction contracts. This group is accustomed to having their way, and money talks when it comes to politics, so the message was “Blind cabinetmaker/contractor, get lost, or else!" I got lost. I must commend them - can you imagine the headlines, had they used their traditional remedy? “Blind man rubbed out for receiving state contract.”

While being concerned, I stayed around for about three more years, being careful about who I directed my questions to, trying to determine whether or not there would be any chance of getting even just a little job. All I got was nothing.

We lived in a rural area, approximately 10 miles from downtown. There was a small mom and pop convenience store just two miles from the house and shop, and it appeared to be always quite busy. At some time during the early 80’s the store went on the market for sale, and this caught the interest of my wife. She suggested that having the little store for her to own and manage would give her something to do and also provide us with somewhat of a safety net, should my cabinet business ever fail. Again, I proved not to be a wise business scholar, and paid much too much for the property, with the bank's blessing, and then made an even bigger mistake by allowing my shop building, which was paid in full, to be used for collateral. The bank agreed that their decision was not that great either; therefore they did the unthinkable, and forgave a portion of the debt, along with taking my 8000 square foot shop.

Not knowing any better, and being quite intimidated by it all, I thought that they would also try taking my tools. So I called my electrical subcontractor, who was also a good friend and had taught me much about electrical work. (I also perform this quite readily and enjoy it as long as I have someone to tell me the colors of the individual conductors. Now you know how simple it would be if the National Electric Code would require different textures for the insulators.)

I asked Big Joe if he could help me with this concern and he said he had an old 45 foot semi trailer he used to use for a job shack, and he'd let me have it for a couple hundred. Joe and his brother brought the trailer and a forklift out to my shop and we loaded it to the gills, then towed it away to his mom’s farm and parked it. Months later, I found out that effort was all for nothing, as the bank wasn’t interested in my tools after all. Joe was a sharp businessman, as he bought my repoed shop from the bank for about one fifth of what I had invested in it. No wonder he was so helpful - he saw an opportunity in the making.

I suppose all of this is called "learning as you go." Looking back, it is just all pure pleasurable memories of lessons learned. I’m very proud that I have done all these things, because many people who are blind sit around all their lives, thinking there isn’t anything that they can do. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” is the approach I always preferred.

During this three-year period, from 87 to 90, I struggled with the decision about what else I might do for work, besides building cabinets. This led me to several rehabilitation centers, where I tried out for computer programming and didn’t cut it for that, and got thrown out of their shop classes because the instructors didn’t like my ability to find all the mistakes that they were making, especially in their electrical models. One guy had made up a model board to illustrate the wiring for a two way light switch, such as you may find in the case of a switch located at the top and bottom of stairs. It wouldn’t work, so he changes bulbs. Still doesn’t work, so I ask, “what color is this lead and that lead, and well, let us move this to here and this to here." The light worked and I was excused from the class. In these rehab centers there is a prevailing attitude that you are there for them to teach you something, not for you to know anything. When you exhibit more than they know, they feel very threatened. The visits to the centers proved to be a waste of time.

All the while, I knew the one thing I could do is what I did before building cabinets and contracting - running or managing one of the vending facilities that I had been constructing. I saved this as a last resort because it just was not what I wanted to do, but when your options have run out, you do what you have to. The vending program for the blind in my home state was not that impressive in its income statistical averages, so I made inquiries into the programs of five other states and got back a favorable response from Ohio.

So here I am, stuffing vending machines and building cabinets just for pleasure. I have had time to refine my techniques for performing fine woodwork without seeing. My basement is a complete cabinet shop, even though it consists of 950 square feet, as apposed to 8,000. It is now so much more rewarding to be constructing cabinets made of fine hardwoods, instead of plywood and plastic laminate. I find myself addicted to raised panel cabinet door making, and someday hope to get into making raised panel house doors. There is a big 5 hp, 40 inch table, Powermatic shaper equipped with a Maggi power feeder and ready for the challenge.

Forum Responses
Impressive. It'd take a lot of grit to overcome those kind of obstacles.

I am at awe with what you have accomplished. It actually is very inspiring to see somebody in your condition make it. Makes me think twice before whining about all the little things in life.

Really nice work and an inspiring story! I often think of what I would do if I lost my sight... and yes, I've decided to stop my whining and complaining also.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
I have to admit that when I began to read your article, I thought you might be the blind cabinetmaker that the television show called "That's Incredible" aired back in the 70's. Reflecting over your thoughts, I did not sense any animosity or ill feelings for individuals from the private or from the political sector that had wronged you. Looking at such situations from a droll perspective certainly helps, does it not? "Time and unforseen occurrences befall us all." Having said this, some have taken the opportunity to embrace something that fills a void within them and help others who appreciate the art of creativity within themselves. The tutelage that you have given will be passed on to others and be talked about around many camp fires. I commend you on your aspirations, accomplishments and struggles in your career. From one cabinetmaker to another, keep the fingers you have left clear.

Comment from contributor B:
Below are details I came up with for making a mechanical measuring device for blind woodworkers:

1. Get some pieces of 1/8" thick stock. Plexiglas or Masonite will work.

2. Cut it into strips 1" wide by 6" long.
3. Get some 1/16" stock. Plastic laminate (Formica) will work.
4. Cut it into strips 1" wide by 4" long.
5. Drill a 3/16" hole in the end of each strip to hang on a shower curtain ring, or string them together. The curtain rod ring works very well as it can be hung on the belt for quick, easy access.

Make as many of these as desired. One 1/16" strip plus eight 1/8" strips seems to work out fine. If you need to measure more than 4 feet, just add strips. Six inches was chosen for the length as they will hang from the belt and not be so long as to get in the way while one is working. If the person in only working on a bench then the strips can be longer as desired.

These strips are used in combination with each other to make a measuring tool.

For 1/16" use one piece of the plastic laminate on edge.
For 1/8" use one piece of the Plexiglas on edge.
For 3/16" use one plastic laminate and one Plexiglas strip held together on edge.
For 1/4" use two Plexiglas strips held together on edge.
For 1/2" use four strips of Plexiglas, etc.
For 1" lay the strip down flat.
For 5" lay five strips side be side.
For 1' lay two strips end to end, etc.
By placing the strips in combination, on edge, side to side, end to end, you can get any measurement desired.

Comment from contributor C:
I am also totally blind. Reading your story certainly has given me inspiration.

It is possible for a totally blind person to do free-hand work. I use a two-speed scroll saw. I get a friend to cut out a pattern from 1/4 inch plywood. I then tack it onto the piece of wood I have selected using either a staple gun or small finishing nails.

I then use my finger on the side of the blade to follow the pattern. I am currently trying to think up a way of adding something to the hold-down that will follow the pattern. As it stands at the moment, I cannot use the hold-down, as it gets in the way and I am not able to feel what I am doing.

I have just started this type of woodworking and have cut two pieces which still have to be finished. I am thoroughly enjoying myself.

Comment from contributor K:
I, like you, am a 100% blind woodworker. I lost my sight in the Air Force just after the first Gulf war. For those who don't remember how long ago, it was April 13, 1991 on a bright, sunny day. I could probably write a book on that day alone, but I never let my blindness get me down.

The Air force sent me to rehab and part of the rehab was metal work and wood work. I mention the metal work because the first thing I made was something they call a click ruler. It is a ruler the blind can use and carry with us to make accurate measurements down to the 16th of an inch. It's made out of metal stock, steel tubing, some threaded copper and a spring and ball bearing. It is very hard to describe just what it looks like, but you can search for "click ruler" on the web and buy it from many of the blind organizations. I enjoyed making my own with a metal lathe.

After the rehab program had me create a click ruler, they took me into the wood shop. Like the previous blind poster, my dad had brought me up working with wood, building walls for church, shelves for the house, my bed and desk... Heck, we even built the box for our first color TV from an old heath kit. So I wasn't amazed that even blind I felt like I was at home in that room of band saws, table saws, planers, lathes, radial arm saws and just about every hand tool I had ever seen. I had only been blind 8 months and I was already making a bowl and chip tray on the lathe. I also created a couple picture frames for some copper art I was doing in another rehab class. The bowl, though, was my crowning glory for rehab class, so don't let people tell you that lathe work can not be done safely blind. It just takes being safe. I would suggest also that you get another blind person or someone who has worked with the blind to teach you a few tricks - things like what angle to start the tool at. It always sucks to have it thrown across the room... Not that it has ever happened to me (grin).

Since rehab, I have not slowed down. While I have not gotten into the business world of wood craft, I have done a fair bit of work around the house. When I lost my sight, I was in electronics, so I went back to school to become a software engineer by trade but a wood craftsman in heart. This week I am re-doing kitchen cabinet doors because our old ones have gotten ratty. For this I am using a router and radial arm saw. Next month I am removing a door from one wall and building another wall in another part of the house. I have worked on a crew in my church and helped strip the roof of the shingles and worked with them to patch the sheets of plywood. I even was pretty fast at putting the new shingles back on. I let them do most of the cutting, but not because I couldn't. They were just faster at cutting, so my talents were better placed elsewhere.

My wife is also a pet enthusiast and the one thing you need when you have rats, lizards, dogs, and parrots is cages and toys and play pens and things of the like, which I make a lot of myself. I have found that they charge much more for the storebought stuff and making it both gets me off the computer and saves me some money.

I like the above idea of measuring stuff, but I think you will find that a click ruler is easier to use and if you want to really reach into the modern time, there are tape measures that talk. I hear in Connecticut they are selling the talking tape measures right in Home Depot. They are really nice - they measure up to 16 feet and can memorize measurements and if, let's say, you're measuring something over 16 feet, you can have the ruler remember how far you have gone and add the next measurement to it. It can be switched from imperial to metric and can measure down to 1 mm or .06 inch, which is pretty accurate even for a sighted person.

Thanks for telling your story. More people need to get over the fear of letting blind people work on things. I actually have found that I do better work now that I am blind. When I was sighted I would rush projects sometimes, and things would not always turn out the way I wanted. Now that I am blind, I have to plan everything down to the smallest measurement before I do anything. With the mental plans and my wife as my shopper at the hardware store, I waste less than when I was sighted and end up with much better finished products. Maybe blindness has just made me a much more patient craftsman.