The Blind Leading the Sighted

Friday 6 July 2018

Some time ago, an Australian who had purchased some of my instructional DVD courses mentioned in an email that he is blind. My first reaction was, “Why are you purchasing these DVDs if you are blind?” He explained that he enjoys woodworking and belongs to a loosely knit club of like-minded individuals who are blind or vision-impaired. Apparently, just listening to the audio track of the DVDs gives him plenty of the information that he needs.

I was both shocked and in awe at the same time. The thought of running a tablesaw with a sharp blade spinning in front of your hands is scary enough to most sighted people, but doing this kind of work while blind is really fascinating. I wanted to know more.

The woodworker I speak of is one John Milburn. He describes his woodworking 'club' as a 'socially orientated peer group support network'. It is a group of blind and vision-impaired men and women of all ages who have completed Vision Australia's Level 1 and 2 'Assist Training Programme'. Members of this graduate group are invited and encouraged by Vision Australia to attend 'open access' days, during which they can use the workshop facilities on non-teaching days.

During these sessions, both woodworking and metalworking teachers are on hand to monitor safety and occasionally assist if needed.

The group size is limited to 10 people for woodwork and three for metalwork on any one day. But with people continually starting and stopping various projects, there is a rolling group of about 50 people who utilise these 'open access' days. Another feature of the programme is called 'shed support'. This allows a woodworking or metalworking teacher to visit a blind or vision-impaired person's home workshop to advise on workshop layout, setup and machinery maintenance. As I'm sure you'll agree, this is really very impressive.

John Milburn's background

John is 67 years old and has been totally blind for the past 40 years. He sustained an injury to his right eye at the age of 17, which led to a condition known as 'sympathetic ophthalmia'.

By the age of 27, his eyesight faded to black in both eyes. After high school, he studied commerce, worked as an accountant in the mining industry and managed his job until age 52. He later obtained a degree in psychology and spent most of his working life as a consulting psychologist in a community health centre.

Despite the fact that his father was a master builder, John's practical experience in woodworking prior to losing his eyesight was very limited. As a child and adolescent, he followed his father everywhere and tried to learn everything he could from him. However, his father was short-tempered and intolerant, especially regarding mistakes or wastage.

John's father was also determined that his son not follow in his footsteps in the building industry. He would say: “It'™s a mug's game and you're bloody useless with your hands and hand tools.” So, while John observed a lot of carpentry, cabinetmaking and construction techniques, his hands-on experience was almost zero.

Wearing his psychologist's hat, John says some might describe his post retirement interest in woodworking as 'deficiency motivation'. In other words, perhaps John was motivated by what he wanted to do as a child but was not allowed. John admits that when he rips a long length of expensive timber through a 305mm blade on a 6hp tablesaw, he often finds himself thinking: “Crikey, if only the old man could see me now; he'd do a double back-flip in shock!”

Vision-impaired woodworkers not rare

However, through all of my back and forth discussions with John he insisted that his work as a blind woodworker must not be portrayed as being in any way rare or unusual. In his own words, he says, “I don't wish to be seen as somebody claiming 'Robinson Crusoe' status.” He points out, in his own modest way, that dozens, if not hundreds, of vision-impaired people have passed through the Vision Australia industrial skills programme. He points out that the web page of the industrial arts program run by Blind Inc. in Minnesota, USA is well worth a look: www.blindinc.org/ia.html. He also recommends a short YouTube video of Mr. George Wurtzel, industrial arts instructor at Blind Inc., in which he speaks of his teaching philosophy and his teaching techniques for blind and vision-impaired students. John points out that there are many blind and vision-impaired woodworkers who are doing, on a daily basis, projects that are far more difficult and challenging than anything he has ever attempted.

Impressive projects

Still, I have to admit great admiration for what John has accomplished, notwithstanding his insistence that others have done more. John has an impressive number of projects under his belt, as you'll see in many of the photos. For example, the chess table pictured overleaf is quite an accomplishment. John tells me that this table was his first free-hand project after finishing the Level 2 Vision Australia woodworking course.

He insists that the top is far too thin for its length and width and in comparison to the chunky legs. However, he admits he has become quite fond of the table. He built it to be a rustic sort of project for his sister's holiday beach house. John points out his cross-grain construction error where mitred pieces are affixed across the end grain of the table. However, despite that, nothing catastrophic has happened yet, after four years in a location where the temperature, humidity and ocean breezes constantly fluctuate. The mitres have moved around a bit, but the table is still intact.

When asked about the species of lumber used for his various projects, John's answer is 95% mountain ash or Tasmanian oak, two names for the same species called Eucalyptus regnans, but grown in different climatic conditions. The Victorian mountain ash is an open and straight-grained timber, usually a pale white, beige or yellowish colour. Tasmanian oak is finer grained with some interlocked grain occasionally resulting in chatoyance or tiger stripe figure. He finds that the Tasmanian oak, while more expensive, often cooperates better when working with it.

Another interesting project is his outdoor garden seat made entirely of lumber salvaged mostly from house framing. He says it is most likely some mix of Victorian ash and Tasmanian oak and every component of the bench had to be laminated from several other pieces and then re-machined. He stained the project with a redwood-tinted outdoor furniture oil, though the finish is starting to fail after three years outside in all kinds of weather, including blazing sun, rain, hail and the winter chill.

Special tools

When asked to describe the most difficult and frustrating part of woodworking as a totally blind person, John pinpoints accurate and repeatable measurement and marking out. He says that once this is accomplished, nearly all of the remaining processes of cutting and shaping are done in the exact same way as a sighted woodworker. Apparently, even jigs and fixtures are very rarely special adaptations for the blind, but standard to any woodworking workshop. However, one tool that has really made a difference for John is the 'automatic centreline-finding scribe'. This simple shop-made tool is made of hardwood with dowels and one screw. He described to me the difficulty of using a regular marking gauge to find and scribe a centreline. Plus the talking tape measures only measure in 1mm increments and the accuracy is dubious at best. With the centreline-finding scribe, you simply rotate it until the dowels are in firm contact with the stock on opposite sides. The scriber pin is automatically on the exact centreline of the edge.

Another ingenious tool for the vision impaired is called a click rule. A threaded rod is used to measure the distance from a small fence piece, much like a marking gauge. A small ballbearing makes a clicking sound as you pull out the threaded rod. So an imperial click rule will click once for every 1.5mm if there are 16 threads per inch. A metric one clicks once for every millimetre. Other rod extensions can be added to make the click rule longer.

The Vision Australia workshop also has two Mitutoyo Voiceman callipers that can read digital read-outs from output gauges and analytical instruments. Unfortunately, Mitutoyo stopped making these devices some years ago, although John did manage to purchase one for his home workshop while they were still available.

A great attitude

In describing John's interaction with other woodworkers at the Vision Australia workshop, he says: “Lacking the ability to produce scale drawings or make rough sketches of our subjective idea, it can be very difficult to find the correct descriptive words to convey to others our desired endpoint, outcome or objective. Lunch-time discussions about someone's proposed new project can be extremely challenging, frustrating and even irritating, but mostly always hilarious.” Clearly John has an amazing sense of humour. It was truly an honour to have our paths cross in the way that they have and be given a chance to discuss his experiences in woodworking as a blind person.

Those of us who have sight still like to complain about our woodworking challenges, yet John and his fellow vision-impaired friends don't seem to have many complaints at all. They seem to take it one day at a time, joyous for the time they spend together in this wonderful craft, producing heirloom pieces with their hands. Once again, I am reminded of John's frequent thought when ripping on a large tablesaw: “Crikey, if only the old man could see me now; he'd do a double back-flip in shock!”

Well, I almost did a double back-flip in shock myself when I saw what John and his colleagues are able to do. It has been an absolute pleasure to speak with John and I wish him the best of luck in all he does.