Trouble telling the difference between birch and maple? A hint from shop teacher George Wurtzel: “They smell different.”
That’s one of the things George has learned over 50 years as a blind woodworker. He’s now teaching students of all ages at BLIND, Inc., a Minneapolis training center.
“Having a teacher who’s blind helps a lot,” says Kayla Weathers of Trenton, Georgia.
George added, “If you have somebody normal, they may not believe 100 percent in their heart of hearts that you can be successful at doing it.” George, on the other hand, wants his students to be comfortable “doing something that in their wildest dreams they never thought they’d be doing.”
His class is required of all students at BLIND, Inc., and they all do woodworking in complete blindness. People who have some vision wear sleep shades to create total occlusion. The reasoning, George explained, is that most people’s vision problems will become worse; if they’ve received training in total blindness, they won’t have to relearn everything later.
George starts every student out with hand tools to learn how tools work and how to position their bodies when using them. “With a hand miter saw, you have to keep your body square to get it to work right. So when you go over to the power miter saw, you already know that.”
After completion of the first class project, a cedar box George has designed to be deliberately confusing — several parts are the same size but must fit together in a certain pattern — each student chooses an individual project.
Kimberly Kiser of Kaukana, Wisconsin, is building an occasional table with a butterfly-shaped top. She’ll shape the legs with a router. “So much of that is touch and listen,” George said. “It if starts to climb grain, you’ll hear a bad noise, and you know you’ve got to slow down.”
The only “specialty” tool George and his students use is a click rule measuring device. A nut marked on one side slides along a threaded rod equipped with a spring-loaded ball bearing that drops into the side of the threads, making clicking noises at every 1/16 of an inch and locking into place at the desired measurement.
“The guy wearing trifocals who can’t see well enough to set the saw at 3/32" doesn’t know this tool exists,” George said. “He can come here and learn.”
After the course, Kayla said, “I’ll know I can do something that a lot of people think blind people can’t do.”
For more information about BLIND, Inc. call 800-597-9558 or visit blindinc.org.